Interview by Jason Alejandro
Design Educator Profiles
We are excited to share profile interviews that highlight members of the DEC Community with a focus on featuring the many roles we hold as educators in a variety of institutional settings and job titles. In this month’s edition we share a profile of design educator Nida Abdullah.
At what moment did you decide to become an educator? How has your own education impacted your work?
I think I really made the conscious decision to become a teacher and educator when I was in graduate school, when I had the first formal chance to teach as a Teaching Assistant. This was a really nice experience with a lot of exploration and agency. I was able to shape assignments, invent approaches to critique — you know, try things out and see how students learn. It was a really supportive space. I was a T.A. for Denise Gonzales Crisp and she was totally okay with me messing up (if you want to call it that) the structure of the course. She encouraged me to respond to however the students would respond to me, and respond to what would happen next, and so on.
The students were really supportive too, they were open to trying out the ideas that I was trying out — activities, formats that I hadn’t yet fully formed an understanding of. I think this really activated me. It was exciting to participate in this collective learning about what teaching is, what it could be in this non-hierarchical way. We were all contributing to it together.
Reflecting on it, it also became about the relationships and cultivating those kinds of conditions and that kind of space. I became curious about how I could help to create openness, fluidity, kindness and spaces for inquiry.
Describe your practice: what do you do? How do you do it? Why?
I look at my practice as pedagogy and pedagogy as practice. They are linked and inform one another. A lot of what I do looks at what structures we use to deliver the content of design education. Why do we structure our curriculum a certain way; why are we bound to certain ideologies around timelines or measurement; why do we privilege certain legacies of form and making over others. How are we designing designing?
Through writing, through workshops and exhibitions, I interrogate and examine the complicity of myself as a designer and educator in the reproduction of design and design pedagogy in oppressive systems. Often this examination and exploration happens in collaborative and collective spaces such as Post-Radical Pedagogy or The Teachers Project or other informal coming-togethers.
You are a co-founder of the Post-Radical Pedagogy group—what is the purpose of the group, and what impact does it have on your role in the studio/classroom?
Post-Radical Pedagogy is a research group that was started by me and two other professors at Pratt Institute, Chris Lee and Xinyi Li. We formed it as a space to antagonize and interrogate institutional values and legacies. In this way, we’re looking at why, how and what we teach in design education; so, in essence, why do we do things the way we do them? What are we perpetuating?
As a program outside of a formal space at Pratt Institute, we look at how to move forward from or push back against our (collective) inherited institutional situation. This past year we hosted a lecture series, inviting a series of guests to challenge and provoke, to prompt us to explore what it means to engage in designing and teaching design. The series looked at two main themes: the everyday banality yet horror of design’s complicity in perpetuating racist systems; and the politics of labor as a design worker.
This project is on-going. The lecture series will be released as a book by Onomotapee with essays by contributing authors prompting us to further explore moving within or outside of this pedagogical situation.
What are your goals as a design educator?
As mentioned earlier, I really hope to cultivate relationships around collective care. I reference Robin D.G. Kelley and his use of care as a political practice when I say this; when we care for others around us, we are caring for ourselves, we are in solidarity. How do we move beyond structures and see the human aspect of educating at an institution?
I think it’s really easy to get lost in the bureaucracy of the institution, and for students often it’s really easy to perform for a grade, rather than engaging in inquiry.
I want to break up notions based on binaries; that there is a good and a bad, that there is a right or a wrong. I want to encourage plurality and fluidity. I want to encourage students to question the systems we follow and question where they came from. I want to encourage students to reflect on what is informing their decision-making.
What topic(s) should educators be addressing that are not currently being discussed?
I think how design and technology have been and continue to be complicit in the silence of marginalized people and communities. I wouldn’t say this isn’t being addressed—I think this is being addressed in pockets of alternative education communities, which is good, but I wonder if all these alternative spaces should actually be the space.
Many institutions are grappling with how to teach design, what should we teach now? How has the pandemic affected us? How do we talk about race? What is decolonization if we are not giving back land? What is our complicity vs. responsibility? Acknowledging current and long-term collective global traumas is very important. Making moves is next. I think seeing places of learning as long-standing institutions is important. Recognizing that learning and study as something that is institutionalized, steeped in regulation is a concept to confront every day.
Rather, in contrast, how do we get together, how do we talk and walk together, as Moten and Harney would suggest how do we study?
In what ways does design education need to change or shift focus in order to prepare practitioners for the future?
Generally, I think education should be free. How can we offer more accessible, more critical study? I think if we are able to disrupt the stratified systems of private vs. public, state-school vs. art-school, we can move towards challenging issues of class and thereby interrogate the implications of design practice more holistically.
I think we should also be focusing on how we come together. Is it possible for instance for practitioners to work together in co-op models, rather than working for companies as simply individuals? What might a coming together look like and how would we share resources? How would we grow together, protect each other and our communities, our ecologies?
How do you continue to grow as a design educator?
I think it can be hard to continue to motivate ourselves to grow. But it is definitely important to be present, to remember, that we have to change and shift.
I try to do this by first acknowledging and remembering that I have my own lived experience loaded with my own assumptions. When I encounter something, I don’t quite understand or something challenging, I pause. I listen. Listening is a really great thing to do. I don’t have to offer feedback or give advice, or anything. I can just listen and learn with care. This might be a small thing to do, but I think it can be a powerful every day, lifelong practice. Acknowledge the people around you; not just educators, not just students, not just designers, but everyone. Listen to them, hear their stories.
What are you working on at the moment, and why is it important?
A project that I’m exploring is schools as ideological apparatus. I am specifically looking at places that I have connection to as a kind of auto-theoretical inquiry. I am looking at the imperial curriculum practices in British India right now, and hopefully other connections later on. I am looking at how these models of teaching were conceived, implemented and developed; what was upheld and what was erased. The project explores how schools are designed, how designed artifacts can develop and produce a national imaginary.
Another thing I am focusing on is slowing down, taking time to consider, reflect and sit with what I am thinking about before producing. I think this is important because we have been trained to make a lot as quick as possible—as a reflection of success. But, why not take a minute? Take some rest for self, for community, and care. Why not consider the implications of production?
Nida Abdullah is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Undergraduate Communications Design at Pratt Institute. Prior to her appointment at Pratt, she was an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University and Lecturer of Graphic Design at Georgia State University. Her scholarship focuses on deconstructing the hierarchical and hegemonic modes of production and reproduction in graphic design pedagogy and practice. She facilitates The Teachers Project, where participants deconstruct, interrogate and imagine emancipatory design pedagogy and its practice. She is founding member of Post-Radical Pedagogy with Chris Lee and Xinyi Li. She holds a Masters of Graphic Design from NC State University.
This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Jason Alejandro, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the College of New Jersey.