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?

Dori Tunstall: The most important value driving the transformation of OCAD University is respect. I was very deliberate in allowing the faculty itself to define what that means for them. In the second week of coming into the role of Dean of Design, I hosted a workshop where the driving parameters were the questions: What does respectful design mean to you as an individual? What does respectful design mean for your program? And what does respectful design mean from the institutional perspective? That process speaks to the process that we’re trying to perform at a meta level at OCAD with respect to decolonization.

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?

DT: The biggest difference between what we are articulating and what is now a hegemonic point of view with respect to “human-centered design” is de-centering the human to introduce a relational model where the human is just part of the wider ecosystem. In terms of design for the social, the metacritique I always make about the social is that we either operate at the level of the individual or we operate at the broad level of the social. That’s not an innovation. As I’ve said in my writing, that framing does not allow for accountability. I argue for operating at the level of community because that’s the level of accountability. At the level of society, it’s like, “I’m doing this great thing for society!” Well, which members of society? And who does it benefit and are they the most vulnerable?

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.

DT: It’s like, “You’re not accountable to the tree, the bush, the water, the land, this animal, whatever.” But if you’re not accountable and have rituals and processes of obligation to them, then that is how we arrive at the ecological disaster we’re in now. Because you didn’t have any relationships.

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.

DT: First of all, decolonization is about indigenous experience, not the conceptual. That’s the important lesson of “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” (Tuck and Yang).

RK: Absolutely; it’s a material reality.

DT: It’s a material reality. I’ve had to find various ways to explain it to my faculty and to my students and the one strategy that works well in a pedagogical context was one that I learned when we did our cultural competency training. Students said that for them it was about breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma. That means as a designer — again, in the context of Seven Generations thinking — that you think about, “What in my design might cause trauma to begin with? Who could this hurt today? Who could this hurt in the future?” But at the same time you can say, “Who could this help? Who could this assist? Could my design assist the most vulnerable in their ability to cope with the conditions that are causing their vulnerability?” That’s not abstract. There are very specific design decisions that you can make that provide affordances for helping or harming, and we make those decisions as designers every single day. What we’re trying to increase is the level of consciousness around the impact of those decisions and the depth of knowledge that helps you understand why this could be helpful or harmful and for whom. For me the “For Whom?” is always for the most vulnerable. My students always ask, “How do I make sure I’m doing the ethical thing?” And I always say, “If you have difficulty focusing then always focus on the most vulnerable. If you are able to create conditions that open up their possibilities for self-determination, self-definition then they will themselves change the system and you get the honor of being able to facilitate that. They will appreciate and recognize your role in that facilitation.” Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing one image over another image. That can have an impact on someone who is seeing themselves for the first time in a context where there is desire and aspiration to see themselves represented.

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.

DT: Exactly. There’s a class that I’ve been teaching versions of for the last 10 years which is this course in transcultural aesthetics in contemporary design. And I love the course because it is structured around pairing students who come from different backgrounds and over the period of the semester, they design for each other. It’s an iterative process where you design something, you have instant feedback, then you do the next iteration, the next iteration.

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.

DT: Exactly. And so we never have problems with appropriation or misappropriation in that brief. And they actually take it very seriously. I remember in one version of the course a student found a symbol that they wanted to use in their design, and it belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. And they wrote a letter to the local diocese of the Greek Orthodox Church for their permission. And so for me, that was like, they got it! We’re accountable to those outside of ourselves in how we derive inspiration from the cultures of others but also our own. We don’t have permission sometimes to just mine, extract from our own cultural practices and backgrounds either. There’s an ethical dialogue that needs to happen with that.

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?

DT: I’m always interested in what the underlying values of something are. So much of our technology is about efficiency. When you talk efficiency, then you normally talk about the efficiency of work. And that is the moment where I’m like, “Yeah, Marxism!” When you start thinking about the efficiency of work in the context of Marx’s analysis of work in the industrial system, we’re reminded that industrial labor is deeply implicated in systems and histories of slavery. So many of our systems of accounting were made to account for production in what needed to be a very efficient system of exploitation — slavery. I began to question what it is that we’re doing with technology in that context. Why is technology always about — even in our science fiction — an effort to create a sex-bot or a soldier-bot or a miner-bot or a whatever-bot? And how do we think through the associated fear that they will rebel and take over? In looking at our mainstream melodramas of technology, I realized how afro-futurism (I love the work of Octavia Butler!) or the future fantasies of those who write indigenous futurism are very different. The fear is not of the robot taking over. The story is often about what alliances are built between technologies and racialized and indigenous people in fighting a colonial structure. Here, the colonizers are from outer space as opposed to Europe — though probably in the process of colonization it felt like they were from outer space too…

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

DT: There are so many people! One person who was foundational to my thinking is MP Ranjan, rest in power. To say he’s an industrial designer is to underrepresent the amazingness that he is. His work defining a non-extractive practice of design through his work at Institute of Design in India in Ahmedabad — and the accessibility of his work — opened up the possibilities around what design can be and has been for many people. Esther Pasztory’s Thinking with Things introduces the notion of aesthetics as a technology of control and power, which provides a young designer then knowledge that the aesthetic decisions you are making are not just about making things beautiful. They are actually transforming relationships between human beings and with the natural world. Cuban Counterpoint by Fernando Ortiz, for me, outlined how cultural change can happen. And more importantly, inserted that notion of power and power in balance in a model of culture change and cultural interaction.

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