We began by acknowledging that the graphic design faculty shared at least
one common view: graphic design does not begin nor end in the objects it makes.
While hardly an epiphany, it is a sentiment that is broadly acknowledged yet undertheorized.
In order to more fully contextualize the practice of graphic design, it was
necessary to adopt and adapt a model of cultural production and consumption from
research done in cultural studies. This model recognizes that there are important
stages or moments in the life of designed artifacts, from their production through
their distribution and eventual consumption. It is important to note that this model
is dynamic and cyclical, meaning that any stage can and does influence other stages.
We began by moving outward from the designed product, looking at the
cognitive interaction between designed artifacts and those who use them—as
viewers, readers, audiences, receivers, browsers, or consumers. It was also necessary
to place the entire realm of design—designers, design artifacts, institutions, and
audiences—within a larger framework of society and culture, which ultimately
“authorizes” its making. Influence is reciprocal, so we examine how society and
culture shape graphic design as well as how graphic design shapes society and
culture. We also felt obliged to consider the impact of digital media on both graphic
design practice and society from a position that is critical of the kind of
technological determinism so rampant in the society and profession today. These
three areas of cognitive interaction, cultural reflexivity, and technological
innovation form a set of interrelated discourses about graphic design practice.
Importantly, these seminars are connected to studio courses, which require
the synthesis of ideas in the form of design projects that address, confirm, or
challenge the ideas presented. The focus of such studios is the creative application
of theoretical ideas in design projects, which are constructed by the students in such
a way as to ask pertinent questions. Unlike the objectives of undergraduate
education, students are not asked to solve problems, but are encouraged to pose
questions. This represents a fundamental challenge to traditional forms of design
education, which exist to replicate the status quo through problem-solving projects
that confirm what we, the profession, already know. By contrast, problem-posing
education centralizes the student as an active agent in the formulation of projects
that question what we, as a profession, already know as well as things that we might
never had considered. In a problem-posing education, students must be able to critically examine their world and their role within it. This means that a critical disposition on the part of the student and teacher is necessary to fully capture the radicalism of the proposition. Critical thinking and making skills are crucial for success. Students must be able to formulate questions that are not simply reducible to yes or no answers, because this is the prevailing logic that must be overcome. Questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no are, in fact, research questions. And if the practice of graphic design is more than an unending series of solutions to never-ending problems, then we might begin to understand graphic design as a researchable activity, subject to both the limits of theory and the limitations of practice.
Many graphic designers do not understand that academia is not just a
hothouse of wanton self-expression, but is actually the bastion of tradition. Design
practice relies on design education to train people in the latest technology and to
develop basic skills and literacy. But what many designers fail to recognize is that
academia’s most important role is in establishing continuity from the past to the
future. It is the place where the canon is constantly being elaborated and
reformulated. If certain values are deemed important to design, such values will most
likely be articulated and perpetuated through education, not practice.
Graphic design will not grow up into a profession or fine art until it can view
itself in a larger historical and cultural paradigm. And this is where design education
comes in. One of its most important functions is exploring and defining the context
of design and establishing a shared core of ideas, issues, and values that define
practice. Personal experience teaches how to repeat the successes and avoid the
failures of the past. Education teaches the value of past successes and failures, but in
an unbiased, professional fashion. A personal experience is only one person’s
experience and never exceeds his or her limitations and biases, but education is based
on a shared cultural past that includes many viewpoints and possibilities.
Design education is not just for training designers how to use tools, it is a
process for developing and refining our understanding of ourselves as designers.
Regardless of whether you believe design is a problem-solving profession of information architects or a socially responsible art form, education will broaden your
understanding and strengthen your convictions. The more articulate we are in
describing the issues and ideas that concern us, the better we will understand each
other and others will come to understand what we do. Education and experience are
the foundation of our future. If they remain at odds with each other, we will be
building on shaky ground, and whatever we make will not stand for long.
Great strides have been made in the past decade in design education, even
though it has been faced with its greatest challenges. It is important that we recognize
the wealth of experience and knowledge that designers have acquired and build upon
it. Designers need empowerment, and knowledge is power. The design educator’s job
is to make graphic designers smarter. However, practicing “professionals” are not
only needed to support design education, but to encourage it to go further. With the
help of real-world practitioners, design educators must work toward establishing
design as a vital part of cultural communication that is integral to, but not submerged
by, the new global information environment. Graphic design is bigger than any one
of us, so let’s start acting like we believe it.
Emotion, subjective interpretation, and hand gestures are what humans can
contribute and computers’ expert systems cannot. Highly technological societies
will likely put a premium on subjective human values. This suggests the possibility
of a renewed appreciation and new applications of our earlier, intuitive, imageoriented,hand-generated design approaches. Design as a cultural activity, including aesthetic and personal expression, may be the essential source of values, emotions, and play that we all need in the digital domain.
Ironically, the increasing quality of undergraduate education is proving to
limit somewhat the number of prospective graduate students. Many students now
leave undergraduate school with impressive portfolios that demonstrate welldeveloped formal sensibilities, particularly in typography and computer skills. The downside of this success is a tendency for these graduates to regard education as apassive process, spoon-fed from teacher to student and complete in four years,
rather than lifelong self-initiated learning. This attitude can lead to a plateau of
competence—resulting in the predictably slick work we see around the world—and
discourages further growth in challenging graduate study.