Activism Art and Design

Politicized Design: escaping oppressive systems with participatory movements

Watched Politicizing Design from the Grassroots by Bibiana Oliveira SerpaBibiana Oliveira Serpa from Futuress

Drawing from popular activist movements in Latin America, this talk explores the possibilities for the politicization of design.

In her PhD thesis that she recently defended for the Design program of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (ESDI/UERJ) in Brazil, Bibiana delved into her experiences as an active member of different civil society grassroots movements to reveal some of the political, ethical, and practical issues that permeate the transformative action of these collectives.

Through Militant Research Methodology and inspired by her action in the fields of popular education and feminism, she traced paths for a possible politicization of the Design field. In this conversation, Bibiana shares some of the lessons she learned from this journey, articulating four axes she considers crucial for the politicization of Design: ontology, epistemology, practice, and content.

Presented by Bibiana Serpa, a PhD visual designer from Brazil

Design & Opressão (Design and Oppression Network)

Articulação de Mulheres Brasileiras

What is militant research?

  • aims to educate people politically
  • participatory — cannot only research
  • acts in the “context of discovery” not “context of justification” — not seeking to support an existing theory, but to learn
  • always collective

Process of politicization

social movements are self-educating and self-transforming –> politicization

politicization = political learning — “a relational and experiential process”

Four axes for thinking about politicization


  • build capacity to actively deal with concepts


  • discourse practices — vocabulary represents our political choices
  • inter-relational practices — e.g. how conflict is resolved


= what is known about the world:

  • what is considered valid knowledge
  • who is considered a valid knower


= ways of being in the world

  • transformation individually and collectively — through collective process
  • creates political identity
  • self-awareness and “construction of belonging”

Analyzing design through 4 axes


design is a system that favors the controlling group’s values and visual preferences

–> hierarchy between practices and theories + geopolitics of unequal labor

  • designers from global North have advantage over designers from the global South
  • trained designers have advantage over community / untrained designers — designers “speak the language of making”

systemic, not individual — don’t be an agent of a biased system


“construction and reproduction of knowledge in design: practice and project”

“epistemology of praxis” (knowledge from dialogue between subjects and political enviro)


“epistemology of practice” (“knowledge centered on the designer and their relationship with the materials”)

design space can be political learning space — participatory design


“Savior Designer”: present design method as a technical value — tools thought of as ‘universal’ without considering context

case study = Life Straw

  • “products developed without political criticism can cause material dependence”
  • leads to structural dependence instead of addressing access to clean drinking water
  • a capitalist approach — a “solution” that perpetuates the oppressive situation


participation is being politicized

ways to confront depoliticization:

  • treat participation as a learning process for all — “leaders” / designers and participating community
  • recognize that not all have equal opportunity to participate — exercise solidarity
  • recognize that communities have their own forms of participation and methods — communities have been designing themselves / on their own for a long time


don’t “succumb and tame the radicality of grassroots movements” to make them more palatable to academic and other audiences

“Curricula are not enough. Being informed is not enough. Being an activist is not enough.”

–> must be part of a collective of struggle — cannot do it yourself


By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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