11.09.23
Alicia Cheng, Lee Moreau, Lesley-Ann Noel + Frederick van Amstel | Audio

Design As S1E1: Culture Part 1


On this inaugural episode of "Design As", Alicia Cheng, Lee Moreau, Lesley-Ann Noel, and Frederick van Amstel begin their discussion of the sometimes joyful, sometimes difficult relationship between culture and design.

Subscribe to "Design As" on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. "Design As" is brought to you by Mastercard Customer Experience and Design, a design community working to accelerate the future of commerce through experience and innovation. Find out more at careers.mastercard.com.

Lee Moreau is the founding director of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation studio based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University. He is also the host of The Futures Archive, a podcast from Design Observer that looks at the history of human-centered design with a critical eye to its future.

Lesley-Ann Noel, PhD. is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Design Studies at NC State University. Her research interests are emancipatory research centered around the perspectives of those who would traditionally be excluded from research, community-led research, design-based learning, and design thinking. She is co-Chair of the Pluriversal Design Special Interest Group of the Design Research Society, maker of The Designer’s Critical Alphabet, and her book Design Social Change is slated for publication in late November as part of the 10 d.school guides series.

Alicia Cheng is Head of Design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is also a founding partner of MGMT. design, a collaborative women-owned graphic design studio whose projects focused on exhibition design as well as museum publications, print, branding, and data visualization. Prior to MGMT, Alicia worked as a senior designer for Method, New York, and was a co-design director at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York. She is the author of This is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot.

Frederick van Amstel, PhD. is Assistant Professor of Service Design and Experience Design at the Industrial Design Academic Department (DADIN), Federal University of Technology — Paraná (UTFPR), Brazil. In 2020, he cofounded the Design & Oppression network and, in 2021, its local hub at UTFPR: the Laboratory of Design against Oppression (LADO). His latest work investigates designerly and artistic approaches to overcome oppression and other kinds of systemic contradictions.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Design As is a podcast from Design Observer that speculates on the future of design. Each conversation is focused on a key theme, a word certainly, but not just a word, that both resonates with design practice, but also might be ripe for a bit of loving attention or even some reconsideration. For each conversation, we've assembled a specific group of design leaders, scholars and industry experts for a roundtable discussion about the topic and its complex relationship to design. We edited each long form conversation into two segments, so there's a healthy amount of anticipation between the two, but we're not hoping for some sort of cliffhanger between them. Design As is structured as a similarly after all, and we're hoping to land the conversation somewhere between a conversation and a collision. If we're doing it right, designers will leave us with more questions than answers. That's what we're hoping for. The origin of these conversations and the show goes back to a three day series of convenings in March of this year, 2023, when our team assembled small groups of design leaders for some intimate closed door off the record conversations on the state of design leadership. We realized in those conversations that perhaps much of the world had leapt straight from our pandemic bubbles right back into the TED talks and other main stages of ideas. We really just jumped from whispers right back to shouts without ever bothering to process or take stock of what we learned along the way. This is a forum for taking stock. Design As is this forum. I'm Lee Moreau, and I'm glad you're here. Let's begin.

Lee Moreau
Welcome to Design As, a show that's intended to speculate on the future of design from a range of different perspectives. This season, we're going to focus on three key words as props, culture, complexity and citizenship. Where we're going to interrogate and problematize design's new role in our world. And if you think about it, design has been asking for a seat at the table for a really long time, and I think we can say we've actually achieved our goals. We have a seat at the table, perhaps. The question is, what are we going to do now, or now what? So that's one of the provocations for today's show.

Lee Moreau
Design As is brought to you by MasterCard, a global technology company in the payments industry. Their mission is to connect and power an inclusive digital economy that benefits everyone everywhere by making transactions simple, safe, smart and accessible. To learn more about opportunities within their thriving design community, go to careers dot MasterCard dot com, and search for design jobs.

Lee Moreau
This is part one of a two part series investigating and talking about the word culture. Thank you all for being here. I'm Lee Moreau, founding director of Other Tomorrows, a design studio based in Boston and the professor of practice and design at Northeastern University. Our dedicated Design Observer listeners might already recognize my voice as the host of the Futures Archive, a podcast from Design Observer that looks at the history of human centered design with a critical eye toward its future. With me in this conversation is Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. Hi, Lesley.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Hi. Hi, Lee. It's so great to be here.

