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Two Myths about Design Education by Gordon Salchow
I have discussed education with many designers and instructors during my 15 years as a design educator. This experience has led me to the realization that there are several seldom -- challenged assumptions concerning education in our profession.
I offer herein my own perspective on two of the most persistent of these assumptions. These two 'myths' categories may be the most important since they are central to a school's attitudes regarding its curriculum and faculty.
A diverse faculty outlook which inspires distinctively different student portfolios sounds liberal but often signals faculty squabbles, a flabby department and confused students. A portfolio is the most tangible evidence of a graduate's experience but its glib uniqueness is less important than is its demonstration of the doer's comprehension concerning visual form, communication, design methodology and basic skills. Such acumen promises purposeful work and creative potential.
Schools should seek, rather than feel embarrassed about, a unified philosophy, even though some innocent practitioners will complain about the singular character of a school's design. If the ideology has substance, the graduates will be confident enough to grow from it in individual ways. This is not to say that colleges should seek a 'style', although we may so label that which emerges from considered tailoring. The graduates who are not motivated beyond what was learned in school are better off following sensible organizational and investigative premises than in groping for inventive visualizations. The purpose of graphic design is effective and esthetically satisfying public communication rather than personal expression, although we applaud and nurture creativity in any profession. Since a series of interpretations is necessarily ingrained in the design process, personality is naturally expressed. An individual's artistry blossoms from knowledge and intensity as opposed to masturbatory indulgence. Schools can provide a rational basis so that their alumni are able (free) to interpret, control, experiment and communicate and, yes, express.
Time limitations require faculties to select and prioritize curricular inclusions. This means that every design topic cannot be covered. Critics will always see the obvious vocational concerns which are important to their particular concentration as a vital goal. Indeed, there will be some lessons each of us deem important which must be delayed until post-school employment. Schools should, therefore, clearly identify and exploit their special potential so that their limitations are, as in any noble design process, transformed into advantages. Each institution cannot provide the most comprehensive encounter but each can offer a wholesome atmosphere and legitimate insight pertaining to design theory. Designers, or others, who cannot distinguish personality, fluency and potential within a defined framework, and complain about portfolio sameness or assignment restrictiveness, are life idiots who suggest that all men of another race look alike. They are revealing their own narrowness. We should not attempt to give the provincial employer everything he expects of an applicant if it contradicts the needs of our students, society and the profession. Assignments must be correct in relation to educational rather than employment goals.
A school should not be criticized because the work of its students resembles that of their classmates. There are several advantages with shared class assignments and this means that peer portfolios will include the same projects. Additionally, project interpretations have been influenced by the one faculty member as well as colleague responses and the peculiar twists which rightfully evolve during investigation and critiques. The subtle distinctions, within licit perimeters, should be appreciated as more revealing and less banal than conspicuous portfolio unlikeness. The constancy provides reviewers with a superior footing upon which to make judgments concerning the school as well as its individual graduates.
I have come to believe that a most important foundation is quality rather than variety. I would choose an omelet from a great restaurant over the cafeteria's Beef Wellington any day. If I can distinguish the subtleties of a superb omelet, my appreciation for every other food is heightened. Few schools expose students to a genuine understanding of, and appreciation for, real excellence. Americans are fascinated by variety and often interpret this as complexity rather than recognizing that true complexity involves the depth of our understanding. Renaissance personages may evolve out of a rare individual's stature and wonderment, but the imposition of a temporal jack-of-all-trades mentality on undergraduates produces anarchy as opposed to profound understanding and execution. After students have encountered depth, they become increasingly more confident and intrigued by the complex challenges of alternates.
It would be addle-brained to divorce the terms 'liberal' and 'education' but smorgasbords do not provide balanced diets for the undergraduate majority. Students need a foundation of those design subjects which are perpetual so that, five or ten years hence, they will master the unanticipated challenges and tools. It is silly to think primarily about liberalization of education by diversification within a department rather than determining and embracing ways to benefit from activities, courses and experts outside, before, during and after formal education. We should recognize that a degree represents one fraction of a person's education and acculturation. We do a disservice if we try audaciously to provide the education rather than that part of it which we should be expert at and which is the core for our students. In addition to theory, this includes familiarity with procedures and methods plus a sense of the joy of discovery. If a graduate feels secure in his comprehension of the essence of one fertile pursuit, he will more freely extend himself in diverse directions and the context it provides gives him a basis for rational judgment and planning.
It could be argued that four years of a liberal college education should precede any kind of concentration but, in contrast with an 18-year-old's sophistication concerning the non-visual aspects of life, we have a great deal of fundamental knowledge to transmit and inspire. Considering this naiveté and the complexity of perception, it might be unjust to further delay visual scholarship. I will add my belief that an ideal design education is particularly viable in a comprehensive university because the nature of our work feeds on a university's academic breadth, although independent art schools do have their own advantages.
