with Oluwatomilola (Tomi) Adefioye, Pras Gunasekera and karolina krupickova19.6.2020 – hosted by Lisa Baumgarten and Judith Leijdekkers
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Lisa: Thank you so much for taking the time for our first Teaching Design Conversations continued … We – Judith and I – will give a bit of context on why we are in this space today. I’ll briefly introduce everyone, but we’d like to invite you to introduce yourselves properly before we dive into the conversation.
At the beginning of 2020, we organised a two-week temporary library in Berlin, where we hosted different kinds of conversational formats. We are still drawing from the meaningful encounters and discussions we had during those weeks, which encouraged us to continue the conversations as a way of sharing practices, perspectives and experiences – this time in an online format.
Judith: With Conversations continued..., we reflect on design education through dialogues – as a means to facilitate space for critical reflection and the production of counter-knowledge. We hope to work towards a more collective approach for transforming design practices by focusing on design education. For this project, we bring together educators, students, alumni and staff. We want to include institutionally established education as well as self-organised initiatives and independent practitioners.
Lisa: The dialogue is a format that is embraced in feminist and decolonial discourses. To us, a dialogue – in comparison to e.g. a lecture, a panel discussion or an interview – means giving each other time to speak, taking each other seriously and allowing differences to exist.
Judith: We just want to keep it very casual. It’s not an interview and we would like for it to be also energy-giving and inspiring to all of you.
[Start of Conversation]
Lisa: Ok, so let’s start with Pras. Pras was attending a festival on design education in Halle – that’s where we met – here in Germany. He is a design educator specialised in curriculum design. He has worked in the UK and is now working in Berlin. Judith is a designer and design educator, based in Rotterdam, she works on long-term projects in her neighbourhoods and teaches at an mbo . We met shortly before Covid and decided to work together. karolina visited Anja Neidhardt and me during our Teaching Design exhibition in Berlin at the beginning of this year to talk about her Master’s and browse through our library. Among other things she conceived and hosted the feminist symposium yesterday’s tomorrow . Tomi was a guest at the symposium, is experimenting with workshop formats about Black hair, actively addressing racial injustice embedded in university structures and just finished – like karolina – her Master’s degree at Central Saint Martins in London, right?
Judith: What a time to finish!
Tomi: Oh, I know!
karolina: Cool. Tomi, do you want to start, or do you want me to start?
Tomi: Thanks, karolina. Like we said: we’ve just finished our Graphic Communication Master’s at Central Saint Martins. Whooo! My final project was about Black hair. Particularly facilitating discussion about Black hair, so I was seeing how I could plan workshops to discuss the narratives surrounding Black hair and sort of create a space for discussion on what’s important about Black hair. Because of Covid I could only do one workshop. That workshop was about texture in particular. I ran this workshop the best I could on Zoom and then did some visual responses. I created a platform on Instagram and I intend to continue with it. I’m also thinking about a pathway into education alongside developing my personal practice. I think I’m increasingly passionate about education and thinking about how I can become an educator. So, yes. That’s me at the moment, in a nutshell. karolina?
Lisa: Can I ask a question in between?
Tomi: Yes, go for it.
Lisa: I’m really interested in this workshop format that you developed. You said you ran it on Zoom. Could you tell us a little bit about that? How did you translate a format that you would normally do in physical life to Zoom?
Tomi: Sure. So, because it wasn’t physical I was sort of limited to what people had. We started by doing a series of drawing exercises, or like image gathering exercises. The first one was reflecting on different ages, so the hair texture or the type of hair you wanted when you were thirteen years old. And for most people it was long, straight hair. And then when you were eighteen years old then it became, you know, embracing my natural hair. So, I asked them to draw it or find an image that represented the hair they wanted. So, most people drew it and you had really really lovely … kind of childlike, curly hair. Or when you had straight hair it was really really straight, and it was visualising this transition from when you were thirteen to now. The women in the workshop were between 21 and 27. Seeing how your perception and what you believe is desirable with natural hair has changed. And then after the workshop you use that to provoke the discussion around questions such as: why is it that we wanted straight hair? Why is it that you embrace your natural hair now? And even though you say you embrace your natural hair now, how does that fit into your lifestyle? What do you think about natural hairstyles? And we had conversations about people still feeling insecure about their natural hair and wearing wigs or weaves or braids, but thinking there is still sort of a perception that natural hair is almost childish. Which was interesting. So really getting into these conversations and letting everyone share their views. I think it worked on Zoom because I decided to base it more conversationally. But it was kind of hard to say “okay you … now you, now you and you …” So it was kind of hard to get into a flow a bit. But I think after a while it became easier to ping off each other’s points. That’s how I approached it.
Lisa: Where did you find your participants?
