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Archana Shekara | Professor of Graphic Design at Illinois State University & Founder, SADEA

Meet: Archana Shekara, Professor of Graphic Design, Co-Director of Ethnic Studies, and Creative Director of Design Streak Studio, a research based social innovation lab at Illinois State University. Archana is also the founder and chair of South Asian Design Educators Alliance (SADEA) which aims to promote and share South Asian design histories, pedagogies, and perspectives globally.

Headshot by Elan Studio
Headshot by Elan Studio

Prepare to be amazed by Archana's unwavering commitment to civic engagement, interdisciplinary cooperation, and equity literacy. As you read her story, delve into her inspirations, and explore her beliefs about the future of graphic design education, you'll be captivated by the journey she has embarked upon.

What’s an urgent issue facing education?

Like many disciplines in art and design, Graphic Design education is changing and adapting to contemporary multiculturalism. Today’s designers have a greater responsibility to be culturally aware, understand diversity, inclusion and social constructs since our audiences vary in ethnicity, language, religion, gender, race and class. It is imperative to facilitate critical consciousness and equity literacy in our curriculum to prepare the next generation of designers. As a design educator in a historically white institution, I believe that it is necessary to educate students with new languages, methodologies, design processes and tools to fully communicate with audiences of various backgrounds and cultures. I have been facilitating interdisciplinary research collaborations, experiential learning and civic engagement into my curriculum. Engaging in complex and sensitive discussions about race, racism, power, privilege and ableism in the classroom are challenging, however, by creating safe and brave spaces for students to participate in tough conversations provides agency which must be the higher goal of graphic design education.

I would also like to add student mental health and social well-being as another urgent issue. There are numerous expectations pounded on them from family, friends, social media, teachers, and the community that most students struggle to balance which usually leads to procrastination. They are fatigued and stressed, our education systems recognize these issues and encourage students to seek counseling, however, it is on the student to reach out for help. How then can education institutions address these problems in a classroom setting? Can educators design a required course where happiness and wellbeing are taught? I teach my students pranayama (breath control) before a client meeting; this helps them to be calm and stay focused through the presentation. I also co-taught a Design Thinking course for student success where I was the facilitator instead of faculty with authority. The course empowered students to present their concerns as design projects and propose equitable solutions to the campus community and stake holders. We need to offer more of these kinds of courses which enable students to find their purpose and joy in being human, embrace life's imperfections and ephemerality along with teaching them professional success.

Photo Credit: University Marketing and Communications, Illinois State University.
Photo Credit: University Marketing and Communications, Illinois State University.

What is one thing that inspires you? I am inspired by life around me and learn every day. Inquiry, passion, and wonder enveloped with social justice are integral elements to create designs that provide a visual and mental relationship between the audience and me. Performing Indian classical dance (Bharatanatyam, with its fluid movements and gestures narrating a story), painting, drawing, or graphic design, or talking to students, colleagues, friends and community members, I perceive each activity and conversations as an exploration of ideas, an exercise of the mind to observe, and an ongoing process to learn.

Archana with student Hannah Piemonte
Archana with student Hannah Piemonte

Do you have a favorite quote?

"Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life; dream of it; live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, and this is the way great spiritual giants are produced."
— Swami Vivekananda

How did you end up where you are today? As an art director and graphic designer, I have worked in several design studios creating projects for diverse clients who have a national and international presence. I have experienced that many clients are interested in showing ethnic diversity in their company’s print and digital materials to be inclusive of a diverse ethnic population. It is easy and cost effective to download stock photos showcasing individuals of African or Asian descent. Using these types of images in their campaigns, companies believe that they have succeeded in representing diversity. In the past sixteen years, I have been conducting extensive research in cultural identity and design for belonging. I perceive design as a philosophy of life where designers must empathize and respect the multicultural communities of the people we serve.

In my Vedic culture, teaching is the highest form of giving, and one should give without expectations. Serving the university, college, school, students or the community brings joy and satisfaction that I have contributed to making a difference. I am grateful for the opportunities that come my way to serve in various capacities. I perceive each engagement as an opportunity to learn, be inspired and grow as a human being. I am honored when asked to serve, and I am compelled to give as it lines up with my personal social justice values. I consider that it's more rewarding to serve non-for-profit organizations whose goals are to better the community in the grassroots level than receiving accolades from multinational clients. I believe in leading by example and facilitate a service-learning component in my design courses. I hope to share the value of civic and community engagement with my students.

Currently, I have a growing list of non-profit collaborators in the community whom I partner as a Creative and Art Director in Design Streak Studio. I have served as a board member in several organizations and hosted many events that engage the community to foster understanding of minoritized identities. I have facilitated dialogues to build cross-cultural awareness and understanding in the community and the classroom. I am humbled by my service record in the university and community and hope to learn from others and build a deeper understanding of servant leadership.

Archana in Design Streak Studio. Photo credit: University Marketing and Communications, Illinois State University.
Archana in Design Streak Studio. Photo credit: University Marketing and Communications, Illinois State University.

What is your proudest accomplishment? I am grateful for everything I have experienced in my professional career and personal life. As an Indian immigrant living in the United States for more than three decades where brown identity is defined by stereotypes I have had my share of struggles being an international student, professional designer, and academician. Seeking systemic change has brought a sense of purpose for everything thing I do, has brought me joy and contentment. I believe this motive is my proudest accomplishment.

Archana at the 40th anniversary of Design Streak
Archana at the 40th anniversary of Design Streak

What gives you fulfillment in life? I have learned to pause and self-reflect, critically analyze, shift by moving forward or stepping back, appreciate opportunities, and be grateful for all that has transpired to become a reality. I am trying to understand the deeper meaning of life — and how as an educator, designer, woman, mother and artist, I can connect with the larger society to build understandings of human empathy, dignity and respect.

Photo credits:

University Marketing and Communications, Illinois State University.

Images with students: Lyndsie Schlick

Solo and exhibition images: Shea Grehan

Close up head shot: Elan Studio


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