Ramon Tejada

Ramon Tejada is an independent Dominican/American designer and teacher based in Providence, RI. He works in a hybrid design/teaching practice focusing on collaboration. Ramon is an Assistant Professor at RISD in Providence.

He received an MFA in Graphic Design from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and an MFA in Performance Arts from Bennington College.

His recent design research interest lies in the areas of disruption and puncturing of the Design Canon, inclusivity, diversity, collaboration, and the expansion and openings of design narratives and languages beyond the “traditional” Westernized paradigm of design. A practice he has named as one of “puncturing.”

He has taught in the graduate MFA Communication Design program at Pratt Institute, as well as at the undergraduate level at Parsons/The New School, in the MA at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD) and at CUNY–Queens College. He has also spoken and been a guest artist at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Otis College of Art and Design, Ontario College of Art and Design, University of Illinois–Chicago and Pratt Institute, among others. Most recently, Ramon has been engaging in collaboration with Silas Munro in developing and running a workshop titled “Throwing the Bauhaus Under the Bus.”

Luana: I'm talking to people about design and pedagogies. I always like to start by saying that it is something that I'm beginning to study now. When I started with my thesis research, your text 'We Must Topple the Tropes, Cripple the Canon' was one of the first things I read, it was so good. It really helped to find something like this because it's so direct. As I started going further with the research, most of the people that I spoke to also recommended the decolonizing reader. It's great that we got to talk a little bit.

Ramon: Thank you. It all comes out of thinking of personal experience, about what is not there. Going back and thinking of my own education, what I did not have. My education was far from bad, but some gaps did not account for where I was coming from.

I tend to write in a way that ultimately becomes just me writing. In many ways, it does not mean that I don't care, but I'm not too concerned about how my writing might sound to some people. I think maybe the voices have to shift as well, in the way that we write and the way that we talk about some subjects. It's wonderful that some people can write in other ways as well, it's not just one prescribed way of approaching an issue, I think that's important.

Luana: One of the things that I've noticed doing this research was that when I tried to discuss with the students from my own program, one thing that prevents them from engaging with a topic, is that information around sounds highly theoretical at times. They don't feel so confident to have an opinion. In that, I also include myself. Sometimes it feels intimidating to talk about education because of the idea that just some people are equipped or have the level to discuss it.

Ramon: Yes, absolutely. And I think that the important part out of this is dismantling the notion that these ideas are big things. They're actually really quite simple ideas: generosity, respect, inclusion. That's a cliché right now, but the idea that people are different, that people have different perspectives and that it's OK, we have to be respectful of it. Instead of just saying 'you know this vocabulary, then you are part of the club.' Historically, not only in education but culturally, if you have access to certain things, then you are part of it. And then all the rest is just discarded, at the bottom.

I think that's something that we have to figure out how to do better in design education and in education in general. The idea that if you go to a particular school, you already have a higher pedigree. If you work with so and so you are more qualified, if you know this vocabulary, you know things better. In reality, you may know it all, but you may not know how to do design because you don't know how to engage with people.

Having excessive vocabulary is really a fantastic thing. Still, I sometimes question the validity of having such an asset if you don't know how to deploy it to work with people, especially everyday people. I sometimes feel like I read some of this stuff, and the vocabulary that is thrown out is so confusing it makes me feel like I'm in the wrong department.

And that's also the way that certain fields have maintained their status, by locking things down. I understand that, but I think we are, at least in the U.S., culturally questioning and trying to break out apart from what separates us; break out from what doesn't unite us. When you really dismantle some of those ideas that we have held onto dearly, when we sit back to look at it, we might realize that they actually don't help. That those ideas are actually the problem.

Luana: That's the other point I came across during my studies in Germany. Everybody come here with a package of ideas of what design is and very focused on the problem-solving approach. I realized during my research the importance of making space for questioning, but the reality is still that students don't see themselves in the position of questioning.

