Nida Abdullah I’m Nida Abdullah. I’m an assistant professor at Pratt, so I’m full time. That means I’m on tenure track, there are a lot of different rules for educators at Pratt. That means I do a lot of service work, work on the curriculum. I worked as a designer in the world of making—I primarily worked in the cultural sector, so I worked for museums and things like that. I got into design research and then I became an educator. My focus in the past few years has been mostly on “What is design education? How do we teach? Why do we teach the way we do?” I think that a lot of it comes from these conventions and histories that we’ve inherited. Why do we do it this way? Why is the academic institution so rooted in its ways? That’s a lot of my practice now, so I carry that into Pratt—for good or bad, I guess.
In the classroom, I tend to bring that into the way I teach, as well. I hope that I try not to be so, “Here’s the grid, we have to learn the grid. Then we have to learn what is good type, what is bad type, blah blah blah.” I think we should always be challenging these conventions and questioning all of these inherited ideologies through form and through larger questions. How we move through the world, how that shapes us as actors in the world, too—we are designers, but we’re also people.
Logan Heffernan One of my peers brought up that same point, “Oh, I don’t think of myself as a graphic designer, I think of myself as a person who does graphic design.” That helps to understand the discipline as more than just execution of form over and over and on top of itself. Are there core principles that you hope to deliver to the students that you teach? Or core ways in which you think successful design education equips students to think about their futures?
NA Always questioning. I supplement the syllabus with these things, like, questioning yourself, questioning your peers, questioning me—recognizing authority and challenging it. I may have some knowledge of something, but that doesn’t mean that I am the classroom’s sole authority. I’m not keen on when my students are like, “Is this good? What do you want me to do?” Placing something in the canon of graphic design isn’t what I’m looking for, it isn’t what we should be doing. I think the students have all of these lived experiences and things that are just as valid as whatever has come before. Really instilling that perspective of challenging things. To your point of being able to see that you’re doing this graphic design work and having the wherewithal to see that it’s part of a larger institution is being open to challenging, “Wait, what am I doing? Why is this happening? Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” Maybe you wouldn’t go to the extreme of quitting but thinking about, “Is this what I want to do the next time?”
LH When you think about ethical design, what does that entail? What dynamics and approaches does it consider?
NA For me it has a lot to do with colonialism. I don’t necessarily use decolonization as a framework as much because I think we’re not really sure what that means a lot of the time. We always move toward whiteness as a way of validating what’s good and what’s not, so being really present and acknowledging that. To be able to function and be acknowledged as a good designer, it’s like, “Let’s make this thing—whether it be a flyer or a website—look white, essentially.” Acknowledging that that is what happens all the time. We see ourselves always moving toward—there’s always a proximity toward whiteness [needed] to be seen as successful or good. Seeing that that happens all the time, that is what I would include in something that is ethical design.
LH I’ve thought about that in relation to Herbert Bayer, specifically. Bayer and the Bauhaus inform so much of what is still taught—both the marriage of craft and commerce as well as the defining aesthetics of contemporary design. Bayer also worked for the Nazi party, his work served that agenda. We still blindly champion the work as a dominating aesthetic. (1) Setting type in a grid isn’t problematic within itself, but it’s problematic to champion that style without critically thinking about the conditions that led to it.
NA One thing I would say about the grid is that it’s an arbitrary system. We don’t have to use it all the time. There are other systems that we could play with or try out, but we always teach the grid. We teach the grid system—or the Bauhaus and those principles first—so that elevates them as good design or what you should do before we challenge or try to break the grid. What you teach first is the thing that people gravitate to as “good.” Thinking about the order of things and how we teach and why we teach them is important, too, I would say. The sequencing of the curriculum. We get push-back on that kind of stuff a lot, too.
LH As someone that has taught a graphic design history course, do you see potential for imbuing ethics and criticality within the design school through the historical teachings?
NA I think we should absolutely do that. I don’t know how history is taught at Pratt—I think it’s taught through the history department?
