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Comments (37) Posted 05.20.04 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

Annals of Academia, Part II: Graphic Design and The New Optimism

Though it was not my original intention to open a polemical debate on the role of theory in design education, it appears I have done so, so allow me to try and address this head-on. By way of disclaimer (or apologia) I am speaking for myself only, not for the University where I have taught for a decade and where I received my own degrees. However, I have spent a good deal of time trying to stake out my position where design education is concerned.

So: here goes.

To begin with, I don't believe I am alone when I register impatience at the suggestion that graphic design owes much to literary theory: the actual origin of any theory itself is, I would argue, less critical. What does seem critical, from an educational standpoint, is that students are equipped with the intellectual guidance to understand what they read, and the objectivity to deconstruct a theory's relevance with regard to graphic design. To achieve the former requires patience, both with oneself and with the material. To achieve the latter requires boldness and a sense of conviction that, in my opinion, really only come from maturity.

In general, we introduce theory in the classroom not because of the product it generates so much as the process it informs; but in the absence of an original idea, students often see theory as a validating conceptual armature, a crutch. This is where our educational system fails us: for as long as the connection bewteen theory and practice remains thwarted by poor pedagogical direction, we cannot expect our students to know the difference.

To me, the goal is to groom students whose comfort level with theory is such that they emerge from a degree-granting program able to articulate their own theories. Isn't the point of a good education, any good education — to ultimately think for oneself? In this view, it doesn't really matter if the student reads Thorstein Veblen or Thornton Wilder. I would tend to agree with Design Observer reader Manuel Miranda that "readings" of such theorists as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin (I'd probably add Derrida and Debord to this line-up as well) are now so thoroughly picked-over that I suspect any substantive yield on new visual thinking is basically negligible. And for designers in general (and design students in particular) isn't the goal, in the end, to actually say/do something that hasn't been said/done before?

An anecdote — and one that will, perhaps, bring this discussion to a more promising conclusion.

In March of this year, I sat through interviews with 48 prospective graduate students from all over the world. In general they were an impressive bunch: sophisticated, smart and in more than a handful of instances, multi-lingual. So how was it that their experiences, varied as they were, all led them to seek two years of intensive graduate study at Yale? Of the nearly 200 applicants this year, this final group (later whittled down to ten) shared one very particular characteristic: they posessed a kind of intellectual restlessness I have rarely seen.

Let me qualify. One student spent 19 hours travelling from Asia and made a book on the plane: not content to wait until she returned to her studio to produce something, she fashioned an inventive binding out of paper clips and produced an entirely computationally-free bookform enroute. Another traveled from Eastern Europe where her politically-charged publications revealed an entirely new form of graphic protest. I met students from Baltimore to Beijing, looked at work in two, three and four dimensions, but mostly what I saw was novelty — of approach, of perspective, of materials and methods. I saw enthusiasm, inventiveness and original thinking. Over the course of a few days, I saw evidence of a new optimism in graphic design, one not so much framed by the mechanics of obedient communication as informed by the designer's observations about a larger world.

Here's what I didn't see. I didn't see a lot of hero worship. I didn't see a lot of corporate websites. I didn't see tiresome gimmicks, false mimicry or flailing mannerisms. I did, of course, see some goofball projects — work that was inpenetrably subjective, indulgent or shamelessly self-conscious — but this was more the exception than the rule, and to some extent, is to be expected of any juried circumstance. More encouragingly, I saw quite a bit of drawing, evidence that this new generation of designers knows how to work through a problem in the absence of, say, a G4. I saw evidence of thinking, which is not the same as theory, but it's close. And in the long run, it's better.

I came away from that exhausting week last March with an unusually upbeat view of the future — a view which was confirmed this past week when I sat through more than 20 hours of graduate thesis reviews. I have, as many of us do, a healthy skepticism when it comes to the act of reviewing student work (or any work, for that matter) but after ten years as a critic I feel the tide is turning, and why? By all indications, portable technologies support the novice photographer; better computational tools assist the apprentice typographer; and affordable desktop color printers make every "printed" project look like a work of offset genius. Nevertheless, in spite of their irresistable allure, these formal enablers can't replace such human faculties as observational awareness, intellectual curiosity, or the evocations of character. Those are the qualities which make our work great, theory be damned: for what good is theory in the absence of great work?

