Re-imagining the Design Classroom from the Perspective of Othered Identities

On August 4, five design educators came together for the SHIFT Virtual Summit, hosted by the AIGA Design Educators Community, for a panel discussion entitled “Re-imagining the design classroom from the perspective of othered identities.” On a 90 minute video call, they discussed their respective experiences outside of the traditional design canon and looked at design education through the lens of Black, Indigenous, people of color, queer, disabled, or immigrant bodies. They questioned how to best represent their embodied identities in their classrooms, shared strategies and references (some of which you can access here), and spoke about going inward, into the self and into the body, as well as bringing students out of the canon and into the world. 

Josh Halstead, Julio Martinez, and Michele Washington were the panelists, alongside Jessica Arana and George Garrastegui, who moderated—they introduce themselves in their own words below. Then they delve into a discussion that, as the moderators put it, create a space “specifically as an opportunity to locate design educators in themselves and to center a discussion around who you are, what experiences have impacted why and what you teach, and how you might bring your Othered identity to that work….and how representing any of those identities in the classroom may give students the opportunity to imagine new worlds or design themselves new worlds.”

Below is an edited and slightly shortened transcript of the conversation.

Jessica Arana (she/her/hers) I’m a multiethnic Mexican woman. I was born in Mexico, but I was raised in the United States. I am a design educator and a design practitioner. My experience is with Borderlands and Chicana/o identity, and I use arts-based research to talk about how self-narratives can be strategies for identity development and surviving in this world. I’ve taught design at California State University, Northridge and also Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. 

George Garrastegui (he/him/his) I’m 100% a Latinx designer, Puerto Rican, born and raised in New York City. I’m a designer and educator and I teach as a full time professor at the New York City College of Technology (City Tech) in Brooklyn. I currently teach design research, typography, and design thesis. 

Josh Halstead (he/him/his) I identify as a radicalized and politicized disabled person. I’ve taught at UC Berkeley Extension and California College of the Arts Extension. In those contexts, I teach graphic design. In addition to being a design educator, I’m a design scholar and I work at the intersection of technology studies, critical disability studies, and somatics. I’ve lectured around the design opportunities, but also the educational opportunities, that come to the fold when we think about disability as an analytic and a method to design.

Julio Martínez (He/him/his) I was born in Mexico City, and my family came out to San Francisco when I was 12. And I’ve been in San Francisco ever since, I’ve been teaching at San Jose State University, part of the California State University system, for about nine years. I have a branding studio in San Francisco that has been running for about 13 years called studio1500. I also do a lot of illustration and personal work on the side.

Michele Washington (she/her/hers) I live in New York City, but I come from Atlantic City, New Jersey. I teach as an adjunct in graduate Exhibition and Experience Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I also teach a communications design theory class at City Tech. I primarily work as a designer, researcher, and strategist. I do a lot of work with cultural organizations, startups, and nonprofits, and I’ve also lectured widely on the History of Black Graphic Designers, nationally and internationally, and I’ve written heavily on that topic as well. 

“I was influenced by the work of Rufino Tamayo as much as I was by the work of Anton Stankowski.”

Arana: Sometimes in both the academic and the design setting, the personal can be seen as too personal—not impartial enough, or not rigorous. But I’m guessing that our identities that we embody weren’t included in our own design curriculum when we were learning design. I’d like to specifically defy that right now. I’m curious, what are ways of knowing that come from aspects of your own identity, your body, or your lived experience? And do you bring your whole self into that approach, or in your learning material? 

Washington: In teaching the communication design theory class at City Tech, I don’t necessarily follow the full framework provided for the syllabus because I found it very Eurocentric. When I was asked to teach this class, I said that I would teach it from a cross-cultural perspective. One of the things that I do to jumpstart the class is have students write a short essay that’s about 500 words based on an episode from the Code Switch podcast, called “What’s in a Name?” Because a lot of times students that come from different countries have different sounding names and people either butcher them or they’re asked to shorten them. Other things that I do are questioning the Bauhaus not having women and not having a cross-cultural perspective; we look at branding globally, how it’s translated in other countries; and then we look at cultural imagery. I use an old AIGA Journal “Who Owns Cultural Imagery,” edited by Steve Heller and the late Sylvia Harris, and it covers everything about cultural imagery for just about every ethnic group, and it also gets into gender. 

