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Design Educator Profile: Zack Tucker

Interview by Lisa Elzey Mercer

Design Educator Profiles
We are excited to share profile interviews highlighting members of the DEC Community, focusing on featuring the many roles we hold as educators in various institutional settings and job titles. In this month’s edition, we share a profile of design educator Zack Tucker.

At what moment did you decide to become an educator? 

I think I instinctively knew I would become an educator at some point in my life. There is a long history of educators in my family and I have always valued education and its transformative effect on individuals and societies. An interesting transition in my approach to education corresponded with the 2016 election. My practice as an educator went from teaching students how things were to someone interested in working with learners to question how things could be. That’s when I became inspired to engage in an inquiry-based curriculum to address the increasing number of unprecedented, insoluble issues we face as a larger society. Initially, my approach was more about how we use these tools to address corporate communication problems and then it shifted towards how we can use design research and evidence-based approaches to address social issues through design. I feel that this approach serves learners more in the long term, rather than focusing on ever-changing technical skills, aesthetics, and industry trends. 

How did your own experience with education impact your work?

My own educational experience has impacted my work in different ways. I attended Southeast Missouri State University and graduated with my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art with an emphasis in Graphic Design and Illustration. After I graduated, I stayed as an employee where I coordinated a digital maker space and led the redesign process for the library website. While I was working, I received a Master of Arts (MA) in Educational/Instructional Technology. Upon reflection, I think the biggest takeaways from my time at Southeast were learning how to position design as a tool to facilitate educational experiences and recognizing the benefits of access. I wouldn’t be where I was today without the faculty at Southeast taking a chance on me who had very little experience in art and design prior to attending college. In fact, it was at the encouragement of my mentor and Professor of Digital Art at Southeast, Emily Denlinger, that I decided to attend graduate school. I earned my MFA in Graphic Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). My time there taught me how to be more critical of the world around me and I realized that things aren’t always what they seem. I was exposed to the seemingly endless possibilities of research and the impact it can make on everyday people. My time at UIUC provided a framework for transdisciplinary exploration through an open-ended curriculum that allowed me to ask meaningful questions and explore unconventional ways in which design can address social issues that continue to underpin my teaching, research, and creative practices. 

How did you begin working in a collaborative, participatory, and reflective format in your research and work? Has it evolved for you?

My adoption of collaborative, participatory, and reflective practices largely began as intuition. I have learned new taxonomies to describe, refine, and refocus my approach, but there has been a continuous cycle of working with others and reflecting on the meaning of our work together. This inevitably has led to an evolution in my approach. As a recent example of this evolution, I worked with Miami University Associate Professor of Art Education, Dr. Stephanie Danker, Miami University Archivist, Jacky Johnson, and Miami University Teaching Professor of Music, Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, to develop a study-away course in which we arranged an intercultural border crossing for learners to revisit significant spaces of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and Missisisipi, exploring interdisciplinary ways to address historic and contemporary issues related to racial oppression and civic engagement in the United States. 

In preparation for this course, I began exploring collaborative autoethnographic methods to better understand the interconnectivity between myself, my collaborators, and how we were impacted by the issues we were addressing. We utilized a culturegram to plot, share, and discuss different aspects of our identities and how intersectionalities within our identities informed the approach we take in our work individually and as a collective. Sharing this information led to us identifying commonalities and differences in our experiences that reduced assumptions and provided pathways for us to care for one another during the emotionally charged and potentially triggering experiences we were about to embark upon. Eventually, we used this information to develop community guidelines that we checked in with throughout the trip. Each of my collaborators and the learners in the course kept a reflective journal and added photos to a shared drive to document their individual experiences. When we returned from our trip, we synthesized these reflections at the Freedom Summer 1964 Memorial on Miami University’s Western Campus, discussing our experiences together and how we can continue to fight for civil rights in our own ways. Although there are a lot of complexities and nuances in this approach, it ultimately empowered each individual to work toward a collective goal with greater understanding of how individual actions can impact theories of change. 

How does your research impact your goals as an educator?

My research reignites the urgency I feel to explore different social issues in the design classroom. I think of the classroom as a lab to test out different things that I might be theorizing or thinking about in my research. An example of this is a special topics course I taught entitled Liberation through Design. The goals of this course were to first liberate ourselves from systems that may oppress us as individuals and then work to liberate other communities from systems that may oppress them. In our first project, learners started by identifying their own individual implicit biases by selecting and taking an implicit bias test on Project Implicit. Then, learners reflected on their results and discussed how these biases could potentially harm communities they design for or with. Building on Oxford’s connection to the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist press, learners created a zine to document their reflections and unpack the results of their tests as well as a distribution strategy for their Zine to have the greatest community impact. 