LH It is. We have a mandatory survey freshman year that encompasses everything, and I think our only other required history class at Pratt is a history of our discipline.
NA Is it taught sequentially?
LH It is. We used the Meggs textbook. (2)
NA The Meggs textbook is really problematic, too. It’s a very Western approach. I can’t believe you use the Meggs textbook, it’s known to be a problematic textbook. Have you seen the Johanna Drucker textbook? (3) You could even have a more expansive history, but it pairs things by ways of making. There are also other approaches and attempts to look at history from a different perspective. Do you know Ramon Tejada and his decolonizing, decentralizing work? (4) It’s open-source, everyone piling things together. History is often by a certain person’s perspective. The problem with the Meggs textbook is it’s just, like, “Here are the popular designers. Here’s the stuff we already know.” Meggs leaves out so much stuff, it is, like, “Here’s the top five dudes, essentially.” You could also look into some articles—if you’re interested in the ethics of history—by Martha Scotford. (5) She talks about how history, especially the Meggs textbook, is problematic.
LH As a sophomore, that was my first interaction with the history of the field. It was really potent in the way it structures your understanding and centralizes certain practices while “othering” everything else. Because it’s so linear and so championing of Western traditions, you end up seeing everything as culminating in this current moment of Western colonial design rather than seeing these all as studies within themselves. We see everything leading to our current moment that’s extremely white and in service to capitalism, but everything else is taken on its own, it's taken as a step along the way.
NA There’s this idea from the “Decolonising Design'' (6) group—this one guy writes about how even the idea of graphic design is a modern construct. It’s like a modernist perspective because before modernity, design existed. We call everything “craft” that isn’t design in service to capitalism. Before that, it’s not “craft,” it was design. That’s something to think about, too. Why do we other everything else? Call it vernacular, call it craft. Why does everything that’s in our world, I guess, why do we qualify it as design?
LH The extent to which we can remove ourselves from industry is really held and cemented by the notion that design, as we currently understand it, came about as a service to industry, as a tool for the commercialization of everything, as a road to globalization. That helps situate where we’re at and at least pulls the curtain back and lets us understand that we’re inextricable from this larger conversation. I think it also begins to set the grounds for people who work in other ways. Looking at graphic design as more than its formal output, but instead looking at moments where radicals used tools of communication to push a point, push an agenda, build a community. That’s a use of graphic design, but it doesn’t make it into the textbooks or the course conversation the same way that WPA posters might.
NA That’s what I think is particularly missing from when we start the curriculum, when we start teaching graphic design at the sophomore level. We make this idea of design super precious. We don’t talk about what design is or where within the context design is situated and what designers do and how it is part of this larger socioeconomic conversation. I think designers see themselves as super precious makers, and they’re not.
LH For the sophomore students rolling into that class without prior knowledge of graphic design history, how do you catch them up to speed on what graphic design is? In an ideal world, how do you inform students of what they’re participating in?
NA See, I think it’s tricky. I think a lot of our Pratt students are too tied to industry, almost. It almost limits them from being these really critical thinkers. What’s nice about being in school is that you can be super critical. I think design could potentially change how we participate. In education, if you let yourself, once you get into the discipline, you can change it, it could be nuanced. If you’re just in school responding to industry, that’s too close of a tie.
LH A lot of students also come in with their references to graphic design being things that were handed to them from commercial spheres. You can look at someone’s mood board and it’s all film posters, clothing graphics, fashion campaigns. Not that beautiful imagery in these places is invalid or unimportant, but I wonder if teaching the history of, say, radical publishing would help better situate the ways design performs.
NA If you’re not just producing the perfect portfolio and you suspend all of that, then you can challenge yourself. I think Chris (7) said this, maybe he said it to you—he says that the job becomes a distraction from the real thing that you want to do or the job becomes a way for you to change. You want to get into the job, but it's not what you actually want to do. There’s the other stuff, and then the job is to support the other stuff or it’s the distraction from the other stuff. How do you get into the world and then produce critical work? It’s not the job that you actually want to do. That’s how I think about myself.
