In this conversation with Johanna Lewengard, professor and head of the Master’s programme in Visual Communication at Konstfack, Stockholm (Sweden) and Benedetta Crippa, graphic designer and programme’s alumna, we discuss the politics of design education and the paradigms behind it. This interview was first conducted in August 2017, and reviewed for publishing today.
On the website of the Master’s programme in Visual Communication at Konstfack it says “Norm criticality involves the highlighting of power”. I feel that as women we can easily identify with this thought. In industrial design, the norm is defined by many factors: one of the most important references was, and still is modernism, and its definition of design, its visual and aesthetic standards, its disregard for the user – especially for the female one. At Konstfack you are challenging this discourse, which is based on a structure defined by the dominant power. It is a challenging task, especially within the rigid structure of academia.
From my personal experience as a student and later as an educator, the whole academic body and the “practicality” that design studies demand is in a way a camouflage preventing the creation of discourses which can shake the accepted norms. The history of design is being told as the history of genius individuals (predominantly white men), who driven by their determination and ‘genie’ managed to reach the highest positions in the hierarchy of the discipline. The historical, social, political context is disregarded and we are taught that we too should work as individuals in order to achieve our professional goals. We are also taught to think of design as a neutral, apolitical discipline, which norms are objective and binding. The systems of oppression that design constantly reproduces are usually normally not discussed nor analysed, the position of any ‘other’ is conveniently ignored. At Konstfack you decided to challenge this status quo and to include theories and methods such as a feminist discourse within design education. How did it start?
I think challenging in this case is mainly about investigating and making the historic and present apparatus of discourse visible. Basically this is about transparency, allowing the students to navigate and expand their own practices more consciously. Entering the education is in this case the entering of a co-learning process where we, teachers and students together, can elaborate upon existing knowledge while acknowledging our individual (and thus different) experiences and approaches to practice.
Communication does not exist in isolation, it is always situated within a social context and effective practice is placed within the conditions of the community it serves. As this education works to investigate practice beyond unifying ideas of its character and legitimacy, we also explore how visual communication may operate beyond obsolete ideas of a homogenous community. To review and navigate practice today requires methods and approaches that transgress the isolated meaning of work; and this is where we start. I believe this is ultimately a question of sensitivity to context, and thus professionalism.
I find it interesting that you can easily identify with the programme declaration about norm-criticality and the highlighting of power, since this is exactly what bothers some. Arriving from experiences of being overwhelmed by reactions from this, we started to discuss whether it is wise for us to use this terminology. However, we have learnt through the years that this outspoken approach engages a lot of people who could not find an equivalent education on advanced level elsewhere. Each year there are people from over 30 countries around the world applying for this programme — people who are already trained in visual communication but wish to expand their practices while finding out what truly makes sense to them personally. As long as there are people who recognise and feel they can easily identify with this description, this is what should inform our decision.
Going back to what I mentioned about isolated meaning of work and how this can be challenged, I believe most design educations already started to acknowledge and investigate how what I do is connected to the people and situations it interacts with. Design as a socially and politically engaged practice is rarely controversial today. What is more rare though is for an institution to acknowledge this shift while recognising its shortcomings. The fact that we are all part of a society being formed and defined by a dominant few already did something to us. So coming back to your question about how this started, it began with acknowledging this unequal order as a fact. And if we are about to seriously explore structures of power and how they articulate themselves through what we do and how we do it — feminist and postcolonial methods and theories are very useful, if not necessary tools along the way.
Ultimately, this education is about meeting with a present that most students already work with, sense or wish to understand and grow from in order to operate their working future as they imagine it themselves.
I would say the programme is not simply skill-based but also conscience-based, which is a very rare scenario in visual communication – and design education in general
When I applied, I read the programme as being concerned with adding a layer of new knowledge and awareness to the practice, so even if you retained the exact same skills you already possessed, you would gain a renewed sense of their impact — on a personal and systemic level. I would say the programme is not simply skill-based but also conscience-based, which is a very rare scenario in visual communication – and design education in general. The programme goes further than applying a feminist lens in its methods; the specific way it is structured affects the work in tangible ways.
