How did you come to be a design educator? I started teaching after September 11, 2001, for what I thought would be a year. I wanted to do something that felt better than designing for a drug that helps erectile dysfunction—what I was working on at the time. I quickly realized that I was doing something much bigger when parents told me that seeing me in front of the room made all the difference to them.
How do you aim to further the design dialogue through your work at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA)? Design has impacted every walk of life. I love learning about all the streams of design evolution. If I had all the money in the world, I would probably research that for the rest of my days. I always have 6,000 things I am interested in and five minutes to check them out. That list just grows. For example, social justice and civic engagement movements can all be chronicled through design, and they are another lens to look at design. I love looking at the evolution of the political campaigns. In the early days, people left it all on the table. They had full-scale posters loaded up with causes and positions. Then, they moved to the generic—just ‘I am here; vote for me.’ Now, we are at a moment where we have more women elected than ever before, and most of the outliers won by doubling down on their identities instead of playing it generic, something we would have considered political suicide years ago.
What are some of the most memorable exhibits you’ve seen at other museums? Adrian Piper exhibitions every single time, everywhere. I spend a lot of time in museums, and it has always bothered me that we have become desensitized to ignoring the security guards. It is not natural, even for me as a New Yorker, to be so close to someone around sensitive content and not make eye contact or say hello. Adrian Piper shows us how ridiculous that is. I loved the Stuart Davis: American Painter exhibition that was curated by Lowery Stokes Sims at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it was incredible to watch it take shape. I will never forget the exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project; I felt that one in my cells. I also remember the first time I saw a Luba Lukova show; it was the smartest thing ever. The most incredible exhibit has been Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries. It started with pyramid structures and evolved into Orozco murals. What a great way to tell a story, and what a great story to tell.
You’ve worked in design education at the collegiate level for more than eighteen years. How have you seen design education change over time? The worst thing to happen to design education is email. It triggers students to make decisions that are fast instead of thoughtful. I call it the click-and-call and the what-about-now syndrome. Students seem to think that being great at design should be immediate and easy. On the positive side, there are so many more students who want to learn how to design. I don’t have to spend lots of time explaining what design is. Today, students all know someone who makes a living designing. They have immediate access to visual research, but they also have trouble understanding the lines between inspiration, appropriation and theft.
How do your roles in design education and museums feed each other? When I teach, I hope that I help students find better ways to tell untold stories and find new stories to tell. Great museums find ways to make us consider stories and possibilities that we never even thought to consider. Museums illuminate that common ground is the best kind of empathy, and nobody should design without empathy. Both design and museums create the space to invite the right people into the conversation.
How can design be used as a force for good? Great designers can teach people how to operate life-saving equipment, vote and fill out the paperwork for entry into the country. Right now, in Georgia, we should create an open call to all designers to help women figure out if they are pregnant as soon as possible in order to have unlimited decision-making. I came to design because I want to change lives, in the tradition of Sylvia Harris. People in other countries have to serve in the military for a period of time; designers should have to serve their local government for a year. We should each take turns. It would revolutionize applying for food stamps, navigating the court system and understanding speeding tickets.
How does the design community in Atlanta inspire you? We have this great opportunity to decide what kind of design community we want to become. All the talk here is growth. Car companies, tech companies and restaurants open up every single day. Somebody has to design all the brand identities, collateral and smart swag. We have a chance to be more inclusive, egalitarian and more progressive than design communities in lots of other places. Look how many talented designers graduate every year in Atlanta. What would the design community here become if they all stayed after they graduated? This could become the city that finally diversifies design textbooks. What if design in Atlanta could lead that change? I want Atlanta to become the home of a design community that thrives by inclusion because we can and should.
Who are some Atlanta-based designers you admire? My design heroes are people I respect because of their character as much as their work. I love Maurice Cherry, Sam Eckersley, Kenya Freeman, Courtney Garvin, Lisa Marks and Giana Shorthouse. All of them are doing smart, kind, beautiful and brilliant things. I am really happy that we are all in the same community.
What advice would you give to designers who are just starting out? It may take longer than you expect to feel like you are good at design. There is no formula for how long it takes. So, give it time, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t. The only person who can actually convince you that you can’t do it is you.