Respecting our Relations: Dori Tunstall on Decolonizing 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. She leads the Cultures-Based Innovation Initiative focused on using old ways of knowing to drive innovation processes that directly benefit communities. Tunstall has held academic and industry positions worldwide and holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University and a BA in Anthropology from Bryn Mawr College.

Tunstall spoke at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at UC Berkeley as part of For Whom? By Whom? Designs for Belonging in January 2019. Afterward, she sat down with Jacobs’ Public Programs Officer Robert J. Kett, PhD to discuss decolonization, respect, and relationality in design.

Robert Kett: In your talk here at Jacobs, you outlined a radical institutional experiment: an effort to reform the curriculum at OCAD University. Can you tell us about the values motivating these changes?

RK: In this context, it seems that your role is creating a kind of ecumenical container for that work, one that’s evocative enough to set a scene for the effort of decolonization without foreclosing what could belong inside of it.

Dori Tunstall. Photograph by Samuel Engelking.

RK: I think that openness is crucial. So many programs of change hinge on a pretty modernist understanding of a moment of resolution. Even if they may be radical on the surface, they’re pretending toward closure. For better or worse, I don’t think we’ll ever be out of those kinds of interpersonal and intercultural challenges, so managing those interactions seems important.

I’d be interested to hear more about how this approach to decolonial and respectful design differs from what have now become normative models of doing “the social” in design — design thinking or the human-centered, for instance?

RK: I think it goes back to your comment about the danger of the global. There was such a rush to think that designing globally would be a kind of recompense and salve for problems of social responsibility, and correct how we were doing things. But like you say, those radical scale shifts can be dangerous.

RK: For many, decolonization is a big word and can often live in the conceptual. As an undergraduate design institution, we’re always interested in how you bring such debates into the practices of the classroom and the studio.

RK: Absolutely; it’s a material reality.

RK: So much of your work at OCAD has been about centering indigenous practitioners and epistemologies, work that has occurred within the broader context of a national reckoning with colonialism and reconciliation in Canada. What do you see as the work of design in those kinds of processes? It seems like an object lesson in the value of the kind of historically and politically situated design you describe.

Installation view of Tucker McLachlan’s Living Documents. Courtesy the designer.
Detail of Tucker McLachlan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline. Courtesy the designer.

RK: Which brings us back to your own practice of building respectfulness as an open tool or a capacious space.

RK: I’m also thinking of the designer on the other side of that encounter, especially within the context of debates around appropriation. Like you say, that scenario automatically has accountability built in to navigate those concerns.

RK: Because we’re in communities ourselves!

In your talk today, you offered an interesting reading of our current understanding of technology as a mirror of a colonial structure, and recruited other kinds of relational models — indigenous models, kinship models — as a way of thinking about how we might change that. Can you tell us about it?

RK: Whose work inspires you these days? Who should we all be learning from?

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