Design Educators Community

Op-Ed in Eye on Design

January 18, 2017 / By aigaeducators

We have received feedback from several AIGA DEC members that they would like to discuss the recent Op-Ed in Eye on Design by Margaret Anderson. The full post “Why Can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education?” can be found on the Eye on Design website and we would like to offer this space as a place for discussion.

AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.
  • Steven McCarthy

    Decolonizing American Graphic Design Education: The Canons Are Loaded

    Steven McCarthy © 2017

    “Why Can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education?” asks Margaret Andersen in her recent AIGA Eye on Design essay.

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume that decolonizing American graphic design education is possible and desirable. But what are the opportunities and boundaries of this idea? An examination of the framing of Andersen’s argument is relevant to this.

    We could begin with the typeface used for the Eye on Design website. Is LL Brown – a typeface that Swiss designer Aurèle Sack created, and which won a Swiss Federal Design Award in 2010 – appropriate? The award website describes the typeface with this apt rhetorical question: “How can one follow in the footsteps of modernism and still develop a typeface that is entirely contemporary?” Sack’s influences for LL Brown were the “grotesk typefaces of the early 20th century,” and Edward Johnston’s 1913 type design for the London Underground. Is LL Brown’s typographic voice the best for this message? And what might characterize a ‘decolonized’ typeface at all?

    The Roman alphabet could be held to similar scrutiny. Its colonizing ways go back two millennia. What about the medium of the web itself? Andersen’s essay was delivered via electricity, routers, Wifi and binary computer code – then visualized on a liquid crystal display. Technological colonization, multiculturalism and globalism are intertwined. Would all be lost in the drive to decolonize?

    The QWERTY layout keyboard itself may be regarded as an artifact of colonization, as it’s a vestige of the mechanical typewriters of 1870s. The first generation typewriter, inclusive of QWERTY keys, was manufactured by E. Remington & Sons. This is the same Remington that supplied the era’s soldiers and cowboys with the firearms used to expand the American colonies westward.

    My provocations are not meant as incendiary remarks. It’s to prompt us to think more deeply about what colonization has wrought – for better and for worse – and how “decolonization” might be a problematic term, at least as applied to American graphic design education. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s quote comes to mind: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

    Graphic design is a very promiscuous field – it copies, steals, imitates, bastardizes and cross-pollinates with diverse styles, vocabularies, languages and influences. Sometimes this manner of breeding is derivative, sometimes it is culturally inappropriate, sometimes it is parody, sometimes it is innovative. Graphic design participates in, and is perhaps the cause of, much contested territory around things like identity, authenticity, voice, culture and heritage. How do we gauge what’s good? Or much slipperier, what’s right?

    To use an example from Andersen’s essay, does the application of Tlingit graphics really “design” the product of a basketball? If the product’s size, material, shape, texture and game usage remain unchanged from the mainstream American sport, how is this anything more than a surface treatment? Perhaps I miss the point – is the ball now decolonized from its late nineteenth century, east coast origins? Or is it from its current multi-billion dollar franchise systems, the NCAA and the NBA? As an engaging form of indigenous communication and identity, Tlingit graphic designs are amazing (I’ve admired them in situ on two visits to southeast Alaska). But what of context and meaning? How would the NY Knicks graphics be received if on a traditional Tlingit totem pole?

    I ultimately agree with Piers Carey: “…the best way forward in developing a respectful design curriculum would be a postcolonial approach.” The idea of being postcolonial seems to rest in admitting that tragic and unfortunate events in the past have brought us to this moment in time. We then take those lessons and mix them with the present into a better future for everyone. Postcolonial means that Chad Earles, “a Caddo designer who incorporates elements of ancient Caddo designs in his art,” can design his Nishology logo in German typographer Erik Spiekermann’s Officina Serif typeface – and it is okay.

    (See my Eye magazine blog essay for more thoughts on cultural appropriation: NOTE: this is the respected British design magazine, so named in 1992, not related to AIGA’s Eye on Design.)

    Thanks to Kenneth FitzGerald for editorial input.

  • point

    My concern is that this might be the wrong terminology and approach. Colonization is a long, complex, social, political, often violent, economic process. (Read Jarod Diamond’s King Leopold’s Ghost for an intro of everything that was wrong about it.) I think this term does not apply to, what is a need for a more diverse design history and how it can come into play for education.
    Also, modernism has deep roots into pre modern culture world wide. That alone seems to crush the notion that design, with deep modern connections, is anti alternative cultures in practice. It is quite the oposite and always has been.
    Finally, this is assuming that this diversity is not happening in design education. But it is. Design history classes, often limited in time, cram in a lot and are putting in weeks of additional material on non western design. This, again, goes back decades when teachers like Doug Scott and Lou Danzinger began to include non western work in thier lectures. Additionally, in studio classes, non western design is often a part of some or many projects. I’ve included this view in design studio projects I have taught since the 1990s!
    It is less about decolinization, whatever that is, and more about teaching students to make no assumptions and know the design history. Also to keep learning and adding to that global hisorical record and terms of practice.

  • Steven McCarthy

    In the March 2017 issue of the Design Research Society newsletter:

    Last month I mentioned an article about decolonization in AIGA’s Eye on Design. A number of design educators do not agree with the article. Their counterarguments may be seen here:

    — Ed. (David Durling, Professor of Design Research, Coventry University, UK)