There are many, many factors which contribute to admission decisions, and while I am not at liberty to disclose them here, what I will share is this: how a designer perceives him or herself in the world, the degree to which their observations ricochet back into their own work depends on many things, not least of which is a cultivated mind; an ability to formally articulate an idea; and an appreciation for fairness, compassion and honesty. The next generation of designers will produce work in a world that needs all of these things, and so it is especially critical that we groom our students to sustain their commitment to formal rigor while at the same time urging them to advance both their own ideas and the ideas of others. Where theory fits into design education is but a fraction of a much bigger debate, one that would do well to consider designers not merely as makers, but as mediators; as curators; as directors; as ambassadors of ideas. This kind of approach demands a robust educational system — and an underlying critical culture — that encourages designers to think for themselves. This is what I am beginning to see, and it is precisely this independent presence of mind that perhaps more than anything else frames my optimism now, at the conclusion of this academic year. My prophecy may be misguided, or elitist, or unusually subjective, but it is indeed hopeful. In this uncertain age, it may just turn out to be a very good time to be a graphic designer.
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Jessica I appreciate what you have said. I agree with you, especially the need for designers to take the traditions and theories of today and push it forward into the future. I believe that the source of theory is much less important that what the designer is able to draw from the ideas, and what he can fashion into his own thoughts and work. For that reason alone I would disagree with you about Barthes and Derrida. While they have been sufficiently picked over I do think that as a platform for future thought they have been a significant step in my education. Appreciation of history is vital to the construction of new ideas.
I also appreciate the mentioning of maturity as a prerequisite for appreciation of theory. Before it was stated that age was a factor in being able to approach theory in a meaningful way, and I think maturity is a better way of saying it. It seems to be less a factor of years and more about the way you approach the theory, the appreciation you have for those who have gone before and carved their ideas out of the ether; and at the same time being able to appreciate your role in continuing the discourse.
John Gordon
05.20.04 at 12:25

Decades ago when I began seriously writing about design, I was introduced by my then wife, an anthropologist and student of Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, to their writings about myth, iconography, and imagery. Actually introduced is a passive verb, I was forced to read them. She said, if I really want to write about cultural phenomena I must understand (if not appreciate) how and what they see, or I'd be an "ignorant pissant" (her exact words) all my life.

For one whose only prior appreciation of cultural criticism was Mel Brooks' "The Critic," and Woody Allen's intellectual-ist musings in "Annie Hall," reading books by and about Levi-Strauss was an eye-opener. Suffice to say, my own writing, which was edited by my then wife, became significantly denser with more multi-syallabic, charged words strategically used to put the reader on the defensive and elevate my discourse. I was going through a phase (as my mom used to say). When my then wife and I split, my writing style changed (I became monosyallbic me again), yet I retained what I learned from those mandatory readings, and I was full of ambitious ideas about how to discuss quotidian (that's one of them words) subject matter, like typography and comics. I was also anxious to apply them in my own way.

As Jessica so eloquently states, "thinking" is the end product. Cutting and pasting these and other popular theories (like high schoolers who spout Ayn Rand) into one's vocabulary has little value if it does not enhance the thought process. Barbara Kruger's "We Don't Want Anymore Heros" (sic) is apt here. Theory is but the armature, not the final product (unless its a brand new theory, of course) on which to build conversations. Ideas come from these conversations. Education should be about stimulating those conversations. When theory is the cause celeb there is something amiss. When it spawns new thought its something to be celebrated.
Steven heller
05.20.04 at 02:44

Wonderful commentary. I, like John, feel that Post-Structuralist literary gives design students a framework with which they can contextual design history.

I wonder if you could comment, Jessica, on what role you see life experience playing in the development of the inquisitive, independent thinking individual? You seem to highlight the fact that they are coming from other countries.

For those of us in second and third tiered public institutions it seems our students are well indoctrinated in American commercial visual culture and may not be particularly adept at thinking critically about it at all. (And thus critical theory - and hopefully maturity - will eventually give them the tools to be critical thinkers).
Gregory Turner-Rahman
05.20.04 at 02:57

"It is especially critical that we groom our students to sustain their commitment to formal rigor while at the same time urging them to advance both their own ideas and the ideas of others."

