Illustration by Anna Haifisch

This roundtable interview was first published in Eye on Design Magazine, issue #05: Distraction.  

To many, social media and education may seem like unlikely bedfellows. Formal design education is mostly localized, taking place inside of institution walls. It’s an opportunity to study, learn, experiment, and grow, and to do so within a community that can provide critical feedback. By contrast, Instagram is global, instant, and addictive. It’s not exactly designed to encourage constructive responses or thoughtful discourse. When it comes to graphic design, it favors polished end products over the messiness of process and the realness of failure.

But Instagram has also proven to be an excellent platform for finding highly specific communities of like-minded people, geographic boundaries be damned. Unlike higher education, it’s available to anyone with an internet connection. And when used inside of an educational context, it can help forge connections—between people, between styles—and grant access to designers and aesthetic traditions that fall outside the often limited range of the traditional canon.

As the social media platform tailor-made for visual media, it’s no surprise that Instagram is having an undeniable effect on style and form in contemporary design. In many ways, the classroom is an ideal place to make sense of this shift. So how can education and Instagram be used together to take stock of this moment in design and further the field?

This is the overarching question we posed to three design educators from three North American institutions, who we invited to discuss this sprawling topic, starting with how and why they use Instagram in their own classrooms.

Meet the educators:

Cem Eskinazi is an educator at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and a type designer at Occupant Fonts. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island. On Instagram he’s @cemeskinazi

YuJune Park is a professor and associate director of BFA Communication Design at Parsons School of Design and a co-founder of Synoptic Office. She lives in New York, New York. On Instagram she’s @synopticoffice.

Dori Tunstall is the dean of the faculty of design at Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University and a design anthropologist. She lives in Toronto, Canada. On Instagram she’s @deandori_ocadu

Illustration by Anna Haifisch

YuJune Park: What I think is super fascinating is how, year after year, there seems to be an increase in comfort, and I might even say preference, for connecting online rather than in person. Putting aside my own concerns about what this says about our society, I do find Instagram to be helpful in terms of building community and being able to share feedback in a way that oftentimes feels more open and honest than what my students might be willing to say in person or in class. I think Instagram is most powerful when it’s used to build community. It can become a bit of a virtual village center for my students. I have them create an Instagram account just for our class, and then use it to post daily progress on projects. It’s been extraordinarily successful in terms of having an ongoing dialogue. 

Dori Tunstall: The platform has been an important tool for me in making the position of the dean more accessible. I’m @deandori_ocadu, and I post #deandrag every morning. I explain what I’m wearing and what I’m doing during the day. That’s so all of my students understand what the role of the dean is within the institution, and hopefully it helps them to navigate the system of the institution a little better. It makes them feel like they can come up to me easily because they liked my sunglasses or the scarf I was wearing. 

Cem Eskinazi: At RISD, professors use Instagram to track the individual projects of students—it’s a good tool for updates. The graphic design department also has an official Instagram account, which students will take over from time to time. It gives them the opportunity for exposure, which is what a lot of students are looking for from Instagram. We also try to assign projects that ask students to make things for Instagram so that we can bring the platform into the critique, take it seriously, and ask higher-level questions.

“It can become a bit of a virtual village center for my students.”

Tunstall: I find it really fascinating the way in which students are playing with static images to give them a sense of motion and a sense of activity: animating graphics with motion, Boomerangs, Gifs…

Park: I recently read an article on the history of the poster. It was interesting to think about a certain cultural moment in time when posters in England were specifically for making pronouncements. In every historical moment there’s been a platform for self-promotion, with the goal of communicating to the widest audience possible. Today, Instagram has become that. 

Tunstall: Instagram post is the new poster! 

Park: Basically! Instagram is to the post just like, you know, the town square in late 1800s London was to the poster.

One thing I’ve noticed as an overall trend is that form used to be something that you experienced in a moment. When you think of the poster, it’s this static medium. But design is increasingly becoming experiential, and it asks to be a form that people can interact with. Of course, you see static images on Instagram, and they’re designed to be legible and bold at the small scale of a phone frame. But then you also see really amazing things happening with Instagram Stories, which is about form as it happens over time—and kind of this mashup of real life and graphic gestures.

