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Transforming the Black Experience in Design

BIPOC designers are still underrepresented and undervalued in every part of the field. Dr. Dori Tunstall offers six ways to turn the tide.

Dori Tunstall portrait
Dori Tunstall. Photo by Ishmil Waterman.

Last summer, amid a long overdue racial reckoning in the United States, we republished a landmark 1968 article by Dorothy Jackson on “The Black Experience Graphic Design”, and asked 16 current design leaders to compare it to their own experience. Their stories spanned the gamut from exhaustion to hope. They shed light on the progress and stagnation of the design world, both academic and professional, and offered advice to organizations and individuals within and outside the BIPOC community. One thing we heard over and over again in their responses was the name Dr. Dori Tunstall.

Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall is a design anthropologist, researcher, and educator. She is the first Black dean of a faculty of design anywhere in the world, a position she has held at Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) in Toronto since 2016. From the moment she took the role she led a transformation of OCAD U’s equity practices that have become a model for many other organizations. In our interview she lays out six ideas from her own experience that other institutions can put into practice if they are serious about equity and liberation for BIPOC designers.

What has changed since 1968?

For one, RISD’s cluster-hire announcement. They are doing what I would do if I was there. I can trace it to what we have been doing at OCAD U since I arrived in 2016.

OCAD U is a possibility story: A 144-year-old colonial institution that is open to change and acknowledging the Black lived experience as part of the design experience. Our cluster hire was key, but it requires a lot of preparation work — it’s taken a year and half. People said, “I didn’t know this could be done,” and we showed them it can.

This feels good, but I have to curb my enthusiasm, because it takes years. I know this will take time for other institutions, and many haven’t done this work before. I am here to help. I consider it part of my calling. Every conversation I’m having with other institutions I already had internally. Here’s what I recommend for educational institutions (and many of these ideas can be applied to other organizations):

    • Put Indigenous people first. (In Canada we first had an Indigenous cluster hire, which is a federal mandate.)
    • Own up to your institutional racism and structures of White supremacy. Reveal all the barriers to Black community members.
    • Build relationships with the Black community. One of my moments of triumph is when I went to one of these many events and someone saw me in the audience and said “OCAD is in the House!”
    • Write job openings based on the interests of Black folks. Think about hip-hop culture and futurism, and maybe avoid traditional corporate language. When we did that it went viral.
    • Change the qualification requirements. We looked at our typical academic qualifications, but we know there has been systemic exclusion, so where have people found success despite that? Instead of a degree, maybe they are doing it in their practice. Maybe they are doing all the same kinds of academic work, but in different domains, communities, nonprofits. Running a community workshop, for example, instead of teaching a course.
    • Hire a critical mass. Think about the experience of the new people on your team. People need to feel free to be Black. We did a cluster hire because in the past, one-at-a-time hires are hard to retain. It takes a lot of work to be the only one. So you need to have critical mass so people feel like the amplification of their identity is in the environment itself, that their culture is part of the organization’s culture.

Then, cascade the change throughout the institution. At OCAD U, before I arrived, they had four Black faculty who had been doing advocacy work for decades, but weren’t able to break through because they weren’t in positions of power. Can your BIPOC employees hire, for example? Do they have budget control? As the dean I have real authority. I write job descriptions. A lot of these institutions don’t have people at all levels of power: at the top, influencers in the middle, and at entry levels where there are opportunities for growth.

The more BIPOC designers who step into positions of power the more they can model behavior that feels authentic to them. They can model new ways of talking and being.

What remains the same?

That lack of representation in positions of power is the reason much hasn’t changed since 1968. I’m thinking about how these things work as a system. As the first Black dean I can define what that means because there hasn’t been one before. And it’s important that someone in this position can recognize that failure means life and death for students. I hear stories about the precarity of not just economic security but their sanity, their mental health. The more BIPOC designers who step into positions of power the more they can model behavior that feels authentic to them. They can model new ways of talking and being.

I’m also looking forward to getting past the framework of “excellence”. I want to get to the point where we live in a world in which we hire mediocre BIPOC candidates, because that’s what equity looks like.

Do you see signs of future change?

People are having more confidence to be who they are and where they came from. Some are realizing that they haven’t been able to bring their full Blackness into their work or position. The future I want is to eliminate the false choice: that students have to choose between their authentic self and what they think a successful designer is.

Something feels different about this moment. There’s more allyship. There’s more openness to new possibilities.

Dr. Dori Tunstall is the Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University and previously taught at Swinburne University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She organized the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative and served as a director of Design for Democracy. Industry positions include UX strategist for Sapient Corporation and Arc Worldwide. Dori holds a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University.

More BIPOC Designers

Schessa Garbutt, Anne H Berry, Maurice Cherry, Jennifer White-Johnson, Bobby C. Martin, Jr.

Revisit “The Black Experience in Graphic Design: 1968 and 2020” and see recent posts about Indigenous and Black artists in our collection: