The Daily Heller: Looking From the Eyes of Others

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Kelly Walters, author of Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race (Princeton Architectural Press), published today, received a BA in communication design and communications sciences at the University of Connecticut, and an MFA in graphic design at RISD. Currently, she teaches thesis and Black visual culture in the communications design program at Parsons School of Design. She initially entered her freshman year of college undecided, although she was always interested in art and art-making she "wasn’t sure if it was a viable career path.," Walters told me. "As I started to consider art and design more fully, I decided to take a drawing class and I really liked the atmosphere of critiques and discussions about art.” Since she has become a practitioner and voice in the changing design world.

Her new, must read book is among the first of a spate of inspiring texts and online conferences that have emerged during the pandemic year and the Black Lives Matter groundswell. Here, Walters takes us on a narrative tour of this very enlightening collection of conversations with more new voices and new eyes on our increasingly diverse design professions.

At what point did you conceive of Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators?

In some ways, Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators is an accumulation of other projects I’ve been doing over the last 10 years. I have always been interested in conversations, dialogues and connecting with other people of color. This book project developed out of a panel I chaired at the College Art Association conference in February 2020 called Black, Brown and Latinx Graphic Design Educators. For this panel, I organized a group of graphic design educators who were teaching at a variety of institutions across the United States. Within this group of educators, I was briefly acquainted with a few, and others I had never met before. As preparation for the panel, I interviewed the panelists as a way to learn more about their experiences in design and academia. Based on my discussions, I wanted to make a small pamphlet or design artifact that could feature excerpts from the interviews as a takeaway at the conference. However, as I began to develop the “pamphlet,” the scope of the publication grew in size and I realized it needed to become a full-fledged book. At this point, I reached out to a former student of mine, Iyana Martin Diaz, who eventually became my co-designer for the book.

The book includes interviews from the design educators who participated in the CAA conference panel as well as a few others that occurred just after the conference. It was important to include all of these interviews because they reflect a range of perspectives from my peers who are teaching in different geographic and demographic contexts. I think the collection of the interviews together begins to highlight the complexities of how race, class and education impact our design trajectories. Being a student and educator at liberal arts universities and art schools yields different conversations on how design is taught, how it is seen and what resources are available. I think the art school conversation can be very specific and the non-art school conversation can also be very specific, with areas of overlap. I wanted this book to reflect that range.

You address the challenges of teaching design at “minority-serving,” “predominantly white” and “historically black” institutions. What are the challenges as you've experienced them, and how can they be better served?

There are several challenges, as noted throughout the book, and they are all layered and complicated. I can personally speak to the experiences I have had at PWIs and within art school contexts. Across all, I think the challenges include not having enough funding or resources to support BIPOC students and educators. One of the most important pieces for institutions to understand, and the design industry at large, is that “BIPOC” includes a lot of different racial and ethnic groups, and not all have the same challenges or concerns.

What, if anything, surprised you in their answers? Was there an aha moment(s) for you?

For this project, I wanted to engage in dialogue with design educators not specifically in New York City, where design discourse often gets centered, but into other regions of the United States. I think the regional differences are important to underscore because of their impact on social identities. When I talked with the other Black women interviewed in the book, for instance, it was clear the ways in which we were similar but also in how our identities had different inflections due to growing up in New England, the Midwest or in the South. This was an exciting aspect for me because holding space for these reflections is part of deepening my own understanding of Blackness and added to the infinite ways we all coexist.

Education is ground zero for design in the future. What is the overarching or underlying issue that you wanted to draw out of your interviewees?

I guess it’s not so much of an issue as it is a celebration. I was excited to learn from each interviewee, how they saw the world, both as designers and as people of color. I think the design field has primarily been seen through a white lens, has focused on very particular narratives, types of design work and design pathways. I was seeking more diversity of experiences, types of schools attended and how navigating the design industry and academia has been influenced by our racial and ethnic backgrounds.

There has long been a paucity of Black, Brown and Latinx design educators, which accounts for a low percentage of students, and ultimately professionals, in graphic design. What triggered your desire to change the balance?

I guess what I would say to this question is that my interest in these concerns did not start with this book alone, but has been part of a longer ongoing body of work in my design practice. Questions around race and representation in design have always been something I’ve reflected on since I entered the field as a designer. Our stories reflect a series of different pathways and perspectives that are similar to our students and other emerging designers in the field right now. I think it’s important that we have visible and documented representations so that we can continue to ask, “how?” When I look back at a younger version of myself, I would always ask, “How did you get there?” And, “How can I get there as a Black woman?” I think these are important questions to ask because everyone’s circumstances are different, from a racial standpoint, an educational standpoint, an economic standpoint
and a familial standpoint.