Tomi: I basically just collaborated with my siblings. My siblings and friends. Because it was the first I did out of this series so I thought: okay, let me start with people that I know. The intention was to do a word of mouth or chain linking thing and do at least three of these within the time frame of my deadline. But then I thought about it in terms of the outcome that was produced, and I wasn’t really too happy with it, so I thought rather than just doing a series of workshops I could just use this one that I’ve done and then really interrogate the content of the workshops. From there I did a survey which had a wider participation, so I got many more views to support or kind of strengthen the things we spoke about during this first workshop. So I picked out a comparison of hair to objects. Two of the participants compared their hair to an iron sponge and cotton wool. Then I asked: what objects have you compared your hair to and people compared your hair to? And I got all sorts of answers, like sponge, bush, candy floss, but the iron sponge and cotton wool came up quite a lot. And those are quite contrasting comparisons. That was sort of the basis for my experimentation. I didn’t want to just keep doing workshops, so by focusing on that, I was able to really visualise and interrogate. In comparing your hair to an iron sponge that has so many meanings and so many layers. So I ended up doing some photography, some video work, interviewing the participants, getting into describing why they chose the iron sponge and then showing it on social media and capturing that experience of your hair being compared to an object.
Judith: That’s an impressive project.
Tomi: Thank you.
Judith: What about you, karolina?
karolina: Yes. Hi. When Covid happened, I was super worried about how to deal with the pressure of producing the most important body of work during the pandemic while we as students were so limited in resources. Also, human resources in terms of contact. I was super worried about the peer group I would end up with. I was very conscious. I thought: ‘if I won’t be happy about my peer group, then I won’t be able to push myself that hard because it’s challenging to find the motivation in the home setting, and keep going even though you are struggling. Obviously, you are learning when you are struggling, but it’s a very different kind of struggling if you are at the school where you can use all the workshop facilities, meet people, learn from each other and bump into ideas, and you are not alone in front of your computer. You would be socialising, talking to colleagues, still producing work, doing freelance work and so many more things. So I was super happy that I could be in my peer group with Tomi and our other classmate. This was super meaningful to me, for the progress, because Tomi is always so good in analysing and being on point. And I see the things like they are flowing all around at the same place and same time. It is sometimes difficult and challenging to make a final decision on the next steps. So, I was super happy that I could be with her in the group.
For my final project, I was worried as last minute adjustments could result in work of lesser quality. My design practice is very participatory in a performative manner. And this aspect of design was always so important to me because I didn’t see my work as just political or just activist. I was worried about how to translate these elements within the digital frame of interactive publishing. I was told to make a website about whatever I want to do, but I was so frustrated that this is the only response to the pandemic the university is giving us. I thought it’s so unfair to all students who sacrifice so much to be able to go to CSM (Central Saint Martins) and then they are encouraged to make just a website as their final project. Just so frustrating. I was trying to shift emotions and think: ‘karolina, okay, I will probably end up with a website. So what can I do?’ Sad, but I decided to artdirect a game where you can experience the yesterday’s tomorrow transformative landscape of the design manifesto, I have written for my Work-in-progress show . I got a lot of input from going to Berlin for Transmediale where I also went to see Lisa’s library . Two weeks later I was visiting the Glossary of Undisciplined Design , a feminist symposium.
It’s the first feminist symposium I’ve ever heard about, except for Sheila’s work , or Donna Haraway. I felt that there was so much input that I wrote a manifesto which was the base for my final project. But since one year I have been proposing more discursive work, like celebrating the feminist role within the design discipline. We are still so much behind, we are still living in the past, in the ‘yesterday’. When we look at the second wave or the third wave of feminism, we still haven’t achieved the things which were proposed. The equality is not there, yet. And I’m not talking about intersectional feminism, which is known since 1989. I’m not talking about the queer feminism, which is super under-represented in design as well. I’m not talking about decolonised feminism, which is always on top of the old feminisms. I’m proposing a transformative discourse, but we need to make sure that we are including intersectionalty, decolonisation, and queer perspectives. That’s why the project is called yesterday’s tomorrow. We know theories from the past of previous yesterdays but we are not practicing them collectively not today, hopefully tomorrow. Initially, I didn’t want to write a manifesto. But it was necessary to have a concrete framework. It gave me structure for the interface of the website. For the publishing part, I was commissioning people I, personally, find inspiring. So, I also asked Lisa for her essay. Then there is an exclusive audio contribution Radical love, deconstructed by Black feminist historian and writer Dr. Edna Bonhomme. And another exclusive contribution, an essay design manifesting by nicole killian, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design in the States, and Charlotte Rohde’s Master’s essay.
Tomi: The thing is the context. You can’t look at your project without the context of everything that happened. Otherwise, if not for Covid it would have been a completely different project. Completely different.
Lisa: Agreed. Shall we give the word to Pras now?
Pras: Thanks. So, a short background. I did an MA in Industrial Design at CSM and graduated in 2012. Just as we had moved to that new building in Kings Cross. After that, I co-founded a social enterprise
called Bidean with Erika Renedo on the course in design and mental health, because the focus of my Master’s, to go back a step, was around design and death, and design and assisted dying.
