Slowing Production, Increasing Socio-Political Context: Beyond “Spreading Awareness” in the Design Classroom

A feminist base motivates us to engage questions around power relations, knowledge production, and systems of violence

Becky Nasadowski
Assistant Professor
University of Tennessee at Chattanoo

In recent years, many universities have embraced “diversity” with oblique statements of support. Related, design educators have rightfully sought strategies for inclusive pedagogy, increasing representation and working toward ensuring the classroom is comfortable. But inclusive is not synonymous with anti-racist, which requires antagonism and a reckoning with the pervasive inequities baked into our different fields and methods, the university, and our social relationships and histories.

In this presentation, I will provide an overview of my studio-seminar course Politics and Ethics of Design, where a feminist base motivates us to engage questions around power relations, knowledge production, and systems of violence. A substantial reading list frames sustained conversations on the politics of race, class, and gender as it relates to the field of design, creating a critical foundation for design practice. Select topics include data feminism and counter cartography, the designer’s role in constructing notions of citizenship, the limits of empathy in design thinking, and the neoliberal entanglement of work and passion. 

By providing an anchor through reading and conversation, I ask design students to consider in their studio practice urgent questions: How do we respond to historical omissions? How do we interface with social movements? How do we act with an awareness of history that complicates liberal concepts of empathy as paramount? If we want students to engage power and sincerely explore what an anti-racist practice and education look like, then we need to fully engage in how design has traditionally played—and continues to play—a role in bolstering social inequity.

This design research was presented at Design Incubation Colloquium 9.2: Annual CAA Conference 2023 (Virtual) on Saturday, February 18, 2023.

Colored Bodies: Cultural Constructs in Standard Color Theory Pedagogy

Some of the most problematic aspects of standard color theory education

Aaron Fine
Truman State University

Color theory is often presented as a purely formal matter, with no suggestion that the color we are speaking of might apply to our bodies and all that they entail in terms of race, class, and gender. Despite the availability of focused research on isolated aspects of this problem, and more inclusive chapters being added to standard color theory textbooks, our default mode is to privilege a narrative that invokes the color science of Isaac Newton. We often imply that color wheels, primaries, and secondaries are universally applicable phenomena. But the truth is that each of these is a cultural construct with at best a tenuous connection to the natural laws of physics. And when Winckelmann stated, in his discipline founding writings, that “a beautiful body will, accordingly, be the more beautiful the whiter it is” he made perfectly clear that the more (or less) white bodies he was speaking of were our own. 

Drawing on content from my recently published book Color Theory: A Critical Introduction, I will discuss briefly some of the most problematic aspects of standard color theory education and suggest some of the ways we might improve our theory, practice, and pedagogy in this area. Topics include the rise of colorimetry in the mid 20th century, the embrace of spiritual notions about color, and colonialist views of certain cultures being more “colorful” than others. Grounded in scholarly research this presentation is relevant to design theory and pedagogy, but also has implications for creative practice. 

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 8.2: Annual CAA Conference on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

The Spectacle of Violence: Illustrating Surpanakha’s Mutilation

Research on the history of Amar Chitra Katha comics

Shreyas R Krishnan
Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Washington University in St.Louis

The mutilation of Surpanakha is a well known plot point in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Cast as a demoness and the female abject in this narrative, Surpanakha serves as a crucial turning point in the larger epic. When her nose and ears are cut off as punishment for perceived sexual transgressions, it sets in motion a chain of events that form the remainder of the Ramayana’s storyline. 

This paper examines visuals of this particular scene as illustrated in comics on the Ramayana story published by Amar Chitra Katha. This examination references existing research on the history of Amar Chitra Katha comics and their representation of women characters, while additionally applying the lenses of gender and film theory in its approach. Three issues of Amar Chitra Katha are first compared for their illustrations and narration of this moment of violence, before moving on to juxtapositions with the same scene in other contemporary long-form illustrated Ramayanas, and with photographer Jodi Bieber’s Time magazine cover image of Aisha Bibi who was similarly mutilated by the Taliban. 

By analogizing these visuals of gendered violence, and interrogating the relationship between text and image in each of them, this paper analyzes how Surpanakha’s mutilation is illustrated for public consumption.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 7.3: Florida Atlantic University on Saturday, April 10, 2021.

Interactive Game Design: Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

Giving access and inspiring young women in STEM.

Leigh Hughes
Assistant Professor
Coastal Carolina University

Women need to step it up a notch—or two—in the land of interactive game design, an area still lacking in female representation. According to recent U.S. Department of Education statistics, women have been dominating higher education enrollment and earning more than half of all bachelor’s degrees, yet only 15 percent of those are computer science degrees. Because a passion for design and technology can be stoked from a young age, giving girls engaging, gender-appropriate video games may help to inspire an ardor and love for learning, ultimately leading to more female game designers.

Providing access to interactive gaming, game making, and post-play narrative modding, girls gain confidence while attaining technical fluency to pursue higher degrees in STEM. Game industry statistics show that 22 percent of game developers are female and only 2 percent identify as transgender or non-binary. Due to low representation, there is a limited understanding of how young women and minorities might envision themselves as part of a male-dominated field with a potential future in game development. To help bridge this gender gap, a thorough mechanical thought process and creative problem-solving skills are essential to the advancement of women in computer science and interactive game design—all of which can be learned through gaming.

