Illustration by Hayley Wall.

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 disabled. To date, I’ve taught graphic design foundations at UC Berkeley Extension and California College of the Arts Extension. In 2021, I’ll be teaching a new course titled Design and Identity Politics, the manifestation of a couple years of research and resource gathering. In addition to teaching, I’m a greenhorn design scholar working at the intersection of technology studies, critical disability studies, and somatics. My current project investigates an embodied approach to critical design research.

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: I have an unavoidably political understanding of design. I often say that I’m better suited to be an accountant or a lawyer, but because I was born into a world that, more often than not, is not made for bodyminds like mine, I became a designer. From playgrounds to school campuses, workplaces, and housing, inaccessible architecture is rampant. For instance, it’s common for me to be invited to a friend’s house only to be met with a flight of stairs that my legs can’t scale—and no elevator or lift alternative. In this example, stairs function as both a material and rhetorical barrier to access. They police where my bodymind can and can’t be in a city, but they also tacitly state that bodyminds like mine are not welcome and worthy of rejection. What happens if we substitute my friend’s house for the office where an important job interview is held? How about a reality where stairs are the only way out of an apartment on fire with broken elevators? Design is always a political practice, because it imagines the people who will be interacting with its material and digital experiences in certain ways, excluding others. As such, design is one form of governance that mediates social, economic, and political exclusion.

I mentioned my use of disability is a critical method earlier. What I mean by this is leveraging my embodiment to understand how power amasses and operates in certain places and spaces. When power becomes knowable, we can then subvert it. Take, for instance, a San Francisco design office only accessible via a rickety, clandestine flight of stairs. In short order, the exclusion I experience leads to a thread of questions regarding how the sedimentation of such architectural micro-aggressions came to be. Historically, what do these stairs tell us about how economic ideologies position some bodyminds as productive and others as burdens? Politically, what corporeal capacities are required (but unsaid) to become a designer? Pliable legs are only the beginning. Consider the creative software design praxis religiously deploys that is just now becoming more accessible to those of us who use our elbows, chins, or voices to navigate screen space instead of our hands and fingers. The list goes on. 

Centering my disabled embodiment generates questions that, if engaged in creative practice, have the potential to uproot several threads of historical, social, and political repression, among others. It’s a way to build theory, and I try to teach my students the value of centering their own identities and embodiments in their process to cultivate critical consciousness and emancipatory world building.

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 something along the lines of being “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: Teaching with an apparent disability is interesting, because there aren’t many of “us” around. My students have always been respectful, but their surprise is usually palpable for the first few classes. In this way, my embodiment agitates able-bodied normativity in its revealing which bodyminds are expected in academic spaces. In saying this, I’ve experienced an overwhelming amount of support in my career as a teacher and lecturer that makes me hopeful that tides are changing.

My framing of able-bodied normativity as a force that operates on me obscures half of its power; it also operates in me. Those in social justice circles are familiar with phrases like internalized racism, sexism, and ableism. My journey as an educator has been most challenging in the moments when my idealized image of “the teacher”—digested from lived experience and media—was at odds with how I witnessed my physicality or comportment in the classroom. For instance, readers are likely familiar with the gregarious professor scribbling fiercely on a flooded chalkboard. Hollywood has constructed this figure in movies like Flubber, The Life of David Gale, and Harry Potter. I can’t write on a chalkboard, but I nonetheless adopted a maximalist style of designing lecture slides—accepting the myth that busy slides and competence were connected. Many students found my lectures hard to follow, and I was inevitably forced to question why I found it so important to flood the screen. Tracing my compulsion back to this cultural symbol of “the teacher,” I was able to finally let go of this narrative and, consequently, begin shaping my pedagogy in the image of my students instead of internalized symbols that no longer served me.

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 Critical 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?”

Halstead: That’s a great question, and my short answer is to one, acknowledge design discourse as constructing a particular worldview and two, commit to complicating that worldview by prioritizing marginalized and interdisciplinary perspectives. Donna Haraway popularized the notion of situated knowledges, arguing that we all understand “reality” from a particular standpoint. I (and many other disabled people) associate staircases with exclusion, for example. Without this perspective interrupting the design discourse Kevin Gotkin cheekily names “stair worship,” we wouldn’t have publicly-enforced design guidelines that require architects to integrate ramps and elevators. Gotkin is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work draws on media studies, disability arts, and activism—a heterogeneous toolkit that, when mobilized for design criticism, creates inroads for understanding the interplay between design, culture, and politics. In other words, foregrounding marginalized and interdisciplinary perspectives unsettles taken-for-granted design paradigms. If we bridge theory and practice, worldviews get (re)worlded and repression presents pathways toward liberation. As teachers, when we guide students through the process of honoring lived experience as expertise and questioning the role and function of design through non-design discourses, we invite them into this critical work.

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: Juicy question. One way to frame dignity is its being one of three essential nutrients for well-being. In her book, The Politics of Trauma, Staci Haines argues that many of the personal and collective traumas we experience can be understood as a violation of dignity, safety, and belonging. What many of us have been alluding to during this panel is that graphic design as a discipline and industry is in need of critical reflection. A place to start is by asking, “Am I teaching design history from a Eurocentric perspective?”

This is precisely what a group of design historians sought to challenge when they created Decentering Whiteness in Design History Resources, a living document meant to decenter White people within American design history and North Americans and Europeans within global design history. A Google search for “graphic design legends” surfaces David Carson, Saul Bass, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, Massimo Vignelli, and Paul Rand—all formidable designers, and all uniformly White. Dignity applied to graphic design pedagogy and practice means teaching Jennifer White-Johnson when exploring color theory, introducing students to non-Latin scripts when investigating typography, and discussing the New Jim Code when designing digital experiences. Lest we forget, our discipline itself was designed. Design educators, then, have a responsibility—which I don’t say lightly—to (re)form it from the inside out.

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: When I first started teaching, I reproduced the expert/apprentice approach modeled for me at art school. With this approach, teachers are the arbiters of good and bad design, and students are there to listen. This model swiftly broke down when I found myself responsible for giving detailed feedback to over 20 students every class in addition to delivering a 90-minute lecture. Our class was three hours, and I simply could not sustain myself or the students this way. When teachers hoard dignity for themselves, they bypass the opportunity to encourage students to cultivate their own consciousness and competence. When I shifted from individual critiques to peer-led group critiques, I found that students became stewards of their own creativity and, most importantly to me, arbiters of what they found to be pristine or pedestrian in their own work. I was still there to guide the students through each step, but returning dignity to them marked an inflection point in my teaching philosophy.

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. 

“Imagine what the design classroom would feel like if it were a vestibule toward self and collective discovery.”

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

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 dig deep is subversive work. We would be remiss to glorify this process, as excavating our histories can often lead to revisiting traumas. Though investigating our identities and experiences as designers is important, some of us keep a distance from our past for reasons we may or may not be able to articulate. And that’s okay. What matters is that the design discipline constructs and maintains space for this work to occur collectively.

Imagine what the design classroom would feel like if it were a vestibule toward self and collective discovery. What if social technologies—interdependence, mutuality, and resistance—were afforded the status of design material as much as chroma and code? Only time will tell. As Audrey Lorde reminds us, “Revolution is not a one-time event.”