One Story Cannot Fit Them All

“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. … The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”


Creating single stories about others is a model societies and individuals collectively adopted for one reason or another. In the attempt to reflect on my own story and its relation to graphic design as a discipline, I use Adichie’s thoughts as a guiding light.

Complexity of origin

I was born in a country which is not on the map anymore – Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). This country embraced multiculturalism and my family was very much the outcome of that environment. Being on the boarder between East and West, and having a complex history, this geographical region can hardly exclude its pluralistic nature. However, after the war, each former SFRY country tried to establish its own single story identity. Going through the experience of losing one’s home, losing a close family member, fearing for your life and the life of your loved ones, and living as a war refugee, my family started life anew in 1995 in Novi Sad, Serbia. Just as I was finishing elementary school and starting high school, ‘an extension’ of the civil war occurred in 1999. Serbia was under attack. After the war in Bosnia, I thought I would not experience another aerial bombing in my life; and then Novi Sad was hit. The uncertainty came forth once again.

After the turmoil of the 90’s, while my region was in the process of transitioning, I was going through the process of my own positioning within its narrative. I was a Bosnian born with Bosnian-Serbian parents living in Serbia. I was very engaged with certain parts of my identity gamut due to the physical proximity of the environment and quite disengaged with others which were more physically distant. I was present and absent at the same time.

I quickly discovered that the most compelling way to engage with my environment was through creative activity. Reading, writing, painting, drawing, photographing, designing, staging, composing… the world made sense when I looked at it through the lens of the creative process. It allowed me to have more fluid experience with the world. Singular, accurate, or canonical frameworks made less sense to me. Eventually, I discovered graphic design as a space where multiple disciplines coexist – sociology, psychology, linguistics, typography, marketing, studio art, history, technology, semiotics. As a tool of investigation and communication, I felt that graphic design enabled sharing of nuanced stories so, it felt natural to pursue this path further.

Complexity of education

My formal education in graphic design was very much Eurocentric. The starting point was the Arts and Crafts movement and when we reached the International / Swiss style, we started to adopt the narrative that this graphic language is UNIVERSAL because its basic construction was ‘clean’ and ‘structured’ and it should accommodate communication beyond the language barriers. Therefore, the minimal and legible design was canonically promoted as ‘good design’ and it was adopted by practitioners in my surroundings.

I believe the reasons for this were multifold. For example, the war in the Balkans stirred ethnic tensions and the region was caught in post-war trauma. As a consequence, multiple ethnic groups which envisioned to establish their own autonomy within a historically shared space, actually started to gravitate towards models from the developed countries. Adopting influences from the West like communication design tendencies and the English language seemed less intrusive and offensive within this space. On the other hand, the region felt pressured that it had to embrace models coming from the West if it wanted to be perceived as a region which was serious about becoming a part of the developed world. I remember that at the time learning about native graphic designers and applied artists was very much restricted to local practitioners and it was taught as a supplement to the Western graphic design practice.

Looking at the models from the West – the masters of design – my generation and generations after mine reflected that model. It was not a good model. This is not to say that those masters were not exceptional in the work they produced. It is more about hearing different voices and moving away from the centralised perspective (i.e. an authority figure). Looking back on this approach, I can say that it was not reflective or inclusive. It had very specific standards and other things needed to bend to accommodate that particular standard.

Even if I exclude my personal educational trajectory which was non-linear due to various outside influences, I still believe that a learning curve for any person cannot be linear nor can it sustain a single story influences. In my view, linear graphic design education is in direct relation to the imposed standards – if there is an established standard then there must be the ‘right’ way (and, consequently the ‘wrong’ way) to do things or a formula that will produce ‘accurate’ solutions. Societies change, transition, develop, grow, migrate, climb up, climb down, dissolve, group, regroup, and so on. Any given society in today’s world at any given moment is in flux. Therefore, we can’t really talk about centralised viewpoints in graphic design. Decentering graphic design will lead the discipline towards being more reflective of the societies it serves.

Complexity as foundation

Coming to the States, I went through a mental shift. My first impressions were in regards to people addressing the fact that I am white. I’ve experienced many perceptions about myself, for example, being Bosnian, Serbian, war refugee, non-EU citizen, The Rest of the World, legal immigrant, etc. Being perceived as the Other is not a foreign concept to me. Being perceived as white was, but it was just another construct external entities imposed on me. My personal perceptions about the world are stripped from the notion of Otherness.

I remember one student asking me about my experience in the States and teaching in the Midwest. I replied that I am very much enjoying my time in the community because I felt it was culturally diverse and rich with stories. The student was quite surprised by my perception since their view was quite different – they didn’t think the community was very diverse because they were surrounded by the people who are similar to them, who look similar as they do, and who think similarly. As they told me, the most diversity they experienced was in the classroom. This encounter got me thinking – if a classroom was an evidence of diversity in the community, how come the space outside the classroom has a different projection?

I realised if I wanted my students to see how diverse their environment and the world is, I would need to address the narrative ‘graphic design program helps you develop skills.’ When I talk to parents and potential students, their immediate perception about graphic design is that it is the ‘work’ or ‘art’ on the computer and that the skills they will develop will be technical by nature. Therefore, one of the first things I address when talking to potential or current students is the fact that graphic design existed as a discipline before computers. Secondly, I address the fact that graphic design is not equal to a tool; it is a way of thinking. My personal belief is that teaching foundations of image making techniques needs to be paired up with the knowledge about research procedures and cultural studies. As we all now exist in the postdigital world, we can’t assume that students will have natural curiosity.

Additionally, teaching students to develop skills of inquiry coincides with my own inquiry about the States, the Midwest, the local community, and the American education which additionally coincides with societies collectively embarking on the path of reflection. I started learning about the local community and I started to engage with the community as someone who is learning about their world view and sharing my own story. As I am going through this experience, I am sharing it with my students. I appreciate receiving their feedback and thoughts and we collectively plan out assignments which foster meaningful relationships and provide a space to share their own cultural stories.

As a faculty member of a research and applied learning university, I see my role as the facilitator between students and the world (not just graphic design industry). I am an advocate of dialogue and conversation, I facilitate conversations between students in the classroom and guide them to develop a sense of belonging within their rich multicultural space. It is important to me to help them understand that graphic design goes beyond the tools and style. By teaching curiosity, I observed that students are able to break the barriers that relate to the Other. This approach helps them dissolve judgment and instead seek understanding, it helps them expand single stories and understand that the world is very much a complex space.

By Irma Puskarevic, PhD
Published June 10, 2022
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