Ramon: Yes, absolutely. I would say that history is not on our side. Being a designer is a career that is really about a hundred years old, maybe about one hundred and ten years. And the history has been so tied to solving problems, to helping make better buildings. What do we have a hundred years later? A lot of us are sitting down going like 'I don't know if that was better, better for who?.' I think the history certainly is still too young to help us make a lot of people realize that it's not just necessarily about problem-solving. We are not solving problems, we are actually creating more problems. I tend to believe that designing is about engagement and conversations with people. For example, when you sent me the e-mail to have a conversation with you, I could have answered your questions, and it would have been OK. But I think this conversation we are having is design, we are designing something through this interaction. We can use technology and techniques that are 'traditional.' We can make books, we can use all sorts of things that allow people to have conversations. Thinking about that, to me, at least, is the purpose of design - to make interactions with people and between people. Between you as a designer and somebody else.

Luana: Yes. When you frame it in the context of design pedagogy, not having space to discuss established ideas is also problematic.

Ramon: It also relies so much on the context where you are and where you work. Because I think some design pedagogy, or even teaching pedagogy in general, pedagogy of engaging with people - depending on where you are, it is going to be very different, some things work in some context, and others don't.

Pedagogy is not just about structures, it's not a structural thing. Maybe a syllabus is not this precise thing, it can be really fluid and allow for an equal exchange. My colleagues and I have been talking about exploring the idea of syllabi that have spaces where students collaborate with us so that they feel they have a say in it as well; it is not just a one-sided contract, it is open. Leaving spaces in the syllabi where the student can physically see that there are gaps where they are going to be able to collaborate on things. This way, the interaction is not just based on "I'm giving you an assignment, make something that is 'perfect' or finished."

And again, also thinking about the vocabulary and the language we use. We have to question some of this language and some of the terminology that we have to use. Some aspects of the language have obviously been problematic from the notions of culture, race, gender, or biases that it might have; problems that maybe previous generations did not pay attention to, but now we are really hyper-aware of. I think making work this way is a very different thing, and it may require a lot of shifting, which some people are uncomfortable with.

Luana: Yes. Writing a thesis about design pedagogy and the problems within it has been something that, at times, caused some discomfort in my department. At first, raising a flag to the fact that perhaps we should talk more about the way that we do pedagogy in our department, was interpreted as pointing the finger at the institution. I think people still get almost offended by being questioned, even if it comes from trying to promote progress.

Ramon: People take it personally. They tend to feel that you are attacking their intellectual capability, their status as part of an institution, when, in fact, what you're doing is prodding questions. You have to take stock in your own background, and where you came from, so you can keep moving. Otherwise, you're just stagnating; they are repeating the same thing over and over and over again. It's hard for people to sit down and think that maybe ideas they advocate are not really good anymore, and that's fine.

The thing that is supposedly said is not set, maybe that needs to shift every once in a while. Perhaps somebody new comes in and asks a question, and that question make things start to move a little bit differently.

Luana: As we are speaking about institutions, I wanted to ask about your experience in studying design. Was during this time that you started to question and engage with your current approach to education?

Ramon: I started what I called design, which was primarily graphic design in high school. I started doing it unconsciously, I did not study art or design in college as an undergraduate, I actually studied theater. What I really liked about it was the form-making, the playing with the form, whether it was typographic or visual. And then doing theater, what interested me the most was performance art, I just didn't know that at that time. I did not realize it until much later when I saw some very non-traditional things that were coming primarily out of Europe. Pina Bausch, looking at that kind of expansive idea of what a field could be. That it could have many possibilities.

And then I switched careers. I turned 30, and I was just exhausted from trying to do performance work. The cost of education in the US is really high, I had a lot of student debt and lots of non-jobs that went nowhere. That left me a bit bruised, so I turned this thing that I do on the side, which was graphic design, into something to pursue. I went through several cycles of admission processes, said no to some schools; I considered going to school in Europe but decided not to. And then, I ended up at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where there was a program in which the chair there was somebody that I liked.

It was very experimental. LA has a massive streak of postmodern, post-postmodern view. There is a lot of questioning, coming from philosophy, influenced by a lot of the 80s context in particular, with Cranbrook School, CalArts, and so on. I really love the way the work produced there looked at a physical level. Visually, a lot of the work that comes out of L.A. is fascinating to me. It doesn't feel as locked down as things I have seen in New York at that time; lots of corporate work that just made me feel like 'argh if I see Helvetica one more time I may just explode.'