Erika Renedo was looking at design in mental health and there’s a lot of overlap. So we co-founded a social enterprise in design and mental health, because there is a massive issue of rising mental health issues and stripping of public funding in the UK for services like that. After that, I started working in the Design Against Crime Research Centre, at CSM led by Prof. Lorraine Gamman and Prof. Adam Thorpe. They are all a brilliant team. I started working with them and I am now a research associate there and I started building my teaching profile. I’ve been teaching on the BA (Hons) Product Design course. We did actually one project on the MA CD masters (Masters in Communication Design) called Good to go?, which was around creating campaigns for and against assisted dying. So it was super interesting, I think my practice has always been, which I’m realising now, not about market-led design. I’m not really interested in that. I really have a focus on – I think we’ve all been speaking about this notion of – participatory design, but I think with the focus on social aspects and social problems. That’s where my interest lies. How are you going to make society better rather than having a monetary focus or more than a monetary focus?
In January 2019, I decided to move to Berlin for a number of reasons. But I think Brexit was potentially supposed to take place last March, that was the final kind of, okay, I need to move. So since then, I’ve been here and I’ve been teaching as an external lecturer, at BTK University, where I met Lisa and Emily , who is another professor there. More recently, I’ve just taken on a senior lecturer position at CODE. It’s a coding university, which is actually a private university. But it’s an interesting space to be in because it’s a relatively new university. So it means they’re going through a lot of change and they’re iterating curriculum. I think my practice is very much focused on participatory social innovation and social design, but equally on the teaching side, its curriculum design.
I’ve got an interest in that but I equally see the importance of that in terms of – well, if we want to use that broad term – democratising design. I think curriculum is such an important aspect. And I think we know the discussions that might be happening at CSM about how we can change curriculum in order to not just decolonise the curriculum, but actually, I think expand these notions of participatory design. How do you work with more marginalised communities on a collaborative level? And that’s why I’m here.
Obviously, you know, as we say, context is everything. And the context of London versus Berlin is obviously very different. And I’m quite interested in how we push design pedagogy, especially in tech, because that’s my area of focus now. How we can do more in tech to actually democratise that and actually push pedagogy to the point that students are engaging with more socially-led practices around technology. And I think there’s a lot of work to be done if we look at just ethics in tech as one thing, and bias in tech and data as another. And obviously, in the light of recent events, you just realise the gravity of how much needs to be done. And personally, my view is that education is a really important pillar in that change. So that’s in a nutshell.
But again, what I’ve been hearing between all of us is this notion of: how do we participate? That is another thing I’m really interested in. How do we actually collaborate remotely? And the work that I think we’ve all been speaking about and the work I’ve done with the Design Against Crime Research Centre is of relevance.
DACRC developed a practice led research project focussed on Design Thinking for Prison Industries.
We were working in prison and working with prison inmates at HM Thameside in London, to support their rehabilitation by using a design thinking course to change their skillset or to acknowledge their skillset. There actually is a parallel between criminals and designers that is about being opportunistic. But how can we re-frame their behaviours so that they actually realise they’ve got creative capacity? That was very much in face-to-face workshops, which I think we’re all trying to do. I’ve still got a massive question mark on how we do that. How do we reach out to communities on an assumption where it’s like, oh, everyone has access to super strong bandwidth. Everyone has their own laptop or a safe space where they can actually take part. That is an assumption. It might not be the case. So I think we need to have more discussions and share best practices on how we can do better in a remote context, because you realise this context is kind of staying for a while or we may have to return to it.
Lisa: What does it mean to design a curriculum? And then following that question, what could this look like? What are strategies to democratise or decolonise a curriculum, for example?
Judith: It’s interesting what you said about not decolonising, Pras. Decolonising means starting from an existing colonial structure and trying to make changes from there. But I think what you tried to say was to really start from scratch, and abolish the colonial starting point as a whole.
Pras: Which is complex because if we start with curriculum design, it’s about how we can design teaching and learning experiences. I view my role no longer as a teacher. And I think, colleagues back in CSM, colleagues that I really kind of align with, we view ourselves more as facilitators. To me, that makes more sense. This notion of trying to level the hierarchy between student and facilitator. And I think one way to achieve this is by using the term ’facilitator’. But it becomes tricky because naturally we’ll be assessing work. So there will be this kind of dynamic. There’s always a power dynamic between that. But how do we actually design these teaching and learning events or experiences to facilitate students to be able to actually look at multiple perspectives?
And as you realise, we’re now in a digital age. I realised I could do a lecture, if you want to call it that, or presentations to students and they could sit on their laptops and fact-check me. And that’s great, because it removes this notion that I’m the fountain of knowledge and students are there to absorb this. I don’t think it’s the case. How can we facilitate this community of practice where students are going off and bringing all their knowledge and their experience into this? Ideally we could co-design curriculums together. I think that in the current structures, it doesn’t work that way. Because as you know, with universities, we can’t just say: right, we’re just going to take a pause for six months, have a go at completely scrapping this and re-designing it and then coming back. It has to be done in motion and that can be quite tricky.
karolina: I think there are two intersections of this problem. One is the fact that the power of the tutors and programme leaders who are creating very strong curricula, specifically in my experience at CSM on the MA Graphic Communication Design, is not aligned with the power of people (chancellor and the executive board of the University of the Arts London) who are making decisions about postponing the studies. It’s very easily said that there will be the same learning outcome for students of the 2020 class and the 2021 class, who are graduating from home. But these are very ad hoc last minute solutions. A very quick procedure which has never been tested before. Would you send your children to the uni this year?
