Jessica Arana + Gaby Hernández | Essays

Latinx Cultural Agency And Design Education

For over 100 years, formal design and visual communication instruction has served and perpetuated Western and Eurocentric views, theories, and histories. With a white male-dominated rhetoric that favors capitalism, consumerism, and gender inequity, traditional design canons have permeated design education with perspectives and philosophies that internationally hide Black and Brown cultures, voices, bodies, and histories. Through caricaturization, stereotyping, commodification, and white-washing, cultural identity and heritage from developing countries, marginalized societies, Indigenous lands, and colonies, have become items of mass consumption and irresponsible mainstream entertainment. In turn, art and design manifestations and traditions from marginalized cultures have been devalued and omitted from official histories or are studied under folk art, craft, make-shift/make-do denominations or exclusively within Ethnic Studies. Globally, Latinx communities have been directly affected by erasure and marginalization through design.

For this reason, we urge design educators to adopt a different approach to design instruction — one that challenges traditional design canons, histories, and perspectives, capturing the realities of students from a variety of cultural landscapes. By actively integrating students’ social identities, approaches like visual storytelling can become powerful steps toward the creation of new visual languages and systems that reflect diverse identities with accuracy and sensitivity. The transformative self-writing practice of Chicana/Latina feminist testimonio by Gloria Anzaldúa, Aurora Levins Morales, or N​orma E. Cantú ​are examples of reflective narrative and expression that could inform visualstorytelling and that tie directly to cultural identity, making learning more accessible.

Therefore, we urge designers to include their identities and lived experiences into their products and process and use their skills as tools for self expression and as a channel to connect with their cultural identity and its historical context. The inclusion of personal and cultural iconography in design has the power to help students recover their cultural roots, develop and contextualize their identities, and design their worldview into existence. In this way, the design practice can redistribute power by valuing personal cultural narratives and interrupt cultural erasure. For Latinx students whose identities are not represented in design culture and history, this is particularly powerful because self-narrative work allows them to navigate and voice their truth.

The challenge and vulnerability of self-authorship is healing and contributes to a collective sense of agency by providing a space for others to do the same. Cultural testimonies have the power to center and give voice to marginalized experiences and disrupt traditional design culture. Further, valuing the students’ cultural identity positions them as holders of knowledge and conscious producers of visual culture outside of traditional design canons. This divergence from a historical norm expands what we value in design culture. In this context, contemporary methodologies and practices that perpetuate the status quo, such as Design Thinking (Iskander 2018), would also require a restructuring process whose duration and dynamics are defined by users and their context. Interrupting traditional and exclusionary methodologies and homogenous models of instruction are critical first steps toward a culturally fair and sensible approach. For Latinx designers and students, this is especially affirming and culture-shifting.

Jessica Arana is a designer and educator. Gaby Hernández is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Florida

Iskander, Natasha. 2018. Design Thinking is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo; Harvard Business Review.

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