Chris Lee

On Speculative Design Pedagogy

Chris Lee I did graphic design in undergrad and then worked for a couple years. I sort of came to a similar realization with regards to the alienating nature of design labor, primarily due to the fact that it is a service profession. I was working in editorial and in magazines. For a variety of reasons, I lost the sense of connection with it. So I applied to grad school and got into a school called the Sandberg Institut (1) in Amsterdam. The thing that attracted me to that program was, one, that the tuition was 2,400 Euros for international students at the time. I think it's like 8,000 now, but it was cheaper than my undergraduate tuition. I went to school in Canada for my undergrad. That’s cheaper than the US, and Europe was even cheaper than that. The other thing was that the program, to my understanding, had a fairly explicit political orientation. In one way or another, that was something that I thought I was interested in. I didn’t have the language for it at that time. I feel like your generation is so much savvier than my own generation was 10 or 15 years ago. You guys are, it’s really remarkable. I just downloaded TikTok. I don’t know if its their algorithms or if the algorithms are trying to troll me or something, but I’m getting a lot of Trump stuff, a lot of young or tween pro-Trump stuff. Is this the algorithms or is this actually what’s out there now? It seems like people are more politically charged.

Your question is precisely one of the debates that we had among ourselves, my classmates and I. One of the main ways that conversation was framed was as a question of the relationship of commercial work and speculative, political, and research-oriented work that’s not lucrative. Even within the Dutch context, which at that time had strong funding infrastructure for research-based speculative work. I left in 2013, I think, and that was when there was an ascending right-wing coalition government and parliament. (2) That was cutting back on a lot of things that they considered to be facets of leftist policies. They’ve brought back a lot of funding since then, so there’s hope for America, I think.

That was one of the frameworks of the conversation: what’s the relationship between doing commercial work and doing this other kind of work? Some of the people in this conversation thought about doing commercial or client-based work as enabling the other kind of work that you don’t get paid for. The other position, which is the one that I took—at least rhetorically—was that this doesn’t enable the more important political work, it’s actually an obstacle to the more important political work.

I left there in 2013 and when I got back home, when I went back to Canada, I couldn’t do any of that work. I couldn’t do any of the kind of work that I was doing in the Netherlands through funding at grad school. I just took that stuff out of my portfolio when I went to go for jobs. I got a break though when I interviewed at Bruce Mau. (3) The creative director there happened to have been a graduate of the Rietveld Academie, which is the undergraduate wing of the Sandberg. (4) He kind of got what I was doing, so I felt comfortable showing him some of that stuff. I got a break that way. I think that the sort of thing you’re trying to talk about is a persistent problem in design education because even in the most ideal economic political context—like you might’ve found in the Netherlands ten years ago—even then there was this conversation about what the viability of doing speculative, research-oriented, politically-charged work would be.

When I got back, like I said, I worked for a while and then worked in branding and came across this sense of alienation from the work and wanted to get back into research-oriented stuff, politically-charged stuff— to have the time and resources to do so. So I went back into teaching and taught at OCADU (5) for a couple years, and then the University of Buffalo, a SUNY school, for four years. (6) That was really great for me in a lot of ways. Buffalo’s considered a research institution, it’s part of a network of R-1 universities. There’s a lot of support and space and time given to research activities. I was able to do that a lot. The thing I was really frustrated by was the way that graphic design within an art department that’s known for its criticality and politically-charged faculty was seen as this necessary evil. It was the thing that got enrollment in the art department up. It was the thing that transmitted employable skills to the students. Amongst my faculty colleagues, there was maybe lip-service appreciation to my orientation toward a critical practice, but in terms of curricular development, there wasn’t a lot of prioritization of more speculative work. There was a friendliness toward “social good” topics and courses. These were safe within liberal discourses of social justice. Very reformist, there were a set of courses that were being offered about working with NGOs and communities. A lot of stuff that, maybe in a more negative light, could be considered as part of a green-washing effort on behalf of the university.