Is one of your goals to increase the amount of positive role models?

Definitely, but also to open the conversation up more to be more multifaceted and nuanced. In the book I highlight the fact that we are only a small sampling of the infinite experiences one might have as being Black, Brown or Latinx, and that the terms “Black,” “Brown” or “Latinx” hold several meanings. Having visible representations is essential.

Do you believe that there has been systemic under-representation in the design fields? Has there been an overt or covert reason behind this?

Yes, I think there has been systemic under-representation due to the following: implicit/explicit bias in recruitment and school admissions, lack of mentorship, microaggressions, toxic and hostile workplace environments, not feeling your identity is affirmed, more emotional labor to explain diversity and inclusion to unaware colleagues, lack of financial support, accruing debt in order to attend/work in a particular design environment/school, inability to participate in expensive design conferences/events/competitions, insular networking, gatekeeping, having certain design credentials/degrees/certificates in order to be visible or recognized in the field, the field only valuing certain kinds of design work that is also hyper-visible, isolation, imposter syndrome, being passed over for opportunities, pay inequities between women and men (and more specifically Black women getting paid significantly less than their white male counterparts for the same design job), and the list goes on. All of these aspects affect competitive advantages that influence representation in the design field.

It seems to me that years ago there was a lot of fragmentation with those who went to art and design school. I saw lots of people of color going into fashion on one side, and cartooning and comics on the other (and, of course, photography and painting). If you agree, why do you feel graphic design (and much of advertising) was so much more “restrictive”?

This is a good question. I like to think in contemporary art there’s an ability to express oneself in any kind of way—from pushing the boundaries in form, language or performance. There are numerous notable Black artists like Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Adrian Piper or Kara Walker, who directly address and confront topics of race, identity and representation in their art-making. Within their work I feel as though they are not restricted from expressing work on these concerns. When it comes to design, and with specific regard for some design programs, topics of race and identity have quite literally been censored, and students are told that “this is not design” because it’s touching a topic that may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar to their design peers or educators. Design was structured to be “restrictive” to begin with—from our use of grid systems, typography selection and creating outcomes that can sometimes be very neutral. There are design dimensions and mediums that are structured for us to conform, and when design outcomes do not mesh with those systems they are restricted from being displayed, discussed or understood because it is “not the norm.”

To the second part of your question, I don’t think it’s a matter of people of color only going into fashion or comics. I can’t speak for all groups but only on behalf of myself and my experiences. Many people, not just people of color, think design can be restrictive and choose to pursue disciplines that allow them to be more expressive or create new collectives where they can be who they want to be. I’m of the generation of Black designers that exists in a slightly different playing field from those that have come before me. We need to acknowledge the history of racism experienced by Black designers who came before, who tried to break into industry 20, 30 or 40 years ago but were prevented from doing so. Black people have experienced restriction and racism in every discipline. They were told in a variety of ways that they could not/should not be there. I think graphic design and advertising is so much more restrictive because historically it has always been restrictive of Black people, of Black thought, of Black presence and of Black agency.

The idea of inherent “restriction” is fascinating. It is the opposite of “colonization” (or maybe even a corollary). Do you believe that there is a perception that people of color have a different aesthetic or mindset that goes counter to the neutrality of, say, “modern” design?

I guess I would like to flip this question and ask—how has modern design been inspired, influenced and derived from the aesthetics of people of color? There is so much history and un-learning that I continue to do as a designer with regard to my understanding on this. I guess I would also like to consider how the aesthetics of people of color were colonized to become modernism by white designers? What formal elements or motifs are actually of African origin?

I love the quote by James Baldwin, “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” It seems to underscore our system. What does it say to you?

This quote was contributed by David Jon Walker for the book, and was part of a talk that James Baldwin gave in 1963 called a “A Talk to Teachers.” When I think about this quote today, I reflect on my own journey, transitioning from student to educator. The more that I have learned about the ways white supremacy, power, hierarchy and institutional racism functions, the more I continue to look introspectively at my experiences and pivotal moments that have shaped my journey as a designer and Black woman. This consciousness and awareness is necessary for educators to possess, so that we can look critically at how we replicate and repel these systems in our classroom spaces and create space for our students to be conscious, as well.