Lee Moreau
Lesley-Ann is an assistant professor in the Department of Design Studies at NC State University. She's the co-chair of the Plurivirsal Design Special Interest Group of the Design Research Society, the maker of the designer's critical alphabet and her book, "Design Social Change", is slated for publication in late November as part of the Ten d.School Guide series. Next to her virtually is Alicia Cheng. Hi, Alicia. How are you?

Alicia Cheng
Hi Lee. Good, how are you?

Lee Moreau
Great. Thank you so much for being here. Alicia is head of design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met. She's also a founding partner of MGMT. Design, a collaborative women own graphic design studio whose projects focus on exhibition design, as well as museum publications, print branding and data visualization. Prior to management, Alicia worked as a senior designer for Method in New York and was a co-design director at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. And our round table or this big zoom room that we're all inhabiting right now is completed and rounded out by Frederick van Amstel, calling in from Brazil. Frederick, how are you?

Frederick van Amstel
Hello, Lee! I'm doing great.

Lee Moreau
Frederick is assistant professor of service Design and Experience Design at the Industrial Design Academic Department at the Federal University of Technology in Parana, Brazil. In 2020, he co-founded the Design and Oppression Network, and in 2021, its local hub at UTFPR the Laboratory of Design Against Oppression, or Lado. His latest work investigates designer and artistic approaches to overcome oppression and other kinds of systemic contradictions.

Lee Moreau
We should talk about the rules of engagement for this conversation. So I would like this room tha-that we're all sort of virtually inhabiting to be a safe space that we all feel comfortable talking —where we are by nature going to cover some issues that are challenging emotionally and intellectually. And I think that's actually why we've assembled this particular group of people to kind of confront those. Any comments or questions before we get started about the kind of space that we're inhabiting?

Alicia Cheng
I appreciate the sort of openness by which the invitation was put forth, but then I recall the results of putting a lot of good, smart people in a room together is always just borne fruit that none of us would predict but all of us appreciate.

Frederick van Amstel
Let's jump to it.

Lee Moreau
All right. Let's just jump in. The notion of the show Design As is a place to potentially have some kind of confrontations between concepts. So design and another word in this case, we're going to use the word culture as the kind of driving word that we think about. And culture is challenging word. To be honest, I'm a little bit frightened about this conversation and taking on a word as big as culture. And so I'm going to put that out there right away because I think it's so, so slippery, right? There's a kind of openness to the word culture. It can mean so many things. It's a very potentially could be conceived as an inclusive term, right, culture — oh, that means many things. But it doesn't necessarily mean any one thing. And one of my concerns when we talk about design is that the word culture can kind of slip into a notion of like vibe, right? Oh it's just a feeling. But culture is so much more than that. So I'm wondering right off the top if we can have a conversation about how we should be defining culture in this conversation as we try to look at it within the lens of design.

Lesley-Ann Noel
So that I can sound intelligent, I'm going to start. When I was thinking about this, I was kind of wondering, okay, are we talking about culture with a little C or a big C and, you know, even what is this little C or big C, you know?

Lee Moreau
Right.

Lesley-Ann Noel
So I think of culture as something that's kind of all around us. You know, we all are cultured. I think of it as like our norms and practices, behaviors collectively. And I mean, that's, I guess something in my head someone might have a better academic definition, but I think that also colloquially, people think about culture related to class and education. And, you know, sometimes people have an anthropological view of culture and like other people's culture, like what are their practices that we can study. So all of this comes into my mind as we come into this conversation.

Frederick van Amstel
Talking about this topic is almost a never ending discussion, right? Well, I would say that culture can have many meanings. But the first one, the common sense is like something related to customs, habits, food and paintings, styles. But this is more like a superficial understanding of what is visible in culture. There's always some more invisible structures going on that are not so easy to discern, to distinguish and to identify. And if we are going deep into understanding culture, we might also see conflicts and contradictions, especially between kind of different habits and customs that are considered to be low culture and those that are considered to be high culture. As you go, for example, a museum, it's considered to be high culture. But if you go to a certain kind of music style parties, they are considered low culture. And this is a contradiction that also spreads through different regions of the world. Some countries are considered to have a mission to conserve the high culture, while others are considered to have a mission of destroying culture. For example, I think comparatively, the U.S. is destroying the European culture that the Europeans are trying to conserve. And Brazilians also on the side of the destructive. But this destruction sometimes create new culture, new forms of culture. So culture can also be understood as something dynamic and thats a way of overcoming perhaps this contradiction. So if you look at movement, a culture is something that you're cultivating and changing as much as we are doing with the way we eat. So our food cultures are changing across centuries and then, that's why it's so important to have a history of the culture. You cannot understand culture without understanding past history, but also future history. That's perhaps where design comes on.

