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Design Educator Profiles: Rachel Beth Egenhoefer

August 6, 2019 / By Kelly Walters

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 Rachel Beth Egenhoefer. At the 2019 AIGA DEC Conference, she presented her paper called Teaching the Slowness of Cultural Change in a Fast-paced Short Semester. In her abstract she states, “Changing cultural perceptions, biases and environments requires work on many levels, but also requires time. Paradigm shifts and cultural changes do not happen quickly. Yet in education we are tasked with quickly moving students through 15-week (or less) semesters so they can hurry on to the next course. In design education we are often hurrying students on to fast paced careers in industry. In order to teach the next wave of creatives not only to be ethical designers who are culturally respectful as individuals, but also to lead the charge of changing the broader culture, we need to teach slowness. Slowing down allows us to understand the complicated impacts of split second decisions so that we can redesign a better solution. Slowing down allows us to understand community and those around us. Slowing down allows us to question how we live, and how we want to live. Mindfulness based practices is one way to slow down and reflect on these questions. Integrating mindfulness into design education better prepares students to be more conscious designers in the future. We can not just simply teach young designers about culture, multiculturalism, cultural knowledge, and expect that they will be able to fully go out and design for cultural change. In the designers tool box must be the ability to slow down, to mindfully reflect, and to do the hard work every day that will lead to cultural change over a much longer period that a short semester. This talk shares ideas in integrating mindfulness into design education to empower future designers to become culturally and ethically conscious designers and citizens for a better world.”

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

When I was an undergrad I actually thought I wanted to be a K-12 art teacher. I took one art education class and decided that wasn’t for me. When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to work as a TA. In that context, I was able to have an art and design practice, teach and do other things and I just fell in love with that combination of doing research, making work and teaching and letting them all influence one another, that’s when I really discovered I wanted to teach at the college level.

Where do you see design education going? Have you seen it change from the time that you’ve started teaching it to where you are right now?

I think in some ways it has changed, and in other ways it hasn’t. There are certain aspects and schools of thought that are still very traditional, and manifest themselves in a very traditional design methods and design pedagogy. I’m not interested in staying in those traditional spaces. I’m much more interested in thinking about design as systems thinking, designing for systems, how we interact with the world and each other, and how design relates to that. I think teaching in a more forward and holistic perspective lends itself to being much more collaborative and interactive and brings in more voices. I’m interested in that dialogue and using dialogue as a teaching method, and looking at design on a much larger interactive scale.

What are the particular strategies that you are using to incorporate into your teaching? Specifically in terms of  cultural awareness or in your own work are there particular things that you are using?

In my presentation, I talked about slowing down and getting students to slow down both mentally and physically because their just coming to class, rushed with a million things on their minds. Physically slowing down to be in a space where they are open to learn and are also open to have conversations, sometimes difficult conversations. I think another part of slowing down includes really examining things. To critically examine the messages we’re making, the products we’re making, how people interact with them and examining who is not interacting with them. I’ve also begun to do a lot more work in recent years with community engaged learning. Not necessarily from a service standpoint, like ‘I’m going to help you with your brochure’, but wanting to engage and collaborate with communities and have discussions which lend themselves to conversations about becoming aware of one’s own privilege and examining who has voice and who doesn’t have voice, or who has agency and who doesn’t have agency. In a lot of ways those are big conversations, not necessarily Photoshop tutorials.

How do you continue to grow as a design educator? Are there things that you feel  you have to do?

I feel I continue to grow because I continue to ask these same questions myself. I am continuing to become aware of my own biases and my own preconceived notions in whatever circle I’m in or however I’m working. I think that’s one of the things that really attracted me to academia, the fact that you never stop learning or that you shouldn’t ever stop learning. I’m always interested in pushing these conversations further and also having these conversations in different kinds of spaces. I do a lot of work in sustainability, and have conversations with policy makers or people who work in climate activism who aren’t normally talking to designers. I also keep questioning and investigating what I’m teaching. I also have two small children, and they continue to make me grow. I think I also respond to not just my own kids, but the students too, I think about how their lives have changed drastically in the past 10 years. In terms of what’s going on in the world, I want to be aware of where my students at and what they’re coming to the classroom with.

What are your top three books or resources,  specifically books, but you might recommend to a new educator or, or something that you’re reading right now or I don’t know ones that even if it’s  of your library, what might you recommend?

I have lots of different answers!  It all depends. Of course, I’d recommend my textbook, The Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Design which is about sustainable design from a systems perspective.  However, in recent years I have been trying to push back against books because I feel a lot of what has been frequently published in the past, has been a lot of the same voices and I’m actively trying to find different voices that aren’t always in books. It tends to give my students lots of articles from all sorts of sources that I think offer new, fresh voices who don’t have the privilege of a publisher, or are putting our information faster than a publisher can. Right now, I’ve been reading about future casting and far out thinking on how we can change paradigms or design for mass cultural change, which is needed.

Rachel Beth Egenhoefer is a design professor, artist and writer, whose work integrates technology, craft and design. Her current research focus is on sustainability and systems thinking as related to behavior change. Egenhoefer is currently the Chair of the Department of Art + Architecture, Program Director of the Design Program, and an Associate Professor in Design at the University of San Francisco, where she has taught since 2009. She teaches a variety of courses including Design Activism Community Engaged Learning, Sustainable Systems for Design, Thesis Projects, and others. Egenhoefer is the editor of the Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Design (2017), an anthology of research which frames sustainable design in the context of systems thinking, ethics and values, global impact and behavior change. She lives with her husband, two daughters and a dachshund in Oakland, CA.

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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