Design mediation as critical practice

What design education can learn from critical art and culture mediation
Lisa Baumgarten and Antonia Schneemann, March 2020

The following text is a shared critique of structures that prove to be a constant challenge in our educational practice in museums and art academies. We would like to propose a practical approach inspired by methods from critical art and cultural education, in which alternatives become imaginable and multi-perspective participation in design education becomes practicable.
In educational institutions such as universities of art and museums, we observe a lack of critical examination of mediated content and of institutional structures. The avoidance of a political stance towards anti-racism and decolonialism, as well as equality and intersectionality, means that changes which, for example, make a more diverse group of students, staff and visitors possible, are not forthcoming and that public institutions do not sufficiently fulfill their educational mandate. As long as they do not deal with their own power structures, educational institutions can neither address nor change injustices and exclusions in our society.

Critical Practice and Design Education
The Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American studies of feminist, discrimination-critical, queer and post-colonial art and cultural studies are influential for art mediation as a critical practice.[1] The focus here is on exploring forms of participation that are to be made possible in practice through analyses, questioning, deconstruction and, where appropriate, transformation of hegemonic structures. In this way, the aim is to make multi-perspectives, unconventional perspectives and scopes of action visible.[2]
The research project Teaching Design deals with various forms of participation and co-determination. As a participatory platform, Teaching Design attempts to collect and make accessible tools for knowledge transfer such as alternative teaching methods, pedagogical basics for design education as well as content with an intersectional-feminist and decolonial focus. At the same time, the platform provides a framework for teachers to exchange and network.
The lack of a critical content-related and formal examination of design in design education leads to the fact that many designers enter professional life without a stance of their own and without awareness of the responsibility that comes with the profession. Exploitability on the labour market is at the top of the programme's descriptions. This creates a cycle of power structures that is maintained in professionalised practice and continues to be reproduced in design education. Based on the assumption that design makes our world and reproduces discriminatory structures in the process[3], we asked ourselves: How can design education learn from the approaches of critical art and cultural mediation?

Forms of knowledge and access
We observe that students continue to be educated by a very homogeneous faculty, which is predominantly white and above all imparts western, eurocentric and androcentric knowledge, CVs and thus also role models. This often happens in the form of hierarchical teacher-student constellations and in the form of the banking model[4]. As such, public institutions, universities and art colleges as well as museums have an educational responsibility and thus the task of enabling as many social groups as possible to participate.[5] It is important for us to acknowledge that all people have different forms of knowledge, such as academic knowledge and/or experiential knowledge, which are more or less recognised and valued by their respective social status.[6] In art and culture mediation as well as in design education, this imbalance manifests itself, among others, through more difficult or easier access to educational opportunities which also includes adaptation to the prevailing evaluation criteria, codes or norms specific to the field.

Learn and Unlearn
Power relations are learned, reproduced and perpetuated. Lecturers at German art academies are employed as freelance practitioners without any or little pedagogical skills. The question of how content and tools can be mediated is mostly dealt with in the course of their first teaching assignment. Even if they have a critical approach to design and their own practice, they reflexively draw on their own experiences: they teach as they themselves have been taught. So what can they do if they want to do something differently? Who can they turn to? And how can a critical attitude in teaching be introduced into the tightly knit curriculum of the BA/MA programs? To disrupt power structures, we must unlearn. Knowledge that has long been part of the canon of knowledge must be deconstructed in order to make alternative knowledge productions possible.[7] Unlearning is possible through the participation and co-creation of groups, people, students, who are seldom heard or seen. Questions therefore arise: how do we develop forms of participation? How can we promote the participation of marginalized groups? How can this be applied in design education?

