The curve of a letter a. The swirl on a cursive D. It might seem a strange concept, but the very shape of letters reflects a culture.

In a collaboration that crosses continents, Associate Professor of Graphic Design Archana Shekara challenges students at Illinois State University and at Shanghai Normal University in China to infuse culture into letters.

Archana Shekara

Archana Shekara (Photo: élan Studios)

“It is imperative that design education adopts new methodologies to address cross-cultural learning since we live in a global society,” said Shekara, who has been conducting research in cultural identity in design for the past 12 years and has been a design educator at Illinois State since 2009. “Design is a philosophy of life in which designers have to empathize with and respect the diverse communities of people they serve.”­­

Letter forms designed using typography

A letter form of K designed from the cultural pride of temples and pandas in Chengdu

Shekara began teaching what is known as a 3+1 program last summer at Shanghai Normal University’s Tianhua College of Art and Design. Students learn typography—the style, classification, and understanding of letter forms and symbols—along a culturally competent curriculum Shekara created for students at Illinois State. The cohort of students will study three years at Shanghai Normal University College Tianhua College before completing a final year at Illinois State. They will earn degrees from both universities.

Shekara taught the same project in Special Topics in Graphic Design with Illinois State students in the fall. Under the title Designing Authenticity: Shanghai–Normal, the project aimed to raise awareness of heritage and cultural identity through the design of letter forms. Students in both countries researched cultural history and heritage of a city, town or province in China. “I was interested to see how students can navigate between cultures through typography,” said Shekara. Students studied the town’s cultural history, food, art and architecture.

Ancient porcelain traditions in Jingdezhen inspired the letter J.

Ancient porcelain traditions in Jingdezhen inspired the letter J.

“Students strove to understand the multiculturalism in graphic design by a process of reasoning, reflection and respect,” said Shekara. “The project helped students in China to appreciate and reflect upon their cultural identity, while our students in the U.S. gained new understandings and respect about Chinese culture by acknowledging their biases and creating designs that are authentic.”

Director of the Wonsook Kim School of Art Michael Wille said the collaboration is transformative. “This graphic design partnership between the Wonsook Kim School of Art and Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College is changing the way we imagine the future of education in the arts,” said Wille. “Through Archana’s leadership and enthusiasm, we are seeing the different ways that art and design is taught and students learn on the other side of the globe.”

Thalia Morales, a senior graphic design major, gained a sense of nuance from the project. “Through this project I learned that just because we only hear of ‘China’ as a whole place, we tend to lose the differences and uniqueness the individual cities hold within each other, and because of this we begin to group it all as one and thus continue stereotyping,” said Morales.

The project is one piece of infusing cultural competency into courses. Shekara wants students to reach beyond the Euro-centric vision of the alphabet. “Our graphic design curriculum is based on the Bauhaus school and Swiss design,” said Shekara. “Students learned to create traditional page compositions using classical typography from the 15th century, and with modern page design compositions that date back to the 1940 and 50s,” she said. “Yet graphic design is a human centered, service-oriented profession where designers have a greater responsibility to be culturally aware, understand diversity, inclusion, and social constructs to create designs that are authentic and relevant to the multicultural community.”