I didn’t want to work for IBM, I really didn’t. All of my work in school was all about revolution and critical change. In reflection, I didn’t realize it, but when I was actually in school, I didn’t recognize that that’s what I was doing. When I was working and hating it, you don’t really realize it—but I didn’t want to be a successful designer. Now that I’m an educator, I recognize that I work for this large institution, and I hate that, too. I think you produce the work on the side, but I don’t think our Pratt students necessarily see it that way.
LH I was reading about Evening Class recently. (8) It started as an alternative to a BFA or an MFA and then turned into, “Okay, how can we create a continuing education space that’s community oriented; maybe it’s open-source, maybe it’s non-hierarchical.” It allows space for people who are working in places that don’t necessarily provide a ton of room for critical discourse to come together and think about that.
That’s a division I’ve played with in my head; whether you work in service to industry or work in some absolutely subversive way, those are the only two paths. But it’s not like that. That’s never really the case. Maybe you can work strictly in service to industry, but I don't think it's really possible to work totally against industry and commerce. Those spaces become interesting, too. What can a peer-education or on-going education space provide that’s not available or restricted within the institutional framework? A college like Pratt is still expected to provide a fairly standardized tool kit.
NA That’s the draw-back. We still have to provide this functioning working way of you getting into the world and “making it.” We’ve had these discussions, like, “Maybe we have these alternative minors of ‘How to Counterfeit Money,’” and that’s a minor. That’s stuff we want to try out, but I don’t know if they’ll let us. It’s maybe not ethical, it depends on what you see as ethical.
LH Part of my friction with some of the instruction I’ve gotten during my undergraduate studies is that I would like for everyone to encourage critical reflection. I remember reading someone’s framework for practicing more ethically that proposed three levels of criticism: criticism of the self and the work you’re making, criticism of the community and your peers and the way you’re all making work, and criticism of how graphic design at large connects to the world beyond it. (9) Those propose three tiers through which to evaluate the work that’s being made and situate yourself better within the grand scheme of things. But I also think it’s beyond Pratt’s control—nor do they want to, necessarily—ask every teacher to bring those ideas into the classroom. I’ve certainly had my fair share of teachers where the idea is that you know how to typeset a brochure so you can go work at Pentagram when you graduate.
The additional issue with that is that a lot of people want that, that’s what they’ve always expected design to be. There isn’t an understanding of an alternative to that way of working.
NA There isn’t an understanding of an alternative in the classroom? Yeah. I think the dream would be if Pratt was this super alternative school that didn’t respond to this New York—I mean, New York has the space and audience for radical thought, I think. There are other schools that are purely industry driven. At least maybe not the whole school—but it could be cool if it was the whole school—if the program was about critical thought and critical investigation and really pulling apart and deconstructing what it means to design or create. I even think the learning outcomes need to be really destroyed, you know. Not about form, I think form can be whatever it is; not specific to what you’re making in the class, but what it means to create form and how form responds to an environment.
I especially think, after all of this whatever that we’re going through, it’s going to be even more imperative to think through this. If there’s no market for a designer—that’s an extreme, maybe—but does it make sense to have a learning outcome that’s to create 3D shit? Is it more about making something just and ethical? Maybe that’s a reach, I don’t know. Is it more about supply chain? Designers can think in that way.
LH I think my generation and class, and the surrounding classes of people entering the field, are going to be so conditioned by this experience. Even in regard to the formal outputs. I was taking Independent Publishing before this all happened, and that’s a class that centers around the Risograph (10) as a gift from above that we can make these inevitably beautiful things with. Suddenly we’re taken away from that context, and we don’t have the same tool to use. Even thesis; instead of it being this printed object, now we really understand better than before the limitations of certain physical forms. I want to communicate this work with everyone, and I've found myself learning React so that I can build out a more developed website to communicate this because that feels like the most fitting way to talk to people now, rather than a publication that’s a physical book.