For many students, this was the first project they undertook that made its way into the world. In our second project, learners created a mobilization campaign to address and mitigate proposed legislation changes to Ohio’s election law in House Bill 387 and how those election laws could impact certain groups of people. By building on Oxford’s connection with the Freedom Summer Training Program of 1964 and the mobilization efforts to recruit, train, and deploy volunteers in Mississippi, learners worked on a team to develop a mobilization campaign targeted toward a specific people impacted by changes to Ohio’s election law. Each team identified a particular community impacted by change in Ohio voter legislation using a design justice analysis, identified a partner organization to help facilitate the campaign, and worked within a grassroots budget. Both of these projects include emerging methodology that I adopt in my own research and enable me to see the strengths and weaknesses of my approach in the practice of others. My ultimate goal as an educator is to make sure that learners feel empowered by their education to create a more equitable world, to question systems and processes we’ve inherited, and to leave the world in a better state than they found it.

What topic(s) and skill(s) should educators address that would work toward a collective liberation?

I believe collective action is needed to address the compounding social issues related to civil rights in the United States. I think civil rights in the US are intimately connected and largely endangered, especially in light of  Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. There should be more discussion about how designers can work with individuals and groups to identify and break down barriers that are kept in place to divide communities, to build and sustain relationships within those communities, and to develop a theory of change to dismantle economic, political, and social oppression. I am grateful for the relationships with scholars, activists, and community members that have emerged through my work with Freedom Summer 1964. I have learned through this relationship building that following a relational approach in design creates more opportunity for a community agency and allows the designer to radically accept situations as they are in order to reduce the suffering caused by them. I’ve also learned the values, rationalities, and intentions of the designer and the communities they serve must be at the forefront of any design approach to achieve collective liberation and hold designers accountable. One methodology that I believe has helped make values, rationalities, and intentions clear is collaborative autoethnography. Although it adds complexity to the design process, I believe this methodology offers a pathway toward more cooperative, sustainable, and reciprocal approaches. 

How do you continue to grow as a design educator?

I find that my teaching practice requires daily nurturing. By engaging in reflective journaling activities and asking myself simple questions like, “What did I do today?”, “What is it good for?”, “Who does that harm?”, and “How do I know that?”, I am able to identify strengths and deficits in my approach and find ways in which I can be more relevant to learners. One way in which I do this is through reading. Reading is essential to the evolution of my research, creative, and teaching practices. I am constantly reading texts from different perspectives in order to continue to ask meaningful questions of myself and the learners I encounter. I just finished reading Black Ghost of Empire, The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation by Kris Manjapra. By highlighting 5 examples of emancipation from across the globe, Manjapra argues that the failures of emancipation were predictable outcomes of a design approach with interest in preserving the status quo. After reading this book, I have been thinking about the interconnectivity between relationships, reciprocity, and reparations and I am excited to generate new questions that I may explore with future learners in Liberation through Design.

What are you working on now, and why is it important?

I am excited to continue my work with Freedom Summer 1964 and share the stories of courageous volunteers who took action to dismantle social and political oppression for a more equitable democracy. My current and upcoming projects involve connecting these stories to contemporary social justice issues and documenting what I have learned about building sustainable relationships, cooperation, and reciprocity in working toward collective liberation and its relevance to design as a discipline. Our struggles are interconnected and the fight for civil rights continues.

Zack Tucker is an Assistant Professor of Communication Design in the Department of Art, College of Creative Arts at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. 

He is a design researcher and educator interested in the redistribution of benefits and burdens inherent in political structures and systems in the United States. He works with individuals and communities to explore how they interact and experience democracy now and invites them to imagine more equitable futures through design. How can we form a more perfect union through cooperation? What have other groups done to create more equitable experiences with democracy? What do emerging designers need to know to be responsible citizens? How does a pluriversal democracy look and feel? To examine questions like these, Tucker constructs and analyzes interactive, participatory, and educational experiences that use storytelling, speculation, and collaboration to challenge pre-existing attitudes about the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a free and democratic political system. Tucker regularly presents and publishes his work through major national and international venues.

Tucker earned an MFA in Graphic Design at the University of Illinois and holds an MA in Educational Technology and BFA in Art from Southeast Missouri State University. Tucker has held several positions in design and higher education including Senior Design Strategist for the Siebel Center for Design and Media Specialist for Kent Library at Southeast Missouri State University where he served as Director of the Heather MacDonald Greene Multimedia Center.

This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Lisa Elzey Mercer, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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