Cultural Tensions

An Interview with Utadeo’s Todd Hartley and Andrés Rodríguez Ruiz

Interview by Michael Taylor

When The Site Magazine ran our Future Legacy Competition, which launched in the fall of 2016 and ended with an exhibition in Toronto in September 2017, one of the most unexpected series of entries we received included projects completed as a three-week assignment in an undergraduate studio course in industrial design at the University of Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano (Utadeo) in Bogotá, Colombia. The course, run by a team of three instructors—Canadian anthropologist Todd Hartley, and Colombian designers Andrés Rodríguez Ruiz and Andrés Paez Vanegas—used the competition brief to introduce students to the challenges and potential of designing for unfamiliar cultural contexts. In examining the history and possible futures of Canada’s national project, the students not only rethought the stereotypes and pre-conceptions that often frame our ideas of unfamiliar places, but also the similarities between two seemingly disparate countries grappling with legacies of settler colonialism and resource development.

-SITE editor Mike Taylor (M) talked to Todd (T) and Andrés R. (A) about the aims of the course, their interest in the competition, and what (as well as how) students learn from working outside a familiar environment.

M: Tell us about the goals of your studio generally. As an Industrial design studio you are interested in broad, systemic, and social issues. What are the types of projects you normally take on?

T: The purpose of the workshop in which the students participated in this project with -SITE is part of the internationalization stream of the Industrial Design program at the Utadeo in Bogotá. The program has three main routes: object, interaction, and context. These pathways can be seen as three pedagogical techniques to connect students with the social and cultural framework of design disciplines. Furthermore, this specific workshop is part of the “internationalization at home” program, where students gain international experience at their home university; all instruction and course work is completed in English, which is a second language for the students, and the focus of assignments is on designing for a foreign context, whether that be Canada or elsewhere.

A: The group of participating Tadeo students belongs to an undergraduate workshop dealing with social and cultural factors that affect a design project. We are especially keen on projects that spark debate and require that the student assumes a critical perspective. Occasionally the scenarios the students discover involve different, and often conflicting or controversial, points of view towards the design opportunity. Dealing with all the stakeholders and the complexity of the scenario is the main challenge of the projects we aim to develop. Hence the name of the workshop, “Cultural Tensions.” The students that sign up for the course are usually in their third or fourth year of the design program, and most of them are very keen on the role of design as a vehicle for social transformation.

M: How did the Future Legacy brief fit in with the objectives of the studio? What made you want to integrate this as a studio project?

T: An important theme in the course is assisting students to explore theories about culture. Without a thorough understanding and methodology to interpret culture, the context will remain obscure. At the beginning of the course, students generally intuit that culture is important for design—and vice versa—but their idea of culture is ill-defined. It’s a bit like, as David Foster Wallace points out, the didactic parable about the fish in water, when one fish asks another fish, “How’s the water?” The other fish responds, “What water?” While there is a faint sense that culture is all around us, at the same time, the students lack the tools to frame or understand it. Nonetheless, they are always keen to intervene as designers! In some ways the focus on other cultures in the studio reflects the traditional anthropological approach to fieldwork; they leave their own culture in order to get a better sense of what culture, including their own, might be.

A: One of the challenges we often encounter while designing for our contemporary world is the relation between local and global. More often than ever, designers have to engage in projects that will be developed in contexts different from their own. The Future Legacy call-for-entries provided the perfect scenario to develop a project, from a foreign perspective, that would require a remote cultural exploration in a brief period of time in order to find insights strong enough to construct a proposal.

M: How did the students respond to the assignment and its shift in context? What were they enthusiastic about? What were they intimidated by? What are the challenges to teaching this type of course?

T: Like the cultural theories that are studied, initially the students do not really know what to grasp at with project briefs focused on international contexts. This is the challenge of the course. One important outcome of this—the thread that connects the cultural theory with the design projects—is developing the ability to understand and imagine a context that has never been directly experienced. Hopefully, this process helps students empathize with the people that they’re surrounded by; the ability to understand the worldview of someone else from their perspective. The importance of this process cannot be underestimated for the future of Colombia, especially given the current peace process to end the more than fifty years of civil war. As has been said by many others, now that the agreement has been signed, the “real” work needs to begin. But how can this type of engagement begin when students tend to be more enthusiastic about things outside of Colombia? They tend to be more focused, and excited, about the trends they find on social media. These trends tend not to be about Colombia. So in some respects, the students are more motivated to design for a foreign context than they are about their home context. Obviously this disposition, if widespread, has a detrimental effect on the development of all aspects of the culture, especially political engagement.

A: The students were very excited about the project because, as Todd mentioned, it implied working in a context different from their own, with its one set of challenges. Colombia is a complex context for developing a project, especially regarding culture and society. When approaching a challenge in a different location, the students always try to find those diverse connections that will lead them to useful insights.

M: Forming productive stereotypes is important to quickly generate a design problem. Did the students gravitate towards specific Canadian clichés to access the brief? Did they try to find commonalities between Canada and Colombia or polarize the two?

T: Well, the clichés and stereotypes were a bit fun to deal with. I tried not to become the representative of Canadian culture and history. In many respects, Canada was as much of an enigma for the students as Colombia is for Canadians. And the students seemed to grip onto things that they had picked up over time—the insidious bits of information that reach international eyes and ears through various forms of media. For the students who held such stereotypes, they were encouraged to investigate them as a starting point into the abyss of Canadian culture. Other students held positive stereotypes and were shocked to find out that there are many similarities when it comes to social justice and environmental issues that continue to plague both Canada and Colombia. For example, environmental degradation through natural resource extraction and human rights issues facing indigenous populations. With many students focused on western media—primarily the stuff that comes out of the United States—this project questioned their idealization of Canada and other developed countries.

