A proposal for a new type of design education
When I was going through the interview process for full-time teaching positions, I was asked a variant of the same question in every interview, sometimes multiple times: how do you balance teaching conceptual thinking and critical practices with the practical and technical skills that will get a student a job? Each time I answered a similar way, saying that I think the role of the design educator is less to train students for their first job out of school, but the one after that, the ten years from now1. The field is changing so fast — will always be changing — and we should be preparing the next generation of designers to navigate these changes and set them up for a long career.
This seemed to satisfy the askers but it’s still a question I find myself both asking myself and having to answer for often. The state of higher education — in design and otherwise — has become so costly, with students taking on debts they are thinking about immediately upon graduating and entering into an increasingly competitive (and increasingly precarious) field. They want to make sure that they are spending the time on things that will get them the portfolio they’ll need to get those jobs. How does making a performance or writing poetry, developing speculative interfaces or incomprehensible typefaces help them do that? Believe me, I felt it too when I took the three mandatory classes in Flash when I was in college in the late aughts. The iPhone came out my first year of college and Flash effectively died a few years later. I’ve never used Flash since those three classes and I wonder what I could have learned in its place
But here’s where I confess that I don’t actually buy this paradox that teaching conceptual thinking or critical practices is somehow antithetical to preparing students to get jobs but are perhaps the most important skills in being successful as a graphic designer. To teach only tools, technologies, and the skills that will immediately get a student a job is a disservice to both the students and to the profession. It also, I’ve come to think, gives too much power to the industry in dictating the future of design. Jacob Lindgren hits on this in his excellent essay for the Walker Art Center, Graphic Design’s Factory Settings:
A school becomes a factory producing designers, one that, in keeping with the principles of “good design,” turns them into efficient and interchangeable parts ready to hit the market. Like a spinning ouroboros —a snake swallowing its own tail—educational institutions pursue what the market requires (a response to capital’s demand for cheap, standardized, and predictable parts), molding future designers into interchangeable units. To what extent has this cycle, an entanglement of design and industry, come to be considered graphic design’s “factory settings”—a kind of default, inherent, and out of the box approach to how its practice, pedagogy, and history have formed and are enacted?
I’ve come to see much of my work — as a teacher, writer, and on my podcast Scratching the Surface — in the lineage of metadesign. Popularized perhaps most clearly by George Nelson, the design polymath who led design at Herman Miller, Nelson’s own work and writing often engaged in a meta-analyis of what design is and how it works. Design educators are in the unique position to fully explore these questions, using the classroom to not simply as a factory for creating designers but rather as a laboratory to imagine new types of designers. As someone who is constantly frustrated with the field of design — with its marriage to capitalism, its superficial rankings of value, etc — I see my place as a design educator to give students the skills to change these things. At the risk of cliche, they are the future of design.
Instead of responding to the needs to industry, creating courses that fit the needs of design trends, institutions can use their curriculums to redefine the designer, putting these young people into the world, slowly shifting the field. What if, for example, you taught the history and theory of design in the first two years and then taught the studio classes later instead of the more traditional inverse? Would students have a better grasp of the political implications of this work before setting out to make work on their own? What if seminar and lecture classes became the core of the curriculum with studios and labs built around those? Instead of classes defined by disciplinary bounds — motion design, interaction, branding, etc — classes could be framed around theoretical positions like design for social change, critical design, future design, or design and writing. What would a Bauhausian foundation curriculum look like for the designer of the twenty-first century? Of the twenty-second?
Instead of responding to industry, it is the educational system that could attempt to solve the problems with the industry, chart a new course, and set the agenda for the future of design field. To that end, the same could be true for those of us writing about design. Design writing — whether that’s criticism, journalism or theory — often is still responding to the trends in the zeitgeist, the moves of industry, and the conversations of the commercial side of the field2. What if those of us who have the privilege of writing about design saw this work less as responsive and more proactive? The written word—still!—has the power to generate discussion and debate. As A.O. Scott writes in his book, Better Living Through Criticism:
Criticism, far from being a minor, petty, or secondary art, is in fact larger than the others. There is more of it, its scope is wider, its methods more eclectic than any of its rivals. It encompasses all of them, and compels them all to serve its needs. It’s not parasitic, but primary.
Criticism is not parasitic to practice but primary. It’s through criticism — and design writing of all types — that can help articulate what we do, why we do it, and where we are going. Graphic design, far too often, has tied itself to the industry, following the lead of the commercial interests at the expense of critical thinking and disciplinary theory. “Designers, design educators, and design students” wrote Gunnar Swanson in one of my favorite essays about graphic design, Graphic Design Education as a Liberal Art, “are in a more important and interesting field than we seem to recognize.”
This is something Brockett Horne, a mentor of mine from MICA who gave me my first teaching job, told me when I first started teaching. In many ways, it’s become my guiding principle in the classroom. ↩
And when it is purely theoretical, it’s often to abstract or published in obscure places, speaking only to others who are already on board. ↩