I apologize if I'm not 'getting' it, but, to rehash graham's post from the previous thread, isn't this how it has always been since the dawn of modern art (and, by extension, design)? Isn't any respectable artist/designer either doing what has been done but better or doing what's never been done and doing it well?
Ahrum Hong
05.21.04 at 12:14

It's great to hear such positive reviews of both the incoming and graduating classes at Yale. The current thesis show is great, the best of the three I have seen so far.

Despite what I said in Part I of this thread, I do believe there is a lot for any thinking and reading person to learn from Benjamin and Barthes. However, what I am not comfortable with is viewing their work solely through the lens of graphic design, or using theory, as Jessica said, as a crutch to justify someone's design choices. Graphic designers and visual makers in general produce the cultural products which critics dissect and place in the world, but, to me, their reflections are more after-the-fact and analytical rather than prescriptive (though Benjamin does call for political engagement). The critics I enjoy are those who write about the world and the things and people in it, who somehow articulate what I sense about the world but cannot quite put into words myself. Does that make me a better designer? Not directly, I think, but having a vocabulary with which to talk about existence and life can make my visual decisions more purposeful, or at least allow me to articulate what it is I am up to.

On that note, I do think it is important what people read, and the lens through which those things are viewed. Designing a curriculum for students should expose students to their teachers' biases, because when there is a bias, there is something to react to. Reading in and of itself isn't necessarily a good thing, despite the number of ten dollar words used, learned, and regurgitated. The content of what is being read is important, and, for me, there are writers who are more relevant to contemporary life than others. It's up to educators to expose students with less familiarity with such things to the good stuff.

It's the paradox of pedagogy: how to teach students to think for themselves. How do you teach someone to be free?. It's really a contradiction, and authority will always raise either rebellion or hero-worship. When someone is truly thinking for him or herself, education is over. I guess that's where the maturity thing comes in, and people in graduate school are more likely to have it as they've been around longer and have had more experience with life.
Manuel Miranda
05.22.04 at 05:42

While I was in my undergraduate study I found what Manuel has recently said to be true. There were two avenues to follow the hero-worship and the rebel. I found the rebel more to my liking, but many of my classmates who took the other route ended up to be very fine designers. I don't know that there is a right or a wrong way, but there is definitely a difference in the work we produce. (That is another theoretical discussion, but it is interesting in a market economy to see the success of both kinds of design.)
The interesting thing to me is that in my undergraduate study we were very practically focused, and not pushed toward theory in any way. I think, as Jim said, this was good for the undergraduate. It is necessary to understand and be able to use form in an original way before involving theory, and from a practical sense, theory is useless unless it can be utilized in visual form. I think the beauty of education (especially an education moving toward original or at least personal thought) is that learning is the responsibility of the individual. While students have to, and want to be taught they must also react. Much in the same way people react to design. On some level it is the reaction that is the most important, and not integrity in the transmission of an idea. It is the reaction to a specific stimuli that the designer and teacher want. The selection of that stimuli is the key to opening the mind of the student and viewer.
John Gordon
05.24.04 at 07:19

One thing that has become very apparent to me as a graphic design student is that I am rapidly accruing more debt than I can fathom. I have one more year before I graduate and then will begin my post-school life with an MFA and $55,000 of debt. If I manage to make my $600/month payments I should be debt-free by the time I'm 60. (Unless I get a mortgage or more credit card debt.) And because I have thirty classmates in the same boat as me it doesn't even seem that weird.

The incredible amount of money required to finance a graphic design education (with or without theory) has to have an effect on the kind of work graphic designers produce when they get out. While you're in school, you're made to feel like you're incredibly lucky for having the opportunity to part with thousands of dollars you don't have. But after all the Hardt & Negri, the idolizing of the Guerilla Girls and Gran Fury, the endless crits and the politicking in the studio, the future looks pretty bleak.

I liked Jessica's optimism in her post and I think it's true that there is an "intellectual restlessness" among people seeking out a graphic design education these days. For me, however, that restlessness is quickly being replaced by a feeling of dread and anxiety in the face of a future in debt.

