Across Australasia, design courses within the tertiary education sector continue to remain entrenched in euro-centric narratives and pedagogical approaches, which in turn omit place-specific contexts, cultural histories, knowledges, and diverse ways of designing. In response, we are a collective of design educators working across the Asia-Pacific region, who have come together to de-link from the dominance of Western design education, to unpack the intersections between pluriversality, decoloniality and intersectionality within our own teaching practices.
From our own efforts, we understand radical change within institutions is difficult. We created this network to share resources and support educators wanting to break through the repetitive cycle of western-centric design curriculum to incorporate local and pluriversal design knowledges. Facilitating an exchange between different institutes, practices, and teaching experiences collectively enables conversation around how we might radically reconfigure design education specific to our localities and positionalities. By creating this space for educators to uncover, connect, and develop confidence in their own practices and identities, it is hoped our conversation will provide value to design tertiary education by contributing to a future with more equitable documented narratives of design history than we’ve had in the past.
Education is central to societal impact and radical change; however, this activity is not always valued as such. We as educators are in the classroom day in day out discussing what is design, for whom we design and why we design with the next generation of designers. It is in the classroom that ideas of positionality and the acknowledgment of one’s power, politics, privilege, and access, can be developed and elaborated upon. This is why we are excited to join and build conversations and networks through InterDesigning, precisely because this work of acknowledging and elaborating on intersectionality, pluriversality and decoloniality can and should happen in the classroom, led by educators who are actively researching and exchanging in this area. Importantly, this network comprises academics, sessional teachers and practitioners who are all at different stages in our professional development and experience with education. This diversity allows for the sharing of different approaches, it makes this network more robust and its potential for outreach stronger.
We are a collective of design educators living and working across the Asia Pacific region. As researchers, teachers, and individuals, we each approach pluriversality, decoloniality and intersectionality from different perspectives, acknowledging how design and design learning is strongly related to a sense of self. We share here our individual positionalities, shaping how we see and interpret the world around us. Practising positionality as design educators is a meaningful way to reflect on our own inter spaces, and how they inform our teaching approaches.
Name: Dr Nicola St John
Bio: Dr Nicola St John is a multi-award-winning design researcher from RMIT University, Australia. Her research is largely collaborative and community based; partnering with First Nations creatives, community schools, and design organisations in participatory research projects to foster social wellbeing, student belonging, knowledge transfer, intercultural collaboration, and design entrepreneurship. She is a recipient of several major research grants in Australia and received accolades from the Good Design Awards, the Victorian Premiers’ Design Award, as well as the prestigious RMIT Vice Chancellor’s award for research impact. Her teaching practice encourages the incorporation of intersectional, pluriversal, and co-design methodologies within communication design practice and her contributions to student learning have been awarded through national and international teaching awards.
Positionality: I want to begin by acknowledging my own positionality as a 5th generation colonial settler to Australia with Anglo/Celtic heritage.. My own education was embedded in Eurocentric principles and practices, which has been mirrored in the majority of my experiences in professional practice. Moreover, Indigenous histories, knowledges, and perspectives have largely been ignored or absent. I enter this space as an educator aware of the ongoing silencing of Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing within academic institutions and the legacy of research and teaching grounded in the theory and history of colonisation. My early aspirations as a design lecturer were to work towards a decolonisation of communication design education. In Decolonising Methodologies, professor of Indigenous education from New Zealand, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngati Awa & Ngati Porou) states that decolonising methodologies involve ‘centring [Indigenous] concepts and worldviews and then come to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives and for our own purposes’. Smith is speaking to a decolonising research agenda initiated, devised, and carried out by Indigenous researchers. That decolonising research is always based on knowledge created by Indigenous people rather than about them. Therefore, while the work of Indigenous scholars informs my approach to teaching and learning, my work is not decolonial, and my relation to this ality as a colonial settler living in what is now called Australia is therefore situated, nuanced, and personal.
Rather than premising decoloniality in my work, I respect the laws of Indigenous sovereignty of this Country, which precede modernity. Premising respect for Indigenous sovereignty means my practice begins with acknowledging unceded land, respecting and responding to invitation to work alongside community, and to accept the laws and obligations to relationships on and with Country as a foundational practice of all designing and learnings in Australia. Understanding my own relationship to Indigenous sovereignty has been informed from working alongside and learning from RMIT colleagues Dr Yoko Akama and Dr Peter West. Respecting Country enables me as an educator to emphasise narratives and self-representations that reflect the complexities and plurality of localised and relational experiences within specific contexts. This plurality I draw on to reimagine how communication design can be taught, and in-turn, hoping to motivate students to design from within their own localised cultures and intersectional identities, rather than in response to dominant euro-centric design narratives.
Teaching approach: I have been a lecturer in communication design at RMIT since 2020, and beforehand, worked sessionally at Swinburne University whilst completing my PhD. I am the course coordinator for Communication Design Studies, a first-year core course in our bachelor’s of Communication Design programme. The previous course focused on euro-western aesthetics, technologies, timelines and processes which I felt signalled to students that they should internalise, value and master dominant narratives, knowledges and ways of designing. My motivations for seeking to change the curriculum stemmed from my experiences teaching into the unit in 2021 and wanting to diversity the curriculum not just in terms of content, but to bridge the gap between design practice, culture, and context. So, students can develop critical awareness, nuanced understandings of pluriversal designs histories, acknowledge place and Indigenous sovereignty, and encourage them to tell their own stories, explore their own histories, and to connect this with their emerging design practices.
An integral part of this unit was the development of a lecture series and new teaching team to tackle intersectional design histories in a substantive way, to open up design histories to multiple points of view from a variety of abilities, gender identities, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. The Communication Studies course has an enrolment of around 220 students each year, requiring 10 classes to be scheduled and taught by a team of teachers. Yet at the time, most teaching staff were of Euro-Western descent. As a course coordinator the institutional expectation is to own the course, the materials, and deliver all lectures within the unit. Yet to align with an intersectional curriculum, I needed to give voice to and hear from a diverse range of communication designers, to see how their own social and cultural identities connect with their creative, professional, and communities of practice. Incorporating intersectionality through the teaching staff clearly had a positive outcome for students' sense of belonging. Students commented that they were so excited to see LGBTQIA+ content and it being delivered by queer lecturers and designers within the course. Other students commented how learning about and hearing from designers from their own cultural heritage helped them understand more about their own identities and design practices, while being a strong incentive to be active and engage with the course content.