It feels strange to hear encouragement like: ‘Oh don’t worry, you will be online, you will be at home (with all your anxieties and whatever you are experiencing). But don’t worry, you will do a little bit of online studying and then you will be fine.’ These words are coming from places of high financial security. It feels strange to believe to be just fine when the creative industry you’re supposed to enter is experiencing collapse right now. It feels strange to believe that not postponing studies, not having the possibility to refer a year without paying extra fees, not being reimbursed on paid fees when students are not able to access the facilities they paid for (studios, workshops, loan store for equipment, powerful computers), not even mentioning the right to a degree show the university, specifically CSM college is saving 41% of the usual running costs just by the fact that the building was shut down during the first lock down. At the same time the contracts of cleaners are ended: people who are depending on the income especially during the extreme situation of a global pandemic. It feels strange to believe that we’ll keep rolling and graduating as if nothing is happening while knowing that UAL (University of the Arts London) is investing money to build new halls for new international students.  UAL is obviously wary about the money they need to be able to sustain the business.
Pras: And it’s super tricky. Because, I think, all universities are in a position where, and Nigel Carrington, the previous vice chancellor of UAL, said this and I do agree with his position: facilitators of education now have to do the work they would potentially do within a year within the space of weeks. It becomes very tricky to try and manage how we can facilitate that student experience because, especially in creative practice, it’s changed. Because we’re not in our studios. We’re not able to. And I completely agree even that by having discussions on a faculty level when you just walk past someone can spark an idea. How do we move into this new realm? I don’t have answers there and I think it’s so tough because there’s obviously a whole batch of graduating students that’s suddenly like: ‘do we move into remote working creatively’? And again, I don’t have the full answer to that. It’s tricky!
karolina: I think there are two points and it’s very difficult because … personally I do believe that you can provide — let’s say not the same experience — but a limited okay experience through virtual learning just because you’re a good tutor. But I’m in the privileged position of not being a neurodiverse learner. I do not have any learning disabilities. But that doesn’t necessarily apply to all students. Distance learning is not the same experience as being in the building where students can exchange, collaborate, ask questions or whatever is necessary on a very different level than doing so online. Just sitting next to each other and doing your own individual work next to another person makes you part of a community which can’t be substituted in a distanced setting. However, I do believe that I will get a kind of okay experience from all the other tutors I personally admire. But also not all of the time we are taught by our most favourite tutors who are able to deliver in the new setting. And now in this — digital only — setting as a student you have very limited contact time.
From an Eastern European perspective, I am Czech, I went to a German high school (no fees), and I did my undergrad in Vienna, Austria (no fees), so the question is: how much is your education worth? This changes on another level when you’re graduating from your bedroom with no partial reimbursement for the facilities of the university you are not able to use for your final project.
But anyway, I feel like one of the most important realisation of my MA I had recently on Monday, when you [Tomi] were talking about your final project during the anti-racist assembly . There is such a lack of representation in the teaching staff and such a lack of support for students of colour. How can tutors relate to a project when they have zero of an embodied experience and limited knowledge in terms of references for example about Black hair. And the fact is that Black students are paying the same amount of fees, but are getting very limited outcomes from the same studies. Tomi, do you want to tap in on this one?
Tomi: Yes. When everything happened with George Floyd, CSM sent us emails and then they were like: you can reply to us. And I was like: okay, let me respond, because it was really really difficult actually, because of the nature of my project as well, and thinking about my aspirations to go into education. And my headspace was: you know what, it doesn’t really matter. Because I was feeling quite fulfilled: I’m getting my MA, I want to go into teaching, And then I was like: well, what does it really mean at the end of the day? I’m not really feeling what an institution can be like when you’re Black. In comparison to some of my peers and people in other courses I’ve had it quite easy. Because although I have had my issues on the course, in comparison to people whose tutors are flat-out racist, or whose course members are flat-out racist. It’s not fair at all.
There’s this thing called Shades of Noir at UAL where they offer safe space crits for students of colour who are doing projects based on their racial identity, sexual identity, things that you wouldn’t find easy to talk about in your normal tutor groups and for which you might not necessarily find a welcoming space. The fact that that has to exist in the first place is really problematic. Actually, my tutor has been really supportive. And when I started the project she said: oh it might be good for you to look for these sessions. At first I thought: oh, that’s an extra thing. But I think she was trying to say: there is only so much support that I can give as a white woman to you as a Black woman doing a project about Black hair, there is only so much I can do for you. Through that, I Iearnt about how the university has a nonchalant attitude towards racism in general, and how other students are being victims of abuse from staff and students.
What karolina was saying: we’re paying the same money, and some people are paying more. At the end of the day, education is meant to be this and that, but what it is: it’s a business, we’re paying for a service, and it’s really not fair that some people can get so much out of it, and some people come out of it scarred – scarred by education. So then, who am I to say: you can go and study and things will be great. It depends on who you are, your skin colour, your sexual identity, who happens to be your tutor that particular year, that particular term. That would really shape your experience, which is not good enough at all. And it’s really upsetting, because how do you rectify that? I think the universities are not saying: we’re failing, we’re doing terribly. They say: we could do better. That’s suggesting that they are doing a good job to start with. And it’s really difficult to engage when there’s a refusal to take accountability. It’s horrible. I don’t know what to say. It’s just horrible.