Tunstall: Another tool that I find very valuable is live-streaming. A lot of times I’ll live-stream events so that the students who follow me have access to them. Or they won’t know it’s going on until they see the stream, and then they’ll show up later. It’s a feature that shifts the emphasis to community, because it works in conjunction with being in a place and engaging in an actual experience.

Park: Right. At Parsons, we have limited shared design labs, but we don’t have desk space for every student. Virtual space is the only space that can accomodate everyone together. And we’re an extraordinarily privileged school in many ways. For schools with less resources for art and design than ours, the vast majority of students have even less physical studio space. So while Instagram will never be able to build community in the way a physical space would, it does offer other opportunities for engagement with like-minded makers.

I find Instagram to be much less useful from a design education standpoint when it’s used in the way that Pinterest is used: for passive consumption. It’s like a coffee-table book with beautiful images and no essays. I find it to be more interesting when it’s used almost like a phonebook—a way to connect with other people.

Illustration by Anna Haifisch

Tunstall: It’s amazing to see communities of color finding their own artistic community on Instagram. You see that on Twitter, too, in the form of conversations, but on Instagram you see it really strongly in regards to visual media. 

One important aspect of the work that I do is helping people recognize that there are multiple modes of excellence in different cultural aesthetic traditions. Take the African diaspora, for example. On Instagram you can easily find work that’s happening in Africa, in the Caribbean, in North America. You can see the work that’s being done by people who have traditionally been marginalized from mainstream magazines or big design competitions. So Instagram can be used to build internal community, but also to broaden access to different aesthetic traditions. 

Park: It’s making the design community both more localized and more globalized. You are able to find people who share your vision for design. First, the geographical boundaries need to be broken down, but then this world can get very specific. Maybe you’re connecting with somebody 2,000 miles away and you both have a specific research interest and you’re able to build off each other. I find that to be really encouraging.

Teaching has changed so much even in the 15 years since I’ve been in school. The whole master/apprentice model has kind of gone away. There’s been this radical flattening of that hierarchy, and I think Instagram has a role in that. There’s so much more room for different voices, and I find that incredibly exciting.

“I find Instagram to be more interesting when it’s used almost like a phonebook—a way to connect with other people.”

Tunstall: I do think it’s a very powerful tool for flattening the hierarchy. We have a huge diversity of students and having access to many different influences is really, really important in terms of making them feel like they belong in design. 

To an extent, we are still teaching a version of the Bauhaus, which comes from a particular place in a particular time within a particular history. We’re now beginning to dismantle and deconstruct it, but students still feel a very real pressure to be like European designers. Social media helps create a sense that there isn’t that kind of hierarchy anymore—there’s so many other ways to be inspired. There’s so many other people that you can connect with and find guidance from as you develop your own work.

Park: Right, and people say, “Oh, but Instagram is overly curated.” But since when has the history of design education not been? There’s always been the canon. Instagram at least gives the chance for everyone to be invited to the table. 

Eskinazi: But there’s another side to that as well. I teach sophomores, and I can see that it’s challenging for younger students because there’s a level of performance anxiety. They have to put themselves out there to join this conversation, but it’s not always the safest space. 

Tunstall: I always think of the performative aspect more as “curation,” though, and I think that can be useful, too. To some degree, Instagram is your digital portfolio in your pocket. When you’re a young designer networking with people, being able to pull out your phone and show the best of your work and talk about the process behind what you’re doing makes you more memorable to people.

Eskinazi: One of the challenges that I’m having with my students is that with the rapid mode of consumption right now—just looking at image after image after image—I feel like they are losing their criticality a bit. Platforms like Instagram are super sleek, and it doesn’t really allow for that the friction needed to ask critical questions. It privileges quantity over quality, and in that sense, it’s hard to bring the conversation back to, “What is this work really saying?” That’s been the biggest challenge for me, to pull students back from it a bit and make them understand that design is actually a process and not just the end product. Instagram really values that end product. It’s kind of like objectifying design.

Tunstall: I actually find that students mostly use Instagram to document their processes. Maybe they come with very polished images at the end, but for the majority of my students, if they’re not posting selfies, they’re posting pictures of process, and their community is responding. They’re looking for feedback: Is this a process that seems to be working? If not, why is it not working? 

