Anja Neidhardt is a design researcher, writer, curator and educator. Together with Maya Ober she co-creates depatriarchise design. She writes for various international design publications and teaches Design History and Theory at the Academy of Visual Arts in Frankfurt/Main. In 2016 she graduated from Design Curating and Writing (MA) at Design Academy Eindhoven. From 2012 until 2014 she was a member of form Design Magazine’s editorial team. She is currently a PhD Student at the Umeå Institute of Design and the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies.

What was the impact of your experience as design students and practitioners on the way you do research and the way you teach?

I studied communication design in my bachelor at the Academy of Visual Arts in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. It's a quiet small academy, with more focus on theory and on concepts rather than on realization. Realization was of course part of it, aesthetics and things like that. There was more graphic design and advertising in focus, more than other design disciplines, but we had a strong focus on the concept and we always had to base it very strongly.

We had to explain what was our topic, what was the question that we were trying to answer, our intention, what we wanted to achieve with each project we did to then in the end, look into it and decide 'Ok, maybe this can be solved in the best way with graphic design and a poster or maybe we should rather do a video, or we should maybe rather go into some other kind of medium'. We had to first think about the topic and the question behind it and then look into what might the result be.

Often I think that in design education there's this thing that people start by saying 'I want to do a poster!' but not really knowing for what kind of reason, what the actual aim or goals with that is.

I think this had a bigger impact on how I think about design, it already fitted really good with how I was thinking anyway. I'm more into creating concepts and into thinking about design or writing about design than designing things myself.

So in the bachelor I already realized that it's really difficult for me to just design or to produce something visual, something that is made by hands. That was always very difficult for me and very time and energy consuming, but I realized that I was good at writing and that it went so easily for me without any difficulties.

There was one course about writing and research that I really enjoyed. I got in touch with different formats of writing and also with format for interviews. In this period I decided to do an internship at a graphic design magazine, mainly working as an intern in the editorial team and not as a designer. Then after graduating with a Bachelor degree, I started to work in the editorial team of form Design magazine, from Germany, where I worked for two years.

I went directly into design journalism, I never worked as a designer. But still, being trained as a designer leaves you with a certain way of thinking and with a design perspective on things. I guess that is different than being trained in an academic way as an academic writer, or if I had studied journalism or art history and then moved into design. I would have another perspective, I would not understand the discipline from within as an insider but only as an outsider. I think my perspective is very much influenced and shaped by my own education as a designer.

And then after after working for two years on the editorial team of form, I decided to do a master at curating and writing at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. I was really looking for a program where I could improve my skills in terms of writing, going more into a theoretical direction. What I really liked in this masters was that we were writing in different formats, always in between journalistic writing and academic writing.

The thing with design journalism for me was that it's often not critical enough. Design magazines are often focusing only on the ‘good’ aspects of a design. They mostly select only designs that are somehow evaluated as good or representative, the said ‘bad examples’ or the ‘bad kind of design’ don't make it into the magazine at all. You end up writing a lot of good things about certain designers and certain design projects, kind of praising them or putting them on a pedestal, rather than being critical. I was missing that critical perspective.

I like to focus on topics or bigger questions, rather than only on one design result or one designer or individual. So I really enjoyed this aspect in my master, to look at design from a more critical and more theoretical perspective, but still to keep a creative approach to writing and to have this combination. And that of course also influenced how I write and how I do research now.

After my master I then went to Berlin, where I worked as a freelance writer and design educator for another two or three years. Now, I just started my phD in Sweden at Umeå Institute of Design. This program is a collaboration with the Center for Gender Studies in Umeå. I look at design from a feminist perspective now in my phD. All of these experiences that I had before have impacted my writing and my approach towards research and writing.

As an educator, what are your main concerns regarding the construction of a curriculum? 

I came into teaching after my master studies. The academy in Frankfurt where I did my bachelor approached me and asked if I would be interested in teaching design history and theory, and to do it not from the classic point of view and to not teach the design canon, but rather to do it in a different way. I was quite free to decide how I want to do it, which was of course great because then I could approach it in a non-linear and less Eurocentric way.

I could try out different teaching formats as well. To not stand in front of a crowd of students and teach or to present my knowledge as if it's The truth and The only true design history. But to rather ask questions and open up discussions and dialogue, to discover things together with the students so that we learn from and with each other, instead of me telling them what I know.

In those years that I lived in Berlin between my master and starting my phD, I became more and more interested in feminism and in the intersection of feminist approach and perspective. At this time I also started to work with Maya Ober and then became the second person to co-create the platform depatriarchise design with her. Through our work and through a lot of readings, for example reading bell books' "teaching to transgress" and also Andre Lorde, what she speaks about her own teaching experiences - all of that influenced my approach to teaching.

I experimented with different forms of how we could arrange the tables and chairs in a room and different kinds of projects. That of course was also influenced by feminism and by the work I did with depatriachise design. I try to further develop certain formats for enabling conversations, having different formats of presenting or of having discussions.

I try not to always use something like a PowerPoint presentation as a first option, neither that or something that only happens at the front of the room, at one end of the room and everyone is just looking. I prefer to rather bring books, pictures, printed out material and then gather around this and also change the positions of chairs and tables and experiment with those kind of things. This is something that I am definitely going to continue now as well as asking a lot of questions and being critical.

For me it’s also important to get students more into a mode where they think about their own position within the projects that they are doing, to discuss questions of biases or other things that might influence their projects and the outcome of their projects. How they could deal best so that their projects don't even become controversial or that they are at least aware of the responsibility and the great impact that is connected to design, to be aware of the structures that the design discipline is involved with.