Pras: I agree. I saw, I think it was Ramon  actually who posted something that said: look at racism. Racism is not just an event, it’s a system. Racism is not just about changing the curriculum, but it is about diversifying our staffing body.
It’s not an event, it’s a system. I do agree. I had a lot of discussions with some of the product design team and we were looking at students’ experiences and saying: how can we have students that are talking about their experience, without having a representational peer group in my view? When I was doing my MA I was just looking up to white teachers and there’s no sense of relation here, or no sense of: oh, I can do that job. Because what I think is: oh there’s only white people doing it. Things have to change. And I think this is when I started to realise what kind of processes we have in place, certain protocols. In my view – and it sounds really weird to say – it’s a design job. I see the importance of design in changing these things. Not just on the outside, but looking within.
Lisa: It’s very interesting that your faculty representation sent an email about the happenings in the US, Tomi, because even if it was very much discussed in Germany as well, none of the public institutions I’m teaching at sent out a statement. It just shows that there’s no awareness at all that there’s structural racism in educational institutions – there’s such an ignorance towards that.
Tomi: I think here it came as a response to people calling out UAL. Not necessarily that they took the initiative to send it out, because I remember I saw on social media the ACS, which is African Carribean Society, they were like: are you gonna respond to this? What about racism within UAL? So it’s really calling them out. As people were calling out businesses, calling out all sorts of public figures, and questioning: what’s your position? What’s your stance? And also reflecting on racism within institutions. So I think that was interesting. And even with that, I don’t think that UAL is acknowledging the level of racism.
I can’t really speak of other countries, but looking at British media, they see racism as a problem in America. They don’t see the racism in Britain. How can you have a conversation when you get people that come on to these news programs to interview them and ask: oh, is this like the #metoo movement? Like: is there racism in Britain? How can you even ask a question like that? It just makes you feel like you’re crazy. Am I going crazy? How can you deny that it exists and you’re denying that you are perpetuating it, so is the media.
It’s awful, it’s really awful. And even looking at other countries, globally. Everyone is protesting, everyone is joining in the protests. But it’s like: you’re looking at it as an American problem, but they’re not seeing the racism that goes on in their own shores. It is really really bizarre. How we’re going back to the foundation of: oh, what is racism? And how can you be anti-racist? How did we get to this place? It just feels like in another 50 years it is still going to be the same. Because if you’re refusing to acknowledge your complicity and how you uphold it, then the conversation, and even action won’t change anything. There’s action going on right now and there are positive changes, but I still feel like there’s still such a major denial across institutions, across countries, and it’s insane to me.
Pras: Can I ask – I’m reading a lot and discussing a lot about basically a denial of history. And I think what is super interesting is that there are multiple lines of history. And it’s just what is chosen in a way. I say chosen in these terms, kind of prominent, and, you know, with removal of statues, I hope it leads to more. And I’m with you, Tomi, I don’t want it to be another 50 years and we’re back here again. But I feel like, you’re right, context is everything and Germany has its own context. In terms of the UK there has been this complete denial of what the British Empire did to benefit Britain, the complete destruction of other societies and groups. And the only reason why people can have this sense of privilege is because of that, and that’s not okay.
karolina: When I think back about what I have been told during the history classes in high school, the presentation of Britain and America is always as the most liberal and free societies. Columbus is celebrated with a very limited acknowledgement to the indigenous people. From my experience, in the Eastern bloc you have the celebration of the liberal western countries (of course because of the USSR) but at the end of the day it’s just an unreflected maintaining of white supremacy and colonial structures.
Pras: Absolutely, as if you’re doing something good, right?
Judith: Well, here in the Netherlands I think it’s very similar. The Netherlands have been colonising all over the world. It’s so very much ingrained into structures and still affects how we see ourselves. Recently, a petition came up as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests, that the history of colonisation of the Netherlands has to be taught in schools, which is a good thing. But then a few people are standing up and saying: wait a minute, but who is then teaching this? And what’s the structure behind how this is going to be mediated? Because this is where this structure is being kept intact or not. Yes, children need to be educated about the Dutch colonial and problematic history, but that doesn’t mean that every teacher brings in new perspectives and narratives, and connects these to current structures and daily experiences.
Pras: You realise this is something that has been ingrained over centuries. And we have to undo it, but how do you do this? Again, going back to it, education is key, but okay, how? How would you unpack it? My question has been even to my white friends: how are you going to acknowledge your complicity in this structure? And what are you going to do to change it?
In the UK, there’s a notion of BAME. BAME is Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. What they’ve done is they have just grouped us all together, which is basically saying: you’re the other, you’re not white. And as we’ve moved on, as we each have different experiences, myself as a South Asian heritage man, we have to assume that we had similar experiences – is just erroneous. It’s things like that, where you’re actually under the guise of doing something good. Really all you’re doing is upholding hierarchy.