Lee Moreau
Frederick I just want to just touch on something you said, because as we become more sophisticated in talking about design, we start to talk about design not as a not as a noun, but as a verb, right, increasingly, right. Design is about action. Design is about — it's a constantly shifting landscape, right. And if we define culture that way, which we typically don't, but, you know, we kind of define culture as a noun. But if we put that to a verb and we think about the fact that it is moving, it is not stable, it is dynamic, that kind of opens up many other topics. So I love that kind of openness and freedom maybe to that word, which will allow us to access it a little bit more easily.

Frederick van Amstel
Maybe Alicia would like to jump in.

Alicia Cheng
I agree with that opportunity to open up that definition for sure. And yet I can also say that there's also a way to make it incredibly narrow and precise. I think from where I sit, quite literally at the Met right now, representing, you know, an institution that as a representative of museums broadly who were established to, you know, inculcate the public to culture and esthetics and literally like teach the masses how to see. I think a lot of what the definition of culture is, we are all trying to sort of put our arms around it in a broad way, has to do with representation. And to me, I think how that is tied to design and representation can be a kind of linchpin for our conversation today. The high and low definitions, I know where Fred is coming from, but I don't really like that either in terms of like, you know, am I in the high design part and you're in the low design part? Like, I don't-I'm uncomfortable with that as a reference, but I think the aspect of what one shows in institutions that are meant to be the sort of bastions of what culture and arts are for certain civilizations, I think is obviously under close scrutiny now, but also how it relates to communities and again, representation. So again, I don't think we gave you any answers to that, Lee, but maybe just further provocations.

Lee Moreau
I'm quite confident we're going to have more questions than answers coming out of this conversation, which I'm very comfortable with. So, Alicia, I am curious, while you're maybe hesitant to talk about the high culture, low culture divide or division, is it something that's kind of within the realm of the things that are in discussion, either at your institution or like institutions? I'm just curious, like this kind of tension?

Alicia Cheng
Definitionally no. I just think personally I see that tension more. I mean, clearly here the mandate is to, you know, represent and package aspects of different representation and culture and mediums to a public that may not be as aware of them. So it's like a, you know, encyclopedic, I know it's not the best word right now, but sort of, you know, in an effort to be inclusive, if we go back to those words, too. So — but again, I feel like culture can be that massively broad definition, if that's not a contradiction in terms, but can also be incredibly exclusive. So I think the conversation now is about how to tone that down to sort of be more accessible and yet still be true to the mandate of, you know, the mission of trying to bring more art to more people.

Frederick van Amstel
And that's kind of a contradiction that we experience everyday life here in Brazil, because I would say that a lot of people in colonial or former colonial settings, they are believing that if they have inheritance from the colonizers, they still have a culture of the colonized to keep it to maintain. Even though Brazil is now 200 years of independant formally as a political entity, but culturally, and we are still pretty much tied to Europe and now in more recent years to the U.S. culture. And so it is-this kind of cultures and they are presented to Brazilians, they are presented as high culture. But then I think one interesting thing to hear about, I would like to hear from you is what about design? Is design high culture, low culture, because in the past it was considered to be right at the beginning of the design with this name, right? But this term it opposed itself to art as a kind of applied art for the masses, low culture. But then now design is entering museums in and it's becoming again, something that it could be considered high or even this distinction doesn't hold, for example, in U.S. But in Brazil, design is definitely high culture and at least what we consider canonical design and everything else that people do in the streets. For example, the material culture produced by everyday people that are not trained in design is considered to be low culture, low design, but mostly no design,

Lesley-Ann Noel
Hmm.

Frederick van Amstel
There's oo design. That's-that's why we need to import design from foreign countries. When you ask, from Europe or from other places, because we don't have design here. So this is definitely something that we experience in everyday life because our students even think, our design students, they think we will never be real designers because we don't live in the design country or design city and design apartment, I don't even sit in a well-designed chair.

Lee Moreau
And just so I understand you, you're suggesting that the definition of design colloquially is exclusive of normal, normal life, normal culture. And so, like, it's an abstraction that's you begin to believe you don't see evidence of it in everyday life. And that kind of that divide is growing. Is that how I understand?

