Design in the plural
Prof. Sarah Owens is a design educator and researcher whose biography resists neat narratives: it is best imagined as a map whose regions have porous borders. An anecdote on her decision to study design illustrates this well. Initially, Sarah Owens thought of a career as a musician. However, she became a designer instead, because it allowed her to cross professional boundaries and investigate a diversity of fields. Her biography is characterised by an ongoing collaborative and transdisciplinary journey influenced by incursions into history, education, film and literature.
After graduating from the University of Applied Sciences Augsburg with a degree in communication design, Sarah Owens worked as an editorial and corporate designer in Munich and Stuttgart. The dotcom crash and a disconnect between what she had been taught and the realities of the profession encouraged her to explore another aspect of the discipline. She studied the history of design at the Royal College of Art in London, where her MA dissertation considered a youth magazine as a textual and visual manifestation of cultural beliefs and social conditions during the 1990s. A growing interest in graphic designers’ expertise and self-definition motivated her to write a PhD at the University of Reading which examined the relationship between everyday graphic design and professional practice. Her graduate studies enabled her to become well-versed in a wide range of discourses relevant to design, including sociology, philosophy and anthropology. While completing her PhD, she also became a Fellow of the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, where she developed a platform for design theory investigating an extended definition of design as the heart of every human activity. The underlying interests in her research – notions of expertise, knowledge, identity and othering – would constantly resurface throughout her career.
Sarah Owens lectured at universities in the UK before developing an academic career over more than a decade at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), where she is currently Professor and Chair of Visual Communication. In teaching, research and consulting, she adopts an inquiry-based approach that borrows from anthropology: one that attends closely and commits fully to the people and phenomena she encounters, thus allowing for joint conversations to unfold. She has edited and contributed to several volumes on design research and theory and has spoken widely on design and visual culture. She has also participated in or led more than a dozen research projects. Many of these had lasting influences on her approach to education, notably leading her to question the influence of myths and narratives within design and to consider notions of inequality, normativity and exclusivity, topics she included in her curricula. Her aim within design education is therefore to expand the boundaries of design so that students gain new perspectives and an openness to the field. As an educator, she strives to create an educational path that goes beyond teaching skills.
Sarah Owens brings the same boundaryless ethos to cultural activities including literature and film, which allow her to connect more of her interests in images, memory, history and marginalisation. Amongst others, she co-organises the Black Film Festival Zurich, an annual event prioritising non-stereotypical narratives around identity, gender and race. An avid reader of everything from poetry to science fiction, she also took part in a series of literary events in which she interviewed acclaimed contemporary authors such as Roxane Gay and Taiye Selasi, conversations to which she brought a perspective informed not only by academic discourses but, just as importantly, by her own experiences as a reader. Her consideration for the full spectrum of knowledge reflects her desire to share and connect with the wider community, addressing issues of representation and visibility outside the university. These activities perhaps define the core of Sarah Owens’s biography: a passion for knowledge that is anti-hierarchical, celebrates plurality and focuses on inclusion, but also a career-long engagement to sharing and collectively building that knowledge.