NA Maybe the learning outcomes are about flexibility and fluidity and those kinds of things. Those are really conditions that’s a real thing you have to respond to in the world, not being so rigid.
LH Embracing that flexibility inherently diminishes some of the preciousness around so much of the canon. We’re now looking at objects where of course the cultural context already changed years ago, but we’re looking at objects that were produced in such a different world. That might spark an interest in further investigating the ways we’re working, who we’re serving, how we’re communicating. Especially in considering graphic design as communication design, being about getting an idea from Point A to Point B—there’s no way to avoid the current constraints around that.
It’ll be really interesting seeing what this does for all of us. If it makes us all insufferable nihilists or if we find hopeful responses.
NA After college, I didn’t have a job for a long time. I graduated after the 2008 recession. At my first job, I made very little money. I did have a freelance job, I was freelancing for a studio. I got this contract for the DOD designing safety manuals for people dropping bombs over Iraq. I didn’t realize it at the time, and I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It was a lot of money, too, and I quit the job. I couldn’t do it.
That’s an example, to what you were saying, of when your ethics can keep you from doing something. Then I went back to making no money, but I just couldn’t do it. I want the soldiers to be safe, I guess, they’re humans, too—but I also don’t want to help them destroy a country I care about.
LH The idea that we’re all in a position to turn down any job that we morally conflict with is unrealistic. We all have to make money. A lot of times, especially in this country with so little grant money, the jobs that we have to take to stay afloat, the ‘keep-the-light-on’ jobs, are the ones we have the most dissonance with. It’s not just a matter of figuring out what your ethics are and how they align with a company, but then how do you negotiate that?
NA Yeah, there are a ton of things you need to do just to be able to live.
LH I was talking to Rob and Kurt about this, and Rob was saying that as valid as these criticisms are, it’s important to not place the weight of the burden on the entry-level employee. The 22-year-old coming out of school that needs to make rent for the next six months isn’t the biggest piece of the problem. Maybe it's still a problem for them to participate in these spaces, but at some point you cross the line from valid critique to sitting on some high horse where everyone doing what they need to get by is in the wrong.
NA I totally agree with that. Also, I feel like I’ve done work that I don’t care for or don’t agree with many, many times. Now, I like my job better, but I also still work for an institution; you kind of just have to get on with it. I do think that there’s a lot that can be done with our curriculum to at least instill that critical reflection in our students so that over the years maybe they’ll get to a place where they are more active.
LH As someone that works within the curriculum-planning dimension of our department, how do you think that moves forward? We know that it would be really great if we could use a totally alternative history and encourage people to not subscribe strictly to these sets of conventions, but I’m curious what the pragmatic steps are in starting to get there.
NA There’s different ways to do it. Sometimes I’ll just add stuff into my syllabus, so that’s more of a one-off; one faculty member can do that at a time. There can be a special topics class. I want to teach a critical typography class. There are other ways that take a longer time where you have to push things through the curriculum committee, so that goes through the department curriculum committee, the school curriculum committee, and then the larger curriculum committee. That takes a couple years, essentially.
Then, again, Chris and I are working on writing these minors. Some of them are sillier than others, but those are more about, “Where is design situated?” Some of them are about promoting an anti-capitalist perspective in design, and that would take almost no time, it would take a year. There are different ways of doing it that are more scaffolded.
LH That’s the constant question: how much of this is just wishful thinking? But I know it can be done, I remember talking to Duncan about Werkplaats Typografie (11) and Sandberg Instituut (12) which both operate in places where there’s more state funding and more grant money allocated for people that are working beyond the commercial sphere. They’re also still models of what design can look like when it isn’t so Pentagram-centric. (13)
NA I would also even question Werkplaats or Sandberg. Werkplaats continuously does the same thing over and over again. After a while, it’s like, how is Werkplaats even effective? How are they doing something that’s resonating or even acknowledging what’s happening in the world around it. It might have started in a place that’s challenging something, but it’s now become rooted and trendy, you know? I would think about that too.