Tomi: It’s crazy. Okay, let’s take ‘Black’ for example. The experience is so varied. It’s so, so varied. You can’t compare a descendant of the Windrush generation to a Nigerian first generation immigrant. It’s a completely different experience of being Black, a completely different understanding of being Black in Britain. So when you amalgamate these groups of people, it just doesn’t make sense at all. And it’s really horrible, because it just becomes this buzzword. And even in education, you see these BAME initiatives. And when we’re talking about diversity in education it just becomes a bit weird and tick-boxy. We’re talking about diversity and representation. And what you said is true: it is about ‘the other’. It’s like … white English, white Irish, and other. How can you sideline and group people together?
Even when there’s changes being made, it just doesn’t seem like it has even scratched the surface. Because when something is systemic, you have to go to the foundation of it. What does it mean? Even the language we use. I know people use it, but when we say things like People of Colour, and it’s like you use such a blanket, such a blanket statement. And especially when we’re talking about Black lives specifically, you’re talking about People of Colour. It’s a huge blanket. But yes, I feel like I’m going off topic.
Pras: No, but I think that fits into that because even if we speak about intersectionality in one way we realise that we have our own experiences and they should be validated or acknowledged. They shouldn’t be invalidated by just saying: okay, you’re part of another group. It’s the same as a historical thing. It’s like saying Winston Churchill was great. No. We need more balanced narratives.
Lisa: Also, it comes back to education, when you speak of terms like People of Colour and being able to grasp such a term, like where does it come from? What does it actually really mean and how do people also identify themselves? Just think about pronouns, for example, and asking people: how do you identify? And not imposing your idea onto the person, projecting that onto them. And I think it comes down to getting educated about it and knowing what those terms mean. And I’m learning all the time. For example, when it came to the symposium, there was a lot of talk about the word terf . And then last week, I spoke to a friend and she said swerf, which I had never heard before.
karolina: Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminism.
Pras: Exactly. So I’ve always had this notion of: where’s the perspective of being humble? I think sometimes with positions of privilege, people just simply don’t because they think their worldview has worked for so long, hasn’t it? And I just find that really tricky. Why can’t you come from a position of humility and be like, actually, I don’t understand enough but I want to.
Tomi: That reminds me of what I’ve been thinking about in terms of education and experts in courses. Because we were speaking about what kind of space tutorials should be and how you’re almost afraid to ask questions. You’re afraid to look less intelligent than everyone else and I feel like, to an extent, as an MA student it was almost … elitist? “These are the sorts of ideas you should have, these are the sorts of texts that we’re talking about.” But then I feel like sometimes that doesn’t leave any room for asking questions. Or when we were talking about academic texts for instance. When I first entered the course I was like, how are people reading this and understanding it so easily? Why am I even here? I must be silly, because I wouldn’t even ask. I remember, just randomly, in a reading group we each read the texts, and then we came together and tackled the text together. And that’s when the tutor was like: “Oh, well, you know, you have to really tackle it, you have to sort of break it down and understand it. And you know, it’s not easy.” And I was like: oh, I thought it was easy, because I’ve not come from a critical or more research-led design background, I was just assuming that either you got it or you didn’t. So when you get into that space of admitting or humbling yourself to admit that you actually don’t know what this means. I don’t understand that. I think that by just being honest, you can get more out of something. Get more of that tutorial, get more of that reading. But I think that sometimes there’s not really space to be honest. Almost because you risk being less than ... almost.
Pras: Well, if it’s in a group setting as well, of course, with your peers. It’s super tricky if you’re just called out and you’re like …Uhmm … Well …
Lisa: It begins when you start going to school, that’s how I experienced it, at least. It’s always about knowing and it’s never about learning. It’s a very weird thing, because as cool as it is to go to a place where you can learn but at a certain point you get shamed if you don’t understand something, or you ask ‘stupid questions’. I remember that when I was at the end of my school time, there was a teacher who said: “There are no stupid questions” and it was a revelation. It was the first time someone said that to me. But I never got rid of this feeling of: if I don’t know something, am I allowed to ask?
Judith: I’ve also been told many times that there is no stupid question but somehow it did feel like there were some questions you couldn’t ask anyway. So, like, you can maybe ask questions about a text you haven’t understood, but you cannot ask questions that are more structural. So the stupid questions are about the theme of what you’re learning about at that point, but I have never been in a place where it was encouraged to really ask questions about the structure.
Pras: The structural questions could be like, why are we reading this? What is the relevance? What does it do apart from upholding certain structures? How does this change our view of the world?
Lisa: I never asked those questions during my design education. I never asked once: why are we doing it the way we do it? And I think it actually changed, especially when I see you, Tomi and karolina, and I see the group of people I teach now at different universities, who are ten years younger than I. It starts to change. And I feel like there’s more resistance to dominant narratives – it makes me really proud of my students when they’re like: oh, this sucks! And then they can articulate why it sucks and I’m always happy when they start to. I never had the idea of the possibility to question. How do you experience that, Tomi and karolina?