Those are the contexts that I was coming from. Part of why I applied to the job at Pratt and accepted it was because I wanted to work with Jessica Wexler. She’s someone that I’ve met in the context of design education conversations and know her to be someone who’s committed to really thinking critically about how to—I mean, in large institutions the best you can do it steer, you can’t really change things radically—how to steer a design curriculum toward something that might be less oriented toward producing interchangeable parts for the factory, for the market. (7) That’s hard to do, and, like any big institution, anything that you want to do is going to meet a lot of resistance from upper administration, from established faculty, even from students. I feel like a lot of students, especially nowadays, tend to be quite conservative, especially in design school with regard to having a desire for employable skills. It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask for, but I feel like it’s really strongly stated. My experience as an educator and as someone who’s been a student at a number of institutions, that’s the worst way to spend time or resources, technical training. I keep saying to me students, “All the software that I taught myself to use in my undergraduate education became obsolete by the time I graduated or soon after.”

Maybe then this is where I’m going to start addressing some of your broader questions, but one of the primary forces at work that determines what seems reasonable or realistic within a design curriculum is, as you’ve mentioned, market forces. I think, more specifically, the fact that a school like Pratt is 50 or 60 thousand dollars a year? It’s this excessive absurd amount of money. It compels the rationalization of any kind of pedagogical curriculum decision in financial terms. Again, maybe this is something that you recognize quite well since you’re doing this research. Those are some of my baseline understandings of what this is about.

Logan Heffernan As much as this project means to me now and as much as this conversation feels important right now, I think I would have been much more closed off to it in my earlier years at Pratt. That’s a roadblock I keep coming to; what’s the relationship between curriculum and student that walks students into this more critical repositioning of design. Before, I just wanted to feel competent, I was in a trade-oriented mindset. My references to graphic design have come from commercial spaces, and for a lot of people coming to Pratt, they’re studying graphic design because they really liked some ad or some campaign. I’m stumped on how an institution like Pratt can encourage a conversation of ethics and criticality without being prescriptive.

CL You mean prescriptive about alternatives?

LH I think that whatever the curricular adjustment would be that would lead to students considering these things, it would have to be open enough to walk students through the door rather than shoving them through it.

CL I might be more cynical than others about this, but I think that any radical shift in curricular development initially would have to be imposed. It sounds really authoritarian and paternalistic, but, again, my experience has been that a lot of design students I’ve encountered in the institutions that I’ve worked in tend to be conservative and have a limited set of reference points for imagining and articulating what that alternative might entail. Even for the faculty, it’s not something that people are used to talking about because we haven’t had to before.

You bring to it what you think it should be. I would start with a totally different and clearly marked-out set of assumptions that are in counter position to the assumptions that frame current pedagogy—which are, for the most part, also unstated. The capitalist market almost has the status of natural phenomena, as something that's outside of contestation. This entails very clear assumptions that just don’t happen to be articulated explicitly. We don’t say, “We are preparing students for employment within a capitalist economic situation.” But, I think the alternative to whatever that is ought to be, “We are preparing students to imagine and create a communist society.” That’s what I would say, you know.

I hate this quote because of who it comes from, but I think it’s useful. Henry Ford once said that if he had asked people to design the future of vehicles, they would have told him to create a faster horse. Most people, whether its students or faculty or administrators, will use the existing conceptual tools and formal ideas to articulate these possibilities. Even to say, “A new curriculum should be framed by communist assumptions” is using an old language. This is the next part of the path that I would pursue with regards to reforming or re-doing design pedagogy: I would say that one of the primary questions in design education ought to be a question of new forms. We have a course called New Forms! I taught it last semester.

My main point, which is a little bit of a digression, but I think one of the primary imperatives of a new design curriculum ought to be built around a question of new forms. I think some of the things that we—in general, as society—lack are forms, concepts, tools for articulating new ideas. Ways of remembering, archiving, documenting. We lack tools to articulate other possibilities. I think that’s what design pedagogy could do. I have very little knowledge or experience with the world of poetry, but I feel like poetry is a practical and conceptual model for how to think about what the value of design pedagogy might be. Again, to point toward experimenting with and giving form to new ways of knowing, seeing, speaking. To go back to the thing that I was just saying a minute ago about how I would orient or frame a new pedagogy, this comes with the caveat that I’ll start by saying I think we should build this based on communist assumptions, but these assumptions can also melt away and die.