Martinez: When I trained as a designer 20 years ago, I had this viewpoint that was shared by a lot of the design world that if you’re a good designer, you’re a good designer. The work is anonymous, so it shouldn’t matter where you come from. And for the most part, that’s how I approached teaching when I first started. Then I had a couple of students in the first couple of semesters just really dig in [and ask] “Yeah, but how did you do it?” That encouraged me to bring more of myself into the classroom… I started to really talk more about [my Mexicanness]. In some classes it’s more appropriate than others—in my typography class, I don’t really get into that as much, but in some of the advanced image-making classes I teach, I do tell them, “Hey, I was influenced by the work of Rufino Tamayo as much as I was by the work of Anton Stankowski, those were equally strong influences to me.” And I encourage students to define those influences wherever they are. 

Halstead: The way that I approach design is very embodied. I always tell people that I would probably be much better suited to be an accountant or a lawyer than a designer, but I was dropped into a world that wasn’t planning on my arrival, so I had to design my way around it. I think my understanding of design, just because of my disabled embodiment, is inherently a political one. I’ve understood for a very long time the politics of design, both in a conceptual way and in an embodied way, like, for example, when I feel what it’s like to be rejected from a flight of stairs that doesn’t accept my legs. So understanding design for me is kind of understanding how it’s derivative, and always going deeper into the history of why? And how the heck did we get to this point?

I’ll give another example. My legs don’t bend—I can walk, but my legs don’t bend, so when I’m in a movie theater, it’s funny because you can tell how they’re designed to “interactions” that are expected in a movie theater: We’re supposed to be in our own little seats, and autonomy, especially in Westernized world, is very honored. For me, I always have my legs either at the back of the person in front of me on the chair or across the legs of the person to the left or the right of me. So it’s a much more interactive, interdependent, messy reality. I use that as a way to question “What’s the history of the movie theater? How did we get here?” and also “What’s the underlying philosophy of it? What are they saying that we should do? And do you agree with that?” I call myself an unrepentant questioner.

I teach a course called the visual design principles, meaning the design principles that we all learned. But of course I had to kind of abstract the word principle a little bit and go, “What are our personal principles?” It’s a foundational course, so I always start students out with Helen Armstrong’s Graphic Design Theory as their first graphic design textbook because it traverses all of these back and forth, yin-yang, graphic design dialogues. At the end of the course, after [a series of] lectures that go over the “principles,” I try to help students understand that I’ve given them enough to disagree with me on, and also put their narrative into it. I also try to decolonize the design cannon and include non-Eurocentric examples in lectures. I’m not teaching some kind of concrete way of designing that is impenetrable for the narratives of the students in the class.

Garrastegui: It seems like everybody on the panel has been able to shift the landscape of the way they teach based on who they are and what they bring to the table, physically, culturally, etc. Did anybody notice any gatekeeping that you had to navigate through? Michele mentioned [telling City Tech] that she would take the course only if she was allowed to change the course; do you have experiences where you weren’t able to shift things in the way that you would prefer, or think would actually benefit the students?

“I think you almost have to create those changes [in the classroom] because the world is changing constantly.”

Washington: I find that with both undergraduate and graduate students, they really want world experience. They don’t necessarily want what’s in a textbook because textbooks get outdated very quickly. So how can you get them to look at what’s happening out in the world at large, and to bring that into their work? 

I know that if you’re teaching in college with a union-based environment, you do have leeway based on some of the guidelines of how you can shift around your curriculum. I bring in a lot of excess reading, videos, and other things that I want students to explore. With graduate students, we do projects that are out in the real world, in public spaces. So they have to take a lot into consideration, whether it’s designing for multiple languages, or designing for accessibility. 

Martinez: The gatekeeping I’ve experienced is really not outside of what you might expect. As an adjunct, there are certain buttons I just don’t have access to, but the way that it works at San Jose State is that you get a course and a set of goals, but what you do in the classroom is mostly up to you….even though I’m not writing the course and I’m not influencing the curriculum, the lectures, some of the exercises, and some of the context of the courses is something that I’m able to direct.

Washington: I think you almost have to create those changes because the world is changing constantly. One thing about academic settings is there’s a lot of structure and procedures around timeframes for updating syllabus and departments overhauling their programming. So a lot of the times the design in our programs may not be in sync with what’s going on in the real world.

Arana: Josh, you said that you were “rejected by a flight of stairs,” in talking about your embodied experience. I’m curious about others here, if using that as a metaphor, you’ve experienced [something similar with] your own identity, and the different ways that seemingly unchangeable, impassible experiences have inspired design and life solutions.

Washington: In the timespan that I’ve taught, there’ve been times when I’ve been questioned, “Who are you, as a Black woman, to be teaching?” I don’t get it as much anymore, but sometimes there’s pushback in the classroom from students that have never had, not just a woman teacher, but a Black woman teacher. 

Martinez: For me it’s a bit similar in that if I did get any sort of rejection from a context or a certain situation, it was probably in the earlier stages of my teaching, with students [who are] like “Who are you?” 

