Dean Tunstall of OCAD Talks About the Future of Design

Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall is a design anthropologist, public intellectual, and design advocate who works at the intersections of critical theory, culture, and design. As Dean of Design at Ontario College of Art and Design University, she is the first black and black female dean of a faculty of design anywhere.

With a global career, Dori served as Associate Professor of Design Anthropology and Associate Dean at Swinburne University in Australia. She wrote the biweekly column Un-Design for The Conversation Australia. In the U.S., she taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She organized the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative and served as a director of Design for Democracy. Industry positions included UX strategists for Sapient Corporation and Arc Worldwide. Dori holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University and a BA in Anthropology from Bryn Mawr College.

We recently interviewed Dean Tunstall on her initiatives at OCAD and what she envisions for the future of design.

1/ For those who are unfamiliar with the term, please explain what decolonizing design means?

Decolonizing refers to recognizing and ceding Indigenous sovereignty over their lands, languages, and cultures. In the context of design, it means respecting Indigenous visual sovereignty by removing the European biases of excellence in the design fields. By doing this, you open of the design field to different histories of making and ways of being. On a practical level, I see it as enabling my Indigenous, Black, and POC students to bring their entire nuanced identities into their models of what it means to be a professional designer. With the professional design fields being 70-90% white and still majority male, they often feel like they have to choose between their identities and being a professional designer.

2/ Can you share any new initiatives that OCAD is focusing on?

In terms of decolonization, diversity, and inclusion, we announced the success of our Black Cluster Hire, in which we are bringing five self-identified full-time faculty into design. We will go from zero full-time Black faculty in 144 years to five in one year. This followed on our successful Indigenous Cluster Hire in which we brought a total of three full-time Indigenous faculty into design and five overall in OCAD U. We went from zero full-time Indigenous faculty for 142 years to three in one year. This is on top of the approval last year of our Indigenous learning objectives to be added to our curriculum.

In the context of Covid-19, we are figuring out how to pivot to the remote delivery of design studio in ways that take into account the new reality of social distancing. The faculty are leading some fascinating innovations that recognize how the industry is shifting as well.

3/ The world as we know is changing, what is your vision for the future of design?

My vision is a world without hierarchy and design playing a significant role in making that possible. Black science fiction writer, Octavia Butler, describes in an NPR interview the problem of hierarchy that she wrote about in her novel Dawn where aliens “inform us that we have a pair of characteristics that together constitute a fatal flaw. We are, they admit, intelligent, and that’s fine. But we are also hierarchical, and our hierarchical tendencies are older, and all too often, they drive our intelligence-that is, they drive us to use our intelligence to try to dominate one another.”

Pre Covid-19, the everyday experiences of institutional failures in the health, housing, economic, police and justice systems were concentrated within Black, Indigenous, and POC communities and intersectionally among the poor. Now, white affluent peoples are experiencing these institutional failures as well, not to the same degree or with the same impact, but in ways that they cannot ignore. 

In 1681, whiteness was legally and economically enshrined in Virginia. Over time, only white men could vote, buy land, and, most importantly, have their voice/stories accepted in the court of law. This established the legal and economic hierarchy of white supremacy that is being protested these last few weeks– where the authority of white cops, who are supposed to serve and protect, overrides the life of Black cis and trans men and women.

More people are working in solidarity to not just fix these failures, but to dismantle the systems. As a designer, this is exciting, because we have to redesign these systems by design. I am a design anthropologist, so I look at how design translates values into tangible experiences. The call is for a value of respect and redesigning the systems and institutions based on that ethos. OCAD U is a possibility model of an institution working to not fail BIPOC communities by dismantling its white supremacy structures and respecting the diversity of multiple identities in design.

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