We feel guilty when our principal time commitment is in the classroom rather than on the board, so we claim to be designers who teach instead of design educators. Once we so align with practitioners, we are obliged to take most seriously what is said about education by the busiest practitioners rather than by the most industrious teachers. One such practitioner might be someone who turns out credible, even inspirational design work, though this might not prepare him to understand the special duties in education. Another practitioner might be someone who grinds out graphic looking imagery for client wishes rather than public need. Either type can become one of the wretched instructors who perpetuate mediocrity along with the naively educated instructors who never even had the experience of a plebeian design practice. Inferior comprehension and effort is less tolerable in education than in practice because it is so inflationary in this context. The superficial education which is too common in our profession allows virtually anyone to get a degree while the number and variety of job opportunities assures most of an eventual livelihood. These 'designers' and trusting academicians may assume that this combination of 'education' and 'success' qualifies someone to teach or advise, as it might in law or medicine.
Part-time teachers often deal dogmatically with the classroom as play-acting the 'real world'. They function as though this 'real world' were more important than their time with students. Education feeds our future but this does not mean that it should be seen as an imitation of what follows. Every experience enunciates its own unique values and perimeters while preparing us for future actions. A professor whose career priority is his studio work is often disinclined to teach a meticulous theory in favor of more seclusive considerations. He tends to ignore the benefits of dovetailing his assignments with those of previous, concurrent and future courses taught by others. This may be the result of disdain for colleagues, insecurity, or an unwillingness to devote the additional effort needed for team plotting. He may present overly complicated projects which intrigue him and this results in student insecurity or false confidence rather than objectivity and optimism. Education should pigeonhole knowledge, inspiration and skills in relation to syntactic, semantic and pragmatic methodologies. Practitioners may mistake training for education by emphasizing 'practicality', sexy assignments, fashionable techniques and/or the novelty of the product's facade. Their schedules are likely to require that student/teacher contact occurs largely through group critiques where preferences are stated, as opposed to careful in-class reasoning of a problem-exploring process. The inevitable studio emergencies delay or cancel student and planning sessions while clients expectations are favored, partially because of the financial incentive.
Serious educators realize that a professional's excitement comes from within and involves discipline, rather than depending on the romantic breadth of a particular assignment. Faculty verve and environmental reinforcement have a great deal to do with the development of this poise by a student majority.
Of course, faculty must design and/or engage in serious research while teaching, but the quality of this parallel activity is more important than is the quantity. Excellent, over-worked designers are the most terrific educators only when they take it seriously, are secure within the profession and respect the compatible but honest differences between education and practice. Then, instead of complaining about the dissimilarities, they conscientiously capitalize on them while building bridges.
Many good designers are not good teachers because they are not able to verbalize the logical but intricate aspects of a design entanglement. Such designers are probably the products of simplistic programs in this or an allied field. Graphic design has few credible ways to foster educational or professional standards. This is not the case in other fields of communication/expression such as literature, dance or music. There is universal acknowledgment of their theoretical and structural underpinnings as a prerequisite to composition, performance or teaching.
By the way, I have never met an intelligent design educator who is not also a fine (if slow because of his deliberateness) designer and unwilling to abandon practice. My stance, then, is that good designers are not always good teachers but good teachers are always good designers. This is because extended intimacy with higher education rigorously clarifies and nourishes individual professional insight.
Students (and faculty) contact with design stars can be magical. It is wonderful for the mature student but is an inefficient primary diet for undergraduates where eminent egos can be disruptively independent. Undergraduate programs must attract and retain a resident faculty of energetic, talented and thoughtful individuals who respect each other, the students and the department's plan. Ideally, a school maintains a critical balance of committed full-time and adjunct faculty who are complemented by inspirational visitors from practice and other schools. The less endowed schools should train for the support jobs in design rather than graduating Sunday painters who, five years hence, may occupy positions which allow them to make inferior design judgments and probably inflict their frustrations on the vulnerable idealism of beginners, which perpetuates pseudo-design fluff.
Those who have been soundly educated and have demonstrated their ability, most likely through published design, but choose to devote their main attention to educating others in the classroom and/or through proper research are the true torchbearers. They are needed to clarify, convey and expand the body of knowledge pertaining to design for communication and to help establish a more consistent standard. Those who command the design process primarily through applied design are in the indispensable position of nourishing higher education via encouragement and example. Superior work is the design community's purest form of scholarship and contribution. It is most effectively addressed by proficient practicing designers and design educators who acknowledge and support each other's appropriately different requirements and methods. Just as educators should engage in practice on its territory, so must practitioners encounter formal education on its terms. Each will still contribute his valuable perspective to the other pursuit. This personifies our consistent confrontation with 'unity and contract'.
Editor's note: A leading American design educator, Gordon Salchow is a professor and chairman of the Department of Graphic Design at the College of Design, Architecture, and Art at the University of Cincinnati. His provocative article is illustrated with examples of student and faculty work which indicate his school's own stance regarding the 'myths' in question.
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