“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.”
– CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.