Forms of Participation
In order to put participation into practice it is important to open up negotiation spaces and to make sure that the same people are not always heard and seen. bell hook speaks of community building "in order to create a climate of openness and intellectual rigor"[8] as one way to create a community. A prerequisite for this is the appreciation of all individual voices in the (class/exhibition) space "to receive actively knowledge that enhances our intellectual development and our capacity to live more fully in the world"[9].
According to Carmen Mörsch, there are five different types of participation in mediation projects: receptive, interactive, participatory, collaborative and reclaiming. Mörsch describes all formats of participation as receptive whose contents are made accessible through listening or reading. If conversations are conducted and a dialogue or a debate takes place, it is an interactive degree of participation. Mörsch speaks of participatory involvement if the participants are allowed to act independently within a given framework and are allowed to change both form and content. Collaborative participation takes place when the content, the method and the whole framework are developed together with the participants. When participants approach the institution and ask for active participation, Mörsch speaks of reclaiming participation.[10]
In design education, this means focusing on collaborative processes that can question and break up rigid structures through open dialogue and continuous negotiation. Learning from each other, feeling responsible for each other, being empathic and recognizing different lived realities are good prerequisites for the development of self-thinking designers.

Why do I do what I do – like I do it – and not differently?
Refelxions on our workshop at A–Z, on 01.02.2020
In the course of the exhibition Teaching Design CONVERSATIONS we conceived methods based on the connection of critical practice and design pedagogy and tested them together with 20 participants. The focus was on the following key questions: How do we SEE? How do we ACT? How do we THINK? And how do we want to TEACH, LEARN and WORK together?
The aim was to encourage the participants to reflect on their own practice, to give them the space to pursue their own questions and approaches and to learn from each other in dialogue - without formulating definitive, universally valid answers and instructions.

How do we SEE? – Acknowledging and changing perspectives

What is my perspective? How is it influenced by my education, for instance?
We all have a perspective on our own practice. Observing ourselves, exchanging views with others and taking different perspectives makes us more sensitive to working with others.

How do we ACT?  – Maintaining one' s stance and allowing group processes

How can a productive cooperation be achieved without ignoring different mindsets?
We all have an individual standpoint in relation to our practice. It is our inner compass, but it can also lead to dissent in the context of collective processes in which people work together. This includes the work between teachers and students.

How do we THINK? – Reflect and transform knowledge and thought patterns

How do we recognize and break through prejudices and thought patterns?
Our level of knowledge and our patterns of thought are also an integral part of our practice. They are individual and develop in certain social relationships.

How do we want to TEACH, LEARN and WORK together?  – Collaboration

How do we, as teachers and/or students, want to work together?
How can we avoid exclusion in our practice? In the last method the participants worked out and reflected on possible forms of collaboration between teachers and students in small groups.

Photos: Alexandra Bruns, Hans-Peter Gaul for A–Z, Berlin

Mörsch, Carmen and the documenta 12 research team of mediation (Eds.): Kunstvermittlung 2. Zwischen kritischer Praxis und Dienstleistung auf der documenta 12, Zurich: diaphanes, 2009, p. 18.

Ibid, p. 9–33.

Neidhardt, Anja, and Baumgarten, Lisa: “Discrimination Follows Design – Design Follows Discrimination. A Feminist Perspective on Design”, March 19, 2020.

Freire, Paolo (1970): Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Classics, 2017, p. 45.

Mörsch, Carmen and the documenta 12 research team of mediation (Eds.): Kunstvermittlung 2. Zwischen kritischer Praxis und Dienstleistung auf der documenta 12, Zurich: diaphanes, 2009, p. 9–33.

Landkammer, Nora: Vermittlung als kollaborative Wissensproduktion und Modelle der Aktionsforschung. In: Settele, Bernadett/Mörsch, Carmen (Eds.): Kunstvermittlung in Transformation. Zurich: Scheidegger&Spiess, 2012, p. 199–211.

Sternfeld, Nora: Verlernen vermitteln. Kunstpädagogische Positionen 30, Hamburg: REPRO LÜDKE Kopie + Druck, 2014.

bell hooks: Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 39.


Mörsch, Carmen: Für Eilige. In: Institute of Art Education der Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (Ed.), Zeit für Vermittlung. Eine online Publikation zur Kulturvermittlung. On behalf of Pro Helvetia. Zurich: Pro Helvetia, 2013, p. 86– 91.