Emily Smith is an educator, designer, and researcher focused on the intersections between graphic design, visual anthropology, and choreography. Her work applies observational, participatory, and conceptual approaches in reconsidering exhibitions and narrative practices. She is currently Vice Dean, Professor, and Head of Communication Design at the University of Applied Sciences Europe (Fachhochschule Potsdam), BTK Faculty of Art and Design in Berlin.

What kind of impact your experience as a Design student and practitioner had on the way you do research and the way you teach?

I grew up in Utah, around alternative, community-of-learning, non-hierarchical educational practices as a child. My BA from Pitzer College in Claremont (USA) was definitely a Marxist-leaning political science. I had several educators that attended Black Mountain and, as such, broke down the traditional hierarchies with a very critical voice (question everything) attitude. I began designing for an artist/music collective in upstate Michigan, where the process was highly collaborative and supportive. My BFA studies at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (USA), were much more “traditional” design-wise. Still, the mind-set of radical questioning was already instilled in me, and many of the faculty seemed to welcome my engagement. Here I learned craft and complexity. A few of the professors also brought in feminist, decolonizing, POC, and marginalized views, but they were mostly far between. I noted this and sought out my own role models in LA, Anne Burdick, Denise Gonzales Crisp, Rebecca Mendez, to name a few that challenged the status quo of design practice.

Upon arriving in Berlin, I worked in a fairly traditional agency, Leonardi-Wollein, but what stuck out was that they welcomed designers from all over the world. We functioned mostly as a collective family, all sharing the task of cooking, pitching, budgeting, and cleaning — there was a sense of equality and family that I yearn for in all of my projects or work environments.

I received an MA in Visual Anthropology from the FU in Berlin. Here it all came together — ethics, the burden of representation, power dynamics, complexities of collaboration, self-reflexivity, agency, and so on. It gave me the language and confidence to adapt these topics in my teaching.

As an educator, what are your main concerns regarding the construction of a curriculum? Is it an individual process or rather something that is built collectively in the classroom?

Both. I do have the expertise to sculpt a structure that is directing the classroom with particular learning outcomes. But one of these is breaking hierarchies “everyone can learn something from someone” to misquote Ranciere. Opening the learning process to all involved takes some moderating, especially with first semester BA students. How do we all respect, contribute, critique, and collaborate? In some courses with upper semesters, I will start with "this is a lab, we are doing this together, we are all here to contribute. I have set up a general framework to move forward, but the direction this course takes is up to the group to decide." Often students struggle with this freedom, and it is my job to gain their trust. Usually, the courses end with a collective "WOW" that it was possible to develop a complex collaborative critical project without a master leading the way. This all said it is a risky path. As full-time faculty, I am also evaluated on student satisfaction and course outcomes — which is not always guaranteed.

How do you come up with a more diverse bibliography for your class? Is this effort something you make explicit to the students?

Yes. I have spent years collecting references outside the white male western canon. I explicitly start courses with a statement that the “story” I am sharing (references, oral presentations, lectures, bibliography) is subjective, and reflects my view of what is important, as is any other course they may take, there is no “one” version, but quite often there is a lot left out. I also actively include students (many of whom are not european, white, or identity as male) to do additional research that expands the references in the class. This might be regional, racial, or cultural — I end up leaning about contemporary trends that I had no idea were happening. It is a multi-directional sharing of references. These tend not to be academic “articles” or “readings” but rather hashtags, Instagram accounts, industry spotlights, etc. I think it is important to consider ‘bibliography’ beyond academic references, as the most significant number of young designers consume their design “vision” and expectations from outside the theoretical context. And perhaps even, the pop culture is pushing the conversation farther than much of academia.

My first-semester oral presentations are an active attempt to ‘decenter’ the canon. I had an experience 2-3 years ago where the students had to present in a colleague’s class at the same time, and I asked who they had to present. 22 Students each took turns sharing — other than Sister Corita Kent, they were all male, white and western, ALL OF THEM: Glaser, Seville, Rand, Bass, Eames, Aicher, Hoffmann… I pointed this out, and they didn’t even realize it. By the 6th semester, they know the jam. But even in the contemporary context, it is the same voices you can’t get away from.

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

With the Fachhochschule Potsdam, we just put together a new reader that is just the beginning. I am looking forward to building from this.

Cheryl Buckley – Made in Patriarchy (1986)

bell hooks – The Oppositional Gaze. Black Female Spectators (1992)

Guerrilla Girls – The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988)

Guerrilla Girls – Introduction and Conclusion to the Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (1998)

Teal Triggs – Graphic Design Female Visual Culture (2000)

Sasha Constanza-Chock – Design Justice (2018)