Rebecca Wright isn’t one to shy away from big questions. As co-founder of the publishing, curation, and design advocacy organization GraphicDesign& (responsible for a lovely graphic nun book, among many other things) and program director of Graphic Communication Design at London’s Central Saint Martins (CSM), Wright is a steadfast champion of graphic design. Whether she’s finding ways to adapt learning environments, exploring issues of diversity and gender bias, or presenting divergent approaches to utilizing design in the public realm, Wright’s working life continuously circles around communication. Yes, that means communication design, but with more of an emphasis on the communication between people.
Here, she answers questions about the importance of vulnerability, the need for disruptive voices, and the value of balancing a solid sense of self with the ability to change.
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Do you think it’s important for universities, educators, and students to be transparent about what informs their approach?
Your position informs the way you teach. There’s an assumption that people who go into education are left wing or left-leaning, and there’s the same assumption in the creative arts, but we don’t do a good job of talking about that explicitly.
On a recent “away day” for GraphicDesign&, one of our associates was talking about her high school economics teacher. In the first lesson, he’d start by declaring his political point of view, explaining to the class, “Economics is political. It’s about a system of power, and therefore different economic viewpoints and strategies relate to different political ideas.” That really struck me as an interesting idea in relation to graphic design, as a practice and in the teaching of it.
We should encourage this sense of transparency in students, too. You start higher education with a shape around you—some of which is certain, some of which is predetermined, and then a great education changes your shape. It might just knock a corner off, but it helps you work out who you are, who you’d work for, and who you wouldn’t. It’s therefore important for us to offer a range of opportunities to our students. There has to be a plurality of opportunities for them to work out their “shape.”
When it comes to offering projects with corporations or brands—say, a drinks company—there are students who would be happy to work with them, and students who believe they can change things from the inside. Then, there are students who are more interested in working with a local council or a charity. We have to give them the choice; we shouldn’t be making choices for them.
This generation has grown up in an echo chamber. Segregation has increased.
How can universities take steps to tackle issues of diversity + inclusivity?
Students who come to us aren’t blank slates when they walk in; they’ve already lived lives and are part of social structures with ingrained prejudices. We need to be more radical in how we respond to that. There will always be students who are less likely to wait for approval or encouragement to ask a question, give their opinion, or take the lead with a project. It’s our responsibility to encourage those who are more likely to take a back seat—whether it’s to do with gender, background, access, or confidence. We need to listen to one another. When you listen, you have an opportunity to connect with personal experience.
It’s a vulnerable time. Technology is taking things into different contexts. This generation has grown up in an echo chamber. Segregation has increased. You’re now more likely to have been at school with people like you; that’s where some of the fear of university is coming from, because students will be meeting people who aren’t like them. We need to encourage our students to use design as a structure for finding commonality and celebrating differences.
I feel optimistic—this is a generation of doers.
There are no easy answers when it comes to questions around inclusivity and diversity, but there are things we can do. And we have to be honest about evaluating our contributions, and recognize that we can never be “doing enough.” As individuals and as institutions, we need to ask ourselves: Can we really be representative of our student body if we aren’t representative? How do you challenge the canon? How do you make sure that the best-meaning liberal intent doesn’t become a protective shield? How do we take apart the hierarchies and privileges, when I’m not sure that everyone is ready to do that?
What would you say are the main challenges for students graduating into the current socio-political climate, and what can educators do to help?
The current generation has been disenfranchised by the political system and ignored as a vocal demographic. It’s hard to see how things will change until they’re in positions of power. I feel optimistic though; this is a generation of doers, and this year’s degree show at CSM was a case in point. Two years ago there was a lot of anger in the work; last year there was some humor; this year there was a common thread of action or change.
The challenge for us as educators is to consider how this approach can work in a commercial context. It’s ambitious, but I feel that there’s a space where some of this unfettered thinking could be brought to an audience who are influential in terms of policy and industry. A sort of think tank, as opposed to a “look at these people you can employ” structure.
Designers, communicators, and unconventional thinkers deserve a place at that top table. Nothing else seems to be working. We should give them a shot.