School of Design Alumna Presents Research on Decolonizing Design

Annalisa headshot

School of Design alumna Annalisa Pao (BDes ‘22) was recently selected to present her research on decolonizing design at the 2023 Conference on Design Principles and Practices. Pao began her research during her senior year at CMU, as part of her capstone paper for her second major in Social and Political History. “Throughout undergrad, I always loved the content in the design studies courses, and, due to how informed design studies and research is by anthropological theories and methods, I naturally became engrossed by the field,” Pao explains. When her capstone paper presented the opportunity to further explore the topic, Pao says she “chose to focus on decolonizing design, as it was a topic discussed a lot both in studios and in design studies, but was never explored in-depth.”

Currently, Pao is taking a gap year before pursuing her MA for Material and Visual Culture at University College London. As she prepares for her next chapter, Pao decided to revisit her original paper, which she felt was “unresolved and frankly, depressing (for context, it was titled ‘Decolonization, Design, and Despair: a Deep Dive into Existential Dread’)” and “broaden it to a greater case for decolonizing design, with more nuanced criticisms which are informed by more theory as well as a loose framework to create a place for designers to start.” The evolved version of her paper is “framed through philosophical arguments, mostly metaphysical and epistemological ones, with the goal of getting designers to understand how our culture of inequity has been built and perpetuated through design.” Pao hopes “that designers will begin to interrogate and renegotiate the ways that deeply harmful epistemologies have shaped us, informed our design processes, and permeate through the things we create. It benefits everyone, not just those with marginalized identities, to begin the process of unlearning and undoing our deeply ingrained systems of oppression.” 

Apart from her academic pursuits, Pao plans to spend the first portion of her gap year “mostly finding sources of inspiration, not only for my research but also in my career as well.” In addition to “reading travel, and artistic endeavors (some of which I learned at CMU, like glass blowing!)”, Pao plans to do “volunteer work for organizations that champion causes that I care deeply about in order to get more research experience and get deeper insight to navigating the often contradictory goals of business and systemic transformation.” She also credits CMU for teaching her the value of “multi/trans-disciplinary perspectives” which has motivated her to broaden her reach through connecting with “pioneers in the design anthropology space as well as designers who do community-led practice.” 

Annalisa speaking

In reflecting on her time in the School of Design, Pao says “I really enjoyed my time at CMU! Like a lot of people, I came into undergrad without having found my "passion," and by taking different studios and other classes, I started to love learning again. This was compounded by the people I found myself surrounded by—the community was irreplaceable.” To Pao, “the most enriching part of the experience was the group of peers, professors, and staff that pushed me to grow in a well-rounded way. I met lifelong mentors and friends here, which is priceless in itself.” 

Pao cites CMU’s “emphasis on exploration” and “the community” as the “two main reasons why I loved my time at CMU SoD.” She adds, “the curriculum is created in a manner that allows and encourages room for growth in additional disciplines. The best part is that, being at a world-renowned institution, you will have the opportunity to be taught by leading experts in whatever field(s) you choose whether it's computer science, art, or, in my case, history.“ In terms of how her design education relates to her daily life, Pao says “at its core, design is about problem solving, and thus everything needs to be designed. Therefore I, along with everyone who graduates from this program, will always navigate my life in a ‘designerly way’.”