Academia can be a very rigid structure, with lots of internal politics, its sets of priorities, which all reflect the people at power positions. The kind of programme that you created touches and questions the very foundations of what we know as design education, therefore I wonder — how did you approach this structure in order to implement the programme?
I think my training as a graphic designer always helps to navigate pre-existing conditions, and in a way it’s possible to approach academia as a design task. But I believe there was mainly another factor that made it possible to rethink, plan for, and implement the new programme in such a short time. And this was the presence of Joanna Rubin Dranger (who was professor of illustration until August 2017) and Maria Lantz (who was by then newly appointed as vice chancellor). To arrive and find that Joanna and I shared some basic values and visions on education was essential. Since there is a joint leadership between the professor of graphic design and the professor of illustration, the two of us could start imagining a future without explaining the fundamentals to each other. On top of this, Maria Lantz happened to hold a very sensitive approach to leadership. As she recognised the need for change, she also created space for a collegial dialogue to guide her decision-making, which allowed for a multiple of voices and educational practices to co-exist within the university. This timing I could not foresee, but I realise what a lucky coincidence it was for me to arrive at this specific point of time.
I also wish to mention Rebecca Vinthagen, social scientist and feminist scholar, who has been part of our conversations since the very beginning. The work she does to introduce methods and foster a non-violent space in which the students can elaborate upon complex questions from startup, is crucial to the studies. And then Parasto Backman and Emma Rendel, both senior lecturers, the way they engage on a daily basis to refine and develop studies is invaluable. Overall we have an educational team at visual communication that I almost could not dream of, joint by a love for practice and committment to push it forward.
I think the question of how we can create sustainable change is crucial. Being aware of the environment you start working in, and mould a structure that is sustainable beyond specific people or a specific person means bringing a ground steadiness that both students and educators can act from.
Yes, creating a change that is sustainable within an institution requires a most solid and transparent process of articulating, arguing and anchoring. To rewrite programme and course syllabuses is neither a quick fix nor a single-person’s-work, and it should not be. Of course we could have just started developing new courses from existing documents, but then this overall change of direction would have been dependent on a few people that happened to be present at the same time. It would have become a most vulnerable situation for all parties. Transparency is a principle of legal certainty, and not least students have the right to know exactly what their education builds upon. We were serious about growing an environment that would support and secure a unique set of standards at advanced level within the field.
Most of us would say that we are not racist, not sexist, not homophobic or transphobic, yet we are surrounded by a visual landscape reproducing exactly this
At the time of this interview, this is a unique programme. Which kind of gap do you think it fills in the field of visual communication?
I think this becomes obvious each year during the admission process and when meeting with new students. Since the programme operates at master’s level, our students already got at least a bachelor degree (or equivalent knowledges and experiences from working) and some of them also have years of practice on top of that, and their expectations constitute a most valuable measurement of this. To hear them saying they expect to find teachers who will not just focus on what men do, that they expect an expanded and more diverse library of references, that they expect a transparency of teaching methods and forms of critique, that they expect to feel emotionally and socially safe, and so on… this is not just telling of what the programme became recognised for, but it is also very telling of how things that should be obvious still do not work out there. No matter if you study or work.
On macro level I believe we fill a gap in acknowledging education as a critical practice, able to situate visual communication within a broader social, cultural and economic system and navigate its power imbalances. As with popular culture, visual communication plays a crucial role for how ideas on reality manifest themselves, ideas deciding how we look at each other and ourselves. To preserve or challenge established notions of reality is today a silent negotiation in blindfold. Most of us would say that we are not racist, not sexist, not homophobic or transphobic, yet we are surrounded by a visual landscape reproducing exactly this. Giving ourselves methods and tools to investigate the colonial, imperial and patriarchal gaze is a practice of freedom in the sense that we can liberate ourselves from what we perceive in our daily lives without always knowing why. But it is also a way forward in making more conscious design decisions, which is again what professionalism should be all about.