Frederick van Amstel
Well, in Brazil, we even use the word design coming from Anglophone influences. We don't use a Brazilian word for that. If we want to use a Brazilian word, we use "projet" or "projeto", which is considered to be not fashionable. It's not cool enough if you say design — wow, it's something well done right. And I have something else that's done by Brazilians with their ways of doing is just projeto or even something that is considered to be worse than design, which is called "gambiarra". We have this specific Brazilian word for defining a bad design that is improvised based on the materials that are around, that are not important. It's pretty much things that are upcycled. They call it "gambiarra", but it's considered to be lower design in relation to design or not, not really design. And all the work we have been doing in our laboratory is to tell the students: Look, this is the kind of design we can do here in Brazil. And if we design from that and we develop further gambiarra, we might end up in something that's much more relevant to our culture, to our Brazilian culture, then if we start designing from designing the way designers do abroad.

Lesley-Ann Noel
I wanted to jump in on like maybe two points, you know, like again, entering this conversation, for me, the idea that institutions could impact culture so much was kind of —I mean, of course institutions do play a role in shaping culture, but I think of culture as really something that happens on the street. And one of- when Alicia mentioned about teaching masses to see culture or to see something, I thought: Oh, that's a very grand kind of mission. And I wondered, you know, if like, if it's the same kind of mission around culture that st-institutions around the world have. You know, I think in the context that I'm coming from in the Caribbean, you know, once people talk about all the culture, they're really talking about street culture, right? And they're talking about music that was created on the streets, music that was created in the ghettos. I guess when we talk about culture, it's very often popular culture that people are identifying with as part of their identity and heritage. And and yes, maybe in that kind of context, the institution, which might be the Ministry of Culture, might offer some additional support. But this culture is going to happen with or without this institutional support because it is just what people are creating.

Alicia Cheng
And I think as a bridge to that,

Lesley-Ann Noel
Mhmm.

Alicia Cheng
You know how you represent that, and suddenly what happens when it crosses from something on the street, something that sort of like a tangible and yet intangible part of a culture and a people when it enters into the marble halls of a museum, how that changes. I find that kind of intersection very fascinating. And I also want to make it clear that personally I'm not endorsing that the museums are those places where you can only go to get to taught. I find myself fascinated and working here for two some years, sort of looking at the history of museums in and of themselves, why they were established, how they were established, you know, the money involved, and that sort of ethos of perpetuating the sort of, you know, a certain select group of elites who teach the ignorant masses of what is proper. So to me, unpacking that space is meaningful to and mindful of where the Met operates now. So that's one thought. The other, I wanted to also say is that there's also we're talking about culture as you know, aspects of really identity and that is of a people, but it is also of an institution. So the Met's internal culture and all those contradictions that are embedded within that is something that also falls within this broad definition, too.

Frederick van Amstel
And institutions, institutions can do a great on trying to overcome these kind of contradictions, for example, in the division between high level culture, for example. If a museum hosts an exhibition with what is considered to be low culture within this high culture space, it's already changing those divisions and fading them out and hybridizing them and also letting people know that what the definitions of what is culture is also updating. Culture is not just about the things that we cultivate. It's also about the way we think about the things that we cultivate. So there's always a meta level for thinking about culture and thinking about what culture is. So it's not a problem that we are already 10 minutes discussing what culture is, because that's the point. Culture is all about things that are changing and moving collectively. That's the great thing. No one can give a single one definition because no one owns culture. There's no one single institution that is responsible to say this is culture, even though there are ministers of culture in some countries. In Brazil, for example, we didn't have a minister of culture for the last presidential term. And now we do have it back again.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Mhmm.

Frederick van Amstel
But we still have culture in the streets, as Lesley-Ann mentioned, and that can't be destroyed and cannot be ignored. And even if you say it's low culture, at some point, low culture will turn into a mainstream, because now with this massive media, the one thing that is happens on the streets can become really popular all over the country, and on many streets can reproduce their same kind of music, rhythm and beats. And that comes from the favelas for example. In Brazil we have— the favelas are really the culture hotspot of Brazil. That's where all the culture innovation comes from and then later on becomes integrated into high culture and sometimes it loses the regions. And people don't like paying credit to favela innovatives, innovative people there. But that's the-that's the challenge for the institutions to recognize these kind of sources of culture and innovation.

Cindy Chastain
Hi, I'm Cindy Chastain, senior vice president of Customer Experience and Design at MasterCard. And I'd like to introduce you to some design leaders from our growing community.