How can graphic designers have any autonomy in their practice when they have to push product to make their loan payments? Should graphic designers forsake higher education so that they can afford to think (and make) for themselves? I've spent the first few weeks of summer break trying to meet the demands of clients who only like blue and Trebuchet so that I can cover my rent. Will it be any different after graduation? Does Procter & Gamble, or MTV, or Microsoft or some bank that needs a website really care whether I can formally articulate an idea?
Danielle Aubert
05.25.04 at 12:22

How can graphic designers have any autonomy in their practice when they have to push product to make their loan payments?

get a tenure track professor job in a big state research institution.
yes you don't want to teach.
yes you might not be a good teacher.
but that's why you are called a "professor" and not a "teacher".
you just have to profess about something or another.

that's where the steady money is for you to do your kind of projects.
procter & gamble, mtv, and microsoft do not need your mfa design skills. there are armies of non-schooled or bfa grads to do that kind of design.

look at the graphic design landscape and ask yourself, "does p & g/mtv/microsoft really have interesting projects to work on?"

in academia; you can pick and choose your projects (in the sense that it's not a "life or death" decision if you do or do not take a project), you can work on lots of projects that pay nothing, or you can get grants for your "research".

or you could move to the netherlands, france or england (or some "socialist" country).

or you could marry a sugar momma/daddy.

or you could win the lotto.

or you could work at an established mfa'd intellectual designer's firm. one with plenty of satisfactory projects in which they could use your talents and pay you well, then break off after a couple of years after you've networked/made contacts and start your own thing.

or if you have the entrepreneurial spirit and know of a market niche that needs filling, you could take out a business loan or find some venture capitalists and unleash something onto the intellectual design craving public.

and as far as those student loan payments... i've zoned out that i have to pay for electricity, car insurance, phone service every month for the rest of my life, so toss a student loan on top of that. sure why not, i'm not buying a bmw z4 or dual processing g5 with cinema display anytime soon. it just dissolves into the background noise of the "bills" i have to pay to make it through life.

05.25.04 at 05:51

05.25.04 at 04:18

i think danielle injects a healthy dose of reality into the wide-eyed optimism. despite a fairly decent scholarship program, i too will have tons of debt when i get out. lets face it, for the most part, graduate education in graphic design at the big schools in the US is a rich kid's business. talk to any american architect, designer, or arts person and you find that nearly all of them come from well-off families and got their education at least partially paid for by their parents.

on the other hand, i think anyone who gets two or three years off of the working world to pursue what they are interested in and passionate about is pretty lucky, regardless of how it is paid for. i can't really put a price tag on this experience, so i dont associate how much i have to pay with what it is im actually doing. having to pay student loans is just symptomatic of the widespread ills of american education, and isnt really specific to graphic design education.

i remember reading an interview with blind melon in rolling stone about ten years ago --- one of the lead singers, who used to be a jock in high school then became a hippie, then i think od'd on drugs said that he wished that society would just let him do what he wanted to do, which was really just to play guitar and sing. why is it so hard to live when all you want to do is play guitar and sing? was what he was saying. i just want to play guitar and sing, you know? how come society won't let me do that? i mean, its kind of a joke. if mommy and daddy arent paying the bills for you then its going to require some tactical manoevering and thinking to do what you really want to do in this world.

but to anyone who is reading this post and thinking of attending graduate school for graphic design: if you are thinking about going on to graduate eductaion in graphic design in the US, seriously consider applying to european schools or state programs. they may not have as good facilities or industry connections, but the good ones will have great faculty and will not cost anywhere near as much. it would be great if a state-funded graphic design program could gain the reputation of cranbrook or yale.
Manuel Miranda
05.25.04 at 08:22


While it is unfortunate that higher education seems to serve purposes other than cultivating the increasingly elusive "life of the mind" and undoubtedly the amount of debt you have at this moment will continue to be crushing for some time into the foreseeable future, take heart.

The truth is: clients care deeply whether or not you can articulate your position and ideas. Clients want to hear you talk about design and they want to hear you relate design to their specific project goals (commercial or cultural (is there a difference?)).

Speaking and writing intelligently, articulating a complex thought (about your client) TO your client is the quickest way to build the relationship necessary to do what you have invested your time and money to do.

That is to say: design. Designers unable or unwilling to express from whence their vision springs will find themselves quickly passed by those who can.

vanessa kanan correa
05.25.04 at 09:36


While it is nice of you to make the suggestion (from Yale) that state schools are a perfectly acceptable alternative to the Ivy league, the true value of today's education consists in the connections and affiliations one acquires through and from the institution in question.

