When and how did you find your passion for design anthropology? Since before I could remember, I have always been deeply interested in how and why people think. All throughout high school and university, teachers could expect my response to that week’s readings to be a full written essay one week, a comic strip the next week and an abstract drawing the following week.
When I met Ken Anderson, a principal researcher at Intel, in the early 2000s and heard him refer to himself as a design anthropologist, I found the words to describe what I had been doing when I created a puppet show for my third-year undergraduate project or based the design of each chapter of my PhD on Ethiopia on local Ethiopian vernacular aesthetics. Design anthropology is about how design translates values into tangible experiences. I was passionate about design anthropology before I knew what both terms meant.
You were appointed the dean of OCAD University’s design faculty in 2016. What has been the greatest challenge of decolonizing the design curriculum, and how are you solving this? I am the first Black dean of a design faculty anywhere in the world. Thus, my biggest challenge is helping the design field understand what that means in terms of my relationship to the design curriculum as a colonizing force in my community, as well as other communities around the world.
As a dean, I help codesign the conditions of possibility in my faculty. In order to demonstrate what is possible at OCAD University, I have to use my own experiences working through what a decolonized curriculum can feel like to marginalized faculty and students. For example, it is possible to hire Indigenous faculty; I did that work at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. It is possible to create a collective vision for the faculty based on Respectful Design; I did that work with the Cultures-Based Innovation group. The important part is that you tangibly demonstrate what is possible so people can believe and act with confidence in their abilities to contribute.
What response have you gotten from other design educators and educational institutions or the design industry at large? When I present what we are doing with Respectful Design and decolonization to designers in the United States and Europe, the word I hear is inspirational. In some cases, I have made design educators cry because they did not believe that there is a place that is changing their faculty, curriculum, and understanding of what design is in ways in which they could only hope.
The design industry at large is interested because at least North American design industries have a serious problem with diversity and inclusion. If North American design industries want to stay relevant to the majority of people, they will need to figure out how to decolonize. More so, because of the greater ecological distress and social inequality that represents the failure of design’s promises, the industry will have to find ways of thinking about itself separate from the “modernist project,” in which progress means the extraction of resources without replenishment and the oppression of people to extract their land and labor.
What’s a project you were proud to work on? What I am really proud of is the work I am doing through OCAD University’s Black Youth Design Initiative. We are co-creating an intergenerational platform of care work within the Black design community in Toronto. This platform serves to develop design competency within Black communities as a guard against anti-Black racism. It also uses design’s confidence-building power to help a larger number of people imagine something and make it tangible and real—and thus impactful to them. Racism erodes Black people’s belief in their ability to do this because there is always a voice in the system or an individual telling you, “No, you can’t do that.”
We are setting up programs of “Blackreach” mentorship and a four-week summer design intensive for Black youth. We are starting a portfolio project where we develop guidelines on diverse Black design aesthetics to be used in portfolio preparation and review so Black youth are not excluded from design school or jobs because their portfolios do not live up to “modernist” standards. We are setting up entrepreneurship opportunities that place Black youth in Black design businesses so they get mentorship on how to operate as a Black person in the design field. This is all part of decolonizing design because it allows for ways in which Black design aesthetics have a pipeline and a place of belonging in design.
What’s the one thing you wish more designers did when starting a new project? Consider the many ways that their project might cause harm. In the Indian religion Jainism, there is the principle of ahimsa, which means to not do injury or harm. What is fascinating is that ahimsa is afforded to all levels of sensed beings, from one-sensed microorganisms to five-sensed humans. Imagine how much more innovative design projects would be if approached from the principle of ahimsa. What new processes and techniques would we develop that feeds microorganisms instead of killing them? What research would we conduct to ensure that our projects do not harm other people? Imagine how impactful the remaking of the world would be if everything was codesigned with a principle of ahimsa.
What’s your favorite part of working at OCAD? Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world. That diversity is represented in our student body, which is minority majority. The opportunity to decolonize our curriculum is possible because my faculty members care deeply. They are willing to step outside of their comfort zones to engage in the decolonization process if it means that they mitigate the harm they would do to our diverse students. So I leave work tired but blissfully happy because I know every day that, collectively, OCAD University is trying to do the good work of caring deeply. We will make mistakes and muck it up, but we will continue to change in ways that make all our students feel as if they belong in design.