A/D/O by MINI | Dori Tunstall: decolonizing design

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Dori Tunstall: decolonizing design

The first black dean of a prominent design school is putting identity and inclusion at the forefront of her curriculum.

The site of utopian ideals, novel approaches, and often where radical change begins, design schools have the opportunity to alter the discipline through critical thought and experimentation. From the once revolutionary approach of the Bauhaus school in Germany, to the holistic arts education at Black Mountain College and the relatively unknown founding doctrine of the original Kindergarten, curriculums have had long-term impact on the design profession, and on society at large. Creating pedagogical models to reflect a mission, especially one that lands with positive impact, is a design form of its own. 

Decolonizing Design is the powerful directive of Dr Dori Tunstall, Dean of Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and her colleagues. Their work sets out to untangle systems of oppression, silencing, and othering that are embedded in many design practices, objects, and structures, and to create a space that honors and enables indigenous practitioners and excluded voices. Under the design faculty ethos of “respectful design”, Tunstall said: “We want to engage respectfully with each other in terms of using our creative methodologies, to value different cultures, different ways of being, and different approaches to making.” This is not just an academic provocation but a requisite tenet of the institution.

At the MoMA Broken Nature conference a few months ago, the audience listened as Tunstall delivered the mission she and her colleagues are enacting. She began by acknowledging the Lenape tribe as the original holders of the land that the institution sits on – a practice more common in Canada than in New York. She went on to show how her institution had begun to put the work of “decolonizing design” in motion through developing new courses and creating a budget to exclusively hire indigenous staff. But she hasn’t stopped there. As the first black dean of a design school in the world, she is committed to making sure there are more voices present and uplifted in design.

In practice, this takes a few forms. Tunstall has students work on group projects in which they teach each other about their backgrounds as the basis for design research. “For us decolonization is about changing the notion that my students had that they have to choose between being a professional designer and maintaining their unique and nuanced identities in plural,” she told The Journal.

She elaborated on how there has been a perception that many identities and their notions of colors and aesthetics – as well as concepts of sacredness – must be excluded in order to reach the pinnacle of design. This has long been defined by, in her words, “secular capitalist practice of design that is based on a set of values of Europe which have been transported through colonization to other places.” She talked proudly about how, after being part of this curriculum, the students this year were “able to bring to the fore, their issues and identities in their thesis work”. 

Tunstall also spoke about the Iroquois Seven generation protocol, which uses the conditions of seven generations into the future to reflect on and steer the behaviors of today. In design it is a warning to be mindful of the materials, values, and systems that exist and the ones we are perpetuating into the future; the ones as designers you are equipped to create. She instills in her students that “the superpower of design is that it's actually one of the tools that you have to change your world and the world of people around you,” which is both a strength and responsibility.

In conversation with Tunstall, it is clear that she is an academic and a pragmatist, devoted and warm. She patiently yet adamantly expresses her position. As a design anthropologist, she explained: “I look at how design translates values into tangible experiences. As a dean, what you really do is, you design the conditions of possibility for things to happen.” For Tunstall, this starts with listening and naming the needs of the university’s community, hosting workshops, tailoring job descriptions, modifying the curriculum, and ultimately communicating to the institution what the values are and how they might be shifting. 

While the approach of the curriculum has powerful impacts on the students, it is not the status quo practice of design. But Tunstall sees things shifting. When students graduate, she noted that they leave with tools to change systems and, in industry, that change is viewed as innovation. She described how global companies are engaging in issues of diversity and inclusion as a means to understand their workforce or their clientele.

There are a growing body of institutions and individuals creating and demanding change. One former student of OCAD, Pupul Bischt, has continued these lessons on into her own practice to found the Decolonizing Futures Initiative, which aims for inclusive innovation through engaging marginalized communities to discuss their preferred futures. Among the practitioners Tunstall mentioned was Ramon Tajeda – a professor at RISD and whose research interest lies, as he stated: “in the areas of disruption of the Design Canon, inclusivity, diversity, collaboration and the expansion and openings of design narratives and languages beyond the ‘traditional’ Westernized paradigm of design.” He has created an open access Decolonizing Design Reader to share sources with a wider public.

Another practitioner Tunstall listed was Sadie Red Wing, a Lakhota-Dakota graphic designer whose work discusses indigenous sovereignty. Through research and design, her project Learning the Traditional Lakhota Visual Language Through Shape Play, translates indigenous visual language into an updated version that can be used on a tablet. This conversation is part of a larger discussion of inclusivity in design taking place in institutions such as the AIGA, Parsons, and individual design practices predicated on practicing in a way that is accessible and mindful of differences. 

Tunstall sees design as a vehicle by which we pass forward values to future generations and a tool for future making. “We need to innovate better ways that are not as exploitative of other people that are not exploitative of the land,” she said. Through educating young designers, these values will hopefully come to redefine the future of the field.