A: Because most of the students were not aware of many things that characterize contemporary Canada, they had to discover the main elements that configure the Canadian identity. As Todd mentioned, they were encouraged to look for insights beyond obvious symbols. Simultaneously, the students had to research, as reference, projects done previously, that shared some of the guidelines presented in the brief. Exploring the strategies and mechanisms applied in these projects showed the students possible perspectives toward the project.  

M: Did the studio define a methodological approach, or did students develop their own methods for tackling the questions of the brief?

A: We had an initial couple of sessions in which we discussed very instinctively what we considered characterizes Canadian-ness. A couple of our students had been to Canada, the others had pre-conceived notions of what Canada meant to them. We created a map that included all these ideas, and their connections, and started to find possible design opportunities there. We edited this diagram as soon as the students started finding more information through more formal research. After a brainstorming session, the first proposals were discussed by the whole group, we selected the most interesting ones, and the development and visualizing of the ideas began.

M: As the project progressed, were the students able to use their early preconceptions about Canada productively, to aid in understanding? Did the Canadian clichés that came up bring any Colombian stereotypes to the surface?

T: It was interesting to see how far the image of Canada, the positive stereotypes that Canadians prefer, has spread. And this surface image—being nice, saying “sorry”, and the physical attractiveness of Trudeau—has such momentum that it is taken as informative. It is for this reason that the television show about Pablo Escobar, “Narcos,” is disliked by many Colombians; it will continue to focus on, maybe even glorify, the cocaine industry in Colombia which does, in short, continue to drive social and political problems. These stereotypes powerfully inform the etic, or outsider, perspective. While Canadians prefer to hold onto the positive stereotypes, the students certainly want to add more nuance and depth to the Colombia equals cocaine stereotype. Colombians would likely be uncomfortable with me even discussing this problem, maybe in the same way that many Canadians prefer not to discuss such things as the extensive human rights issues that the indigenous in Canada continue to face. “Shhh, best to smile and not discuss that…”

A: The role of Canada as a “soft” power is undeniable, and recently its mediatic presence has reached further, with no small thanks to Prime Minister Trudeau (and his persona in contrast to Trump’s). So, the initial approach to the brief inclined toward mostly positive aspects, some of them regarding some of the obvious stereotypes. Some of the groups explored further, finding more interesting departing points that showed a multi-dimensional image of Canada.

M: What were the predominant themes that emerged in the projects? Nature and conservation seemed to be a big one, from the projects that were submitted.

T: Nature and conservation, indigenous populations, and immigration. Especially in terms of the last two, the students thought a lot about these issues and developed projects accordingly. This process also led the students to question their previous beliefs about Canada—especially the stereotypes—and to investigate the uncomfortable issues that even Canadians do not like to discuss. On this last point there are a lot of similarities between Colombians and Canadians.

M: As instructors, what were your take-aways for this project? Does tackling global issues like conservation and historical human rights offences in a new context help to establish a national approach? Is a national approach desirable?

T: In an ethos where people feel that they are connected to the world—and the media reinforces this perception through such things as live-feeds and instant-everything communication—access to information can be confused for depth and quality. One of the goals of this workshop is to push students to understand other people and cultures, and build depth and nuance in their understanding. In many ways the challenge is to work against the global socio-political ethos that is driving the opposite current, creating rifts and fundamentalism all justified through many different colours. Because the students are so connected to social media and it tends to have very little to do with Colombia, there seems to be a need to get students to focus on Colombia. It doesn’t seem to be so much of a national approach if this implies some sort of nationalism; nationalism seems to be the root of the problem, although from a different angle. Maybe it is as basic as: how do we see other people as equals, that they are just as human as I am? The question seems a bit simple, but we are yet to come to some equilibrium or understanding, nor does the world seem to be moving any closer to creating greater equality across people and cultures. Nonetheless, in the Colombian context, given the socio-political issues that the country continues to face, and its geo-political position as a developing country, there is a strong need for Colombians to become reflective about their country and culture in order to resolve fundamental problems, such as gross inequality, which are seen as the direct cause of the civil war and continued social justice issues. Maybe this type of national focus is to human rights and social justice issues as self-reflection is to personal development. This isn’t just a Colombian issue, obviously.

A: Yes, the project was worthwhile. It is very important for our students to be aware of the importance of context, and all the factors linked to that context (social, political, cultural, financial, etc.) in developing a design project. When a designer is faced with the task of developing a project in a context different from his own, certain devices have to be considered in order to achieve enough knowledge to reach an interesting outcome. Learning to understand diversity, is probably the main take away for the students. The results will not necessarily be better or worse than locally-conceived projects, but at least they will probably show a different perspective. Sometimes the results will be candid, frank and even controversial. Other times they might just be more politically-correct and expected.

T: It is empowering when we recognize that we are collectively responsible for the future, and rectifying human rights issues. The challenge of thinking and designing for a foreign context helps to develop students’ ability to take on these challenges.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Todd Hartley is a Canadian anthropologist and current faculty member at Utadeo, where his research focuses on the relationships people form with brands. He led the foundations component of the course.

Andrés Rodríguez Ruiz is a Colombian designer, editor, and university educator and is currently an associate professor at Utadeo. He was responsible for the research component of the course.

Andrés Paez Vanegas (not included in the above interview) is an industrial designer specializing in the manufacture and commercialization of wooden furniture and upholstery. He is a student in the Masters in Advertising program at Utadeo and was in charge of the visualization and representation component of the course.