I had an incredible program there. It was two and a half years of running back and forth between L.A., New York, and Amsterdam. The program was unorthodox, we didn't have the typical structure of a graduate program. It is called a low-residency program, which means you study for really concentrated chunks of time. It gets literally pummeled as you're doing the work of a whole year in two months. It felt like being obliterated in every direction possible, and it was terrific.

That's where I think I had the inkling to start asking questions. I always asked a lot of questions, maybe they were just not as refined. To a certain point, perhaps I am still not refined at asking questions because some of the things that I'm interested in asking have been nicely asked a million times before. I think it is time to remove the veneer of trying to be 'civil' and pleasant sometimes. What I mean is that there is a particular language and posturing that people use to ask questions, and sometimes that needs to be removed. It's connected to what we were talking about earlier, the idea that certain people get to ask these questions because they have the vocabulary to do so.

After my time in L.A., I went back to New York, where I worked with graphic design and teaching. I have been teaching before I went to grad school, I always liked to teach, to engage with students and the conversation involved in it. I had a lot of great experiences with it, I felt that my personality leaned towards the idea of creating these spaces of collaboration.

Before coming to Rhode Island, I taught in New York at Queens College, at Pratt Institute, and at Parsons/The New School. I also taught a seminar online at MCAD in Minneapolis. Through somehow magical processes of the way the world works but you have no idea how exactly, I ended up at RISD. I never thought I would end up in New England, based on the way I was teaching design before. Part of that is because I didn't give myself credit for this position, I would think I'm just not the kind of person that would teach at a level like that.

One of the things that really tipped everything was the 2016 elections in the U.S. That was physically and somewhat still is brutally physically exhausting, really problematic. That demanded that I personally figured out how I was going to engage with the world that I was involved in. That meant design and teaching in particular. I started asking some questions that were coming out in very raw form because a lot of the people that I was dealing with were pretty brutalized by those elections.

In this context, I wrote the piece 'We Must Topple the Tropes, Cripple the Canon' on queering design education, curated by my friend Nicole Killian for Walker Art's website. I don't trust my writing as much, I think it is not as refined, in part because I see writing as something subjective. What is good writing? There are a lot of different kinds of good writing, not just one. We are taught, at least I was, that an established set of rules defines good writing. But we should see it as an expansive idea, where there are many different entry points.

From this point onwards, I just started asking some questions. The biggest one ultimately came out of where do I find myself, where I see myself in the world that I'm part of as a graphic designer. I don't see myself in the history of design, I don't see myself in design theory. Regardless of the excellent education I had, I never felt represented by who makes design, by who sets rules for what design is. The examples never look like most of the people around me; it never reflects a lot of my friends, my female friends, or any of us, they just don't. It's always just a parade of white guys, though some of them are very good people, interesting artists who have really interesting ideas.

I think it was Juliette Cezzar who said in one of her pieces that design is a history of people and posters. I've got posters about things that had nothing to do with me, that did not come from where I came from. I was born in the Dominican Republic, I was raised in New York City. To this day, even the design in New York does not reflect at all the intricacies of the city. It is still tied down to the post Bauhaus universal thing. It's a style that sometimes does not make any sense to me. It only makes sense when I ask questions about it: 'why are we still doing that?.'

All those ideas and questions started to kick in, and the decolonizing design reader came out. I was teaching an elective class called Decolonising Design last year at RISD, which I will never teach again. The idea of a class on this topic does not make sense. Decolonizing design needs to be an effort spread out through an entire curriculum, through an organization as a whole, through a whole institution, a whole group of people. It's about little things, medium things, big things - all happening together for a shift of perspective.

In this context, I organized the reader because I felt there's so much happening around the topic. I plan to sit down next spring and try to corral the reader into a more organized structure, it is a little messy right now. At the same time, I think that is precisely what design needs to be: a little messy, not so put together. We don't see things that way, we don't see things highly organized. Design needs to be a bit messier, let go of 'let's fix things; we solve problems.' Most designers have no idea what they are talking about when they talk about solving problems. That requires a hugely diverse group of people sitting around a table, not just engineers with a high pedigree. Community people who actually tell you what is happening. When you come in with the methodology you learned in grad school and apply it to a neighborhood, it doesn't work. It only works hypothetically in the context it was tested, that has nothing to do with the way a community behaves, looks like, works like. The languages that are spoken and the cultural significance of certain things. That's the 'messiness' I think design needs.

