Kelly Walters and Anoushka Khandwala met at Central Saint Martins in 2018, where Walters was a design educator leading a study abroad exchange, and Khandwala a final year design student. Since then, they have collaborated on projects and panels that deal with identity, and how race manifests through the practice of design as well as education. Currently, they both practice as freelance designers and educators—Walters is an assistant professor and the associate director of the BFA communication design program at Parsons School of Design, and Anoushka is an associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins and Camberwell College of Arts.
This is a peek into one of the numerous conversations they’ve had about their journeys into design, their experiences as educators, as well as the nuances of being Black and Brown and how this has influenced their thinking. Here, they reflect on the pathway from students to educators, navigating UK and U.S. culture, the nepotism of design education, and how community can act as fuel in an industry that lacks representation.
Anoushka Khandwala: Why did you choose to study design?
Kelly Walters: It stems from being the person who loved to make the PowerPoints for middle school project presentations. I didn’t see it as a field just yet, I just knew that I liked looking at typefaces and knowing the difference of when one would work over the other. In college, I was an art major that concentrated in graphic design, so I was able to take various elective classes such as watercolor and metal sculpture along my more formal design studios. My understanding of graphic design was melded with everything else happening in a fine art context, so my understanding became more expansive—analog and digital design processes help designers think inside and outside the box.
Khandwala: As a design educator, that makes me interested in doing away with showing my students examples of commercial design. They see that every day, as soon as they step outside, and see advertisements or products. I’m interested in bringing things into the classroom that they may not have previously considered to be communication design, such as the patterns found in textiles, mehndi (henna), or hair braiding.
Also, at university you’re figuring out a lot of personal stuff—I know that I was. So I asked, how can I connect pieces of my identity or my life experiences, to why I really like this particular aesthetic? I loved punk music when I was a teenager, which made me realize that I loved the visual languages of protests, because they both had the same anarchic spirit. It was all interconnected, why I liked certain aesthetics and how they connected with my own ideologies.
Walters: The way that you make is intertwined with who you are. Growing your practice is growing your understanding of design, so your understanding of the content is growing—they keep edging each other on.
“The way that you make is intertwined with who you are.”
Khandwala: Why did you get into teaching?
Walters: I was invited by one of my previous design professors to teach a fundamental design level class. As an adjunct I did not need an MFA to teach but rather design experience in the field. At first, I was uncertain about going into teaching, but then I realized I like that it kept me connected to the academic space, and gave me access to different resources and allowed me to be in dialogue with people in a different way from going to a studio space or working in silo. My mom’s a teacher, so she gave me a lot of guidance.
Khandwala: My reason is similar to yours—I knew I wanted to freelance, because I can’t imagine doing one thing all the time. I also found the design industry quite unwelcoming, so I didn’t see a particular job or place where I fit in. Of the studios that I interned in as a student, I felt so out of place that I would come home and cry. It was horrible to feel so much like a fish out of water. And I’d grown up in white environments, so I was used to being one of the few people of color. But it felt like there was more separating me from these people. So that spurred me on to freelancing, but I missed the discourse and social aspect that comes from design education. I started to teach in a casual manner—I was invited to be an associate lecturer at both Central Saint Martins and Camberwell, and while I didn’t have a teaching qualification, or a Master’s degree, I had experience in teaching from my time as a student ambassador at university, helping with outreach courses. Once I started to teach, I realized I loved helping people find things I wouldn’t necessarily have found in university and build on how we can change design education as it stands. How can we break down power structures, diversify our references, and begin to decolonize how we think about design? That’s where it started coming together for me.
“How can we break down power structures, diversify our references, and begin to decolonize how we think about design?”
Walters: In some of the earlier design jobs I had, there was friction around being the only person of color and anxiety around whether I had the skills to do the job. That atmosphere that makes you feel like you don’t have enough skills plus psyching yourself out to think that you’re missing all the marks can lead to imposter syndrome. For some, this anxiety can be even more heightened if they’re transitioning into design from a different field and didn’t necessarily study design at a university or college. As an educator, teaching creates space for continued learning. Teaching coupled with maintaining a studio practice creates a constant mix of types of design projects with different audiences you can engage with.
Khandwala: And I find myself drawn to other creatives who are multidisciplinary. I think it’s about retaining your agency as a person of color, because you don’t want to be owned by someone. It’s also a very immigrant thing—owning your agency was so important to South Asians who emigrated to Britain for example, that’s why there are so many South Asian shopkeepers, because they want to run their own business and be their own boss.
Walters: It’s not only agency, but relevance. What makes you more valuable? It’s about preserving yourself in a way, having skills in different spaces. If one thing fails, I have something else, and if that fails, I have something else. It can be a huge risk to go into design, it can be expensive and the hope is that when you finish school you will be able to find job opportunities.
Khandwala: In terms of being educators, we both started teaching because we were invited in some way.
Walters: Some students are provided certain opportunities while others aren’t. That has a lot to do with mentorship. Our biases create situations where we believe someone has more “potential promise,” is “producing stronger work,” or is “more commercial.” It also manifests itself when we recommend some students should go to grad school and not others. There were mentors that I have had along the way that provided guidance and recommended me for opportunities that have had direct influence on my design path.
