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Design Educator Profiles: Kaleena Sales

June 5, 2019 / By Kelly Walters

We are excited to share profile interviews with some of this year’s AIGA DEC Conference presenters. In this month’s edition we share a brief profile of design educator Kaleena Sales. At the 2019 AIGA DEC Conference, she presented her paper called Culture & Aesthetics: How Growing up in an Urban Minority Environment Creates Challenges When Designing for a Mainstream Audience. In her abstract she states, “As an African-American Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, teaching at a predominantly African-American university, I am faced with concepts of black cultural perspectives in a way that many don’t get to experience. I’ve seen firsthand the many ways that my students (most from urban neighborhoods) struggle with creating design that speaks to mainstream audiences. While having perceptual experiences with one’s environment is a universal human truth, it’s important to analyze how being a minority, and specifically how the urban minority experience creates visual preferences that make designing for the mainstream a challenge. Furthermore, it should be considered how experiences with wealth and poverty seep into our design aesthetic, and how the interpretation of those experiences affect the fonts, colors and symbols we choose.”

What was the moment you decided to be an educator?

I went to undergrad at the same university where I teach now, Tennessee State University. When I went there, they did not have a true graphic design curriculum, and their main kind of professor was really a photographer. I was one of the early, graphic design graduates from their program, and it wasn’t all that structured yet. I remember just feeling very much like, if I taught this class I would blah, blah, blah, you know? I had all these ideas for what I would do. I just felt like it was so important to have design experience and be a practicing designer if you were going to teach design and bring your practice into the classroom. I started thinking about it way back then as an undergrad.


How has teaching impacted your design practice?

When I first started teaching I had to teach an art appreciation class. It was a lot of art history and a lot of things that I did not feel like I was an expert in. I studied hard to learn so much during that period and it really got me interested in understanding the basic principles of design. I ended up using that in like my MFA thesis and other work. I felt like I was relearning, and it became really serious for me because I had to teach it to people. As a designer, when I first started teaching, I never felt like I had a great base in typography but I had to teach that class. It was another kind of experience, to continue reading and researching to figure it out. It’s made me a much better designer and I feel like my knowledge base is so much better now in my own practice. I’ve been at TSU for almost 10 years now, and I feel like I’m just now, feeling like I’m comfortable as a professor.


Where do you think design education is going?

That’s tough, I don’t know. I mean, I think, that’s a hard one because conversations like we’ve been having [at the AIGA design conference] just over the past couple of days about culture, come into play in a lot of different ways in design education. Navigating people’s personal stories and experiences and what that means for them as a designer in the classroom and how we instruct different types of people with different cultural backgrounds, is a big conversation that I don’t remember having years ago. And all the other ways to be considerate of social and cultural touch points and topics that I just don’t think we were as concerned about just when I first started teaching.

What kinds of strategies are you trying to incorporate that enhance this kind of cultural awareness in your work or within teaching academically or in your own professional practice?

In my department, I’ve been talking to the chair of my department about what makes our department unique. We’re an HBCU, so we service African American students predominantly, and we’re centered in a neighborhood in Nashville that is predominantly African American as well. A lot of our students have very specific life experiences, so we thought about how can we pull from that and really utilize what makes us of unique. We started to focus on community partnerships and and really establishing social practice as a part of our core design and art mission. One class that started, a couple of semesters go, that I teach, is a social practice in art and design course where we take on topics, that affect the community, so it might be homelessness, gentrification, etc. and the students are basically tasked with coming up with, artistic or creative solutions to address or solve these kinds of social problems and that’s a new class for us. That’s not something that, we really did before. It’s our hope to hone in on the cultural awareness and empathy for our students.


What are your top three design book resources right now? What have you looked at most recently?

That’s a hard one for me. I’ve been heavily consuming audible books lately. I’ve just been devouring, books on how to utilize your time and ways to be your best self. Honestly, those self help books, really affect everything you do, and its helped me like in the classroom and as a designer. I also have a small business that really dominates the type of things that I read because a lot of it is about inspiration into how to go about being an entrepreneur…One thing in preparation even just for the AIGA DEC Conference, I was researching the topic of red lining, and the historical effects of the government’s discriminatory practices on neighborhoods and how that affected the visual aesthetics of certain urban areas and how that differs from what a lot of the larger majority see in their neighborhoods. I’ve been reading a lot about these kinds of social topics. I’m in a space now where I’m reading about design, but I’m also reading about everything else in order to try to connect the dots. I’m trying to be more aware of other points of views and social issues that challenge me to look at things differently.

Recommended books + readings:
You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero
Kick Ass with Mel Robbins by Mel Robbins
The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die by Keith Payne
Redlining was Banned 50 Years Ago. It’s Still Hurting Minorities Today by Tracy Jan (The Washington Post)

Kaleena Sales is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Tennessee State University in Nashville, TN, with a teaching philosophy heavily focused on strategic thinking and visual problem-solving. Her area of interest is branding & identity design, with freelance work recently published in Graphis Design Annual 2019. In addition to teaching, she is a small business owner; designing and selling stationery, notebooks, calendars, and gifts for teachers and students. Kaleena received her M.F.A. in Graphic Design from Savannah College of Art & Design, as well as a M.S. in Advertising Art Direction from Virginia Commonwealth University (Brandcenter) and is currently serving on the Nashville Chapter of AIGA’s board of directors as Co-Director of Education.

This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Kelly Walters, Assistant Professor of Communication Design at Parsons School of Design, The New School. The text was transcribed by Graham McClanahan and edited by Kelly Walters.

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