This thought of a messier design could also be extended to our knowledge. For example, reading some people from outside the literature of design. I never read bell hooks in any design class; why don't we read bell hooks in any design class? Why didn't I read James Baldwin? His critique of film is a critique of visual culture. You can easily make a through-line from his work to design and visual culture.

So the idea of the decolonizing design reader became about expanding reading to references from what I come from. I do this workshop called 'Throwing the Bauhaus Under the Bus' with my friend Silas Munro, who is teaching in L.A. We have been talking a lot about lineages and where you come from as an entry point into developing the work that you want to make. How it behaves or what it looks like, the visual form that it takes. We discuss what is it that you need to know to do the work you want to make. I always joke, saying, 'make it for mom and grandma, not for designers,' maybe that's the design that is actually even more appropriate for us today. Rather than a big project to get lots of PR hype on Instagram and show up on some design blog.

I had this kind of realization after the women's march that happened in Washington D.C., after the presidential elections. It was incredible and made me think I could not go teach the same crap on the next day. After being part of something like that, I just couldn't continue teaching the same way. All that energy, the massive amount of people and ideas. It made me reflect that if I'm really interested, if I’m going out and marching for a cause, for Black Lives Matters, for equal rights, for women's rights, then I can't go back to the classroom and teach the same syllabus that we've been teaching for the last 20 years. That doesn't work, it would be hypocritical.

That's a long-winded summary of how this whole process happened.

Luana: I can see most of my motivations coming from a very similar place. I don't know if you are aware of the political scenario in Brazil now, but we have a similar lunatic in power as our president. At some point, you see the context you are inserted, and it becomes very uncomfortable to just continue with your work and life without questioning yourself and your surroundings.

Ramon: Even questioning the culture. When you talk about a country like Brazil, the intricate culture within it, what is the picture of Brazil, and what is the reality? There are two different things, there actually might be even more than two, it is a vast country, with lots of different perspectives. Not just in Brazil, but I think all of Latin America, there's a historical thing that happened that affects the continent in such a profound way. The pictures of what Latin America looks like from the perspective of people outside are very far from reality. We need to think about the responsibility that we have as producers of visual culture, as designers because it affects a lot of people, whether we believe it does or not.

Luana: Raising all these questions can really cause a lot of friction. In your experience, how institutions have received your approach to a decolonizing pedagogy of design?

Ramon: At RISD, there is an initiative for social equity and inclusivity (SEI), overarching ideas that are running right now. SEI was launched by RISD's president Rosanne Somerson a few years ago, partly because the students were really discontent. They made a video called 'the room of silence,' particularly addressing the fact that students of color were almost non-existent in the classroom. So for RISD, the idea of social equity and inclusivity, all the tenants of that manifest are a huge priority right now; the school has put a big emphasis on shifting this situation. We do have a faculty that it's primarily white, that's the shift that SEI is trying to make, getting people to rethink about it. There are students of color in the classroom, students that are coming from other parts of the world. They need to see themselves up here, who is in front of the classroom needs to represent the student body as well. I think the scenario is changing, but at the same, there is also a hard academic situation in this country. That's about access, economics, and the lack of opportunities. It is about who has the chance to go to school.

It's a big priority here that the pedagogy, the narratives, the histories, the way we teach design and what design needs to shift to accommodate the diverse kids of this country that we live in, the culture that we live in.

But this shift in perspective still brings conflict. You need to teach history, but the understanding of history is still problematic. We can't use a textbook about design history that is seventeen hundred pages long when fifteen hundred of those pages are European history. And then the rest of everybody else's account is around two pages. 99% of the visual examples that are given are European history, 1% of everybody else.

The way that I teach is really loose. The beautiful thing about being in a department with other people is that there should be room for multiple ways of looking at education. In collaborative classes, you start to see different teaching styles and how each of us is adjusting to little things. Those small concessions make students work and feel better.