One can, in short, cultivate one's abilities anywhere and at any time (though self-directed study cannot be financed by student loans). Internships, on the other hand, lead to employment in a way that thought-provoking professors, no matter what their affiliation, do not.

But thought-provoking professors at Yale, for example, do write recommendation letters and they are on a first name basis with influential editors of design periodicals and with design consultants for prestigious cultural institutions. Acquiring an education at their feet opens doors that remain locked for students of less well known institutions.

(An understanding of "prestige" and its functions, by the way, can more easily be acquired via the writings of Thorstein Veblen than through those of Thornton Wilder, however nice the latter's ideas may be.)
Stuart Kendall
05.25.04 at 09:58

first off, i want to say that the following opinions are mine alone and represent no one but myself.


i would have to disagree with you on your point that "the true value of today's education consists in the connections and affiliations one acquires through and from the institution in question". i wholeheartedly disagree with that. the true value of today's education, or any education, is the enlightenment and cultivation of the mind, and the exploration of the unknown. this is the value of a humanist education, and this can involve graphic design education as well. i attended a state school as an undergrad, and though i didnt understand it at the time, i received an education that has proven invaluable, as it has allowed me to approach and view the world in a more holistic and liberated way. no, i didnt make any connections there that proved monetarily useful, but i learned enough to develop a mind and thoughts of my own.

I didn't choose this school because of the name, though I concede that no one can ignore the status of a Yale degree in this country and around the world. But in this industry, status does not necessarily equal dollars or employment. I chose this program because it felt right, because i wanted to be around smart people and thinking designers, because there was a three- year program, and, due to my academic background, because it was situated in a university. I also had a few continuing ed. teachers at Parsons and School of Visual Arts (institutions which are arguably far better in terms of making connections and finding internships than Yale) who made me aware of the program. Anyone who is spending upwards of $45,000 for tuition alone in hopes of making connections would be much better off investing the money some other way, and are hopefully filtered out in the interview process.

Going into debt and dropping everything in your life for three years to dedicate yourself to one thing that not too many people understand requires a lot of enthusiasm and idealism, and perhaps some naivete. i still have a year left here, and i have no illusions about any handouts that will be given to me once i leave. this program hasnt turned out to be quite what i expected, but i do feel ive gained a life experience that is invaluable and unquantifiable in terms of monetary value. this sort of confidence in your own personal experience, id like to believe, gives you more strength in following your own vision of things.
Manuel Miranda
05.25.04 at 11:45

I'm happy to see that your experiences at one of our nation's most prestigious educational institutions - perhaps the most prestigious design program - have not dimmed your sense of self-confidence nor your warm and noble sentiments for the sweetness and light offered by the Western humanist tradition.

I'll note only in passing that modern and contemporary philosophy - often mislabeled "theory" in recent posts - has concerned itself, lo these last 150 years, with undoing the psychological, social, and economic damage this same Western humanist tradition has offered the world. (Contrary to the prevailing belief, the primary goal of this philosophical tendency is not simply to provide designers with fuel for design: it is to help people understand human experience in an adequately nuanced and subtle way. This thought is often complex because the world is often complex.)

"Thinking for oneself", in short, is a pleasant notion, as is self-confidence, both wonderful inventions of the Enlightenment. (Freud, for one, had less confidence in the self.)

I, however, will still encourage my students to attend Ivy league schools and to pursue internships, to make connections (call them "friends" if it helps) with whomever they can.

"For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away" (Luke 8:18)

I say all of this, by the way, in recognition and appreciation of the unchecked "endemic" (?) democracy of the blog as a form. The alternative forums for discussion - quiet conversations in corridors at the AIGA, design magazines which "keep reader interaction to a bare minimum" etc. - bespeak only other channels for the power of privilege.

All of this, in my opinion, of course.

Stuart Kendall
05.26.04 at 11:56

I brought up student debt on this thread because, for many, government loans are the only way to fund a graphic design education. The time spent working toward a professional degree (the MFA) coincides with a profoundly disempowering process -- that of turning over current and future funds to degree-granting institutions. I would argue that if we are theorizing graphic design education we have to think through the social function of the MFA.