Tomi: The thing was we have a reading list that they review every year for the course. So it was like, these are the texts we’re reading, some texts are more closely tied with the briefs or projects we do, and others are further readings if you’re interested, you can look at these texts also. What was interesting was that from a position of reading and learning, the idea was to tailor the reading list to your interests. But then, I think, as you know, these texts were completely new, unfamiliar things to you. So you just picked what you liked, and put aside what you didn’t, or you didn’t really think too much about what you didn’t engage with. So I think, on the one hand, there was enough choice to what you wanted to engage with, what you like to read, if that makes sense. And I feel like on our course, people are quite vocal about what they don’t like, or what they’re not engaging with. And there’s also an option to contribute to the reading list. But I didn’t really engage with that too much and now I kind of regret it. But because what I was researching on Black hair was so specific, that I thought, it’s not going to be beneficial for everyone, but then why couldn’t it be? In hindsight, you know. karolina, what do you think?
karolina: In terms of contributions to the reading list, I was surprised that our teaching staff didn’t take the essay about queer, feminist perspective by Ece Canlı , which I suggested last year and which was so revolutionary to me. In the essay by Canlı very precisely pointed out what we still haven’t achieved. Her essay was so essential to me for the first steps of my research. As Tomi said, our course MA Graphic Communication Design is very research-based. You practice graphic design as well but you’re encouraged to have a very solid research-based project before you start designing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lacking in the actual craft of graphic design. I wish I would know more. And I know from other peers from different countries like Norway and Denmark that their MAs are more practice-oriented. So, I guess it really depends what you are looking for as a student and, most importantly, what you make out of it.
Tomi: I was going to say that what I enjoyed about the course is that I now see design as research. Because I think I had quite a narrow view of what design was and what design looked like. Because I felt like I was better suited and I was not interested in researching about a project and looking at different references. So that we were approaching a project from looking at research, doing readings and supporting your ideas, and then forming your position. Although in the back of my mind I was thinking of the design bit that informed my thinking a lot more, because when else would you get the opportunity to really look at design as research. I thought it was really useful for me to reflect on other people’s research and the field I was interested in and then comparing that to mine, and really thinking about what my position is and really thinking about why I’m doing something. What does design mean in the context of what I’m doing? I thought that that was a really different way of working for me. I think it really really made me think about my relationship with design as a practitioner, in a weird way.
Pras: Can I ask about the timing, Tomi and karolina? So you’re both finishing your Master’s and I’m assuming a two-year Master’s, right?
Pras: So, was the structure: in the first year you’re given a couple of briefs in different projects to work on, and in the final year, you’re self directed? What were those briefs like in the first year? We were talking about decolonising the curriculum, and thinking about readings and resources, but what about the types of projects or briefs that were set? I ask this because I’m interested, selfishly, I suppose, how we can do that. As in, what was your experience like?
Tomi: I think there was a good range of different sorts of things we were doing. And I remember there was room to be more experimental. We were always tying it back to engaging with texts, which is quite good. I’m trying to think of all the stuff we did.
karolina: It was more a focus on iteration, and…I guess we had five briefs and the last one was Associate and Elaborate.
Tomi: Yes, so each one has a different theme. I really learnt a lot, because of the Call and Response one that you spoke about, karolina. For that one, the focus was on iteration. I think in a lot of the briefs you could see the tutors who wrote the brief and their thinking and their process. So it was good to understand their practice, through the brief also, and especially understanding what it means to iterate and the process of iteration and how that really informs your practice. I think that was a really good one. But the Associate and elaborate brief – and funny that you brought that up karolina – because when you were talking about participatory and social design it kind of reminds me of that. So basically, it’s like a live brief. Each year they get a company for instance to set the brief and then you work on the live brief. But in thinking about what you were saying, that could really be an opportunity to do something community based, rather than working with a corporation like TfL. Our project kind of took a different direction from what they wanted.
karolina: No, we did everything right! [laughs]
Tomi: Basically, TfL is Transport for London. So I’m not sure how familiar Lisa and Judith are with it.
Pras: … but it’s a social enterprise, apparently.
Lisa: You’re talking about the London Underground? The transport?
Tomi: Yes, the buses. Like all the transport, basically. This is when Brexit was happening, well, supposed to be happening. So we were really looking at TfL’s relationship with the EU and during our research we saw that they borrowed money, considerable billions from the European Investment Bank. They have workers all across Europe, and Europe and TfL are really, really interwoven. So in our young state of mind, we were like: this is so lovely, Brexit is happening, but look at the EU and TfL This is beautiful. And then when we went to the tutorial with the client their response was basically: no, you can’t show this. They said that TfL was apolitical, you know, we can’t really have a political stance, and we don’t really want to talk about Brexit. And we were like: Well, this is our project. It was me, karolina and another classmate who is from an EU country, like karolina. There was a lot of stuff going on, talking about: are they going to be able to continue uni next year? If Britain leaves the EU, what does that mean for us? So we were having these discussions while we were doing this project, it was really, really important to us. So we decided, we don’t care what they say. We’re going to do what we want anyway, because although it’s a live brief, and they’re our client, it’s our project, we want to do something we’re proud of. So we ended up doing a campaign. We basically wrote a statement about the EU and TfL in blue and yellow: EU colours. And we did the presentation in front of the class in front of the people from TfL. And they were basically like, what is that shit?