Those are very high-level comments that don’t necessarily come with any specific policy proposals or course outlines or anything like that, but that’s a whole other set of assumptions that I think can be undone. Do we have classes? What’s the relationship between faculty and students? Do you pay for this school? Are there grades? I think there ought not to be grades; I’m super happy now that we’ve gone to a pass-fail system, which is something that I’ve been trying to bring into the faculty conversation since I got here (I’ve only been here for a semester and a half) because, in the Dutch context that I have some experience with, they don’t do grades. (8) I think that’s partly possible because school is very affordable. There isn’t all of this other institutional baggage that requires this inertia around grading (i.e. merit-based financial aid). Every faculty member I know, at best, disdains grading. We’re all just going through the motions and pretending that it means something. It’s a kind of punitive disciplinary instrument, and I think it models an ethically problematic way of relating to people, and it’s just the wrong incentive structure to operate if what you want students to do is engage in ambitious experimentation of speculation on counter-hegemonic possibilities against capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, ableism, etc.

LH It validates the meritocracy of it by tiering the reward system.

CL I think grading prepares students for wage labor. It prepares students for punitive-disciplinary measurement. It also is premised on some kind of vague presumption that design is this fixed knowable thing that can be transmitted in modular units, and its performance can be measured, quantified, and managed. It totally neglects or misrecognizes that design is not a fixed thing—it’s contestable. One of the things that one of my teachers said at the Sandberg was, “The only way to really contribute to design is to first be ready to abandon it, to be ready to say ‘this is not a thing.’” Which to me means that if you do think that it's a [set] thing, then you’re trapped, you’re trapped in inheriting these existing vague assumptions. We haven’t really articulated these because we’ve never really had a proper forum for questioning it.

LH Something that feels like a pragmatic way to give new context to graphic design is considering it as a performance and considering the uses of design as different civic performances—thinking about it less as a passive field and appreciating the impact that these different uses have.

CL This is not going to happen at Pratt, but one of the ways I’m interested in thinking about, or re-thinking design pedagogy would be to figure designing, or making marks or making inscriptions, as a documentary practice, an archival practice. It’s primarily not a question of, “How do we communicate?” but, “How do we remember, how do we record things?” Some of the work that I’m doing is premised on the idea that a lot of what we think about as social economic problems are problems that are facilitated by graphical artifacts. Take border justice politics, for instance. A border is a line on a map, and it’s reified by a person with a gun. A passport is a graphical artifact that entitles one with the right to move through these border spaces without a threat of violence being imposed on them for not having one. It creates a normativity around the possession of documents, so if you don’t have a document there’s something wrong with you. Money, birth certificates, driver’s licenses. In general, I’m very interested in what media historian Lisa Gitelman calls “the genre of the document,” this banal set of artifacts that, as design artifacts, I think of as being the most consequential. (9) These all embody or constitute ways of remembering things, archiving things, right? A passport remembers your entitlement to move through border spaces, it again reifies a global system of nation states which are inherently violent entities.

I’m also coming from a background of anarchist thought, so my baseline assumptions are that the kinds of documents that are produced and issued by the state are there to reinforce the state’s agenda. [In Canada I vote Communist Party, so I do participate in institutional politics, in contradiction to some political ideas and commitments I have to decolonization.] My design curriculum would focus on thinking critically about the design artifacts that govern our lives and parsing those out to see what social function they serve. Is there anything that’s worth keeping here? In the case of money, for example, we can attribute a lot of evils to it, but maybe there’s something useful still. I think about the question of money through the work of writers like David Graeber. He’s an anthropologist and is informed largely by anarchist thought, as well. He wrote a book called “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” which was very influential for me in my graduate work. (10) My curriculum would include taking questions about money and thinking about it through the lens of his work. For instance, again, there’s been a lot of bad stuff attributed to this, but what’s useful about it? One of the things he would argue is that—without getting too much into his whole book—he says that there’s actually something good about people being in debt to each other. People who are in debt to each other aren’t ready to kill each other because they owe each other things; you want to get something back from someone who is indebted to you and not kill them. Anyways, that’s a very severe paraphrase.