Finding this space was a relief for me, as I have always felt that as designers we are deeply accountable; however this is not the message that is usually passed on through design education. Actually quite the opposite – the dominant rhetoric of the last century tells us that we are not responsible for the choices of our clients, our customers, our suppliers, or even our own; that as service providers we bear no liability. To realise that the topic of accountability is not only discussed in the programme but brought to the very centre of the education has meant finding myself in a place that I wish existed, but that I had never encountered before. It gave me the opportunity to work with things that I believe are relevant, and did not yet have a chance to discuss – starting with my own identity as woman in relation to the many suppressive structures the design field is built upon. I had the space to bring these perspectives into a degree work as well as finding myself in an institution that supported me while doing this, which in the present educational landscape is very rare.
You start realising how a lot of things that seem to come to you naturally are actually the result of something that you have been exposed to and has been built around you during a very long period of time; and you start seeing how this affects you down to your most instinctive reactions on what design is and why your preferences tend to travel in a certain direction
When we spoke for the first time, Johanna, you mentioned the pilot programme, which lasted for five weeks. I remember you saying that it was a very intense experience, since in these few weeks you did what usually takes months and years. How did you re-cap afterwards and how did the conclusions from this pilot programme help you to develop the methodology of the current one?
There was one main concern for us after making the pilot in 2013, and it was the instant reaction to it. We realised something serious was happening as we saw some students getting emotionally heavy after a few weeks. Time had to do with it, for sure, as we tried out as much as possible within a most tight timeframe. But this did not fully explain the emotional layers of our students’ experiences. Focusing on research and material that unpack questions of power, you don’t just start seeing patterns of systematic oppression, but you also realise your own position in this. You start going into existential questions of your own free will, realising that freedom in many aspects is an illusion. You start realising how a lot of things that seem to come to you naturally are actually the result of something that you have been exposed to and has been built around you during a very long period of time; and you start seeing how this affects you down to your most instinctive reactions on what design is and why your preferences tend to travel in a certain direction. Being in dialogue with educators in gender studies, they recognised this reaction, but also suggested that there is no way around this rather painful learning. However as an educator you can be aware that it is going to happen and be mindful about it, as well as about every person’s situation and what happens to each of them, in different ways.
When I say that the first semester is very intense, this is what I mean. The question we had to ask ourselves as teachers was whether the new programme should be compromised in terms of excluding important but sensitive material, or if we could find a way to be more present and careful about this journey. We ended up working on the details in both ways. But even more important is to be mindful of the fact that every student is different, and they are all affected in various ways. This is possibly the most important element when it comes to evaluation, it was crucial to define how we can be responsible in order to make the students not feel alone.
It is very important to see the structure and the reasoning behind it. How is the course structured and how is it organised?
We started with four months of full-time introductory course where we discussed visual communication in relation to oppressive systems of thinking – we can mention patriarchy, racism, colonialism as the main topics, with more specific structures being discussed as well. Parallel to the introduction, we began formulating our degree work as a two-years project, and after the first semester we started working and presenting our progress. The exchange of knowledge mostly happens in person, with limited bibliography as traditionally intended – but rather through discussions, dialogue, presentations and similar methods. I believe the programme as a whole is primarily based on dialogue and presence.
The work is based on regular exchange of feedback, not only with the teachers but also between students. An important format we use for critique is the feedback session (for an insight into this format, check the book Taking a Line for a Walk by Nina Paim, Emilia Bergmark and Corinne Gisel), which is formulated and conducted specifically through a non-violent, feminist approach towards critique and dialogue. Here we present the work with a certain regularity over time. The class sits around a table and one by one we share our progress with others in the room without giving context about it. Everybody gives their feedback according to a specific format and then a discussion can follow.
Lectures are mostly condensed in the first semester, and during the following year and a half we are trusted with doing our own work, under the guidance of internal and external tutors and by being in ongoing dialogue with one another. This is the basic structure, and then each student can decide what to do with it. People have different ways of shaping their educational experience, and this can also affect the collective outcome and make it different year by year.
At the end of the programme, as it happens in other design schools, we present our work in a final exhibition in the spring. The final examination also takes place in the exhibition in front of the work, and it is conducted following the same methods as regular critiques. In addition, here an opponent is invited to be in dialogue with us, reflecting on the work from a norm-critical perspective. In general, the kind of feedback we get while presenting our progress through the programme is primarily concerned with the craft through the looking glass of a norm-critical and norm-creative* perspective (*the practice of identifying and proposing responses to existing norms).