LH I know you’re interested in cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary practice, and I’m hoping you could speak a bit on that? It’s something I go back and forth on. At Pratt, it would have been really helpful if I had more interdisciplinary experience, working with people that didn’t necessarily have the exact same disciplinary lexicon—figuring out how to communicate beyond this really narrow lane of graphic designers talking to graphic designers. The opposing question to that is: how do you make sure that people understand the positioning of their discipline as they’re working with someone else? Is there a risk of people not understanding how graphic design performs when they’re starting to see it more as a piece in a larger process?
NA Design is a very broad thing, graphic design particularly. It’s quietly—maybe loudly—losing its definition, anyways. At Pratt, maybe some of the problem is that design is held so closely. There are so many people who tightly hold onto their ideas of what graphic design is. I think that creates this hierarchy between designers and non-designers. There are a lot of people who design, even people who don’t go to design school. Their way of working or their perspectives are just as valid as designers. I also think that there are people like computer scientists or engineers who work in ways that we can appreciate and learn from. We don’t have them at Pratt, but I think it’s helpful to work with people who are scientists because I think it expands our perspectives and worldviews. I think Pratt really holds form-making so closely. Don’t get me wrong, I love form. I think we should have a track that’s just form-making and really expanding what form is. I think we don’t have that because we hold so closely onto what is design and that “this” is what design is, that we should have books all the time—which is just weird to me.
There might be a loss of language, maybe we don’t quite understand what each other is saying, but even designers across designers almost don’t know what we’re saying. There’s no one way of saying, “This is what this certain thing means.” I think that creates authority and hierarchy, and I think that's what we should get away from or try to challenge.
LH I’m trying to find a reading that presents five points for a more critical and ethical practice. One of them that feels especially relevant with Pratt is encouraging the students first practice commissioned work within their own communities. First practicing making work for the people around them. I don’t think there’s anywhere where the lack of that is more clear than Pratt. I wrote an essay and made a mini-broadsheet about the Housing Act of 1949 and Robert Mose’s “Slum Clearance” initiatives that allowed Pratt to be walled-off and so many buildings to be demolished so that we could have this large perimeter and remove the train that used to run down Grand Avenue. (14) That’s all design. That was all design of a city and infrastructure and segregation. It all is so imbued in what we practice at Pratt; you have this place that was created by displacement becoming a mechanism that continues to displace others as it gentrifies the surrounding area. That questions how present the dialogue is between the institution and what lies beyond its gates.
NA Well, I don’t think it's very present at all. I think there’s an animosity, wouldn’t you say? How do you feel about Pratt working with the community?
LH It’s so dependent on context. There are so many ways in which Pratt working with the community is just a way to Trojan Horse more gentrification into the neighborhood. Myrtle Avenue’s “rejuvenation” initiative serves Pratt students, it serves yuppies. (15) It wasn’t launched because any of the participating sources of funding or agencies cared to invest in the existing community; if that was the case, it would have happened long ago. The question that arises is, “How much of the work that’s done regarding the community around Pratt is actually in service to that community or actually allowing participation from the community, and how much is it just a way to virtue signal without challenging anything?
Maybe some people who live in the community want Pratt to participate, like, “You took over our space and now you don’t do anything for us.” This is a paradigm that exists with a lot of institutions, like Michigan State, East Lansing and Lansing. It’s an issue in Michigan, Duke and Durham have this issue. Institutions come, have a boat-load of money, and then do nothing for the community. Or the stuff they do is so out of touch with what's actually happening, like, “You’re just ruining everything about our livelihood and using all of our resources. When you do engage with us, you have no idea what’s going on with our actual lives.”
I think more Brooklynites, born-and-raised, should have scholarships or should be able to have free tuition to Pratt. We don’t offer as much of that as we should.
LH I’ve had that conversation with peers. What if instead of having three different campuses, some of those resources were concentrated on serving people in the community around one of the campuses? (16) Maybe this is in bad taste to single out, but how the Utica campus interacts with the dynamics of the Brooklyn campus. At what point is Pratt only creating more spaces to be able to charge more people tuition? That’s not in the interest of anyone other than the school.
