OCAD Dean Dori Tunstall is decolonizing design education

Dori Tunstall is the dean of the faculty of design at Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD University) in Toronto, and the first Black and Black female dean of a faculty of design anywhere in the world. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

Doreen Lorenzo: When did you first realize you had an interest in design? Tell us about your design journey.

Dori Tunstall: In my family, we were always encouraged to express ourselves, whether that was singing, dancing, drawing, or painting. I understood art and had always been interested in making, but I didn’t know what design was until I got out of graduate school.

I’ve always played with form, content, and context, and a word that brought all those things together for me was “anthropology,” which is about understanding people. The way I chose to understand people is through what they make over time and space. I did my PhD in anthropology at Stanford University, focusing on Ethiopian tourism and development. One of the things that I looked at was how posters sold an image of Ethiopia related to the specific politics and the culture of the different areas of the country. I also consulted with the Ethiopian Tourism Commission on how they could improve tourists’ experiences. Eventually, when I graduated from Stanford and went to work in high-tech consulting at Sapient, I found that there was a word for what I was interested in doing: “design anthropology.” When I first met professional designers, it was like “Oh, I found my tribe! These are my people.”

After working in high-tech consulting and later, integrated media at Arc Worldwide, I went back to academia because I wanted to train young people to do what I did as a design anthropologist. I started to do that at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but I completed that work at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, where I created a master’s program in design anthropology. Through the program, Dr. Norm Sheehan, the local Indigenous communities, and I integrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing into the design curriculum. When OCAD U was looking for a dean who could help them with decolonization, diversity, and equity, I had already done that work in Australia, so I brought it to where I am now in Canada.

Dori Tunstall [Photo: Ishmil Waterman]

DL: Since becoming dean, what are some of the projects or initiatives you’ve undertaken at OCAD that you are most proud of?

DT: The projects that I’m really excited about are the ones that give opportunities to young people. At OCAD U, a group of Black alumni, students, faculty, and myself started the Black Youth Design Initiative. A key part of the initiative is a program for 8-to-12-year-old Black youths called Blackreach. We bring in elder Black designers and students and, before Covid-19, would give three-hour workshops on a design process of “imagine, make, and do.” We have them imagine the challenges they face and a set of solutions to them. Then they choose one of those solutions and make a physical prototype out of it. We connect the solution to the wider problems that Black people face due to colonization, slavery, and racism, so they understand that what they’ve made is not just for them but actually connects to other people. We make sure that they have something tangible to bring home so they can talk about what they’ve made afterward. Society is harmful to Black youth, and thus design can be harmful. Through this program, we can help Black youth build the confidence to solve problems by creating worlds for us and by us, as Black peoples.

Another thing which we’re doing at OCAD is hiring a more diverse faculty. Our students have asked for faculty who represent them and who can tell the stories of how design has been harmful and helpful in an authentic way. We have been hiring design professionals and educators who are Black, Indigenous, and POC (i.e., Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern) because they are all able to tell stories of how harmful design has been, how they’ve used design to put forward their own representations of their identities, and how they’ve applied design toward the liberation and equality of their communities. We’ve been at this process for the last six to seven years. By creating a faculty body that represents the diversity of the students at our institution, we’re rewriting curriculum so that it brings in different cultures. Our ethos in design at OCAD U is respectful design. The reason we chose “respect” is that in many Indigenous cultures, respect is one of the key principles for being in the world with a sense of humility, openness, and understanding of your relationships to other people as well as to the natural world.

DL: In the age of social distancing, how do we ensure that students feel seen and engaged in their online education?

DT: The social aspect of education will be the most challenging. In the studio culture of art and design, learning comes through dialogue and community building with the other people in the classroom. The role of the teacher is to facilitate conversations and learning from each other. But in some ways digital technology can help us be more inclusive. I teach each semester, which is not common for a dean, but for me it’s important to be close to that activity so I understand directly the student experiences of frustration and bliss, which then inform all of my decisions as a leader in the institution. Our challenge is to bring serendipitous interaction and learning into these digital platforms, with the understanding that our students will be logging in from different places, speak different languages, and have different cognitive abilities. Sometimes technology allows us to do that better. Some students are more comfortable communicating through chat than they are speaking up in a class.

DL: How can technology help boost diversity and inclusion in design?

DT: Technology has flattened the hierarchy in some ways. Let’s say you want to experience diverse designers. You don’t find them in our textbooks. You don’t find them in the official histories that have been curated to say, “This is what great design is.” Where you can find them, though, is on Instagram. I’m constantly discovering really interesting designers and their work from all over the world. It opens up new possibilities for building diverse communities around the act of making. In response to Black Lives Matter and the design community’s omission of Black voices and perspectives, now all these websites have popped up saying, “These are where all the Black designers are. These are the ways they approach their design work differently.” Now when a student says, “I want to work on this project, but I don’t know how to connect to it,” I can send them links to those resources so that our students are able to find themselves, and find the work that is important to helping them grow as makers.

DL: What will the confluence of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement teach us as we aim to build a better future?