I would be interested in having courses that go into questions about, “How do you design an identity document? What’s the social benefit of doing such a thing? How do we rethink the idea of cartography?” Modern cartography, which was based on the work of the British Imperial Ordnance Survey—maps that were made to figure out how to bomb people more accurately, right? (11) This is the genealogical origin of modern maps. What’s another way to think about maps that can reify a different way of understanding, perhaps an Indegenous understanding, of a place we call North America but that many Indegenous people call Turtle Island? (12) How can we use maps to rename places and reconstitute Indigenous sovereignty?

That’s the kind of curriculum that I would be interested in developing, but none of this is anything that will get anyone a job.

LH I agree, that is the most consequential way to think about a lot of these technical skills and artifact outputs, but it gets daunting because for that big of a curricular shift, it comes from all angles. The history would have to reflect that, we’d have to think about how we can decolonize the ways the history of design is taught. Through what case studies or sequencing can design history then be taught in a way that doesn’t line everything up as leading up to our current moment of late stage capitalism.

CL Yeah, that’s precisely what I mean also by, “How do we remember things?” History is itself designed. I like the word historiography because it has this implication that it is a kind of graphical practice, it is design. Did you guys use the Meggs book? (13) It’s a little better now than it used to be when I used it, but it’s still this teleological technological progressive narrative where everything that’s happening now is explainable as a result of everything that has happened. I think you’re right, historiography is a key component of a curricular shift because I think it does shape how students imagine their disciplinary identity. If you read about people who have done books, logos, websites, posters—when you call yourself a designer, then you tend to think that that’s something you’re supposed to do. But if you include counterfeiters of money or forgers of passports, other forms of mark-making that can’t be categorized in even a conventional sense of design, then you have a different disciplinary horizon of what’s imaginable. A different set of skills, tasks, procedures, concerns for making—than those that are typically concerned with mass communication, where mass communication has since the beginning of print in the West been coextensive with the market and the emergence of industrialization. Again, the set of assumptions would become totally different.

That’s also something I would include in the new curriculum: the design of design history. Some design educators are already doing this. One of my critiques of what I’ve seen out there though is that I just think it could be more radical. A lot of the diversification of reference points is nice, it’s good, but it sort of still plays in the safe protest zone, free speech zones of American liberalism. You can diversify things, but you can’t fundamentally challenge them. One example of this for me is the way that Japanese family crests, for example, are lauded as a new reference point for graphic design history. (14) Partly, from what I’ve seen, based on the formal proximity to the Swiss modernist principles of design. It’s only on the terms that have been established by Western design historiography that other things are permitted for inclusion. This is one level of limitation. The other, which I think is exemplified by the way Chinese and Korean printing (15) is also lauded within more diversified design histories as preceding Gutenberg. (16) Again, this is nice, but I think what this forgets to recognize is the role that the advent of the printing press in the European context played in the amplification of industrialization, the amplification of colonialism and capitalism, the birth of nationalism, the birth of the system of nation states. Replacing one diverse reference for that based on chronological priority neglects the possibility of a more pointed indictment of the role design played in a lot of bad shit.

I would tend to not forget that. I would actually still center European design historiography for that purpose, to be, like, “Yeah, it was cool, but it also did bad shit.” You know? The joint-stock company would not be possible were it not for the printing press. The joint-stock company enables these massive colonial enterprises to exploit what becomes the Dutch East Indies (17) under colonialism. This is not possible without the printing press printing thousands of stock certificates and enabling a publicly traded multinational corporation, and the birth of the stock market, right? The birth of global capitalism ought to be attributed to this. But this is not talked about when you talk about Gutenberg, this is also not talked about when you talk about the Diamond Sutra. (18)

Your point about historiography is really important. I think the conversation around that has been a bit limited, too, to diversity. Which is fine, but there are limitations.

LH For many reasons, designers really put themselves on a pedestal, claiming graphic design to be responsible for this divine cultural output. With that, there’s a focus on only celebrating the pretty design object that we can all gather around and point at. If graphic design were to be treated more as a liberal art and be put in the context of economics or social sciences, that could really have a lot of value in a totally different way.