MFA programs, at least at "elite" institutions, encourage independent thinking and experimental making. Rather than taking terms and practices for granted, we devote ourselves to "theoretical" (i.e., critical) thinking about the very activities we are engaged in and question the ideas that make those terms and practices seem "natural" or "common sense." Ironically, the cost of the MFA program itself makes precisely that kind of critical thinking and experimental making nearly impossible to sustain after graduation. Most MFA graduates must immediately set themselves to the task of making a lot of money to pay off loans. This requirement is almost exclusively at odds with independent-thinking and creativity insofar as our skills must always be subordinated to profit-making activities.

For those who are actively seeking an escape route from a future in advertising, the options are few. Tuan brought up the only options I've been able to think of -- moving to a socialist country, stringing together "research" grants, or remaining in academia. (That said, I know that very few of the graphic design educators I have encountered make a living off of their earnings from teaching.)

While it is great to be able to spend time thinking critically and making experimental work in school, I still have to register a note of cynicism about the failure of graphic design MFA programs to forefront the reality that awaits freshly professionalized graphic designers entering the workforce with enormous financial handicaps. There are some loan forgiveness programs in place for law and business school graduates who go on to work in jobs that aren't geared toward profit-making. Isn't there a social role to be filled by the graphic designer outside of profit-making, outside the world of ad campaigns, coffee-table books and logos? What happened to the distinction between graphic design and advertising? Don't we all benefit from having a well-designed environment?

My previous splenetic post about my own debt was an attempt to encourage a little criticality about the social function of the MFA for graphic designers in the first place. Here are some links that might be of interest:

- An open letter from Yale graphic design students protesting inflated tuition costs.

- An outdated but still interesting article on Art Center students rallying for lower tuition.

- Coverage of a Yale professional student rally -- "Drowning in Debt" -- from this past April. When I checked the site was down, hopefully not for long.

And this book: Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education by Cary Nelson. The entries on "debt" and "apprentices" are helpful.
Danielle Aubert
05.26.04 at 06:50

The money problem is something I definitely relate to, so thanks for bringing that up. What's worse is that the more education I get, the less I seem to be suitable for any job.

you just have to profess about something or another.

Unfortunately, what you have to profess is usually the profession.

Gunnar Swanson sent me an article written the other day by Stanley Fish (the reader-response theorist) as his final "words of wisdom" before resigning his deanship. I have to say that I didn't "get it". His ideas, if applied to graphic design pedagogy, would be disastrous:

"If we aim low and stick to the tasks we are paid to perform, we might actually get something done." It would not be, in my view, wise to follow his advice because, first of all, it is not clear what tasks design teachers are "paid to perform" beyond, generally, keeping their mouths shut about design's lack of knowledge. If graphic design was an actual area of academic inquiry and teachers were paid to develop it, then his advice might make sense. But as Jonathan Baldwin has suggested, the "higher education" in graphic design is not much more than a vocationalism artificially heightened to the status of a true degree program. (And while the cost of education may be an "American" problem, the uselessness of expensive graphic design degrees in general, as evidenced by Baldwin's similar concerns regarding UK education, compared to other kinds of degrees, as a result of this deception makes the issue much more crucial for us.) I may be exaggerating just a bit, but there is a kernel of truth in this. I have not been convinced that anyone would be willing to pay me (in the future) to be a professor and do the kind of work that I do now. I have, though, seen how I could be paid to shut up and aim low (even now). What that would accomplish doesn't inspire me. Hopefully we can build enough value through our uncompensated (uncompensated by both money and grades) explorations to convince the establishment to change its ways and to take design studies seriously.

I identify with Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon). I've been told that I can indeed do what I want, but I won't get paid for it. Which is pretty much saying that I can't do (--"design theory" is not an acceptable response to the question, "what do you do?"--) what I want to do, which is to think about design. Already the social pressures are making this harder and harder. And you wouldn't think that it would be so difficult to think about design when there are so many graphic design programs out there. But it is, because the abundance of programs is not at all, due to the secret ties to vocationalism, an indication of an interest in the development of design thinking.

The school in the US that seems to have the best combination of being affordable (as a state school) and very highly regarded is NCSU.