NA We should have more New Yorkers or people from Brooklyn as part of our student body. We should give them tuition, but that doesn’t sustain Pratt’s model.
LH That opens up the question of, “Is there an ethical model for design education in Clinton Hill?” Is there a way for Pratt to realistically be a more considered place, or is it always going to be confined by capitalism and greed with the chief goal being remaining profitable.
NA One thing we have to think about is that we already took the space. If Pratt leaves, that area becomes more depressed economically. As we’re looking at what’s happening in the world today, I think we can assume that we might have fewer and fewer international students because of the closed embassies and difficulties getting to the United States. How do we support our own neighborhoods and continue educating and continuing supporting students in the area? I think that’s something to consider, and I think that’s something we should do. I think Pratt has money, they’re just putting it in different places. Like opening the Navy Yard lab: do we need that? Again, that’s just signalling that we are researchers or whatever. (17)
LH That’s so rooted in the colonial notion of knowing the way to do everything and being the central point from which everything must branch out.
NA “We’re clearly doing it right, so let's keep spreading.”
LH Even something like Pratt faculty also teaching design courses at existing institutions in the area—perhaps that’s a more equitable way to provide tools, maybe. It’s certainly different from challenging the current institutions by proposing your own.
NA I think you’re right. At least coming up with vignettes for, “What is the ethical model for Pratt as an institution in Clinton Hill?” What might it be?
LH If students are enrolled at a school that’s committed to being critically self-reflective and trying to mediate its relationship with the space, that also in-turn encourages students to do the same. Considering their participation in the design world at large as a resident of Clinton Hill or Bushwick. So much of the criticality and reflection that would be beneficial to students would become ingrained if it were incorporated at an institutional level.
NA I would ask, too, if we’re looking at Pratt as an actor in the space of Clinton Hill and New York, then let's also look inwardly and ask what it means for students once they leave or as participants as students. How active are they in modeling the class? Are they collectively coming up with the learning outcomes or rubrics or classes being offered? How does Pratt itself change? That doesn’t mean that they have to do it at every level. Is it scaffolded? Seniors do it, juniors work with seniors—how does the institution itself change? There’s a lot that can happen.
LH Zoom’s actually made this really clear for me, that as we move into being more critical of the way the institution functions one of the unavoidable pieces of that is that the hierarchy gets flattened a bit. As the curriculum becomes more dynamic and fluid and open to new factors, it removes the educator a bit from their pedestal and puts them in dialogue with their students. I think institutions in general are weary of that because if you move too far toward decentralization, at some point people are going to realize that they could just do it themselves.
NA Potentially. I think there's magic in being together, though.
LH I do, too, and I think that’s where Evening Class or similar models are most interesting. They harness the importance of being in a room together but also challenge the hierarchy of traditional learning.
NA I think Black Mountain (18) originally ran on this idea that there was no teacher. They were all together working together, and the ideas came from all of them. There wasn’t really a leader. If you really want to go radical with it, maybe you all get paid for going to school as much as the teacher. Of course we have to have jobs, but you could think about what the economic model of it is, too.
I think it doesn’t have to be the way it is, it’s just the way it is because it’s a business. What does school even mean? Potentially the institution might break down. It might fail one day.
LH This is maybe too big of a consideration, but the push for tuition-free education—even if it just starts with the state funding of public colleges— that would really radically restructure the curriculum itself. It wouldn't just mean that the school now has funding and more people can attend, but it would also question the confines of what the school’s expected to do and how they can do it. There wouldn’t need to be the same constant background focus on making sure the school remained profitable. That’s the ominous part, because you can trace the individual student’s journey and experience all the way up to the most dominating aspects of our socioeconomic operations. Then it becomes a much bigger question.
NA Because state-funded schools have to do with state budgets, that’s how things get cut, too. I think that’s always an issue with arts programs. I wonder too if they were to make everything free, how do they do that? Does that come with state budgets or what? Does the state control how it becomes free?