Postcard from Deem’s Marquise Stillwell
Reflections on design’s ongoing expulsion and misrepresentation of vital voices
In our new Postcards From series, we ask future-facing design thinkers to share a short message about what’s on their minds right now. This time around, we hear from New York-based designer and film producer Marquise Stillwell, who has helped found multiple impressive entities: design and research studio Openbox, climate-focused think tank Urban Ocean Lab, and cutting-edge publication Deem Journal. Read on for his thoughts on the true nature—and imperative social responsibility—of the practice of design, and its potential to both empower and exclude.
Why, you ask, is it important to reconsider your definition at this moment?
Design is the process of adding value. As such, it is not that we must expand the definition, but rather practice its true one.
What if Black people never had access to music? Imagine a world without the sounds of Rock ’n’ Roll, Jazz, or the Afrobeat. This is what the design industry sounds like. It actively misrepresents and excludes BIPOC and women from the process of adding value, thereby erasing our identities from the built environment. This exclusion renders design harmfully subjective and incomplete.
What if Black and Indigenous peoples were rightly included in designing America? Would the overwhelming majority of our street names, monuments, and historical buildings be named after white men, forcing us to live in a history of white intellect?
When design adds value, it functions as a physical narrative of a people, their location, and their environment. It seeks to reconcile history with the present and project a possibility into the future. Successfully, design brings its inhabitants a sense of ownership and safety. Aesthetically, they can see an interpretation of beauty that reflects their own. Environmentally, they experience how the structure negotiates the surrounding ecology. And functionally their structural problems are solved with their future needs predicted.
Design is powered by history. Our cities, places, and spaces are histories authored by designers and reflect those who get to write them. Herein lies the social responsibility of design: to add value to all stories that form American history—lest we rob ourselves of a reality that edifies us all.