Why Can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education?

Basketball design by Trickster Company

While diversity and inclusion might be ubiquitous terms in the mission statement of any progressive university, these words alone do little to address the lack of diversity within the curriculum itself. So what’s really causing this disconnect? That’s what three designers and educators—Dori Tunstall, dean at OCAD University, Sadie Red Wing, a graphic designer and member of the Lakota Tribe, and Neebinnaukzhik Southall, a graphic designer of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation—gathered to discuss on a panel at the recent AIGA Design Conference.

The issue starts with the design narrative that many schools have adopted, prioritizing European art and design histories as the key pedagogical source over non-Western design lineages. While every design student loves a good Walter Gropius story, teaching design from a Eurocentric perspective fails to reflect the diversity that exists in the student body or regional history of contemporary institutions. In North America, indigenous visual cultures have existed for thousands of years, so why are they still relegated to “special topics” classes, or to the anthropology department instead of serving as foundational principles to standard design curricula?

I followed up with the panelists after the conference to get a better understanding of why non-Western design isn’t more of a focus in higher education. Tunstall says the reason is complicated by the fact that it’s not just a conversation about aesthetics. Rather it’s “the way in which design is implicated in the politics of the nation relating to colonization in a direct way, and to a history of decimation of Native American communities.”

Tunstall, whose background is in design anthropology, says “coming from the field of anthropology, we’ve gone through a process of self-evaluation and self-reflection around the discipline’s role in colonization, and so I’m always a bit shocked by how difficult it is to have that conversation in the field of design.”

ocad-university-logo

In Toronto, OCAD University has entered a new educational paradigm, following principles that Tunstall calls “respectful design.” Their goal as educators is to “prepare students to understand the cultural implications of what they’re designing, as well as understand the role they play in the creation of culture by the making of things. That leads to questions of ethics, questions of social justice, questions of accountability, appropriation, indigenization, and decolonization.”

“When you begin to ask those questions of what it means as a designer to be a culture maker, you ask harder questions about what kind of culture you’re creating.”

The Canadian government is unique in that it has made decolonization a national mandate for all educational institutions. Tunstall says that this means every Canadian educational institution has adopted the principles laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which seeks to indigenize the curriculum by “increasing native representation in content and methods, as well as physically the number of indigenous people within the institutions.”

This kind of progressive policymaking is a stark contrast to the political and educational experiences of many native people living in the U.S. I spoke with Sadie Red Wing, who at the time of our conversation was en-route to Standing Rock Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile-long oil pipeline project that crosses into sacred tribal lands and threatens to contaminate the local water supply.

Red Wing earned her BFA in new media arts and interactive design from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2013, and received a Master’s of graphic design from North Carolina State University this past May. She advocates for native designers to practice visual sovereignty in their work by using the visual language that is unique to their specific cultural heritage.

Too often indigenous symbols and designs become homogenized into a “Pan-Indian” motif that Red Wing says only further perpetuates Native American stereotypes.

“As a Lakota, I do not identify with a Navajo design. A Seminole will not identify with a Lakota design. It seems like common sense, but there are still cases today where designers use any tribe’s imagery just to show that something is ‘Native American.’” Her graduate thesis, Learning the Traditional Lakota Visual Language Through Shape Play, serves as a guide for how Native American designers can research their own traditional visual languages and apply them to their contemporary practices.

Red Wing feels that both her experience in undergrad and graduate school was not comprehensive enough in terms of including indigenous design into the curriculum, and both institutions still taught from a colonized perspective. While NCSU offered more in the way of design theory, IAIA was a vocationally based program of study, and the design theory and history that was provided was predominantly Eurocentric, even though IAIA is a school founded specifically for native students.

Red Wing admitted she’s frustrated by the lack of scholarly design opportunities available through tribal colleges. Of the 30 Native American schools in the U.S., only three offer graphic design programs, none of which award degrees beyond an Associate’s. Red Wing says, “Our education is pushed to keep students in the fields of education, health, and liberal studies. That means, design is not taught in our tribal colleges.”

“We need more graphic designers in tribal communities. There are over 500 tribes, but one tribal person cannot teach design to 500 tribes.”

“This is where our fight for sovereignty comes in. Native American students are colonized to think that they are artists, and not designers. The way they practice is always ‘craft.’ I put my efforts into getting Native American students away from that thinking when it comes to designing artifacts.”