Johanna, you talked about this infusion of contents. Getting back to this thought “norm critically involves highlighting of power”, I’m wondering how in this first phase of immersion did you approach feminism not only on a theoretical level, in relation to visual communication, but also on a more practical level. What kind of norms and power relations in visual communication could you address within a feminist context?
Focusing on methods that help us to identify gaps between intention and outcome, and using a broad set of tools for analysis (feminist tools included) creates a more holistic view on visual communication and sharpens design decisions
Systematic oppression against women, if focusing on this category alone, is being justified through reproducing a single-layered narrative on womanhood. Thus it is crucial to recognise how this is about a never ending series of subtle and often well-intended actions. In the context of visual communication, this is all about visual literacy. One of our most important methods for teaching is thus about distinguishing intention from action or outcome. I believe going beyond intention is an important part of recognising that injustice is not mainly being maintained because people don’t believe in equal rights, but because of our ignorance to learn about and historicise oppressive mechanisms and investigate how they translate into practice today. Having said that, we don’t expect students to enter over twenty years of feminist studies. This is a practice-based program and we are in general very careful about not getting limited to reading and theorising. However, focusing on methods that help us to identify gaps between intention and outcome, and using a broad set of tools for analysis (feminist tools included) creates a more holistic view on visual communication and sharpens design decisions. I would say that our students become specialised in holistic thinking and making, rather than in specific theories.
To understand power relations within a feminist context entails knowledges that transgress ideas of women as a homogenous group. Our choice to label the programme as norm creative is a way to emphasize and establish that we focus on how aspects of power intersect.
Benedetta, what is your perspective on this matter? Your degree project explores drawing and decoration, as historically marginalised crafts within the field of visual communication. How did the contents and the approach during this immersion phase influence you?
The first few months were important in order to situate myself, and in a way become visible to myself. As knowledge about my own and others’ lived experiences expanded and I was explicitly invited into the conversation, I went through a phase of realisation and recollection of unspoken wounds, learned invisibility, profound needs and longings that up to that moment I had kept within. This allowed for the most intuitive, and internalised processes to emerge, be exposed, re-interpreted and finally addressed through practice. The fact that this happened through practice is crucial, as it allowed for a growth of both myself and my practice in unison, as two instruments nurturing one another.
Coming from a deeply patriarchal culture, as the Italian one is, being in the programme was a ongoing discovery that there was a space for me, after all; something I never felt during my previous years in design education [Benedetta holds a BFA from Politecnico of Milan, and an MFA from Iuav University of Venice, both in visual communication]. As other students, I experienced design education as a context where harsh and violent modes of critique are commonplace, the transfer of knowledge and relationship with educators are highly hierarchical, and where I often felt invisible as individual. Within the programme at Konstfack I felt visible, and felt that my experiences and values as a woman, and as human being were visible; and that I had the space to bring them into my work. Understanding that you are welcome to do that is a powerful experience. The main narrative within design education is one in which we are not supposed to bring our own selves, or our own history and sense of accountability into the work. On the contrary, I believe this should be encouraged from the very beginning of any education to design: we should have this discussion much earlier than it happens at the moment.
As I went on with the studies it became more and more clear that the same approach was being applied on all levels of the education. It was not only about discussing systems of power in theory or through design work, but also implementing the same knowledge in our everyday relationship with learning and interactions with one another. This creates a very special environment, unique not only within the department but the school itself.