Jess Greco
I'm Jess Greco, and I'm a design director here at MasterCard. What's special about design at MasterCard, to me is that we're not really limited by our job titles. Okay, I'm a product experience design director. Okay, what does that mean? It doesn't matter, because it's all about the value I can drive and the unique contributions I can make. I'm one of those people that doesn't just have a design background. I have a fine arts and art history and psychology background. I have a physical computing background. So if you need something soldered in your person. I've worked as a researcher and a service designer, not just a product designer. What that basically means is I kind of work across the customer journey. I can wear a research hat, I can wear a more strategic product oriented hat, I can give you feedback on how it looks and feels and works. The folks that I have seen do especially well at MasterCard are the ones that are really interested in growing their skill sets, broadening their skill sets and wearing multiple hats, not as a function of just needing to or having to, but wanting to. People that are focused on their business outcomes they want to drive, that is such a huge opportunity here. Folks that are more interested in what it means to builds successful products, we need people like that. Design is not just tell me what you want me to make and I will draw for you. It should not be that. Design at MasterCard and designers at MasterCard are most successful when they don't think about what their job is supposed to be and they think about what needs to be done, what do we need to understand and care about? And then they make people care about it.

Cindy Chastain
From new digital payment products, to innovations that empower people and create a more inclusive economy, our growing design community is working to accelerate the future of commerce through experience and innovation. Find out more at careers dot MasterCard dot com and search for design jobs.

Lee Moreau
What I'm hearing from this is this notion that culture has a series of vectors that are associated with it, right? So the culture might be in transition, but things are emerging from everyday life, the sort of quotidian existence, and become sort of refined and identified and we can put a name to those things. In another way, you've-you've got things that are clearly defined, we associate with a certain kind of representational position, and then those get kind of broken down or neutralized. So what is the relationship of us working together in communities? Frederick you mentioned, I think you said the word communities or togetherness as we kind of aggregate as humans and have these kind of conversations. How does this change our definitions of these vectors?

Frederick van Amstel
That's the multiculturalism challenge, right? Which Lesley-Ann is really an expert on. So please, Lesley, tell us that about the idea of pluriverse, because that really helps us understand the multicultural relationships.

Lesley-Ann Noel
So the idea of the pluriverse as a world where many worlds fit or live or occupy, and, you know, like if we're talking about peoples and cultures, you know, if we can keep that in mind that, yes, there are many worlds and there are many ways of doing and being and knowing, maybe as we talk about culture, we could be thinking about these cultural representations from these different worlds and kind of recognizing the importance of the variety and diversity of the representation. I am wondering if you're asking about us as designers, specifically working with communities or take it where I want to go — is that, which is it?

Lee Moreau
Honestly, I don't even know if I had a question. And that's part of like, you know, I think, you know, this is like maybe breaking the fourth wall, but I'm sensing I'm sensing conversations and I'm just trying to, like, see where they take us.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Yeah.

Lee Moreau
But I do think there is a question about as designers, like we have both our own kind of responsibility to to the action of design, right? We're the sort of shepherds of design, but we also have our own position within that.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Yeah.

Lee Moreau
So, but I know you're, you've been talking a lot about this, but I think as we come together, it becomes even more challenging, right?

Lesley-Ann Noel
Yeah, definitely. I've been thinking again, just kind of prep coming into this conversation. It was like, What is our role? Right, so like, I really think of, you know, this culture maybe with a small C read, you know, similar to what what Fred was describing very often in the context that I am in this culture, in quotes, or the innovation, cultural innovations are being created in the ghettos and in I mean, I say ghettos, but, you know, in lower class neighborhoods. And then I think, okay, so what is our role as designers? Maybe we can support these cultural works and movements and innovation, you know, through documentation, through co- you know, facilitating conversations through, you know, certainly there was that that a lot of us do in social media and broadcasting. And, you know, maybe that's some of the kinds of interactions that we will have with culture. I understand the importance of big institutions, but I'm more focused on the what happens in the smaller spaces and then how can we have many more conversations happening, you know, either in these smaller spaces or across these smaller spaces, you know, about, again, culture and cultural innovation.

