“Thank you for your guidance, prodding, knowledge, and advice over the past two years. I have grown as a designer and a person because of it.” – Student
I am the Chair of the Design Management graduate program at the Shintaro Akatsu School of Design (SASD) at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Most of my career has been teaching graphic design and typography at Parsons School of Design, FIT, the Hartford Art School, the City College of New York, the University of Illinois, and the State University of New York.
My being chair of a graduate program in Design Management is influenced by my decades of teaching visual thinking and seeing. As luck would have it, Design Thinking is the underlayment of Design Management, making DM applicable to any mental discipline. I apply Design Thinking to our graduate program, shaping and evolving the coursework in response to students’ ideas: to a goodly extent we collaborate in shaping their educational program.
My teaching philosophy as it relates to graphic design is described in these three short videos prepared for a program I started with Brian D. Miller for high school students and others who wanted to develop a portfolio for application to professional design schools.
In the first, I identify a key difference between studying art and studying graphic design:
I talk about what I look for in a student and discuss the importance of thinking and seeing for art students:
I speak to the importance of typography in design study:
Here are two audio clips of class discussions. The first is a two-minute discussion of two dimensional design relationships:
The second is a one-minute discussion of designers, artists and the work of being a student:
Here are six additional interview videos featuring design education thought leaders Graham Clifford on students participating in professional organizations, and on craft versus concept, Charles Nix on the importance of reading for design students, on graphic design and typography, and on graphic design portfolios; and Rosanne Guararra on students having enthusiasm and keeping an open mind. We discuss what we look for in design students and in design portfolios, and how the study of graphic design is different than other forms of art study.
In thirty years of teaching, and in twenty-five years of critically thinking and writing about design, and in twelve years of familiarity with the world’s best design via my involvement with the Type Directors Club, I have concluded that learning how to design is not nearly as valuable as learning how to think and how to see. That I have a facility with graphic design makes it my vehicle for teaching these twin objectives. But design for its own sake is, to me, a false target in education.
I enjoyed fifteen years as a professor at the Hartford Art School of the University of Hartford, where I was awarded tenure and promotion and served as senior faculty member in the department. Because of life changes, I resigned my position in 2000 and began teaching as an adjunct in graphic design programs in and around New York City. These experiences have given me an extraordinary breadth of students and have given me a graphic design laboratory in which to explore ways to most effectively convey ideas. What I have come to is this single truth: teaching design creativity grows from limitations, not choices. Reduce choices and the only thing left for a student is to add their own creativity. Borrowing creativity – that is, selecting pieces (typefaces and images most often) made by others for use in one’s own work – is not creative. It is editing. Or shopping.
As a teacher, the two most telling questions I ask are, “Why did you do it that way?” and “What is right about this design?” To me, rigor is essential: I start with comparisons among works on a critique wall and gradually expand awareness to include works by other students in other programs and then to designers everywhere. This causes students to understand design relationships which express content are very much more important than simply “liking” a design.
My graphic design assignments can apparently be posters, web sites, book covers, and logo designs, but they are actually explorations into design relationships. The relationships between type, image, and space are the most valuable purpose of design study because such exploration causes students to consider purposefulness in their work. One of my favorite quotes is “A designer can do anything so long as it looks intentional.”
My job as an educator is to constantly invent ways to answer these questions: What can I do to promote thoughtful, fresh, creative approaches to standard visual communication problems? What tools can I introduce? How can I cause students to look for the unique in every problem and craft design relationships that express it? How can I build on students’ previous learning experiences to reinforce ideas they’ve already learned?
Graphic design education
The emphases in freshman work are on understanding abstraction of ordinary materials, imagery and individual letterforms, and the figure/ground relationship in artmaking.
The emphasis in sophomore work continues on abstraction, but in a more complex environment. Gridded and organic space are introduced.
Junior work sees some constraints lifted, allowing students to make more decisions on content and choice of design treatment. Abstraction remains a valued attribute: school is certainly the place to nurture individual familiarity with the place between visual interest and legibility. Client constraints will temper lack of legibility soon enough.
Senior work sees very few constraints imposed so that students’ decisions about all aspects of their work can be considered in class discussion. Here the question, “Why did you do it that way?” becomes central to every discussion.
Post-graduate work with highly motivated, academically proven students with disparate backgrounds encourages them to attack problems, making their results an adventure in every critique.