Teach what you need to learn was a pedagogical motto for us when we planned for the programme, used to encourage us as teachers to feel safe about bringing important questions to class, questions that we ourselves do not yet have the answers for but know are of high importance to the field at large
When looking at traditional ways in which critique is performed within design education, one can still see that this idea of a master–apprentice relation is predominant, a scenario generated by a most limited idea of how knowledge comes into being. According to this tradition, knowledge is a linear transaction – i.e. I choose to give my knowledge to you and then you will be at the same level as me. This approach to critique never contemplates on knowledge as something we co-create – i.e. you bring your perspective, I bring mine, and by sharing it we start growing knowledge together; knowledge that would not have existed if we had not entered that room together. If we rethink the situations in which we perform critique, we must suspend this single idea of knowledge as linear transaction, because this speaks only of how we transfer knowledge, rather than how we expand it. I am always amazed about what happens when we acknowledge this and start organising situations where knowledge is co-created. Teach what you need to learn was a pedagogical motto for us when we planned for the programme, used to encourage us as teachers to feel safe about bringing important questions to class, questions that we ourselves do not yet have the answers for but know are of high importance to the field at large.
Education is never neutral. It either functions as an instrument used to integrate new generations into the logic of a present system, or it becomes the mean by which students are allowed to deal critically with (their) reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of (their) future
What you are saying is a very radical and subversive thought that is being suppressed not only within the design field, but in general: it challenges our economic system, our societal structure and their hierarchies. To erase this hierarchical structure of a master-professor versus a student/an apprentice means to erase the whole foundation of not only our education, but also our society. Following what Benedetta says, my experiences as a student were similar. As design students, we were not equal, even though the school encouraged students to give critique on other’s work; but at the end, it seems you are worth only what your work is worth according to some professor, and that’s it. I think that this kind of balance, the model that you are trying to introduce, where knowledge is co-created, is very dangerous for the prevailing construct of society. It has the power to change all the norms on which our society is built on, on which our economy works, as well as the academia etc. Suddenly the companies who profit from the hierarchy and also the people in power, the owners, the managers, the shareholders, are threatened by your model.
In design, those on the top like star designers and star architects benefit from the fact that there is only their name behind a project, even though there was a whole team working on it. This kind of lack of acknowledgement of collaboration, recognition, and co-creation of knowledge in design only reinforces the structures where individualism is promoted. The alternative you propose abolishes the known and familiar mechanism of our very existence and practice. This apparatus is so strongly embedded in our society that to imagine otherwise must produce a strong objection from those who benefit from the existing conditions.
Society with its existing structures of domination will always try to coerce education to reflect itself, so that who graduates from it will fit in, and uphold those same structures. It is to be expected that programmes that are radical, in one way or another, will be resisted and fought against.
Education is never a neutral process, I believe we need to establish this. Education either function as an instrument used to integrate new generations into the logic of a present system, or education becomes the mean by which students are allowed to deal critically with (their) reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of (their) future. This is a question about whether we believe in education as a practice of integration or if we believe in education as a practice of liberation. But no matter what we believe in as educators, we all should at least be transparent about our approaches. Every student should have the right to know what kind of learning processes they will enter. What is most critical with higher education today, is not that the vast majority of universities in Europe operate according to processes of integration, but that we believe this is a neutral activity.
And of course as you mention, Maya, one is more likely to support education as a model of integration if one benefits from or has never felt threatened by the status quo of a system. Then this system is likely invisible to you. I should also add that with liberating educational practices it is as important to recognise your role as an educator as a role of power. This should never be confused with or made equal to liberating yourself, as a teacher, from your responsibilities. Even if I believe in co-created knowledge and use methods to make individual experiences and knowledge visible, there are syllabuses and a set of expected learning outcomes that students are not in charge of. As a professor I write this in dialogue with an educational team and the university authorises them. It is always my duty to organise education in a way that makes it possible for each student to reach learning outcomes. If a student fails, this failure is also mine.
How can we give students the tools to flourish at the best of their abilities, beyond anything they have encountered before entering design education?
Benedetta, up until graduation you were in a safe zone where you could develop your own language and identity, and I wonder how you can translate it to create a sustainable practice, and what are your experiences in facing the realm of the industry?
One of the most significant reflections the course has brought about in me is how we can make design students graduate without having their self-confidence erased and mortified in the process. On the contrary, how can we give students the tools to flourish at the best of their abilities, beyond anything they have encountered before entering design education?