Alicia Cheng
Well, I guess as a bridge, from what Lesley-Ann was saying, I think as we sort of tackle this, like what is culture, what is design, how is design and design and culture and how they may or how they nest or or relate — to me, I feel like this the nature of sort of scale as Lesley-Ann maybe referring to in terms of smaller communities and institutions, then I start gravitating towards and I again, I don't mean to sort of put parameters on what design is, but as designers I would say that it has a lot to do with listening, no matter what the scale, such that, you know, I was involved in an AIGA New York project after Hurricane Sandy to focus on the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, and we formed teams and there was no project mandate. It was just more to sort of see what the needs are. That was it. So you just sit and listen to a community and what their needs are. And the design intervention was not, you know, posters and profiles of the community per se. It was really getting them better wifi and a communication system that could work for them. It was very, you know, nuts and bolts. The identity took me like 20 minutes to do, like it was-that wasn't the part of design in a higher sense that maybe Frederick was referring to. So I think it does — what we can all anchor towards is that definition of how design can always work. And I think I recall from the conversations earlier with that bigger group, Lee, that I remember noting that all of us, no matter where we were coming from, bigger corporate in house teams, out of house educators, etc., that we were all just fundamentally curious people that were looking to solve some problems.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Hmm.

Alicia Cheng
So design can be vaulted and, you know, do all this amazing critical things. But fundamentally, I think that is our, you know, superpower is that we're good listeners and we're good problem solvers. And that solution can come in something very benign or something as vaulted as like an exhibition at the Met. Like that's the scale part that I think is what we can really deploy.

Frederick van Amstel
And if you look at the design history, we all see the history of many designers designing things that are representing culture and synthesizing culture in a material way that can be used in everyday life for functions, but also can stay in a museum to make a kind of a statement about those historical times. So kind of grasping the spirit of the times. And that's something that attracts and draws many design students. They want to become those designers, those famous design stars, but they believe that they don't know anything about this. They have never done it, they have never produced culture. So they think it see culture, at least at the beginning of their studies, as something to acquire. They want to accumulate culture. As if it was something like you could put in your bag at Chanel and take with you. But then the first thing is that we try to deconstruct and learn in the laboratory of design against oppression is that they already are producing culture, even though they are not recognized as famous designers, but they are also everyday designers. They are always designing their lives, they are designing themselves, they are designing their bodies, they are choosing how they want to present themselves in the society that's already design. And then if we go farther and farther than that, they realize that they are ready producing culture, they are culture producers as citizens. If you are breathing as a human being and part of society, you are already producing culture. And that's liberating because then it's not something that is ahead of you and sometimes too far away for you to get there in a lifetime. Th-then it's something else that you already have. Then you feel empowered to pursue further your own path and not just someone else's path. And then great projects come out of that of this understanding of your ancestors' history, understanding of the history of the place where you live, the way you've grown up, the history of the things that you use in-in everyday life. And then they really get good designs because these designs are relevant to their culture. And so culture is not something static, to be backed up is something to be conscious part of. That's why we always referring back to the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who was a great educator who emphasized that illiterate people will get literate one day and once they in part they understand they are already literate.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Mhmm.

Frederick van Amstel
If they start from reading of the world, to reading the words, then there is a connection and it's not something that someone else has. Is trying to impose a divide between a high culture, low culture, being literate and being illiterate. No, it's a continuum. And you can always develop farther, even if you are ready already literate. There's so much more that you can read, but also write. You can also be a culture producer on your own. And that's why Paulo Freire always- always said that we are part of culture. We are culture. Actually, that's the definition man is culture.

Lee Moreau
Lesley-Ann you introduce me to Paulo Freire first. I did not know who this person was. I'm a little embarrassed to say that until you spoke in my class a few years ago. And I know you're you're embodying some of this in your own classroom. You wrote a book about it. So could you kind of give us some examples of ways that you're kind of living this in the classroom?

Lesley-Ann Noel
Yeah. Goodness. It's hard to talk after Frederick, right?

Lee Moreau
I know.