Because as we know, design also discriminates against people on the basis of certain aspects like skin color, or gender, or abilities, disabilities, sexual orientation, religion, culture and so on. Of course these examples can be seen in things like the poor design of cars, the design of seatbelts, the design of facial recognition software, the design of pockets and so on.

Regarding curriculums, in many cases they are based on decisions made by others and people who came before us or by the school or even bigger institutions. Maybe even influenced by certain standard that is put out for education.Even though I'm not sure if this even exists in the design discipline, that there is a certain standard. At least in Germany there's none, not that I know. There's not really a standard that says if you teach design history you have to do this, this and that. Which can be a problem - there is no such standard but it can also be a problem to have such a standard, that there's two sets.

You also often work in teams or you collaborate with the other teachers in the school or at least all of these different things come together. As a student, you go through many different courses and they are taught by many different teachers. Then of course some of the teachers are more aware of certain discussions, biases and so while for other teachers this can be one of the challenges. How do you actually achieve to be at least working from the same basis, the same values? Very often it's about values and how you position yourself and how the school positions itself. I have the impression that many design schools are not really aware of what their values are or what kind of values they have in their design education. But they are very much needed in order for institutions to know what kind of guidance they can give to students.

Another challenge is also to be up to date as a teacher and as a lecturer, to know what the current discussions are and to not stop learning. Even if you are in this job for a very long time, you have to stay curious and to educate yourself.

How do you balance between what you bring as educator and what is built collectively from the experiences in the classroom?

That's a good question. I still don't have an answer for that. I'm trying different things and I'm bringing in materials as I said, like books and printed out texts and images. It allows me to start a conversation. For example, today I brought a few books into the classroom and then certain students already knew these books, others didn't know them. It was a good starting point for our discussion because then some students could say 'ok, I remember from this book this this this and that' and I think that it was relevant for me as a designer because then they could elaborate on this and then I could bring in why I had brought this book and why I think it is important to be in a conversation.

And then it's also again a bit about the guidance, about asking questions, making sure that it's not always the same people who are in conversation, but that everyone is engaged, that everyone is part of the conversation. Of course, some students feel less comfortable about speaking in front of a crowd, so I also try to do group work and to have them in smaller groups, then it's easier for people to share their ideas and thoughts and then later on, to discuss it in a bigger group. This way people might feel more safe.

They already went through some of their thoughts, they shared it with at least some of the students and they know the reactions. They have a clearer idea of what they want to say and then they might be more able to speak in front of a bigger group. Maybe there's even a representative of the team who would present the ideas in front of the bigger group.

That is to say that it's also about making people comfortable and feeling safe. To allow for different personalities to express themselves differently.

What is your process to construct a more diverse bibliography for your class? Is this effort something you make explicit to the students?

I try to be open about it and to talk about the decisions that I make openly with my students. To share with them the struggles that are also connected to that. I think it's important to be open about which decisions you make and why you make them.

Right now I'm doing a project with another designer. She's called Lisa Baumgarten and together we have created the platform 'teaching design', both online through Instagram and in real life. We are collecting and curating a list of literature for design educators who want to teach design from a more feminist and decolonial/postcolonial perspective. So what we do there is to ask people for their advice and to ask people to share the literature that have helped them.

For example, there are design educators submitting recommendations saying 'Oh, I think you should read this book or that book because of this and that' and then we look if this book fulfils the criteria of a feminist perspective and a decolonial perspective, that's where the curating part comes in. Then we make this list available on our website. That's an important aspect of the project, because we want to keep this open so that everyone can see this list and can profit from it. The idea is not only for us to profit from what people send in, but also that everyone who's interested in looking into this list can also benefit from the resources.

And if you reach out to people, if you look for people who have a different perspective, or maybe people of color, people from different cultures, from other backgrounds and so on. If you actively search for them, if you reach out and get in contact with them, asking about how they teach and how what kind of literature they use, you can learn a lot. That of course also leads you to create a more diverse bibliography.

And finally, could you share the titles you find essential or helpful in order to build a more diverse and inclusive design bibliography?

There are many. A lot of them, at least for me, are from outside of the design discipline. For me bell hooks is very inspiring, as well as Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed. They are feminists and I can learn a lot from their writing and apply it and in the design discipline and in the design field.

But then of course there are people like Sheryl Buckley, who wrote a paper called 'Made in patriarchy' that had quite a big impact on both of us, Maya and me. Then there is the work that Dori Tunstall is doing in Canada, there's Griselda Flesler who works in Argentina. And other people in the design field who produce papers and books on the topics of feminism and decolonisation, such as Ramia Mazé, Mia C. White and most of the group decolonising design.

Just recently I read the book ‘Invisible Women' by Caroline Criado-Perez about data biases. Then there is another one called 'Feminist futures for spatial practices' and also a book called 'Making space - women and the manmade environment'. The later was written in the 80s by an feminist collective of female architects called Matrix.

Another reading that I find important is the 'The funambulist magazine’. There's also this literature list that is available online, it's called the decolonial reader, organized by Ramon Tejada. Those are my go-to books and readings right now.

Regarding other formats, there are also podcasts like '99 percent Invisible'. I really like it because you cannot see anything, so they have to describe a lot and you end up experiencing design from a different perspective, maybe about hearing and not seeing things. For example, they have one episode about the design of pockets, why the pockets in women's trousers and clothes are smaller than men's, the history of that. I find things like this very interesting, it inspires me to then dig deeper into those topics and to look into more academic texts around it.

And then also other things that are more linked to activism. It can also be that conversations are very important, or lived experiences as week. Something that you may experience as a person and then it inspires you to dig deeper, to look further into certain things.