Pras: This is great!
Tomi: There was a bit of: ‘that’s not true’, like we made it up. And we said: well, we got the information from your website. It got very, very awkward very, very quickly, because it turned into a back and forth thing. Like: ‘why did you do that? That’s not true’. And we said: ‘we’ve got off your website, and this is our project.’ You’d think TfL, they do innovative stuff, they do cool stuff. That’s a cool company to work for, and we were like: well, not really. We had all sorts of ethical discussions about it. For example, if this was a real-life project, and this was the idea we had and the client said, no, don’t do that – when there’s money involved and when you have bills to pay, and when you’re not a student anymore, when you’re not under the cover of university – what impact does that have on your position? So then, in that scenario, we knew it was easy for us to take this strong ‘let’s be revolutionary’-stance while still being students. It is real life but it is not real life yet. So for that brief in particular, and we had the tutors’ support for our project. They said: ‘It’s your project, so we support you whatever you do, and in your decisions’, but it was really, really interesting how they navigated it. I also remember we had a publication.
karolina: And the publication was funded by TfL, who was paying for the print. And my other friend from the class, who was working on it and they were putting it together. And someone was telling me and I was telling Tomi: Oh, so we won’t be included in the publication because TfL doesn’t want it, and now they are looking for a graphic solution on how to include our project and another project which was critical towards pollution in the underground.
Tomi: It was a newspaper format and they put us in the middle, so the copies that we had, we were in it, and the copies TfL had, they just [clicks with tongue]
karolina: … took it out.
Lisa: What does that say to students, or upcoming designers? That your perspective on the world is not valid at all ...
karolina: But on the other hand – however not cool this is – I’m impressed by the solution our classmates came up with because they didn’t have to include us at all. They basically used TfL as a resource for printing a publication while representing all projects of the class. Problematic is the attitude of the company which is picking just what is positively representing their agenda. TfL is showing themselves as: ‘Oh, we are collaborating with students from Central Saint Martins’, which makes them look progressive.
Pras: I see, I get what you mean there when you’re saying it’s a tricky interplay between being in academia and in the real world so you know, like you said, Tomi, I’ve got bills to pay. I think that is the beauty about studying. It’s unfortunate we can’t do that in the real world. Where we really push and question. But in the academic environment, it should be fully facilitated.
mbo: Middelbaar beroepsonderwijs. Vocational education in the Netherlands
yesterday’s tomorrow is a post-critical platform collectively rethinking design h*stories, design education and power structures based on a design manifesto by karolina krupickova
Central Saint Martins, MA Graphic Communication Design, Work In Progress show in January 2020, https://twitter.com/csmgraphics/status/1222563236853272577?s=20?
Teaching Design CONVERSATIONS, A–Z Berlin, January–February 2020
The Glossary of Undisciplined Design was a Symposium organized by Anja Kaiser and Rebecca Stephany in February 2020 at GfZK, Leipzig.
Sheila Levant de Bretteville, is an American graphic designer and feminist activist.
Emily Smith is an educator, researcher and exhibition-maker based in Berlin.
Note by karolina in February 2021: As far as I know, there was no redistribution of current financial sources for disadvantaged students of class 2020/2021 or rethinking the pre-pandemic structures to reimbursed students who signed contracts for non-pandemic teaching with use of all facilities and paid for that.
Note by Tomi: In response to the protests and discourse around anti-racism especially within the university. Our program had an anti-racism assembly that gave students a platform to voice their experiences, share projects, resources, listen and learn.
Ramon Tejada, American-LatinX designer and educator, initiator of the Decolonizing Design Reader.
TERF: Trans-exclusionary radical feminist. TERF. A shorthand to describe one cohort of feminists who self-identify as radical and are unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters. Additional info here: Viv Smythe: I’m credited with having coined the word ‘Terf’. Here’s how it happened. In: The Guardian. 28.11.2018. [online] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/29/im-credited-with-having-coined-the-acronym-terf-heres-how-it-happened
Ece Canlı: Design History, Interrupted: A Queer-Feminist Perspective. In: Marjanne van Helvert (ed.), The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future,
p. 187-207. Amsterdam: Valis, 2016.
Kobena Mercer: Black Hair/Style Politics. new formations NUMBER 3 WINTER, 1987. [online] http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/newformations/03_33.pdf
Robin DiAngelo discusses her book White Fragility, University of Washington, 2018. [online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45ey4jgoxeU
Gary Younge: What Black America means to Europe. In: The Guardians Long Read Podcast, June 22 2020. [online] https://open.spotify.com/episode/2VMClOPQKnCtvfLqQ4CkA4?si=jwjVkq17QvyJD63RyVf5JA
Owen Jones: Feminist icon Judith Butler on JK Rowling, trans rights, feminism and intersectionality, January 01 2021. [online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXJb2eLNJZE
Get in touch with the participants
Oluwatomilola Adefioye, Pras Gunasekera, karolina krupickova, Judith Leijdekkers and Lisa Baumgarten
Many thanks for proof-reading support
to Sander Holsgens.
Conversations continued… is made possible with the kind support of Stimuleringsfonds