A Part & Apart - June 1, 2023
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On Belonging and Design Education

By Liz Chen

Belonging exists at the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Historically, the design education curriculum has been constructed by one demographic group: white heterosexual cis-gendered men. Despite the existence of diverse designers, Western design education is rooted in Eurocentric colonization, prioritizing design histories from Europe over histories of Indigenous and non-European origins (Andersen, 2017; Sales, 2021; Noel, 2020). In the U.S., design education curricula generally operates from a colonized perspective, largely ignoring the design contributions and histories of many countries around the world (Ikeda, et al., 2021; Sales, 2021). The pervasive teaching of European design history implicitly communicates to students with marginalized identities that white, Eurocentric design is more valuable than design from underrepresented cultural and social groups (Sales, 2021).

A rising number of undergraduate design students identify as belonging to a socially disadvantaged group (racialized [non-white], transgendered [non-cis], sexual minorities)  – a radical shift from early years of the profession’s students (AIGA, 2021). And yet, the lack of design curricula that includes texts by diverse populations (“by women and femmes, by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, by LGBTQ and Two-Spirit folks, and/or by Disabled people”) have disadvantaged intersectional student designers through the reproduction of implicit racism (Costanza-Chock, 2020, p. 187). Unfortunately, as in design pedagogy and the rest of the world, marginalized groups are often pushed to the borders, unaccounted for in the design process and therefore unincluded, failing to dismantle systems of inequity.

Having an intersectional identity, or existing at the intersection of contextualized identities (e.g., an Asian queer non-binary person), heightens the effects of identity-based oppression, discrimination, and/or domination (Crenshaw, 1991). Thus, intersectional students (specifically Black, Brown, and Indigenous students), disproportionately experience identity-based oppression that is often not accounted for in curricula.

Though we cannot enact systemic or institutional change, we can provoke change on an individual level, with the hopes of sparking a larger social movement. To expedite change in design education, we must look to the people who directly interact with students, shaping their knowledge and understanding of the design world and its constituents: design educators. In other words, educators should act as trailblazers in implementing anti-oppressive design frameworks through their teaching practices.

Educators of all disciplines, including design educators, unintentionally embed their biases into their teaching practices (Staats, 2016). For example, failing to teach design history that extends beyond movements and their white characters, subconsciously suggests that designers of color did not exist. It erases the significance of racialized, queer, trans, and disabled designers as creatives in the industry and communicates to these groups of minority students that they are insignificant – that they do not belong.

Enacting more inclusive design curricula and improving intersectional student experiences entails prioritizing pluriversal approaches to design education. Diversifying perspectives in course reading and resources, using inclusive and accommodating language in syllabi, and valuing the exchange of personal experience through personal narratives in the classroom could be a good place to start. 

BIPOC Design History Resources, Anti-Racism Design Resources, and Decentering Whiteness in Design History Resources are comprehensive resource lists for those who are interested in furthering anti-racist design education. And for designers looking to build community with likeminded people, check out the Design Justice Network, Queer Design Club, and Where are the Black Designers? organization.

We must show students of all backgrounds, beliefs, and identities that they belong.


Liz Chen (she/they) is a queer multicultural graphic designer, writer, and editor based in Raleigh, NC. They received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism (Reporting) with a minor in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019 and a Master’s Degree in Graphic and Experience Design (MGXD) from North Carolina State University in 2023. Currently, Liz is the Managing Editor of the American Journal of Surgery, with plans to work in design education. Their research interests include design ethics and philosophy, design pedagogy, design justice, inclusive design, data visualization, and machine learning.



Works Cited

AIGA. (2021). Design POV: An In-Depth Look at the Design Industry Now (p. 79, Rep.). New York, NY: AIGA, the professional association for design.

Andersen, M. (2017, August 20). Why can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education? Retrieved November 30, 2022, from https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/why-cant-the-u-s-decolonize-its-design-education/ 

Costanza-Chock, S. (2020) Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. The MIT Press.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039 

Ikeda, R., et al. (2021). Designing for Liberation: A Case Study in Antiracism Instructional Design. The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(4). https://dx.doi.org/10.51869/104/rik

Noel, L. (2020) Envisioning a pluriversal design education, in Leitão, R., Noel, L. and Murphy, L. (eds.), Pivot 2020: Designing a World of Many Centers – DRS Pluriversal Design SIG Conference, 4 June, held online. https://doi.org/10.21606/pluriversal.2020.021

Sales, K. (2021). Systemic Racism. In E. Lupton & J. Tobias (Authors), Extra bold: A feminist, inclusive, anti-racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Staats, C. (2016). Understanding Implicit Bias: What Educators Should Know. The American Educator, 39, 29.




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