Design Educator Profiles: Matthew Wizinsky

Design Educator Profiles
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 Matthew Wizinsky and his student Adriana Noritz. At the 2019 AIGA DEC Conference, they presented their paper called Design After Capitalism. Wizinsky shared a summary of the presentation and some of the findings in his AIGA DEC blog post here.

What are your strategies to incorporate cultural awareness in your work (academic, professional and scholarship)?

Matthew: I think it depends on what I’m doing, as a practitioner, an educator, or a researcher. These kinds of activities are really different. Sometimes it might be obvious. For example, I’ve been working on a project for a few years now with a historian, and we’re doing a public history of women who are HIV survivors. The ways that we attempt to hear these womens’ stories has to foster an awareness of particular cultural differences. That’s really actually the point. This includes understanding the kinds of environments, experiences, relationships and barriers that the women are coming from and have faced. This becomes clear when we’re conducting interviews, when they’re doing interviews with each other, or we’re reviewing a book, a film or an exhibition that we’ve made out of this material together. There has to be cultural awareness. I don’t know that there’s a particular strategy beyond the work itself. Just doing the project means that we’re trying to pay close attention to observing these differences both at the structural and at the individual level. To examine the statistics on who gets infected with HIV is one thing, but what it means to hear someone’s actual voice, the actual emotion or cadence of their speech. That’s another thing. When I am teaching, I try to find ways to bring up topics where the students will have to face issues of cultural difference but do so without me explicitly pointing to it. Like a Trojan horse. I’m anticipating that the students will discover cultural differences at play, but I want it to be their own discovery. For example, I did a design research methods undergraduate studio course last semester for communication design students, and the topic was childhood poverty in Cincinnati. Wouldn’t you know it, there are some substantial patterns when talking about poverty? Race, intergenerational poverty, and so on. I didn’t put those on the table per se, but by bringing them in and then asking the students to do the research, talk to people in the community as well as talk to experts, they were not so subtly encouraged to discover these things on their own.

How about you Adriana? What about you and your professional practices?

What Matthew said about guiding students toward their own discoveries really resonated with me. By presenting us with a platform in which research, thought, and conversation leads to awareness and understanding, educators lay the groundwork for students to build upon our own histories, interests, and opinions. Personally, conversation is the most meaningful part of my process and where I feel most comfortable participating. With authentic consideration, conversation is an arena where I think most truth may reveal itself.

How does your own upbringing, help you understand cultural awareness?

Adriana: I was born and raised in a small town in the Midwest with two Ecuadorian immigrant parents and two Canadian born sisters. It wasn’t until I invited friends from school to my home, filled with the smell of spices from my parents’ cooking rice and plantains, and richness of color in hung paintings by Oswaldo Guayasamín, an Ecuadorian born artist, that I would see their confusion and understand the differences between my history and theirs. Cultural awareness is something to be continuously practiced, no matter how diverse your background. It was only within the last few years that I’ve truly recognized the heritage I was constantly surrounded by all my life and am forever tracing back my lineage to understand what it means for me to be a first generation American.

Matthew: Interesting. I also really liked what Gaby Hernandez spoke about in her presentation [at the 2019 AIGA DEC Conference] about bringing cultural awareness and conversations to the classroom, particularly when she teaches primarily white students in her program. It has been interesting for me teaching previously in Chicago and then moving to Cincinnati, where my classrooms at least appear to be much more homogenous. One of the things Gaby said that was fascinating and which resonates with me is the anxiety that white students, or white people, have about cultural awareness or even just acknowledging diversity of cultural backgrounds. She said that a student mentioned, “I’m white, I don’t know. I don’t even have any culture.” I probably felt the same way as a college student. But, even if you’re in the dominant cultural group, you can start to understand what that means and appreciate that in different ways. For me personally, it’s a history of Eastern European immigrants who were leather workers and shoemakers coming to Detroit and then eventually working in the auto industry, on and on, all the way up to the civil unrest in 1967. My family is a part of this story. Including the story of the massive exodus or white flight out of Detroit. You hear the narrative that all the white people left Detroit, and the city infrastructure just collapsed. However, when I hear my 95 year old grandma say, “There were snipers on the roofs, and tanks on the street, and I was a single mother of five children. I had to get out of there, you know?” It does start to complicate those narratives while acknowledging a diversity of perspectives.

Where is design education going?

Adriana: For one, it is becoming a much more collaborative setting. Luckily, it just so happens that our classmates are also our best friends AND the most talented people we know, so why not take advantage of that while we’re all learning in the same building? We turned a program driven by competition to a home of great comradery, realizing that we’re most effective as a group than as individuals. I see students graduating with a keen understanding of available resources, how to utilize a network of people, and how to outsource for efficiency. I find the idea quite exciting, leaning on an expanding community to achieve a desired endpoint.