“Platforms like Instagram are super sleek, and it doesn’t really allow for that the friction needed to ask critical questions.”

Park: I have similar challenges as Cem with students appropriating styles that, on a gut level, they find beautiful or compelling in some way. But they aren’t really asking the deeper questions: Why do they gravitate to that style? What social, political, and cultural factors merged to create a style like that? 

Form doesn’t come from nowhere. Dori mentioned the Bauhaus earlier—there’s a reason Bauhaus design looks the way it does. It came up during a post-war era when there was a search for a utility of form. When students appropriate a style without that knowledge or criticality, I find it makes them less effective visual communicators.

Illustration by Anna Haifisch

Eskinazi: Platforms like Instagram are shaping the way we tell stories and changing the way we construct narratives. For my generation and the generation that’s getting educated right now, the prominent style of design is very appropriation-based and reference-heavy. There’s a culture of collaging different narratives together, juxtaposing image and text, or incorporating motion. It encourages people to use more found material, and, in a sense, puts less of an emphasis on originality.

I don’t want to problematize this way of making—this collaging of narratives, or even the act of frantically consuming media. I think it’s very interesting, and I’m excited for my students to explore it. This is a generation that was born with the internet, and this is how we communicate and make things. As an educator, my point of view had been always to accept this fact and say, “Okay, this is how the world is right now, this is what the new generation of designers are given. So how can we work with what we have?” But it also requires a new heightened sense of criticality. Because we are taking and reusing things more than ever, we need to be asking where these images came from and what they mean.

“Form doesn’t come from nowhere.”

Park: Design is always going to be an expression and a reflection of how people at a certain moment in time saw the world. You see more of this collaging and appropriation of styles, and a mashup of visual styles together in one design, because that’s how we consume content now. You go online and you’re going to see 10 different styles on a page at once. You have styles from the pop-up ads on sites to the style of the site itself. We live in a mashup world—that’s how we interface with content now. Now our question is, “How do we do this type of design thoughtfully?” What I find concerning is when students do these mashups of appropriated material without asking critical questions about how these narratives are coming together, and how they influence one another. That can be dangerous.

Tunstall: But when you have a strong discourse around decolonization in the classroom—what it is, what it means, and how it relates to indigenous appropriation and misappropriation—you’re encouraging students to question what it means to engage with and use something respectfully. When it comes to use and reuse, what are the relationships of collaboration that needs to happen? What are the boundaries of homage versus appropriation? What are the conversations—and this is the emphasis that we make at OCAD—that you need to have with communities or individuals from whom you want to borrow? To engage respectfully, you have to be in direct conversation and have a dialogue, and in many ways Instagram facilitates this. 

When reuse, appropriation, and misappropriation happen on social media platforms, our students engage in that critically. They would be the first ones to call out, “Hey, are you appropriating indigenous imagery? Did you get permission to do that? Have you spoken to the artists that you’re borrowing from?” They’re already aware of what’s happening on social media, so the thing that the institution is providing is the language with which to talk about it. How you engage in these discussions in the classroom ends up spilling over into how they engage in the conversations over social media. 

Eskinazi: I was thinking of appropriation and reuse a bit differently. I tend to frame this under the discussion of style: When students see a typeface they like, or a particular form pop up on Instagram, they may think it looks cool and decide to use it. But this heightened sense of criticality that we’re talking about tries to go beyond just reading an image. It also goes deep into the questions of “What does a certain use of a typeface or a drop shadow say about your work? Where did you get that?” These kinds of questions are becoming more important.

Park: I agree. The conversation I tend to have on a day-to-day level with my students actually has more to do with style and its relationship to social, political, cultural, and historical moments in time. I would like to see more research and unpacking of why a form looks the way it does. In what period was it made? What factors led to it looking that way?

“Because we are taking and reusing things more than ever, we need to be asking where these images came from and what they mean.”

Tunstall: Right, but the conversation you’re talking about is exactly what we mean by “decolonization,” right? Pointing out that particular practices come from a time and a place and a history. And normally that history is rooted in colonization, in slavery. So let’s unpack that and then bring in alternative perspectives. Design is not neutral. It always comes from a time and a place and a politics that you have to engage with in order to figure out how you can best be respectful.