I have also been thinking about the importance of feeling safe when doing creative work, in contrast with the dominant narrative of design education, which is not built for safety. I have been asking myself what kind of work students, and researchers, and professionals would be doing if they were allowed to feel safe and visible as people. What I learnt in this process is that safety and stability are central to creative work. With safety I do not mean that the environment should be unchallenging, or confirming everything the student already knows or is. I am talking about that kind of basic safety that makes it possible for us to grow and be challenged.
I believe the two crucial elements are emotional safety and practical stability. Emotional safety means that I can feel safe knowing that I am trusted with my work, that I am not threatened or in question as a person, that I am here because I can learn as well as give: that my lived experience is neither invisible or dismissed, but recognised and valued. Other students are not necessarily my competitors, but rather people whom I can learn from and grow with, who can support my work with their presence, advice and expertise. The positive impact my class had on my project still resonates with me. Although it is not only up to the school but also and primarily to the students, I believe the institution plays an essential role when it comes to encouraging this kind of environment.
I identify with what you are saying. During my whole design education I had a feeling that everything was planned in a way so the students, instead of supporting each other, would compete. There was this competitiveness which was very successfully forced upon us. I remember I came to the last year and we were deciding on our final projects and our themes, when a fellow student approached me and asked me to not do any ceramic dishes, because she was afraid that our projects would be too similar. My project seemed to her strongly related to hers and instead of enriching each other, through reflection on our work, she would rather ask me to change my direction. In retrospective, I understand that all the competitiveness that we were fed with, as well as the concept of “uniqueness” and “genuity” created a real fear which inhibited us from co-creation and co-exchange. At the same time, there was no acceptance for mistakes: often when I was not satisfied with the development of a project, with my models or sketches, I would simply skip a class, because I felt that it was not good enough and I was simply too terrified to show it.
That is why I feel that it is important to go beyond the notion that you are only worth what your work is, since that can be paralysing and hinder the creative process. It is so important to show the work and experiment knowing that this will not affect your worth as a person. This is very rare not only in education, but in society at large, considering that capitalism pushes us to identify people’s worth with the work they do – and that only.
I mentioned the practical stability, which is the second important element. It is another kind of safety that is more related to the body. The programme is structured in a way that you are given a lot of time to work and a physical space to work, and on top of that the school is always accessible and open for students. This creates a safe base for students they can depart from and go back to in any way that best fits their work. Moreover, being situated in an environment that takes the needs of your specific body into account and creates a safe space for it is equally important. From here, we can see the value of, and advocate for government policies that keep education free of charge for all (at the moment, in Sweden, it is free for EU/EES citizens only) and grant students a monthly allowance, thus ensuring economic stability – and housing, which is just another form of physical safety.
I have come to the conclusion that emotional safety and practical stability are both necessary in order to focus on making the best work we can. And this is what normally is lacking within artistic practice; to feel emotionally safe and to feel the practical stability. We operate in a system that most of the times grants neither of those.
What I am mostly bringing with me into my professional life is the lesson that feeling safe is necessary. Feeling safe does not mean to reject the notion of taking risks, but rather to recognise what one needs in order to express her full potential, and actively look for, welcome and create the conditions to facilitate this. It is an empowering process that I believe at Konstfack I learnt to acknowledge and experience. A practical strategy is for me the conscious decision to work and be in dialogue with people who are interested in a honest conversation of growth and non-violent practice. I am referring to colleagues as well as people doing research and involved in the education, but also to clients. Being selective is important, it does not mean that you create a bubble around yourself, but that you establish the conditions you need in order to create work and create change.
I believe we are not fully ready to be creatively or intellectually challenged unless we are in a safe place. This idea of competition as the main tool for progress is one of the most sinister narratives of time
Johanna, what was your experience?
I share with both of you experiences of entering a competition rather than a collegium from my own design education. And I believe my teachers thought of this setting as a way to prepare us for ‘reality’, ignoring the fact that we would face a lot of realities where other things are equally or even more important: such as collaboration and empowerment. I will not spell all the ways in which my teachers would punish and shame students, but at the time we did not see it that way. We bought violent teaching as something that comes with being challenged, when in fact it was about being destabilised. And maybe this is one of the most important things for us to distinguish: challenging in the context of an education environment must never be about making it emotionally and socially tough for students. What Benedetta says about emotional safety and practical stability is truly important. Actually I believe we are not fully ready to be creatively or intellectually challenged unless we are in a safe place. This idea of competition as the main tool for progress is one of the most sinister narratives of time.