In the end, well thought out, gender-considerate game design, where girls’ playing preferences are thought of during conceptualization as opposed to being an afterthought, can have a great impact on whether or not girls become engaged in video games and remain interested. Interactive game play and modding can be very effective tools to bring females into the game design conversation, in turn providing choice within game play. Women game designers can change the face of digital game design and allow for a more inclusive gaming community by designing for themselves.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 6.2: CAA 2020 Conference Chicago on February 14, 2020.

Hierarchical Space: How the Use of Space Creates Bias

Investigations of data visualizations used to maintain bias about gender and race.

Katherine Krcmarik
Assistant Professor
University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Commonly used visuals such as the United States’ Electoral College map and the Mercator projection—the most common visual of a world map—support distortions of reality. In both examples, the use of space, or more accurately, the misuse of space, distorts our perception of the visual story and perpetuates long-held biases. These two examples lead to the investigation of hundreds of data visualizations from which a clear pattern emerged of hierarchy used to maintain biases about gender and race.

In design, hierarchy serves as a key building block of practice. The use of space to establish hierarchy is one of the first concepts we learn and teach in design education and remains one of the most valued tools for designers. However, hierarchy—vertical hierarchy specifically—relies on the concept that the amount of space and the location of an image or word occupies determines the importance of it in relation to all other elements. Hierarchy allows for the easy access of information but also, whether intentionally or inadvertently, may reflect gender and race biases in the decisions made when establishing the hierarchy.

The design profession needs to explore how our basic structures and precepts contribute to the cultural construct to find a new approach to design that eliminates bias. In a vertical hierarchy, one voice, style, right, or reality reigns dominant over all possibilities. Possible solutions to breaking down the biases present in the current vertical hierarchical system may reside in explorations of horizontal hierarchy, heterarchy, and semilattices.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 6.2: CAA 2020 Conference Chicago on February 14, 2020.

Using Icons to Encourage Visual Literacy on Campus

The role of design in instructional materials to engage a broad spectrum of student abilities.

Lance Hidy 
Accessible Media Specialist 
Northern Essex Community College

The academic administrators at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, are considering adopting Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a new methodology for improving student success and retention.

Having had disappointing results from other applied strategies, they are taking a fresh look at the role of design—especially for making instructional materials more accessible and engaging for a broad spectrum of student abilities. One important facet of UDL that the college is currently investigating is expanding the use of image content in text documents

To illustrate this idea, the Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs asked me to develop a system of icons to represent every degree and certificate offered by the college, along with icons for the six academic divisions, and the nine athletic programs—87 in all. Many of the faculty who were invited to participate in the process of icon development for their disciplines said that it was an eye-opening experience, being the first time they had engaged in a visual thinking exercise.

As the collection of icons was finalized and distributed, employees were invited to use them to promote their disciplines. Additionally, a colorful poster of all 87 icons is circulating on campus and off, providing not only a useful recruiting tool, but also a new way for employees and students to understand what the college is

It is too early to assess how persuasive this icon project will be in shifting the college culture toward UDL and improved visual literacy. But it is providing a popular, concrete example of UDL that is already being used by everyone, and is being cited as campus committees begin debating the role of UDL in the next strategic plan.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 5.3: Merrimack College on March 30, 2019.

Video Games Help to Prepare Girls For a Competitive Future In Stem

An analysis of how video games help to build visual-spatial skills and the positive influence early childhood gaming can have on girls.

Leigh Hughes
Adjunct Instructor
School of Visual Communication Design
Kent State University

Play is beneficial for children—it allows for freedom to explore and problem solve while freely using their imagination in a safe environment. It is imperative to allow girls this freedom to explore digital games and all of their possibilities. Video games help to build visual-spatial capabilities, which is the ability to mentally construct and organize 3-dimensional objects in an imaginary space, a skill that promotes advanced mathematical and engineering skills.

In order for women to compete in male dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries, females must have more opportunities in early childhood to develop their visual-spatial skills. To do this, girls should play more video games, suggests a study by University of Toronto researchers. Research shows, most girls play with toys that emphasize relationships or creativity. In contrast, boys typically play with computers, video games or build, which develop problem-solving and spatial skills. There is considerable evidence that these gender differences are generated from nurture, not nature.

By designing video games that engage young, female interests while incorporating essential, 3D building tools, and by offering girls more opportunities to practice their visual-spatial skills through this media may begin to help close the STEM gender gap and encourage females to pursue engineering and computer science. Women’s representation in STEM occupations remains low in engineering and computer occupations. Video games can begin to slow this decline by providing girls with the confidence they need to succeed in the classroom.

In conclusion, early exposure to video games could have significant impact on whether women choose to pursue engineering or computer science. Girls need to be engaged at their level, be provided more opportunities to construct without restriction or bias and should be encouraged to play video games as a means of developing crucial competitive skills.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 3.3: Kent State University on Saturday, March 11, 2017.