Young water protectors using Sadie Red Wing's Water is Life banner to protest at the NoDAPL Standing Rock protest site

Recently, the AIGA Eye on Design team moderated a live Twitter panel on a subject many people are uncomfortable discussing: colonialism in U.S. design education. We decided to host a public conversation about this after our op-ed prompted some tough questions about how the lack of diversity within the curriculum prioritizes European art and design histories over non-Western design lineages.

We enlisted the help of some experts: Sadie Red Wing is a Native American graphic designer and a member of the Spirit Lake Nation in Fort Totten, North Dakota, who advocates for tribal visual sovereignty through her work; and Dian Holton is a deputy art director at AARP and serves on AIGA’s Diversity & Inclusion task force.

After an hour spent discussing a wide range of topics, including cultural appropriation in design, the distinction between Western ideology and Indigenous ideology, and the need for bringing “Respectful Design” to the classroom, we had barely scratched the surface. And given the 140-character constraints, our panelists wanted to go into further detail on some of the questions we received. Here are their responses.

  1. Is “Respectful Design” truly achievable in today’s institutions, and do you know of other programs that include Pre-Colonial design histories within their curricula?

Dian Holton: I don’t know of any program that includes pre-colonial design histories. I attended an HBCU which was great overall, but didn’t have a strong graphic design program at the time. They taught traditional colonial design. And honestly, I believe they took for granted that students would know African American design history, let alone indigenous design, so they didn’t really explore it. I don’t think my school was the exception, either.

“A number of schools would rather teach what will land the bulk of students a job. Bottom line, if you don’t want cultural misappropriation then we need to be more intentional with our teaching methods and implement ‘Respectful Design’ at a younger age.”

  1. What are your thoughts on representation of Native cultures both within the curriculum and the classroom itself?

Holton: You can’t go in half-assed; adding in some tokenism is not enough. If it takes entire programs to learn a particular language, why not take the time to appropriately study and embrace different design histories? One doesn’t take a single class and call themselves a graphic designer. We’d be doing Native cultures as well as ourselves a disservice by not investing in the time and/or resources to help teach and expose others to the authenticity of indigenous culture. Learn it and gain references.

“Hire natives. Stop stealing.”

I’d also love to see more conversations on the following topics:
STEM vs. STEAM and why the A is so important.
—HBCUs and how together we can enhance and embrace the design community.
—Going beyond the classroom, educating the parents/guardians of underrepresented students pursuing design.

  1. Do you think there will always be a disadvantage to lower-income students vs. 1% type students in education? —@InoelleLynn 

Sadie Red Wing: I believe so. I was a lower-income student. I continue to be lower-income with all the loans I took out for education. (Native Americans do not go to college for free, FYI). My goal leaving higher education was to be a design educator for Native Americans who struggle with poverty. I did not learn how to design for the poor in school. I wish I did. At NCSU, we learned how to design for the rich, those who could afford advanced technology for augmented and virtual reality. What is the use of this knowledge when those who I design for still don’t have internet, devices, or computers?

  1. How are terms like “design thinking” or “human-centered design” framed by Western ideologies? How can we decolonize them? —@allisonpress

Red Wing: This question reminds me of some of the feedback I got from the Respectful Design presentation [at AIGA’s 2016 Design Conference]. “How does respectful design fit in the design culture?” My question would be: Is there only one design culture? If so, what does that look like? I believe there are multiple cultures (as a broad term) of design—just as I believe there are multiple ways to think when designing. Not everyone thinks the same, not everyone designs the same, not everyone lives the same.

How can we decolonize design thinking? Question who said what “good design” is! Why is it good? Who are we designing for? Accept others’ impression of good design even if it does not appeal to you. That is why I like to say “not everything I make is meant for everyone. It doesn’t need to be. Those who I target will know if it’s good design or not.”

And for those who asked for additional resources, here are Holton and Red Wing’s suggestions for further reading:

Thanks to everyone who tuned in for the panel! We’ll see you at the next #AskAIGAEoD event.