Design theoretician and writer Audrey G. Bennett is the 2022 recipient of the AIGA Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary.
The award honors critical thinking about design and the profession and encourages development in the next generation of design voices through a variety of media. It is also the highest achievement a writer can receive for graphic design writing. AIGA, the professional association for design, commends Professor Bennett’s work in a website announcement about the 2022 Heller Prize recipient:
“Audrey Grace Bennett is recognized for her prolific yet unpredictable work as a leading scholar of graphic design, print culture, and book history as well as her impact through graphic design history textbooks to shape students and welcome the next generation of designers.”
The prize has special significance for Professor Bennett. She recalls early in her career reaching out to Steven Heller for advice.
“Early in my scholarly career when I started working as an assistant professor on the tenure track, I reached out to Steve,” said Bennett. “To my surprise, he responded and encouraged me to attend the next AIGA conference. Heller contributed to my success through collaborations, guiding me towards earning tenure and encouraging me to continue writing. It meant a lot to me.”
The Heller Prize is awarded for a writer’s overall body of work. Bennett’s substantial list of publications include: The African Roots of Swiss Design; The Rise of Research in Graphic Design; Interactive Aesthetics; Good Design is Good Social Change: Envisioning an Age of Accountability in Communication Design Education; Towards an Autochthonic Black Aesthetic in Graphic Design Pedagogy; Follow the Golden Ratio from Africa to the Bauhaus for a Cross-Cultural Aesthetic for Images; Global Interaction in Design; A Wicked Solution to the Global Food Problem; and Connotative localization of an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention image to effect safer sex practices in Ghana.
Due to the pressures that are put on faculty early in their career to “write, publish or perish,” Professor Bennett almost took a different path until she met a mentor, fellow Stamps faculty member and her life partner Dr. Ron Eglash.
“I almost left my tenured position to go into industry because I wanted to make an impact in the world,” recalled Bennett. “I told Ron the theory stuff was just not going to work. I’ve got to go into industry and do practice as it will enable me to make a difference in the world. That’s when Ron asked me if I knew that racism is grounded in theory? I had never heard or understood that. He also said theory has practical application in the world and used pasteurization as an example. It was that response that motivated me to stay in academia and continue my pursuit of social impact through scholarly production and writing.”
At the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, Professor Bennett is an inaugural University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor and Professor of Art and Design where she directs the DESIS Lab that she founded in 2020. She also holds an appointment as Professor of Communication and Media, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and is an affiliated faculty of the The Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing.
Bennett’s research focuses on the study of transformative images designed to galvanize “wicked solutions” to wicked problems in society exacerbated or motivated by systemic racism and intersectional oppression. Her design research agenda diverges into theoretical and applied lines of inquiry on the design of “interactive aesthetics” to facilitate cross-cultural communication to yield cognitive and behavioral changes toward equity and justice.
One of Bennett’s current research inquiries involves access to museum experiences by blind and partially-blind visitors. She is currently working at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. as part of a grant she received from the National Endowment for the Humanities through their New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions Program. The project aims to improve inclusive and adaptive experiences at museums for people with disabilities.
“I always tell my students that writing is problem-solving,” said Bennett. “My work with the Smithsonian on adapting exhibitions so that visually impaired visitors can have a valuable museum experience shows the power of design inquiry in tackling issues of equity and broadening participation in aesthetic experiences through multimodality.”
Bennett will be recognized for her achievement at the National AIGA Design Conference in Seattle in October. For her, it will be acknowledgement that prioritizing writing in her teaching and scholarship was the right move.
“I am humbled to be put on the level of Steven Heller with my work. I also feel vindicated. I have felt criticized for my emphasis on writing in my career,” said Bennett. “I can now say proudly that I am a design theorist and writer. I feel incredibly honored to be promoted on a level of this magnitude. I want to thank Steven Heller for paving this path for a design writer.”