Halstead: When I come into a classroom legibly disabled, there’s a huge gap—folks might not have ever been taught by someone who has a legible disability. There’s a lot of surprise and cultural bias and just like, “Okay, what do we do?” … I would also turn the question inward and say that it’s been interesting to trace my relationship to my own identity throughout the years of teaching. I would say that I also rejected myself in a certain way in the early years. And I’ve kind of come forward to allow more of my position and my situatedness as a disabled person, with the faculties that I do have, with the understanding of the world that I do have, and allowing that to come into interactions.

For example, at the very beginning of my teaching career, I had this image of the teacher scribbling furiously on the whiteboard and everyone thinking they’re the genius—I couldn’t do that, so I had these really dense PowerPoint presentations to compensate. But as the years started to move forward, I released that narrative of having to fit in or adapt to this expectation that I had of myself. I changed to just setting up some tables and not doing any notes and just talking with my students. Seeing the release of that “authority,” and that structure, really started to open up my love for teaching. 

Washington: I do find that how you structure your classroom is very important for engaging students. Maybe it’s a roundtable discussion, so everybody’s facing in, and there’s no hierarchy where, they’re not frozen in their rows of seats like in grade school… I find that being able to move around in the class really helps… I’ll use Legos to get students to think about how they can actually build certain types of environments. I’ve used Lesley-Ann Noel’s: A Designer’s Critica Alphabet cards to get them jump-starting ideas. I also like to get these big sheets of white paper on a roll and get them to map out their ideas so that they’re not just bent over a sketchbook…we’ll do field trips and site visits…. If it’s primarily a Black and Brown community that they’re interfacing with, I will take them there and give them a walking tour before they go back and do their own investigation and interviews. We’ve gone to the Andrew Haskell Library for the Blind to learn how to design for people that are visually impaired or blind.

“It’s about sharing information, reading, and becoming aware of what’s existed in the world.”

Garrastegui: With this new way of design education, away from what we consider traditional, what should it look like? What should it include? How do we start to make sure that we’re not looking at it in one way, we’re looking at it from all the other perspectives? I can speak to it as an urban Latino who grew up in New York, but I can’t speak to it as an African American woman who grew up in New Jersey, who now lives in New York. If nobody has Michele or Josh as their professors, for example, are they just losing out on a perspective? 

Washington: I feel it’s about sharing information, reading, and becoming aware of what’s existed in the world. Question and think more critically. Last year, when I was invited back to SVA’s design criticism program for midpoint reviews… one of the things that was brought up by one of the students is that she was not seeing herself in the curriculum, as a Black woman and an architect. Those are the things that academic institutions need to really think about—who are you including in these dialogues we’re teaching? I remember Leslie King Hammond, in a keynote on Black Studies inclusion in Art and Design at Parsons, saying that her students at MICA asked her, “Why am I not learning about Black artists in my other classes?” So all of us here, our students might be questioning or asking us, “Why am I not learning this in another class?”

“Whether we like it or not, design is a worldview, so we need to complicate that worldview from other angles.”

Halstead: Definitely, that’s a huge question. In my personal journey, and I’m not advocating this journey for everyone, I really didn’t feel like I started becoming a designer or an educator or had the tools to think the way that I wanted to until I started to expand outside of the design canon. I had a very linear path to design: I was hyper-creative all the time, painted, drew, went from high school to ArtCenter College of Design. After I graduated, I had to give myself my own liberal arts education, and was within centimeters of getting my Master’s in disability studies. Once you start to bring in things like disability studies or ethnic studies, critical race studies, or simply foundational philosophy, ethics, etc.—design is already in conversation with this universe. Whether we like it or not, design is a worldview, so we need to complicate that worldview from other angles. And we’ve been saying this for a while, but I’m saying it again, because I think we need it—something I’m focusing on a lot is really reintroducing the individual into design and complicating the “Other.”

I’m going to read this really quick quote from my friend Sara Hendren. In an interview, someone asked Sara, who’s just come out with a book on disability in design, how people can support not only her work but also support disabled people. The question is really about allyship. She said, “I would ask nondisabled people, if they want to become real allies, to start with the wonder of their own bodies, which are no more and no less than needful, interdependent, mega-organ houses. We are each adaptive and mysterious in all our embodied forms, and always changing. I don’t need warm-hearted inclusion efforts; I need a widespread investment in vulnerability and assistance as a natural, commonplace, even salutary form of human experience.”

What I think is really nice about that quote is that it invites us to start to complicate our own selves. As we respond to the world, most of the things are this embodied response, right? I was rejected by the stairs, therefore my design politics got turned inside out, and it affected my teaching and my designing, etc. So if we help move students back into their bodies, help them understand the oppressions that they are already very familiar with, they’ll actually figure out that their lived experience is its own set of expertise. If we teach them about the “Other” without teaching them about themselves or inviting themselves to come into that dialogue, then we’re right back at the Renaissance and the invisible scientist, invisible designer. We’re back to universalism. So I would say inviting the student back into dialogue is where I would start, that’s where I put the first stepping stone. We can figure out where the next one is.

“Design can actually extend the idea of dignity to create parity between people.”

Arana: I’m curious about ideas of dignity and respect in the design classroom. You can sort of interpret that how you want, but I’m curious how dignity in design is important to you, how that approach might come through your teaching or your exposure, or how it was perhaps left out of any of your experiences.

Halstead: That’s a really juicy question. All of these are juicy questions. Dignity itself is foundational to human wellbeing. We all look for dignity, safety, and belonging, and without dignity, we can’t really be creative….The way that I think about dignity as it relates to design and design assignments is also to invite that parity back into thinking, and to allow for design to be a way for us to understand dignity in a different way. There’s this project that Jos Boys does as an architectural scholar and teacher in the UK, with the simple design question of “create a space for where two people meet.” We’re not necessarily asked to come to the table with everything figured out about our own dignity, but we’re using design and the design exercise to …really dignify each other by asking each other, “What do you need?” So for me the stairs would come up, right? But being a white man, it wouldn’t be being afraid of being incarcerated, or I wouldn’t necessarily be afraid for my safety in a given place. It’s a way that design can actually extend that idea of dignity to create parity between people and really use the design process to draw out and engage with folks. The way it’s framed changes the culture of the design classroom.

Martinez: One of the things I was uncomfortable with when I was in design school as a student, was the mythical group crit. I just was never good at participating in those. …I was just incredibly shy. Over time, I’ve really just done away with the group crit in my own classes and have steered my classes to be more one-on-one conversation driven. Most of the feedback I give is individual now. It was easier for me to just give honest feedback on the one-on-one side, and it’s a little bit easier for me to hear out what they’re going through.

Halstead: I learned in a very traditional setting that was modeled, from what I can tell, after the Bauhaus. You have your prof and then you have the apprentices and we are to ask certain questions and then accept all criticism. And that’s how you learn “this is good, this is bad.” It’s so binary. Not only is that not super effective for learning, but that’s also not sustainable for educators, either. If you’re the educator and you’re the sole holder of dignity and it is on you to give dignity to every single person in that class, you’re not going to be able to. You’re going to exhaust yourself 100%.

So moving from that huge group crit to these smaller groups… If you just allow folks to get into groups of three or four, have a transparent rubric, and then start to coach each other, they’re getting dignity because they’re becoming more competent. Competency and dignity are tied. They’re not just digesting either punishment or privilege at your behest. They’re also educating one another. 

Washington: I do something similar, and I find that I’m much better one-on-one than standing in front of the class and critiquing….One other thing, I use that word dignity a lot to get my students to think about, if they’re working with exploited, marginalized communities for a project, you’re going to interview people and you have to look at them through a lens of dignity. 

Garrastegui: As educators, how can we start to empower our students in exploring their own identities and world views?

“If we want to have folks go down and into their identities, into their families and their lineage, we need to also hold space for them to do that.”

Washington: It’s the subjects of the assignments that you give the students and the way that you actually approach the classroom. I’ve done writing systems of non-Western cultures. I’ve done these food projects—and food is universal and global. It’s a way of bringing people around a table, and you’ll learn different languages, cultural norms, and rituals, so I use food quite a bit as the lens.

Martinez: I don’t do this in a lecture form, I do this as a side conversation to the few students that come up to me after class. I speak to them honestly about where they are in their cognitive development. They’re coming into school at 20, 21, 22 years old, and as we know, we don’t really get full use of our cortex until 25, 26. So I really encourage them to use school as exploration…  use this time to just explore the hell out of stuff… There’s a lot of stuff that you’re going to get exposed to in the next two to three years, and it’s awesome. So really just explore anything and everything.

Halstead: Inviting students to go deep is a good thing, but we can also go too far and heroicize it when, for a lot of folks, it’s retraumatizing if they’ve been marginalized. If we want to have folks go down and into their identities, into their families and their lineage, we need to also hold space for them to do that. We can’t ask them to go down a potentially traumatizing road and then have them also be alienated in that. I create a buddy system…so they can have a support system as they move through this. At the root of marginalization is alienation, so I wouldn’t want to alienate people in a pursuit to be more “inclusive.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *