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.

My parameter of respectful design drew on 20 years of “design for humanity” at OCAD, but also sought to break that open: What does it mean to be human? Who’s defining the ontology of humanness? Does that open any space for indigenous perspectives on what it means to be human? And can we then use respect as a common value? You find respect as one of the central values in indigenous cultures but also in other cultures as well. Every culture has a term for respect. Generally most of our conflicts are about disrespect or perceptions of disrespectful interactions and engagement. No one is going to say, “We don’t want respectful design.”

At the same time, no one is talking about respectful design. Beginning with the notion of respect or respectfulness, the debate becomes about how you stand as a designer as opposed to what you’re trying to do as a designer. That framing aligns with the transformation we’re trying to make in embracing The Seven Grandfather Teachings, which concern how you stand as an ethical person in the world, using that as the driver for what you do as opposed to the outcomes of a set of design activities.

I was surprised by the beauty of the articulations that our faculty made, especially at the program level. The phrase that Bruce Heinz, the chair our Environmental Design program, articulated was, “Design yourselves back into the environment.” That’s him. That’s the way he talks about the practice of environmental design and the intentionality behind the work that they try to do in the program. I could never have expressed it that beautifully. And so, opening up the space for people to contribute possibilities is part of decolonization as a community practice.

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.

DT: Exactly. And for me, as a design anthropologist, that’s how I’ve learned to work. People always say, “Design anthropologist? What do you design?” I say, “I design the conditions of possibility.” In that, it’s the same kind of decision-making you have to do when you create a graphic design layout but at a different scale: “What resources do I have? How do I need to position things in relationship to one another? What are the specific affordances that are easy for people to pick up versus things that need to be explained more deeply? How do I structure things so that people can guide themselves through a process in the way that you navigate through a page?” So the same thinking that I would do to lay out a poster, I do in terms of how I lay out possibilities in social situations with other people. And underlying all of that is respect. And it’s hard! It is so hard to be respectful, especially when there are those whom I have fundamental disagreement about the way they organize their beliefs and how they want to interact with the world. Yet I have to, as the person who is representing that ethos.

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?

The bane of my existence are projects where you fly in to someplace, do some work with a community, and fly back out. It’s not the flying in and flying out that’s the issue. It’s that you actually haven’t built relationships of accountability. The work that I’m doing with the Black Youth Design Initiative, for instance, is about my structuring a community of accountability. When I was in Australia, I established relationships of accountability with the indigenous, working closely with the Boon Wurrung Elder Arweet Carolyn Briggs to make sure that I was held accountable for what I was doing. And that just means the community has a means to punish you if you screw up. Whether that is through ostracization or other means, if they don’t have a means to punish you, then you’re not in a good relationship. And in so much of the work that happens in “design for social change” or “design for social innovation,” the community is not able to punish you. That’s the power thing. The community is not able to punish you if you screw up. And we read in articles how that happens: an organization comes in; they bring all of this money; they hire everyone there. Then, there’s, let’s say, mistreatment of workers. And the community can’t do anything to address that because of the power difference. And thus, they suffer, and the organization continues to receive accolades for the work that they’re doing for the group.

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.

To take that knowledge and make it something that people can act upon and debate about, that is the superpower of design. Because no one else can do that. The MBA guy is not going to be able to design an object that reduces the someone’s burden. They’re not going to be able to do that. And so you can compete on the strategic side, but your extra special superpower is your ability to actually change that person’s life in a way that they can literally feel. That’s amazing to be able to do that, to be able to do that with other people. It’s amazing.

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.

DT: There is a student who won our graphic design medal named Tucker McLachlan. For his thesis project, he took the Indian Act — which is written in a script you can’t actually read — and designed a booklet using the best Bauhaus principles around organization and clarity of information. He made that document — which has been so powerful in its impact on indigenous people’s lives in the past and today — clear. And so people read it and now they actually understand what the Indian Act says, and they can tie it to the impact that it has on indigenous people’s lives. For me, that’s an amazing design project within the context of decolonization that works both with the principles of reconciliation, but also works with what design does, what design considers one of its great virtues — which is its ability to make things clear and understandable to people.

The second thing he did which I thought was really powerful, was to work with Google images throughout all of Canada and trace the paths of oil pipelines. And you had oil pipelines running through farms. You had oil pipelines running through indigenous reserves. None in the city, surprisingly.

This very simple graphical representation gave you a sense of how colonization is continuing today and contextualized the great fights happening around the oil pipelines right now.

Detail of Tucker McLachlan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline. Courtesy the designer.

So that to me is taking all these things that we think about as abstractions — like the indigenous fight for sovereignty — and giving them a tangible and concrete form that uses the affordances of what we consider good graphic design. And not just in an emotive way, but in an informational way. You cannot deny this line going through a reserve. You cannot deny the fact of these words in a document that have these impacts.

In all of these kinds of projects the students are coming from what would have been their discomfort, but they wouldn’t say anything about it. What we’ve done is we’ve created the conditions of possibility where, not only can they articulate that sense of discomfort, but they can make something real and tangible that addresses that very discomfort to provide comfort for someone else.

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.

It’s my favorite class. It’s amazing how transformative it is for the students because they were able to share with each other their cultural backgrounds in a safe way. To negotiate with another person what it is that they’re designing for you based on your background — the ability to edit things out, or bring things in, or the comfort of being able to share these little stories with another person — allows them to be open to the complexity of their identities as many cases first or second generation, or indigenous students. Someone is actually validating the uniqueness of who you are, where you come from, and your history. And building that into a tangible design so that you can say yea, or nay, or whatever else.

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…

So the underlying relational pattern of our contemporary technologies, especially as we move more towards artificial intelligences, is to find a way to maintain the extraction of labor that makes your life better, but to avoid paying any person or seeing any person or interacting with any person to provide those things. You would rather invest time and money to build a machine to do the things that people can do and have done efficiently and effectively (and to pay those people a minimum income instead), because you don’t actually want to deal with people. Or you know what you’re asking them to do is so demeaning and horrible and harmful that you want to escape the consequences of asking them to do these things, which means you don’t give a crap about your technology…

But wouldn’t it be interesting if we designed technologies that built relationships between people in the natural world and each other? What if relationality operated at the same level of efficiency as these systems of disintermediation that we’re building? And that, if you want to be innovative, seems much more worthwhile to put your energy into. That’s the real innovative challenge that we have. Making things work faster, we figured out that part. Can we make things work more justly and faster? That insertion of that value of justness, that insertion of that value of respectfulness, that will drive whole categories of innovation that we don’t even know how to imagine yet.

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.

Inspiring me now is the work of my students and the work of my colleagues all over the world who are doing this work: Saki Mafundikwa and his work building institutions but also building practices that validate the creativity and innovation of Africa; Sadie Red Wing and seeing her career take off and my lending a small portion of the platform that has been given to me to her; and all of my students who are making things happen in a way that I couldn’t have even imagined.

For information on future talks at the Jacobs Institute, visit programs.jacobshall.org.