Khandwala: My own journey was wholly based on nepotism. I was part of networks that would recommend me for jobs, and then someone else would recommend me for another job. I gained a very strong network from university, and I think part of why I was able to gain that was because I had a middle class upbringing, so I knew the language and behaviors that you need to navigate white, prestigious spaces. So I absorbed this kind of respectability politics.
“My own journey was wholly based on nepotism.”
Walters: The network piece is so critical. Whether I was aware of it or not, the relationships we have as designers from the design programs we’ve attended or organizations we are a part of, create networks inside of networks. Everyone is a byproduct of those systems. Being able to chart the lineage of our design training and to our design job opportunities is necessary to see how we benefit from certain privileges. I think a major problem is when we don’t chart the lineages we are part of and just assume we got it on hard work alone.
Khandwala: It’s interesting to look at the differences between UK and U.S. culture. Within UK institutions, the racism is so insidious, there’s a lot of “white silence.” They never say what they think and will passive aggressively tiptoe around each other. If people do say what they think, there’s a clash and people think it’s very dramatic, because it’s not okay to show your emotions in an institutional setting. That affects how you make change in UK and U.S. universities.
Walters: The culture in the U.S. is vast. Depending on the region, whether you are in the inner city, rural environments, or the suburbs, academic institutions are influenced by these geographic contexts. Some institutions are more conservative or more liberal than others. Most recently, I’ve been thinking about how there are extremely progressive schools making anti-racism demand lists and others that haven’t gotten to that point. When we talk about dismantling and rebuilding these institutions, they’re all on different timelines and some have more work to do structurally than others.
Khandwala: There’s been an implicit racist culture for so long, that to have incidents of lecturers being racist called out on social media in such a public way, they can’t deal with it because it’s so foreign to everything they’ve experienced before. I think that British art schools are further behind than the most liberal universities in the U.S. because they have just hidden it away for so long. They’re only just now realizing that they have to acknowledge that it exists. The U.S. institutions that are making changes—the staff are ready for it, whereas in the UK I don’t know that the faculty are. There’s still a lot of fragility and culture that needs changing before more Black or POC staff are brought in.
Walters: I think it’s extremely important that we don’t just bring people in without continued support. The analogy that I have heard used is—if you bring people into a room but there’s no food to eat, how is one able to stay alive?
“I’ve gotten more comfortable with finding the tribe of people that make me feel less tokenized.”
Khandwala: We should speak about navigating tokenism. It used to contribute to my imposter syndrome, but now it’s something that I’ve had to contend with for so long that I’ve started to use it to my advantage. I will be your token, and then I’ll come in here and I’ll bring other people up with me. And for me, because my work is about diversity and decolonization, it’s very hard to unravel my race and gender from what I’m saying and what my work is. Now, I don’t think I could go into a space and say that I was a token hire, because the nature of tokenism is that they’re expecting someone who will assimilate to the existing systems of whiteness, which I won’t do because they’re hiring me for my knowledge on race.
Conversely, tokenism is commonly used as an argument against hiring for diversity—”I don’t want to hire someone because of their race!”—but you’re overlooking the fact that you’ve been hiring white men based on their race and gender for so long, because you think whiteness is reliable and maleness is dependable. Everything is and has always been about race, but because you made whiteness the norm, you don’t see it as a race, a culture, or a system anymore.
Walters: I’ve gotten more comfortable with finding the tribe of people that make me feel less tokenized. I try to maintain active conversations with other designers of color to combat feeling isolated. I’m fueled by these conversations and they challenge me to think more holistically about my practice and the field.
Writing also helps me digest, and see different vantage points. The book project I’ve been working on Black, Brown and Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race stem from wanting to engage in a wider discussion of design education with other POC collegiate design educators. In that project, I learned there were a lot of similarities we all shared with tokenism or trying to situate yourself as a person of color and then as a designer.
We all have different backgrounds which inform how we move through the world—I recognize both the privileges and the disadvantages I’ve had growing up. If we take the example of student loans, I think that while they can help you academically and professionally, the financial burden they place on you creates other sets of disadvantages post-graduation. It makes you consider what is more valuable—going to an expensive school and acquiring debt or going to an inexpensive school and having little to no debt? Are you paying to be in a network? Which networks are better?
Khandwala: I was reading Michelle Obama’s book Becoming, where she describes going into the non-profit sector, where they could only offer a low level salary. She countered that she had student loan debts to pay off, and had to pay for rent and food. Whereas other people in the sector were predominantly privileged white women, and could take lesser salaries because their education had been paid for or they’d inherited a house. Often people don’t realize that dynamic and also like to shame others for earning what they perceive as higher salaries, not realizing that you might need the money. This is why we need to have nuanced conversations about privilege and how it affects us individually.
What are your aims and hopes for design education?
Walters: I hope for the continued visibility of perspectives and narratives from people of color that previously have not been shared. Seeing the range of podcasts, exhibitions, public lectures, roundtables, publications that have and continue to be created, give me hope. I also hope our ability to document, disseminate and provide exposure leads to greater awareness and understanding.
Khandwala: I hope for nuance. There’s so much of both university and social justice culture where we try to box things into these weird binaries, instead of acknowledging that there’s a spectrum of experiences rather than a hierarchy. So I hope for more circles and less grids.