Tom Gleason
05.26.04 at 07:54


Thank you for commenting on the state of (graphic) design
education. Your optimism is encouraging, and I am pleased that you have created a much needed forum for dialogue on this topic. It is clear that you believe theory is important, and I agree with much of what you wrote. But I do have some questions:

1. Many design programs, in both university and non-university settings, offer classes in 'theory'. It's good that these classes are offered, but just taking these classes alongside graphic design courses might not be enough for students to see the connections to design. As you say, theory can become a 'crutch.' I'm curious how you see theory integrated into a design curriculum and specifically how you see theory integrated into studio classes.

2. You suggest that the works of Derrida and Barthes may not contribute much to new visual thinking, because they have been "thoroughly picked over." In my four years of design school experience, I never heard any mention of Derrida or Barthes or even Foucault in a studio class. So to me, they are still new, not passé. Their ideas can be opaque, so it's not a surprise they get little mention in studio classes. Perhaps, this is different at Yale, but I am guessing that many design programs across the country mention little about Derrida or Barthes at an undergraduate level. Do you really see these works as no longer relevant at all?

3. Others who have written within the field of design receive even fewer mentions than Derrida or Barthes. Works by Herbert Simon, Horst Rittel, Donald Schon, and Richard Buchanan are foreign to both instructors and students. This is ironic because they wrote specifically within the field of design, yet others who write from other fields such as history, philosophy, or semiotics are better known in our field. This may just indicate poor design history or archiving. Nonetheless, I feel that their work becomes more relevant as designers are called to address larger and more complex problems. How do you see the works of Simon, Rittel, Schon, Buchanan and others fitting into a design program?
Chanpory Rith
05.26.04 at 08:05

A challenge, indeed! Let me see if I can address your very thoughtful questions.

First, as far as I am concerned, the best way to truly integrate thinking and making — otherwise known as theory and practice — is through writing. This does not assume that the student (or any designer, for that matter) need be a Pulitzer-prize worthy novelist, but rather, that the very act of considering language creates a kind of meaningful link between an idea and its formal execution. By way of example, I routinely ask my second-year graduate students to create a list of words that they feel connect in some way to their thesis. What emerges is a kind of laundry list of vocabulary: from this, I have seen entire new ideas and projects come to life, and along the way, the doors open to new theoretical considerations as well. That an actual position also grows from this — a considered articulation of the student's own ideas (generally an essay or text of some kind) is a subsequent consequence of this ongoing exploration. But by embracing language in all its complexity — its multiple meanings, its metaphorical asides, its evocative transgressions, its endearing intentionality — the student begins to gain a kind of ideological fluency with a new language. From this new aquisition of language comes a blossoming confidence, an authority over the subject in question, and, ideally, a more fully developed body of work.

Secondly, on the topic of Barthes et al., it is not now nor has it ever been my intention to denigrate these critical contributions to the sacrosanct canon of literary theory. But it has been my observation that in the majority of cases, the immediate value to the graphic designer is questionnable: more often than not, these works are cited because it is fashionable to do so, not because they provide a deeper or more enlightened critical perspective with regard to one's work. To me, what is more valuable is that the student acquire a facility with and appreciation for reading and interpreting what s/he reads: Saussure, Sontag, Schopenhauer — what matters is not so much who but what the student draws from and applies to his or her own thinking.

A shorter way of saying this might be: I'd rather see a student take a simple idea and understand it completely than a complex idea and understand it simply.

Which brings me to your third point: maybe it's me, but my barometer of appreciation is directly connected to unorthodox sources. There are many sources that might be said to provide ample inspiration for designers, yet might not as readily be classified as "theory" — but does this make them less valuable as critical tools? I'd argue they are at least, if not more compelling: so let's see our students begin introducing new and unusual sources in their work. Let's encourage a student investigating rhythm to read T.S. Eliot and Billy Collins; let's encourage a student looking at social systems to read David Halberstam on postwar America, or deToqueville on prewar America; let's lose the empty attachment to "theory" for theory's sake and reinvest in our students and the generation of new and original ideas.
Jessica Helfand
05.27.04 at 10:13