DT: For many white, affluent people who had so many other things going on that they could ignore what was happening in Black, Indigenous, POC, and LGBTQ communities, now there’s no place to escape that. COVID-19 forced white, affluent people to see and experience the kinds of inequity that other people experience as part of everyday life. If you are immune-suppressed, wearing a mask to protect yourself from other people’s breath is your everyday life. In certain Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities, being unable to see a doctor is your everyday life. The United States before COVID-19 already had travel bans against people from Muslim countries. Now Americans are banned from traveling across the world because people in the United States are not adhering to the social distancing and mask-wearing needed to flatten the curve.

The deprivation that white, affluent people are experiencing through COVID-19 has given them a glimpse of the deprivation that other communities face every single day. That’s opened up possibilities. It’s creating a sense of empathy that will hopefully lead to structural changes that then remove those deprivations for everyone. There’s a sense of allyship and solidarity among communities like never before. It’s a major shift that we’re even having the conversation about defunding the police.

Amid all of the anger of this moment, love is presenting an openness of possibility to everyone. The design decisions we make now about society and institutions will determine whether that sense of openness was warranted, or whether we’ll fall back into cynicism.

DL: How can we harness that sense of empathy in design education?

DT: Design education has to be decolonizing. Indigenous sovereignty and the stealing of Indigenous land has not been addressed at all in the United States. In Canada, we begin our classes with a land acknowledgement of the Indigenous traditional owners who are custodians of the land on which we are gathered. That’s critical to shifting perspective. Most of the time when we talk about design, we’re talking about the phenomena that came out of Europe in the 1800s, creating for the masses so that the “good life” of the aristocracy could be more available to the peasantry. The way to achieve that was to make things cheaper and faster, but to do that Europeans exploited the labor of Black people and exploited the land of Indigenous people. We can’t decouple colonialism from design or the way we understand and practice design. They’re deeply linked and implicated.

There’s a lot of talk about how design is going to save the world after COVID-19. I approach that talk with a sense of cynicism, because design hasn’t even addressed how it’s harmed communities for the last few hundred years. It’s only been in the last couple of months when all these brands like Mrs. Butterworth, Aunt Jemima, and the Washington Redskins moved away from racist representations of Black and Indigenous people for entertainment or consumption purposes.

We applaud the organizations when we see they’re doing better, but we still haven’t looked at the way in which design as a practice has been complicit in those acts of representation. Until design is able to reckon with itself in its role of past oppression, I don’t see how it’s going to be a liberator or savior in a post-COVID-19 future.

DL: Since becoming dean, what good things are coming out of the changes you’re making at OCAD?

DT: It really is the confidence of students. We had a forum for our Black, Indigenous, and POC students, and they spent two hours telling us all the ways their education has failed them. But they also described that when they had the right mentorship with someone from the same background, they had the confidence to create these innovative projects. The uniqueness of their identities is what makes these projects innovative, because they come out of an authentic sense of who they are and the kind of change they want in the world.

Our students are doing more of that work because they feel they don’t have to emulate the work of a Swiss typographer from the 1800s. Instead, they can base typefaces on the handwritten note in Tagalog language from their grandmother’s recipe book. It’s innovative, it’s new, and it’s meaningful because all of a sudden their family understands and appreciates what they do. That builds their confidence. Then they go out into the world more confident as designers, understanding explicitly how meaningful their work is to themselves, to their clients, and to the communities that they want to serve through their work.

This is happening in other places too. I visited the California College of the Arts in February before COVID-19 hit. There, Shylah Pacheco Hamilton, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Rivera, Katherine Lam, and Shalini Agrawal showed me the projects their students were doing through their Decolonial School. My mind was blown away by the passion and the meaningfulness of the projects.

This was when COVID-19 started to hit the United States. But because it had already made a devastating impact in China, the many students of Asian heritage at the California College of the Arts were experiencing racism. In response, they developed these posters that were stunning in the sense of communicating “I’m not a disease,” and included these very raw and visceral images of their sadness and anger around how they were being treated because of the anti-Asian xenophobia around COVID-19. They were using design to push back and fight against that. They were using design to fight these other designs that were meant to harm them.

I am inspired by the work being done by Ramon Tejada at RISD, Kelly Waters at Parsons School of Design, Silas Munro at Otis College of Art and Design, and by the historically Black and historically Indigenous colleges using design to fight other harmful design ideas and practices for BIPOC students.

DL: What do you want to tell incoming students who are interested in design?

DT: Learn to be respectful designers. It means that you understand and try to build a harmonious relationship with the environment. You inherently appreciate the meaningful differences in culture, ways of being, languages, and ages. You understand the value of everything’s existence, not just because it’s beneficial to you, but because of the beauty of the existence itself. Practicing respectful design changes how you treat your materials because you recognize that they have their own life span. It changes the way you think about who you’re making for; you’re no longer making for, you’re making with. It’s about the kind of person you are inside, your strength and confidence, and how that’s connected to everything else that will make you an ethical, creative, innovative, and caring designer. Those are the kind of designers we need in the world. We have enough design geniuses. We need caring people who have respect for everything in the world.

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