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Pluriversality in Design Education

Each time the work we create is published it reproduces not only itself but the beliefs and conditions of the people who produce it. Inevitably, this act of reproduction also reproduces the power relations that yield these conditions. If the purpose of design education is to prepare students for this aim, then in order to queer the discipline we have to first reevaluate the histories,  principles, and social dynamics that we reproduce within learning environments. It follows that we then ask ourselves what, and who, has been left out.

Nate Pyper, How Will We Queer Design Education Without Compromise?, Walker Art Center Magazine, July 26, 2018

There are recent and exciting efforts to “decolonize” design and design education. However, the use of the word is contentious, arguably devaluing the actual repatriation of indigenous land and life. Instead, I’ve been referring to this work as pluralizing design. In language, to pluralize is to give plural form to, or to cause to become numerous. In design, to pluralize is to reject the false binary of majority and minority cultures, and instead, celebrate our multitude of perspectives, coexisting equally. I see no better place for this work than in the design classroom.

First, designers possess immense potential to generate empathy for others, and educators are uniquely positioned to ignite it in their students. As an educator I will create assignments that allow students to lift up the narratives from their own experience and the systemically marginalized. (I think it is also crucial, however, that the marginalized are not burdened with the “emotional labor” of justifying their point of view to the privileged.) Second, we need the next generation of designers to be self-reflexive. I work to question my internalized biases — what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of the “single story”— about people that don’t look like me or have had an altogether different life experience. I promote this self-reflexivity in my classroom, and I uncover these biases in the graphic design canon. Part of my job is to discuss graphic design’s role in reiterating “single stories” ad infinitum — enabling a Western society that is unjust to so many, and privileges so few. Finally, to facilitate a pluralized learning environment, universities, design programs, and educators such as myself must ask, as Nate Pyper does, above — “who has been left out?” — and the answer must be met with action to include them. This means a faculty, administration and student body that reflects a plurality of bodies and experiences; men and women, transgendered, cisgendered, and nonbinary, able-bodied and disabled, all ethnicities, all sexual orientations.  

In every syllabus and on the first day of every class, I stress that our studio must be a safe space for a multitude of perspectives. To me, forming and expressing an opposing view is essential to creativity. It can make for messy, challenging discussion, but this “messiness” is essential. Nate Pyper concludes his essay calling for critical engagement in the classroom, and warns that it means “we will have to deal with the contradictions we encounter head on. We will have moments of confusion.” Confusion, he offers, is a skill, not a fault. To be confused is to hold multiple differences in one’s mind. To reconcile those differences, we are called upon to change ourselves, and each other. As a professor, I will cultivate this culture of critical engagement with my students; it is essential to their learning that I do.


nathan dot young at temple dot edu