Nicole Killian is an artist and graphic designer whose work “investigates how the structures of the internet, mobile messaging, and shared online platforms… shape cultural identity from a queer perspective.” She’s also an assistant professor in graphic design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, as well as the co-director of the school’s design and visual communications MFA program. Before she came on at VCU, she was a visiting artist at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she taught full time from 2011-2013.
Though she thought that she would only stay at MCAD for a year and then go back to solely doing her art and design work in New York, she quickly learned differently. “I realized that I really love teaching and the environment, and that sort of feedback loop it provides into my own practice,” she says. She recently served as guest editor for the Walker Art Center’s Soundboard series, curating a collection of essays around the question, How Will We Queer Design Education Without Compromise? It’s something she’s been thinking about a lot lately, so we asked her what exactly it means to queer design education, and how she and other educators can best work towards that ideal.
“I try to foster a space where the energy is towards making and not towards succeeding. I think that builds a stronger designer.”
For your work as a designer and artist, you’re often taking a queer perspective to technology and culture. As a teacher, how have you applied that same focus and approach to your classroom?
One of the first ways I apply it is through the type of work and readings that I share with the students. I’m typically not showing graphic design to graphic design students because I think that is an unhelpful loop. The more students see what is outside of what they think graphic design is, the better they can be as a designer.
It’s also about showing people of color, showing queer bodies, showing people outside of the canon. There are plenty of easy ways to do that. I feel that my role as an educator is to be able to bring other references to the table and open students’ eyes to things that are harder to find on their own.
I also try to encourage students to take on things that they know nothing about, and to puzzle their way through it. I think that is a very queer thing to do. In the Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam talks about how failure is a thing that queers are very good at doing, and are also used to doing. So I try to foster a space where the energy is towards making and not towards succeeding. I think that builds a stronger designer.
Can you explain what is meant by “queering design education,” and how you think educators should be going about it?
When we talk about this idea of queering design education, it’s mainly about elevating voices. It’s figuring out how to get students to feel like they have more agency in these systems inside of which we all have to maneuver.
Design education has been stale for a really long time. I think educators need to be constantly unlearning what our own educational background was and asking ourselves, “What are the actual needs of the bodies in front of us?” And not just in a service provider way. The students in our classrooms want to see people who look like them. They want to see people succeeding who sound like them. So we have to really rethink how we share knowledge. Unlearning or de-skilling is essential, I think, in taking away the hierarchy in the classroom.
These are concepts that are unsettling for some people who have been teaching for a while. Sadly, I think there’s a lot of people in education who teach because they like the power they have, and that is something that’s really scary to me. We need to remove that power and figure out how we can create a space where people actually feel comfortable and excited to be a designer, rather than being siloed at their laptops and trying to “win” against their peers. So many designers work by themselves, but it’s an important time, especially socially and politically, to talk about why it’s important to be in a space together. How can we consider community, and not just audience, in our work?
“I think there’s a lot of people in education who teach because they like the power they have, and that is something that’s really scary to me.”
What would you like to see more of and what would you like to see less of in design education?
I would like to see more time being spent on actually talking with each other. I did a workshop at another school and the students were sharing stories with each other as part of a project on generosity. A student afterwards came up to me and said, “This is the first time I learned something about my classmates,” and she was three years into the program. I thought that was really sad. How do we create a space in design education where people are actually learning from each other and it’s not just all about portfolio prep? I’m not saying throw out portfolio prep, but I do think we focus so much on that, and students then only understand design within a simulation of capitalism.
“How can we create a space where people actually feel comfortable and excited to be a designer, rather than being siloed at their laptops and trying to “win” against their peers?”
I’d also like to see less white supremacy in design education—from the references that are used to how design is taught in such a linear fashion privileging certain voices over others.
I think that if design education shifted to a more research-based education where there is less technological tutorials and client simulations this would radically change how we practice outside of the academy. I also think it might mean graduate studies would have to then shift. Most people go to graduate school now because they become disillusioned with practice and want to focus on personal research. If this was introduced earlier on in education, perhaps less people would want to get an MFA.
Any good book recommendations for students or educators?
The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam
The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney [PDF]
Writing Bodies by Litia Perta
Genderfail: An Anthology on Failure edited by Genderfail (Be Oakley)
Politics of Study edited by Sidsel Meineche Hansen and Tom Vandeputte
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire [PDF]
Queer (Whitechapel: Documents on Contemporary Art) edited by David Getsy