Going back to your earlier question, Maya, about experiences of resistance when it comes to the programme, just as Benedetta mentions about learning to recognise (and unfortunately also to expect) resistance, we are constantly learning about reactions and how to deal with them. Most of us teaching at the programme have insights about resistance, arriving from engaging with feminism and antiracism through practice since many years back. And not least are we used to the fact that we have to be more elaborate and thorough with details than most, the margin for mistakes simply does not exist if you work with these questions in public. We were aware of this when starting the programme and even if none of us ever tended or wished to be careless about technicalities, we knew we had to be technically immaculate.
However most reactions are not outspoken and I believe we have grown a public servant approach to this: what is not at the table we cannot always meet with, since this would leave us without energy to take care of the education. And at the end of the day this is what matters, we must not allow for the studies to be compromised. Our students hold the unquestionable right to engage with a programme they signed up for – this is their education.
It is very interesting, because on one hand the reactions were specifically to the programme, on the other hand, they represent often used tactics of silencing that more subversive programmes or design practitioners face. The context and the framework within which we operate now as designers, or as academics is highly important, therefore I would like to hear about your research and your experiences with history of visual communication and the way it was written.
As with most design disciplines, ideas of quality speak back to the history of best practice. When I started to study typography in the late 90’s, I experienced what this could entail. As my teacher told me that women cannot be skilled typographers and I asked him why he thought so, his answer was that I should inform myself about the history of typography to find that there are no (or very few) examples of this. My teacher’s way of navigating good practice here is what the philosopher Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich would label as circular reasoning, one of the basic errors that work to uphold and reproduce dominant traditions. Circular reasoning creates the conditions for a certain status of things, then uses it as evidence of itself: in this case patriarchy. But what we need to see is that this teacher was neither far from alone nor acted from bad will. Any tradition that builds upon standards articulated by a dominant few allows for a system of thinking that is more or less shuttered. And we are all part of its constitution unless we actively learn how to recognise and work beyond its mechanisms.
I believe that unpacking dominant ways in which the writing of design history becomes dogmatic is a way to liberate and expand practice. Or as Gérard Mermoz put it in his text Masks on Hire: In Search of Typographic Histories already in 1994: “… To write histories capable of presenting typographic pluralism with appropriate theoretical tools. A direct consequence of this methodological shift will be the opening up of the typographic scene.”
From history books, one learns nothing about how design actually comes into being and how it operates in the world. We must ask ourselves why we have built a history that serves itself (and certain groups of people) instead of us collectively, and reflects a patriarchal view of reality
My first encounter with graphic design history was during my bachelor studies. At that time graphic design was an entirely new territory for me, and I remember listening to the lectures, browsing through the books and realising how design history was structured as celebration of the genius of a series of individuals, almost exclusively men, mostly presented on their own through a limited number of deliverables, disconnected from their context, other people, or one another. I could not see any connection between how design history was presented to me and the world I lived in. It was troubling to observe design history being grounded in a narrow perspective that ignores the role of design as cultural actor, deeply embodied as it is with the society is produced in, and inevitably intertwined with its context and its systems of power.
From history books, one learns nothing about how design actually comes into being and how it operates in the world. There is a complete, embarrassing lack of socio-political contextualisation whatsoever, as well as a rigorous analysis of the modes of production of design and their impact(s). We must ask ourselves why we have built a history that serves itself (and certain groups of people) instead of us collectively, and reflects a patriarchal view of reality.
Examples of books that read history through the lens of cultural movements rather than individuals or single artefacts are No More Rules by Rick Poynor (possibly not by chance a volume on post-modernism), and Graphic Design: History in the Writing by Sara de Bondt and Catherine de Smet. What I long for today is a history of graphic design and visual communication that focuses on visual culture rather than production of artefacts by individuals, and that operates from a place of awareness of graphic design as cultural force. Even more rare, one that also situates the western context within a more global visual culture, able to read the developments of visual communication in a broader landscape through the celebration of a plurality of visual cultures and languages. I am still waiting for such a book to be written.