Lesley-Ann Noel
But but but it is really about, you know, as he said, building this critical awareness of the world and understanding that you play a role in this world and you're not just a passive piece on the board game having the world happen to you. You make the world, right. And so, okay, so like examples of how we do this, you know, like I'm teaching a class right now called Contemporary Issues in Art and Design, and it's really just contemporary issues. It's-it's a social studies class for design students that I just love. You know, we get to talk about the world and we really start off having them understand their own identities. And actually a lot of my book is based on this class that I love so much, you know, where you have to start understanding who you are, right, and again, coming to that place of of understanding that the world doesn't just happen to you. You you make things. You live life, you live culture, you influence the world. You know, the next piece. I try to encourage students to think about what are the issues that they are passionate about. We go through a series of issues that I guess I as the educator, kind of curate and see, well, look, these are the the big issues that maybe we are that we need to be to understand in the world. But I also want to hear from them. They teach me as well what are the issues that are driving them as young people. And sometimes I actually change my curriculum from one semester to the next based on on the issues that they're interested in. You know, so like, young people have an interest in mental health that I didn't grow up with, you know, And every semester my curriculum changes a little bit more to reflect that. Where we bring the design part is, is that they react to these issues through design. So actually the assignment they have to do next week, they're making games about gender, right? And about questions of gender, sexuality, feminism, toxic masculinity — they have a range of topics that they can choose. But they have to teach other people about these issues from their point of view. You know, so I mean, these are the kinds of examples that, you know, the kinds of activities that we're going through in this design class where, yes, we're reading about the issues. They are looking around the world and seeing how other people are talking about the issues. We're having, like, really deep conversations and class about them. And then as designers, we're reacting to these issues through what we do as designers, you know, through artifacts, through maybe even designing conversations. But we're reacting so that, again, the world isn't just happening to us. And all of this I mean, this method that I use, you know, similar to what what Frederick is describing, all of this is like Freire-ian pedagogy that I'm trying to bring into the classroom. You know, I don't have to teach the students about contemporary issues in a really remote kind of way. They used to be a textbook that we used, but I'm like: But actually the world is happening around us. Maybe we don't need that textbook, right. And I think that I want to go back to a few things that that I thought about while Frederick was speaking earlier, is that when you are not in the dominant center right or, you know, when when you don't study in, I don't know, New York or London or, you know, wherever these places are, you can feel that everything is very remote, right? I was a PhD student before I realized that, oh, these authors that I read are actually real people. And, you know, it sounds kind of ridiculous to say, but, you know, these well cited authors all seem like imaginary people who live on shelves and in a library, right. Or you can think that design really could never be created by a person born in Port of Spain or in Kingston, Jamaica, or in Lagos or in you know, you can feel that that you don't that you can't participate in that kind of world. And so it's really important for the educator who is operating in these kinds of spaces to figure out, okay, how are you going to make sure that whether it's design or culture or art, you know, how are you going to make sure that people understand, oh, we create art, right? Or we create design. We create work that is of good quality. We can't just be telling students that, okay, your work is really never going to be good enough to be in whatever, whatever place, because that will kind of just frustrate them into never producing anything.

Lee Moreau
I think it's really hard to make classrooms, and I can't speak to all the context that you're talking about, but, you know, the classroom is not always a safe space and I think you have to have a supremely safe space in order to elevate the conversation to a point where everyone can feel comfortable both talking about them, their own person, the people around them, but also the climate they're speaking from relative to other parts of world. I mean, that just requires so much extreme level of comfort, I think hard to achieve.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Well, I will say this on this podcast, so I'm saying this publicly — it is a big risk for an educator.

Lee Moreau
Yeah.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Right. And frankly, every semester I'm a little bit scared. I mean, I do it and I'm like, okay, I'm doing this. I'm a big woman and say I suffer the consequences. But it is scary for me and it is rewarding to hear by the end of the semester. The transformation that happens in some students. So some students will be public about the transformation that happens, you know, so like I had one student who came to me at the end of the semester and said, You know what? I just actually decided to change my pronouns and went to my parents and said: This is what I'm doing and thank you. I was like, okay, that's a big one. Right, or like, I had another student who ended a presentation at and he says: You know what? I'm a white male and I don't suffer any oppressions, but this is what I can do. And I was like: That's another big one. And, you know, there's also the negative one where, you know, I'll get a class eval where the person says: All this teacher does talk about race and stuff like that. And even that, I think, is something significant because this is a person who kind of very often has to go through the world, not even seeing all of these issues of race and gender and immigration and oppression, oppressions in general, right. And they never have to confront it like that, right. The students didn't know before that we were looking at oppressions. We were just talking about contemporary issues. But now I'm much more explicit in saying that: Yes, we're looking at contemporary issues, but the theme through all of it is oppression, right? And what are these oppressions that maybe we can influence or address as designers?

Lee Moreau
So, Lesley, I want to jump back to something you said. You said you were describing how it's really scary in the classroom. And what I want to do is probe literally on those words. Why is it scary? And I think we can all talk about this. So, yeah, you're putting yourself out there. You're taking a risk. But why is it actually scary?

