Equity, Inclusion, Access, Anti-Racism, and Design Education: Lessons learned during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Context of Roundtable in November 2020

During the AIGA National Virtual Conference held in November 2020, AIGA Design Educator Community steering committee members, Gaby Hernández and Rebecca Tegtmeyer, facilitated a roundtable focused on “Challenges with Diversity + Inclusion in Online Design Education.”  The goal of the roundtable was to facilitate a discussion space regarding the ways educators had been addressing challenges caused by the lack of diversity, access, equity, and inclusion in online education up to that point in the Covid-19 pandemic, which had been about 7-8 months. 

Prior to transitioning online as a result of Covid-19, diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice initiatives were making a slow rise to the top of many academic institution’s priority lists. With time, these efforts seemed to accelerate as the world responded to violent and racist systems that directly impact immigrants and minority communities of color in the US, including the multiple 2020 social movements in support of Black communities, against police brutality and race-based profiling.  All of this left many educators questioning and re-evaluating their individual approaches to equity, inclusion, and anti-racism in the classroom. We wanted to provide a space for others to share how they are studying these topics, identifying areas that need improvement, and making change. 

We started the roundtable discussion by asking the following questions:

  • In the context of online teaching, what do we need to know about diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice, etc, and how is this different from teaching face to face?
  • How do you address such challenges or obstacles in online design education at this time (in 2020)?
  • How is your institution/university supporting these challenges?
  • How do we make students aware of these issues? Explicit conversations?
  • How much do we know and apply principles of Safe and Brave Spaces

Eighteen participants contributed written ideas and experiences to a digital whiteboard space while verbally discussing the various answers as they were being shared. In our dual role as moderators and participants, we identified some critical topics that seemed to have affected us all. These include:

Urgent need of guidance from our institutions for protocols and procedures

“Where do faculty go if they encounter a (discrimination, inequity, exclusion, etc) situation in detriment to their own persona?”

“I think part of this though too is students not wanting to share (personal struggle) aspects with each other or feel judged by their peers.”

Urgent need to acknowledge students’ unique backgrounds and experiences in class to support anti-racist and equitable learning

“Not everyone is ignoring (discrimination, exclusion, inequity, etc) history, tho. There are many students who know this history because they’re living it and it becomes imperative to their experience when a mentor or instructor acknowledges them.”

In online teaching, attendance doesn’t equate student engagement

“Attendance requirements are extremely inequitable.”

“I’ve had students zoom in from McDonald’s parking lots in their cars because that was the only connection they had.”

“I’ve had several students turn their camera off because they are trying to attend class while at work.”

Equitable, accessible, and inclusive use of technology in online design education requires funds, creativity, and curiosity. At the same time, elements like students’ beliefs, cultural background, identity, and socioeconomic status need to be acknowledged and addressed

“(It has been challenging to…) Conveying to colleagues the importance of not requiring video being turned on for students of certain faiths.”

“Adapting class requirements to bandwidth issues  for students in rural areas / areas without great internet. Simple adjustments—not requiring attendance but grading engagement; changing deadline times.”

Action-items as we prepare for Fall 2021

While November 2020 was nearly 7 months ago and we were all knee-deep in online teaching, the present future has us looking towards a Fall 2021 semester in which we will be transitioning back to pre-pandemic teaching activities. As we reflect back on the past 3 semesters of online design education we have all started to ask the question: What did we learn from crisis-teaching in relation to equity, access, inclusion, and anti-racism, and what did we start to do differently during this time? Obvious challenges such as time management, self-care, and greater awareness of inclusive pedagogies rose to the surface. So, we wonder— how will these problems and learnings better inform our priorities when we return to in-person dynamics? How will we work around mental health issues caused by pandemic anxiety, as we move toward rebuilding comfortable and safe classrooms/studio environments? 

The following is an actionable list of tangible ideas for design educators to consider as we look toward the upcoming Fall 2021 semester and beyond.