Neebin Southall received her education at Oregon State University, and while the program focused on conceptualization and critical thinking, the curriculum still operated from a colonized perspective. Southall says, “Most educators inherit this situation with absolutely no ill intent, but the truth is, the situation is historically rooted in some very ugly things: white supremacism, genocide, displacement, cultural suppression, and forced assimilation. It’s important to acknowledge this truth and make changes where we can.”

As a personal project, Southall has compiled a database of Native American graphic designers as a means of promoting the work of contemporary designers within her community and informing the public about the rich visual history of native design. One notable historic figure listed was Angel DeCora (1871-1919), a prominent native female designer from the Thunderbird clan, who “advocated for the intrinsic value and legitimacy of Native arts in speaking to the broader society.”

Southall listed contemporary native designers like “Rico Worl, a Tlingit-Athabascan designer and founder of Trickster Company who, along with his sister Crystal, designs products from basketballs to apparel featuring Northwest coast art. Worl observes Tlingit property law and does not create designs utilizing specific clan crests.”

“Chad Earles is a Caddo designer who incorporates elements of ancient Caddo designs in his art and apparel brand, Nishology. There are many more Native designers who draw deeply from their own specific heritages in their work and also create work for other Native clients with visuals that resonate with those communities. The names I have mentioned only scratch the surface.”

In Zimbabwe, designer and educator Saki Mafundikwa’s research on Afrikan alphabets has helped audiences rediscover the visual language of Afrikan iconography that was suppressed through colonialism. Piers Carey, professor at Durban University in South Africa, advocates for indigenous African design systems to be taught in the classroom. Unfortunately Carey has seen little interest from the country’s design schools in developing anything that is not “International” in terms of aesthetics, and feels that the best way forward in developing a respectful design curriculum would be a postcolonial approach. He says they must “find routes through our neo-colonial present to acknowledge and incorporate all the traditions that exist in the country. These routes will be varied and full of pitfalls, but decolonized cultures of design will develop eventually, simply because the country and the continent are too varied for the present globalized monolith to be sustainable.”

Teal Triggs, design historian and professor at London’s Royal College of Art, has a unique perspective in that she was raised and educated in the U.S. but works in the UK and has received degrees from both countries. She says when she was a student during the 1980s and ’90s, “The main difference was that the U.S. experience was much more ‘taught’ and in discrete units of study, whereas in the UK it was still more about an overarching program through which a thread of critical discourse was running.”

She sites a few key figures in the U.S. and UK who have made an impact in developing graphic design curricula that not only “decolonizes” but “demystifies” the complexity of these issues. Professor Elizabeth Resnick at Massachusetts College of Art and Design has curated international political poster exhibitions that explore different cultural traditions in graphic design, while AIGA Medalist Lucille Tenazas’ approach to curriculum at the New School “has been directly influenced by her cross-cultural experiences as a designer from the Philippines.”

In the UK, Triggs cites “the work Aisha Richards, director of Shades of Noir, founded at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, which focuses on themes that encourage active discussion on race, religion, masculinity, and so forth, but within a supportive environment.” There are also conferences like the Design Research Society, held in Brighton this year, that have proved to be fertile grounds for the discussion of decolonization in education and within the greater design community.

Triggs says that publishing the work of emerging researchers is crucial to the development of new design narratives in contemporary design education. “By doing this, there has been a direct impact on our teaching materials, on what is being taught and how in the design curricula.”

When asked why the U.S. has such a limited scope in its design programs, she replied, “I’d turn around and ask what has been conducive within UK design education where there is a seemingly broader appetite for an integrated approach. In my opinion, this has, in part, come out of a strong foundation for research and research degrees at Master’s in research and MPhil/PhD programmes in art and design.”

“An increase in the interdisciplinarity of the design field, and social factors and in human-centered research, is producing PhDs who are seamlessly crossing design with geography, anthropology, humanities, and social sciences, where these subjects are already engaged with ‘decolonization.’”

For the U.S., whose decolonized design programs are few and far between, a transdisciplinary approach to design might be the best way for educators to build on established groundwork and start a conversation about design that acknowledges many voices instead of a select few. Because unless our country’s indigenous design history is recognized as foundational to contemporary design education, that conversation will remain one-sided, and incomplete.

From EYES ON DESIGN AIGA

OCAD Call for Indigenous Designers with PHD

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