Matthew: That’s awesome. I think that’s spot on. The disciplines that make up design are expanding, and it’s really exciting. It’s also totally anxiety inducing. Like, when I think about Adriana for example, or any student that’s in the classroom now, she’s got about a 50-year career in front of her. What am I preparing her for in 50 years, you know what I mean? I can’t possibly imagine what undergraduate students I have today are going to be doing in the expanse of their careers. It becomes important to find ways to identify what’s valuable, perhaps in terms of specialization, so that we can deliver on some of those specialities. And, I think specialization is probably going to be really different or exist in different categories than we’ve previously identified. For example, industrial design versus communication design: there are a lot of different ways those core competencies intersect, so how do we find valuable ways to bring them together and specialize as they’re both changing? On the flip side, I think we also have to double down on what is actually at the core. What are the absolute core competencies of being a designer? I think it’s getting harder and harder to keep a firm grasp on all the possibilities, from being masters of constructing material things, to doing more systemic work like service design, to doing more social and behavioral things. Frankly, I don’t know that we’ve seen a really great example yet of being able to move along that pathway without starting somehow in the material realm. I’ve seen people try to do it. But, I’m not quite convinced that it’s the same kind of thing with the same kinds of competencies. I think we need to continue to evaluate what the core competencies of designing are as we continue to identify what the valuable specializations might be.

How do you continue to grow as an educator?

Matthew:  Like many design educators, I came into education because I was a designer who also loved learning about design, how other people do it, and so on. Not because I had any strong ideas about education. It’s taken me a while to understand my shortcomings as an educator. We’re not teaching in the apprentice model anymore, so I continue to look for ways to grow as an educator. Becoming an educator also meant becoming a more focused researcher. I find it really exciting every time I am surprised again that some basic design skills I have are useful to research or interdisciplinary collaborations. When I work with people in the humanities or social sciences, it’s like, “Oh, we need a book or an exhibition or a film? Cool. I can do that.” Those practical skills become incredibly useful to the project and a nice reminder that those core competencies are valuable in different contexts.

Adriana: The first word that popped into my head was “curiosity,” a state of mind always worth chasing. To be curious is to be excited about the world and to admit a sense of modesty that “the work” is never quite finished. It’s one thing to go out and experience something new and another to come back and give back to the place that showed me the confidence to leave in the first place. Maybe the growth comes from simply keeping in touch with my community, my family and heritage. 

What was the moment you decided to be an educator? How has your involvement in education impacted your practice?

I’ve always been a nerd. So, I have always loved learning about new subjects and, basically, just figuring things out. Two things that are really enjoyable being a designer. I was building screen printing studios in my parents basement when I was a teenager. That was probably the seed in becoming interested in design, making things, making things possible, just figuring it out. I think teaching was always bound to happen, even if I didn’t realize it. I was a practicing designer for almost a decade before I went to graduate school, but I didn’t particularly foresee education as part of my career path. When I finished grad school, I was offered a Visiting Professor position. I tried it, and it was amazing. In the very first class I taught, I was able to watch the most magical thing happen, which was to witness the transformation of a student. To see something change in another person through learning to design and the act of designing. This made me hope that I could do it again. And I keep trying.

Matthew Wizinsky is a designer, educator, and researcher. His creative and research projects live at various intersections of graphic design, interaction design, exhibition design, participatory design, and speculative design. Wizinsky is an Associate Professor in The Ullman School of Design at the University of Cincinnati. As a researcher, he collaborates with scholars in architecture and the humanities to apply participatory design methods toward community-engaged projects that explore contemporary conceptions of, socio-techincal challenges within, and future speculations for “the city.” As a practitioner, he operates the independent design consultancy Studio Junglecat.

This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Natacha Poggio, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Houston – Downtown. The text was transcribed by Graham McClanahan and edited by Kelly Walters.


Wizinsky published an article detailing the collaborative studio Speculative City in Dialectic, Vol. 2, Issue 2, titled “Speculative City: Critical Speculation in Defense of Design’s Material Expertise”. You can read it here DOI:

Adriana Noritz’s project “Denuclearized Family,” a collaboration with Luke Weaver from the class Speculative City, was a finalist in the PRIMER Emerging Designer Awards. The project was featured at the Emerging Designer Exhibition, during the PRIMER 2019 conference at Parsons, NYC. More info here:

Figure 1. Students in the collaboratibve studio “Speculative City” review observational photographs, in search of weak signals of transformative change. 

Figure 2. Industrial Design students Adriana Noritz and Luke Weaver discuss a prototype of their project.

Figure 3. Industrial Design students Adriana Noritz and Luke Weaver present their final project. “Denuclearized Family” investigates and proposes potential domestic applications of AI.

By Natacha Poggio
Published December 5, 2019
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