Benedetta, I really think you could and should write this book.
Johanna, do you have at Konstfack a research programme, or you are doing it on your own?
Our master programme is practice-based and research-preparatory, students who graduate should be able to engage in and will qualify for research studies if they aim to do so. However at the moment there is a lack of infrastructure when it comes to practice-based research in visual communication in Sweden and we more or less had to begin from scratch. When I started at Konstfack in 2012, visual communication was not even accepted as a artistic main area in its own right, although Konstfack is one of very few universities in Sweden that runs practice-based education in graphic design and illustration at advanced level. After we applied for it though, visual communication got accepted as a fourth artistic main area in its own right at the university (2013) and shortly after the Swedish Research Council established visual communication as a research area (2015). This is of highest value for our students’ practices to become recognised as research ahead, but until now we have been dependent on academic collaborations and customized solutions for those who have chosen to engage in research after graduation. And until practice-based PhD studies towards visual communication become formalised and established at Konstfack, knowledge of highest significance will travel to other places. Happily I have reasons to believe that we will see a progress in the near future.
If we wish to build a field that is connected to life, we must question and discuss what objects, visions, places, bodies are allowed into a certain status, and who remains excluded from it
I could reflect more on industrial or product design, which I am more familiar with. Personally, it was a revelation when I understood the societal processes which stopped women in the course of the 19th and 20th century from participating in the creation of design. The patriarchal framework about which Cheryl Buckley writes in her prolific paper Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design contextualises the conditions in which women were confined to the domestic roles and banned from political and social participation. Looking at the history of design, we can see not only how knowledge was taken from women, but also reflect on the very definition of industrial or product design. Industrial design is perceived as a result of industrialised production processes, and I find it a narrow and problematic definition because in the context it inherently excludes many groups, women being one of them.
Following this distorted and discriminating definition, all the artefacts, all the tangible objects that women created, often using textile or ceramics and techniques available in their domestic environment, all the cultural creative production by women was classified as craft, therefore less valid than design within the patriarchal logic. Which is also interesting and points to the internal hierarchy of the creative disciplines, with architecture, industrial design and graphic at the top, thus accessible by men, and the rest not even deserving the mere title of design.
It was very revealing for me to understand and to question the very definition of industrial design. When I had learnt the history of design these contexts were not present, the political and social context of design was never presented.
To retrace the historical steps the terminology applied to design and craft stems from, and to expose where it originates in relation to gender and class is of primary importance. If we wish to build a field that is connected to life, we must question and discuss what objects, visions, places, bodies are allowed into a certain status, and who remains excluded from it. That is one of the reasons why my degree work keeps as main references practices and crafts whose relevance has been traditionally dismissed throughout design history, such as folk art and decoration. Within the programme at Konstfack we recognised how graphic design, visual communication, illustration were used through history to tell a single story. The education, as well as our design practices are organised around and beyond this dominant story.
Further learning on pedagogy
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom
Kamarck Minnich, Elizabeth, Transforming Knowledge
Ahmed, Sara, On Being Included
Settings (ed. Rebecca Vinthagen), Normkreativ
Talk: Critical Whiteness Studies expert Dr. Gail Griffin, VPR
For a complete archive of projects from the programme discussed in the interview, see the year 2016, 2017 and 2018. By searching with the name of a student, you can also read project reports on the DIVA portal. The project reports recount the process behind the degree works from beginning to end.
This interview is a concerted effort between Maya Ober, Benedetta Crippa, Johanna Lewengard and Anja Neidhardt. Thank you to Cecilia Flumé, Rui Ribeiro, Eliza Hearsum, Rudy Loewe and Sigríður Hulda Sigurðardóttir.
Johanna Lewengard is a graphic designer and Professor of graphic design at Konstfack University, Stockholm, Sweden.
Benedetta Crippa is a graphic designer and communication consultant, MFA in Visual Communication from Konstfack University. She runs her own design and research practice in Stockholm, Sweden.