Would you say that design education, at least until recently, has been too style-driven to the exclusion of teaching the meaning and essence of diversion?

I do think at times certain styles and popular trends get more visibility in design education because of how they function in commercial spaces. I imagine part of this is a result of helping to prepare students to make work that gets them jobs upon graduation, and there’s a method of teaching towards the industry from an aesthetic standpoint. At the same time, I think we need to be supporting the growth of emerging designers who will think more holistically about design so that they have the cultural competencies to ask questions, challenge design concepts that are harmful and think about the audiences where their work will be disseminated.

It is interesting to me that design and advert
ising was once a field that brought children of immigrants out of the grip of mundane white and blue collar labor. But maybe that had something to do with the influx of European immigrants, mostly Italian, Jewish, Russian, who had studied the art of design during the 1930s–'40s. Why isn't current education a similar stepping stone? Is it financial, aspirational, inspirational? Is it possible?

Again, I think it’s important here to highlight that within the United States there were several government and corporate policies, practices, procedures that prevented Black people from pursuing higher education. I think what we don’t often talk about is that while many European immigrants arrived in the 1930s–'40s, over time they could assimilate as white in a way that Black people could not. Being locked out of academic institutions has had lasting impact on every occupation, including design. I do believe education can be a stepping stone but we also have to reconcile the fact that Blacks and other folks of color were denied admission to begin with. The Civil Rights Acts passed in the 1960s were just the beginning of trying to eliminate discrimination and desegregation. When we look at higher education today, the residual of all those generations of exclusion has systematically impacted people of color.

I've always been befuddled, if that's the right term, by the best practices to teach cultural difference in a design program. It is one thing to teach a history class and another to integrate diverse cultures into studio work. How do you and your interviewees view the canon—what to transform, what to preserve and how to do it?

I think this is difficult to answer because we all view the canon differently. If you talk to any of the design educators in the book, they will all have a particular take. In my view, integration means thinking about who is in your classroom space, recognizing that range of identities (including your own), thinking about who is or is not reflected in that space and bringing in those voices. Whether that be through invitation of folks who have a knowledge base in an area you don’t, looking in archives and collections that reflect the folks who have been historically missing and finding artifacts for a new canon, thinking beyond looking for the words “graphic design” in your search because that was not always the term used in the past. In my view, the material exists in so many archives and humanities books, but we need more designers to help create visibility and contextualization.

I see your book as appealing to a disparate racial and ethnic readership, but certainly to educators of all backgrounds. Do you think your book would have been published, let's say, 10 years ago? Or do you feel it took recent social upheavals to draw attention to the need for your interviewees' points of view?

I think I would have made and got this book published 10 years ago had I had the experience and knowledge I know now. I am grateful for its visibility during this time and will continue to advance the work of Black, Brown and Latinx design educators in the field. I think the social upheaval has certainly propelled it in a way but I think if it was not published commercially, I certainly would have published this book independently.

I have not gone through (but am deeply involved in) design education. How important is the theoretical versus the technical side of design education today?

I think both are equally important. I feel having a certain level of rigor in the theory or concept in your work sets you apart from other designers. How you are thinking and the way you are thinking are added assets for any designer. Alongside that, I also think it’s critical for people to know how to execute design technically, as well. Sometimes we have strengths in some areas better than others, but I do think these two pieces are of equal importance.

What do you hope will result from this book? How do you hope design education will change?

In the Acknowledgements of my book, I reflect on this, saying, “I hope this book and our stories contribute to a wider understanding of the diversity of paths taken, perspectives held and outlooks conceived by designers of color. In order to highlight the uniqueness of different ethnic groups, to understand the layered histories, cultural beliefs and shared languages that shape our understanding of art, design and race, it is extremely important to push against the flattening of what it means to be a "POC." While academia and the design industry have tried to become more accepting in recent years, there is much work to be done to make these spaces more inclusive. Representation matters. Having design educators who look like you matters. Being able to bring your whole self to the studio and classroom matters. Calling out the fact that design has the capacity to be an exclusive space that does not always value, respect or celebrate our identities is critical to name. My hope is that the interviews shared in this book create visibility and validation—that they demonstrate what is possible, that design is an exciting field and that there are a multitude of pathways and approaches to design practice.”