But It's not just about doing work, it's about making sure that the students are also healthy and not exhausted. My students know that I don't do critiques, I make conversation because the idea of critique is a one-way thing. Exchanging points of view through conversation always have a positive impact on the work.

As a teacher, the idea of care is essential. Caring about your students, being concerned that they have enough time to breathe, eat, sleep, and also time to think about their work. Giving them permission to ask questions, to question you on the things you are saying as a professor. I try to teach in a way that I can say 'here's the way I see it' and leave the space for everyone to immediately disagree. It opens a door for students to understand that disagreeing is totally fine. It is really amazing when students prove me wrong; I don't know everything, that's too much work!

The idea of classrooms as cooperative spaces is fundamental, but I also have to extend it and model for students of color that are in the classroom, the kids that look like me. I have to make sure that students can see themselves and that they can do things. Modeling is a responsibility that design hasn't been very good at in the past, it should be a concern for all of us as educators.

We must critically look at your syllabus. Who are we asking students to read? Who are we showing them images of? Can they see themselves in those images? Are we preempting that, asking the question of who is not being seen? Why do we talk about specific images and completely ignore their background?

Luana: It was one of the aspects that I had as a starting point for my research. After taking a design theory class at Hochschule Anhalt, despite the generosity and flexibility of the professor, I finished the semester with a weird feeling. I later realized that most authors and references were very Eurocentric, white, and so on. There was a lack of multiple narratives, especially in a class where students are so diverse in their nationalities.

I then started a conversation with this professor to understand the motivations behind the choices he makes on how to teach design theory. One of the reasons he mentioned was that some of the texts selected for the curriculum are the ones that receive recognition in the design field. He also pointed out that these are topics that students should be familiar with before going into practice. But my point is, even if a topic is fundamental, there is still more than one way to look at it, undoubtedly other authors from different places and backgrounds also have contributions to make.

Ramon: I think it's hard because it demands from the teacher. You have to learn, and learning doesn't stop when you finish your Masters or your P.h.D. You have to continually re-evaluate. I understand that there are readings that students should know, but I think students should also be given other readings besides the established ones. Complimentary reading that may not even be about design per se, but alternatives that enable students to relate the different perspectives.

I also think about how problematic some of the readings that design have accepted are. Take, for instance, Adolf Loos' essay 'Ornament and Crime,' which is considered by some to be the forefather of modernism. It is absurdly racist; there is a section of the article in which he calls an entire culture savage. This image, whether we like it or not, somehow seeps into everybody's head. The fact that we want to handle it by arguing that he has a great point about modernism and ornaments, ignoring his knowingly racist discourse, is an actual problem. We should really think if we need to give students this kind of reading. Personally, I'm not interested. I don't need to have an essay where some of the students could see themselves and their ancestors being called savages, which is also calling me a savage.

So I get that students need to understand and know certain things to go to practice, but we need to expand the knowledge base about design, what it looks like today is very different. You can pull ideas from anything; you can pull ideas from cooking books, from literature, from talking to your grandmother. Ideas are everywhere, you don't need a codified, institutionally accepted essay that tells you what you need, you can come up with your own solution or your own stands.

Sometimes when you are putting a class together and you look at the readings, you realize that you're still doing the same thing. What is accepted has been so ingrained in us that sometimes we don't question it. I find myself in that same position, I'm not an exception. But these days, I'm really conscious that I just don't want to give the platform to some of those ideas and discourses anymore.

I'm lucky to be in a department where there are a lot of professors. By the time the students are done with their studies, they should have gotten a massive stew of different ideas, I don't need to make space to some of those readings anymore. I think there are other people that we need to read, people we need to have translated from different cultures to come in. I teach a lot of Asian students, so I want to read more eastern philosophy. I want those ideas coming in because I think it's a disservice to have students coming from abroad to any institution in another country and getting asked to engage with the culture before asking them to share their own. And by that, I don't mean that they need to get up and explain or teach it, but I want them to read something that comes from their culture and other students to read it as well, to understand that things are seen through different lenses in different parts of the world.