Design an inclusive syllabus

An inclusive syllabus effectively supports ALL students—those with different learning styles, abilities, identities, experiences, privileges, backgrounds, and environments. This is important because inequities are inherently built into our institutional systems and practices, calling on us to intentionally acknowledge and counteract these systems of oppression. Some aspects to consider when designing an inclusive syllabus are:

  • Use your own pronouns and encourage students to use theirs
  • Include land acknowledgement for your institution
  • Grade engagement and participation rather than attendance
  • Support flexibility with late assignments and project deliverables
  • Allow the use of personal technical devices 
  • Revise language and tone to be more approachable and less rigid
  • Further define/redefine terms and explain practices to make explicit how higher education works (i.e., office hours vs. student hours)
  • Rely on resources available at your institution for student access to textbooks, computing, and software
  • Make a commitment to anti-racism in your syllabus. This may be a manifesto, meta-narrative, or some other statement that describes specific anti-racist actions in the classroom and how you will encourage and support them. 

Re-design projects and lectures

  • Offer practical opportunities to amplify students’ voices and build agency by incorporating openness in projects that empower students to explore topics of their choice. Take advantage of students’ unique curiosities and interests to introduce important discussions in a safe environment.
  • Expand examples of work beyond the typical references or traditional design canon. Then, discuss with the class why this is important. Our profession is in dire need of more inclusive representation and diverse role models. 
  • Broaden the knowledge of design and what it could be, by highlighting individual designers and studios that work on social, cultural, environmental, and community-based causes, support non-profit organizations, and promote a revision of traditional design practices, revealing multiple pathways in and through design.
  • Structure projects in a way that integrates guided or self-led research in design projects that can provide historical and social context. Introduce students to methods of researching these topics, giving them the tools to be confident in approaching topics they otherwise wouldn’t have, i.e. mind mapping, concept mapping, diagramming, research presentations, interviews, etc.

Build community in the classroom and beyond

  • A starting point is to acknowledge that many of our students are part of marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against, or racially minoritized communities and are experiencing inequity firsthand. Create opportunities to respectfully acknowledge their context and facilitate spaces for storytelling in relation to the course’s contents.
  • Know your university resources and share them—where do students and faculty go when they need help with grade disputes vs. racial issues vs. harassment vs. mental health, etc.
  • Pursue safe and brave space training and/or certifications at your institution and beyond.
  • Facilitate knowledge and conversations, in class and out, about student-led safe and brave spaces 
  • Acknowledge religious holidays, elevate cultural traditions, and support code-switching and multilingualism in everyday activities or via creative projects. These fundamental language and cultural aspects of everyone’s identities (and, in the United States, particularly for those from marginalized or underrepresented groups, international origin, or who identify as mixed-race or people of color) must be welcomed in order to help students and faculty build stronger and more inclusive learning communities.

Consider the affordances of digital tools and platforms used in virtual activities and classrooms when returning to pre-pandemic dynamics

  • Have students post graphics that represent themselves on platforms such as Zoom. Make it playful and encourage personalization.
  • Facilitate small group activities and one-on-one critiques by using breakout rooms more often.
  • Develop a system that allows you to equitably dedicate quality time to each student. 
  • For courses that remain online, identify methods and platforms for class engagement that don’t require turning on their video cameras. 
  • Negotiate with students the use of open-source software and digital tools (such as collaborative whiteboards) that may improve their face-to-face performance.


AIGA DEC Statements on Promotion and Tenure Standards in the time of the Coronavirus Pandemic

AIGA DEC Anti-Racism, Equity + Inclusion Resources

AIGA DEC Anti-Asian Racism and Violence Resources

AIGA DEC SHIFT Virtual Conversations and Discussions via the DEC YouTube channel

Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces, Diana Ali, NASPA’s Research and Policy Institute (RPI)

Syllabus Language, Center for Teaching and Learning (Ohio University)

We’d welcome  additional resources to be listed here. Email your go-to links to: info@designeducators.aiga.org


AIGA National Conference, Challenges with Diversity + Inclusion in Design Education in Online Design Education Roundtable, November 12, 2020, with Marc Belli, Eric Benson, David Greenawait, Gaby Hernández, Meena Khalili, Katrin Loss, Amy Mangan, Laura McCarty, John Colan Monsterrat, Maren Northern, Christina Ottey, Ali Place, Megan Rhee, Kaleena Sales, Lisa Sheirer, Arina Stopa, Rebecca Tegtmeyer, Natalie Tyree,Lisa Whalley,  and Liese Zahabi

Michigan State University, College of Arts and Letters, Inclusive Pedagogy Initiative Workshop, March 26, 2021, facilitated by Denise M. Acevedo, Katie McEwen, Ellen Moll, Kate Sonka, and Rebecca Tegtmeyer

By Gaby Hernández and Rebecca Tegtmeyer
Published June 8, 2021
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