CL One of the things that I was thinking when I was at the state school—UB SUNY is this giant school with a big business school and medical school and engineering school. One of the things I imagined was what if the design curriculum was dispersed in these other disciplines to look at the ways in which designed artifacts give form to and facilitate thought and activity in these fields. I don’t know if you’ve seen the book “Extracurricular?” (19) It was edited by Jacob Lindgren who is based in Chicago (published in Eindhoven, NL). I don’t know if you’re able to get it or have seen it, but I wrote a text in there that’s a speculative curriculum for a design program that would exist in an anarchist college that used to be part of UB SUNY. It’s written as a series of snippets of texts for a reading list. I want to send it to you, but I have to actually find it. That might be something useful.

I don’t know if we really touched on ethics, but maybe it’s implicit in some of these [ideas].

LH I think it is, it’s such an umbrella. It’s so flexible, so many things factor into that conversation. I think anytime we’re talking about the economic involvement of graphic design or the way it intersects with the power structures that dominate modern society, there’s the underlying conversation of what ethical practice is and how you mediate that as a practitioner.

CL In conclusion, the thing that I would say about ethics is that I think there are existing frameworks for starting to try to articulate what that might mean within a design practice. Again, I think a lot of what we’re doing now is premised on unspoken assumptions about where students are headed after graduation, but if we articulate those assumptions explicitly and differently—again, just as an example, towards the articulation of a Communist society—the work would be figuring out how that plays out in course content, student-teacher relationships, grading schemes (if there is to be any grading at all). The assumptions are totally different. Maybe a portfolio isn’t even a thing, maybe it’s more, like, once you graduate, the idea is to form or join a collective and serve the people. Do you need a portfolio for that? I don’t know, maybe not. Skills are still going to be required, you still have to know how to do things and make things, but assumptions about those kinds of things might be totally different.

  • 1

    Sandberg Instituut

  • 2

    2012 Dutch general election

  • 3

    Bruce Mau Design

  • 4

    Rietveld Academie

  • 5


  • 6

    SUNY Buffalo

  • 7

    "Workshop Project is the pedagogical design practice of Yasmin Khan and Jessica Wexler. It is a platform for investigating and proposing new forms and modalities of design education inside, outside and beyond the institution. We make the artifacts of academia (i.e. applications, symposia, curricula, lectures, presentations, workshops) as forms of critical writing that articulate our ideas about the future-present of design education and practice. Workshop Project also organizes symposia, workshops and other collaborations with colleagues and educational institutions."

    Workshop Project
  • 8

    This conversation took place days after Pratt Institute announced the switch to a pass/fail grading system in response to COVID-19.

  • 9

    Lisa Gitelman: Paper Knowledge

    Duke University Press
  • 10

    David Graeber: Debt - The First 5,000 Years

  • 11

    British Imperial Ordnance Society

  • 12

    "Turtle Island is a name for the Earth or for North America, used by many Native Americans and First Nations people and by Indigenous rights activists. The name is based on a common Native American creation myth."

  • 13

    Meggs' History of Graphic Design

    Interactive Textbook
  • 14

    "Mon (紋), also monshō (紋章), mondokoro (紋所), and kamon (家紋), are Japanese emblems used to decorate and identify an individual, a family, or (more recently) an institution or business entity."

  • 15

    History of printing in East Asia

  • 16

    Gutenberg's press

  • 17

    Dutch East Indies

  • 18

    "The Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahāyāna scriptures in East Asia. Thanks to the colophon – the short dedication note written at the end, after the sacred Buddhist text – we have quite a lot of information about the context surrounding the commissioning of this particular copy. The few characters translate as follows: ‘On the 15th day of the 4th month of the 9th year of the Xiantong reign period, Wang Jie had this made for universal distribution on behalf of his two parents.’ We therefore know the precise date the scroll was made (11 May 868), who financed it, on behalf of whom and for what purpose."

    British Library
  • 19

    "Extra-curricular is a reader of collected texts about self-organized learning, experiments, and alternatives in art and design education. Occurring both within and separate from existing institutions, these new forms of learning and organization question how learning takes place, for whom, and the ideologies inherent in existing models, among many other things. An (admittedly) incomplete inventory, this book aims to serve as a starting point for further discussion and experimentation."

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