Acknowledging that different cultures have different values is really important, and that's why I think having a very loose teaching structure helps. Design has been very into a regimented, systematized, universal thinking. I don't know why in design we haven't read certain people who have been so significant in other fields. We are still reading manifestos from the futurist. I like what they made, but the futurists are also really problematic, they also had incredibly problematic ideas about culture. We should give more thought into who else we should be reading.

Luana: I studied my bachelor in design in Brazil, and the authors we were reading were mainly European. We need the incentive to get to know our own background. I think it is something that can be done even in the context of an international program. We should make space for students to introduce their own culture or make remarks on how their education was very colonized.

Ramon: Absolutely. That's a question about colonialism and coloniality. The idea that there is one valid knowledge base, and the rest is not.

Why does South American design look just like European design? It is just mind-numbing to me. There is so much incredible, insanely beautiful design in South America, made by people who a lot of designers would not consider designers. Historically, it has not been considered design; it was labeled as craft or whatever. That design is so great, but it's only deemed to be authentic when some hipster designer from Brooklyn takes pictures, goes back to their studio, and outputs some cool typeface on it. No, you just went on a trip, appropriated and stole people, you are continuing the idea of colonialism. I have been traveling this last year, particularly in South America, where I had never been to before. I was always going to Europe as if Europe was the promised land.

Luana: I have also traveled very little in South America, even in Brazil itself. Before moving to Germany, I have mainly traveled to Europe, I think it's a common thing.

Ramon: It's such a weird thing. I didn't want to take pictures in those trips to then come back and try to emulate or appropriate what I have seen. I believe you should take photographs because you want to remember that particular moment and that experience you had with people. There's so much beautiful work that is made by the community, particularly in Peru. The Andeans have a very matriarchal culture, I have seen all those women and their kids working together. They don't do it because they want to go to the MoMa, this work has been done for thousands of years, this is how the communities sustain themselves, how they pass their culture forward. And it happens to be the most beautiful incredible textiles you will ever see. Their history is embedded in the fabric, in every detail. If I buy something like that just to hang on my wall, then it all becomes just aesthetics, the incredible story shared at that moment would be lost.

It's a matter of reflecting on where those narratives fit in, make space for it in the design pedagogy we are teaching. If you're in a classroom and you're teaching a group of students that are primarily foreign, how do you engage with them?

I was advising students at Pratt Institute for their thesis, and I would always look at their reading list, trying to figure out why their reading list had all of these European references. One of the students had a philosophy major in China, and everything in her thesis reading list was Western. She thought nobody would be interested in references from China. I encouraged her to bring those references in. If you are actually going back to China, why are you writing a thesis that has all these references to European writers? You need to think about the context where you're going to be. We need to incorporate those ideas.

Luana: I also spoke to Elaine Lopez, who just recently graduated from RISD. She presented a work that was very tied to her own culture and the fact she is a first-generation Cuban-American. I wanted to understand how it was for her to develop design projects from a cultural and personal perspective. We also spoke about the impacts of the financial burden of higher education.

Ramon:Yes, finances are just insane in terms of schooling and the amount of money that gets spent with. That puts a burden on schools, administrators, and teachers to think about how to make space for students' health, to do their work healthily. Students have it clear that they are investing a lot of money and that we need to make space for them. It includes everything we discussed regarding the construction of curricula and being accepting and respectful towards students doing work about cultures we may not be so familiar with. It's important to create platforms for them to talk about it and engage in conversation, rather than have students teaching us about where they're coming from.

People tend to categorize some projects as personal work; I think all work is personal, it is coming from you. We just need to improve at figuring out how we look at historical work from this perspective. We look at Picasso, whose most work was just painting mistresses, but we can somehow separate it and argue that he was playing with form; we don't label it as personal. So there are certain things that students will have to contextualize or frame so that we can talk about it. It is really about having a conversation and being open to the fact that we are coming from different places. This base should be made, this space should have always been there for students.

I feel that in many ways, that's part of my design practice, having conversations, talking, and engaging with people. We can, through dialogue, get at something deeper, something that's more in-depth of what we're working and where we are trying to go with design.