Alicia Cheng
I think certainly coming in to a place like the Met from, you know, having my own quiet, small practice in Brooklyn. You know, it's a much bigger stage. And that can be both, you know, empowering and fundamentally exciting. But also with it becomes-comes great responsibility and mindfulness. So how I mediate, how we interpret the work that we do here, it's within a very complex system of this institution. So I just think being more acutely aware and with that is just basically self-consciousness. Both, you know, I'm not going to speak for the institution, but as you sort of go back to, you know, my team and each person being an ambassador for Met Design and myself now suddenly being more of an institutional face of it, it's something that is is still new to me. And so just being aware of that and I wouldn't call it power per say, but I would just appreciate that I'm aware of the, the bigger platform that the Met can afford. But also within my own teaching, it's more of an external critic at RISD, but sort of seeing aspects of these issues coming forth and sort of being able to sort of facilitate, you know, probe within an effort to sort of help shape the body of work as best communicates, which each student wants to by the end of their study. I think it it all informs, I think, currently where elements of my position as a critic and my position here does kind of form each other.

Frederick van Amstel
Actually, it's dangerous, to be honest. Sometimes it's more than scary. I mean, it's dangerous literally because, for example, teaching this topic and during Bolsonaro's times in Brazil at last for years, well, I couldn't lose my job in the public university because Bolsonaro couldn't, although he tried to end our tenure protections mechanism. But a lot of students got inspired by Bolsonaro to put professors under scrutiny, public scrutiny, if they did something that they considered to be wrong or even against good culture or against high culture standards. And I was subjected to moral harassment. Students, they organize this kind of a coop in one of my courses, and it was really a terrible situation and even was handled to all the courses. So I one year I could not teach design in my own university because I was raising the issue of oppression and I actually wasn't the one raising the issue of oppression this far right movement was raising. I was just bringing that what was going on, this conflict, this contradiction that was a big deal in the Brazilian political sphere to the classroom. So if you represent, coming back to what Alicia was saying, to represent the contradiction of society into a classroom or in a museum, and these contradictions are so tense, it becomes dangerous. People can come and destroy the classroom or destroy the museum. We have countless stories of that or or they want to burn books like they are doing in Mexico right now. Burning books that bring forth concept of culture from Paulo Freire, because they think it's low culture. So this is all part of our reality right now. And if we want to change that reality and go towards an utopia for a pluriversal world where many worlds can fit and and different ways of living, different ways of producing culture can coexist. That takes a battle. That takes a struggle. And we will have to- to win democratically. And the path to get there will be full of conflicts that we hope to be have peaceful conflicts where we can just argue. But sometimes this can get into institutional backlashes. This can get into organized situations where things get out of control and design is all part of that. We are not working or operating only on the high culture part of society where this conflict is never reached. Actually, we are in the middle of it. Th-that's why I think design is an interesting place to be right now, because that's where all these movements are going on, where all these contradictions are exploding, and where we can also make a difference by mediating and sometimes facilitating the resolution of a conflict, but sometimes provoking and complicating the conflict because it cannot remain as such. We cannot, for example, stay polarized in politics and where left handed people and right handed people never talk together. If we keep doing this, we will have eventually these outbursts that will be violent. But if we keep talking and if we keep creating opportunities for having conversations across worlds, then we may have a chance to keep democratic society while we can keep having conflict, but in a more civilized way.

Lee Moreau
Join us next week for the second part of our conversation on culture.

Frederick van Amstel
The way design leadership will be manifest in this world. There was something like that. We will be in the lab, in the studio, putting our hands dirty with stuff, right?

Lesley-Ann Noel
Yeah. Yeah. And or even I mean, this I know this is cliche, but, like, we don't need a seat at your table. We will make our own table because we make things right, so.

Alicia Cheng
And we don't want to sit down.

Lesley-Ann Noel
Yeah! Yeah, yeah. We make hammocks or yes.

Lee Moreau
Design As is a podcast from Design Observer. To keep up with the show. Go to Design Observer, dot com slash DesignAs, or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, please make sure to rate and review us and share this with your friends. You can follow Design Observer on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter or whatever we call that @DesignObserver. Design As is brought to you this season by MasterCard. Tune in next week to hear more from Lesley-Ann Noel, Alicia Cheng, and Frederick van Amstel. You can find more about them in our show notes at Design Observer dot com slash Design As, along with a full transcription of our show. Our producer is Adina Karp. Judybelle Camangyan edits the show. Special thanks to Grupo Onion in Brazil, Meghan Gerald and Jason Gillikin in Raleigh at Earfluence, and Maxine Philavong at Northeastern University. Our music is by Joshua Brown. Thanks, as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer executive producer Betsy Vardell.



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