The typical American design school curriculum is based on hundreds of years of Western theory and practice. At the University of Texas at Austin, administrators are working to deconstruct design education to make it more appealing to marginalized students and refocused on their needs.
Speaking at Fortune's Brainstorm Design conference on Tuesday, Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean of UT Austin School of Design and Creative Technologies, said when the school eliminated the portfolio requirement, it saw an increase 74% of applications, which has helped to increase its diversity.
"We don't lower the barriers," he said. “[We are] decolonizing things.”
He noted that change is long overdue: "The education systems are 450 years old and act that way."
Lorenzo said that when she and her colleagues started thinking about changing this age-old system, they started wondering why their programs weren't attracting diverse pools of applicants: “Why aren't students coming to us? What were the obstacles?
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She identified the school's portfolio requirement as a barrier, especially for students coming from high schools that don't offer or emphasize design and art courses. "Are you going to tell me that a high school student who has never taken a design course knows what a required portfolio is?" she asked. "I would run around screaming if I was that high school kid."
UT Austin replaced the requirement with prompts for prospective students to complete, designed to measure creative potential. “If you're creative, we'll teach you the design part because you haven't learned it anyway,” he said.
Lorenzo said the increase in applicants once the school removed the portfolio requirement was "miraculous...And that's where the diversity started to change." Today, 68% of students at the school identify as non-white, he said, while 62% of teachers do as well.
There were skeptics who warned that the school would lose its accreditation. “The University of Texas will not be deaccredited,” Lorenzo said. "It will not arrive."
Increasing faculty diversity, he added, has been a critical part of decolonizing the school, so that students from marginalized backgrounds can see their experiences reflected in their educators. "That's the most important thing, that they feel at home."
Although the school has taken important steps to become a more diverse and equitable space, Lorenzo said there is always more work to be done. "It's been a big change and I feel a lot better because at least we're on the right track," he said. "It's not that I would like to rest.