Jessica I couldn't agree more. Investigating other forms of art, and discovering the methods and motivations of other artists has been key to my current understanding of design, and as I continue to learn and find a personal voice I find that the discourse of design seems repetitive and to some extent irrelevant to my own goals. That is a personal statement, but maybe it has a practical application to the way we all approach theory. As designers we are asked to synthesize a lot of information, make it understandable and presentable to a wide variety of readers. I think it is a disservice to our readers if we limit our understanding of theory to design principles. How are we expected to relate to many people if the well we draw from is specific.
You have mentioned the need to think for yourself, and it seems to me this is the reason you have looked outside design critique and theory for inspiration and new ideas. That is not to say that the theories of design are not valuable, but that your ideas have led you away from the design writings to explore the writings of other creative professionals. You mentioned language and its multiple meaning, metaphorical asides, its evocative transgressions and endearing intentionality. Maybe writing is the first step, but those qualities need to be in the design as well. I believe they will work their way into design after it is in the designer. To me that is what theory is. It is the designer defining for him or herself what and who they are, what they believe, and 'filling their well' with ammunition. When the designer has become what he or she wants to create then their work will reflect the ideas and theories they have adopted. Those theories will have transformed in the designer and when they reappear they will be personal and unique.
Coming back to design writing, as a way of relating it to what I have just said, and some of the other posts here, there is no theory without practice. The interesting thing to me is that it's difficult to translate theory into examples of actual work that people can see and discuss. It is the only way to present your ideas to an audience. I am very doubtful that the audience for design theory is as wide as most of us hope for in the case of our design. Also work is the only way you can make money, and or convince people that they should pay you for your unique perspective.
I don't want to suggest that we forge theory. I think it is an essential part of creating interesting culturally valid work. I do hope that we can integrate our theory with work, and present it in a way that epitomized the theory we espouse.
John Gordon
05.27.04 at 01:09


Thank you for responding. Your point about the importance of writing within a studio class is excellent. In design school, I was seldom encouraged to write in my studio classes. Even my undergraduate design thesis class, supposedly the ultimate test of my thinking skills, did not require a written paper. It was even subtly discouraged. Though disappointing, it's fueled my desire for further education and certainly made me more critical as I look at applying to graduate programs.

I would like to add to your point and suggest that reading, as well as writing, is also important. The tricky part is learning to discern and choose quality works to read. I agree with you that as designers we must search out "new and unusual sources" outside the design discipline and infuse them into the work we do. Perhaps I'm misreading you, but are you suggesting that design must rely on other disciplines and sources, and thus has no theoretical basis of its own? That there is no canon? Of course, if you feel design does have a canon, I'm very curious to know what works you would include. What would your ideal required reading list contain?
Chanpory Rith
05.27.04 at 06:48

This is probably off topic, and if so, please disregard. But what about the dissemination of theory? With all respect, I have become impatient with pro and con commentary about the validity of theory and criticism. Who is teaching theory and criticism? and where? and what constitutes a particular body of theory and criticism knowledge?

Having interviewed at ten schools of graphic design during the past two years, my observation would be that other than CalArts (and based on what I can appreciate from this website, Yale), every one of them has been interested in a discussion of "skills and training" rather than "education and ideas," a point that schools would never dare to admit publically. So just where is theory and criticism taking hold in graphic design? It is taken for granted in other design fields, namely architecture, but why are graphic design programs (and as a result, their progeny) so resistant?
David Cabianca
05.28.04 at 11:04

Here, too, I would venture that unorthodox sources may be as if not more valuable than the usual suspects. (That said, I often feel design students have an uneven knowledge of design history, and this is probably easily remedied by reading books whose publication date precedes, say, 2000.) There is a misnomer that seems to suggest reading recent publications is a sure-fire way to achieve novelty in one's work, but I believe the opposite is more likely to prove true.

Put another way, I resist the idea of a "canon" as this seems to suggest a static reading list. (If pressed, I'd sooner include Simon Schama than Saussure; Walker Percy than Walter Benjamin. But that's just me.) It somehow seems that while it would be beneficial to any student of design to possess a familiarity with certain seminal sources, reading other things (the newspaper, for one) may prove more useful in the long run as it truly challenges one's interpretive faculties.

Perhaps a bit off topic, but I wonder: is it just me, or are there other Design Observers out there who experienced a momentary sigh of disappointment upon learning that the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili had inspired a new blockbuster novel? Wouldn't it have been great if it had been designers who dramatized this fascinating little piece of incunabula? (Hey — a girl can dream, can't she?)
Jessica Helfand
05.30.04 at 09:14

Marian put her finger right on it -commenting on the latest entry regarding Chris Ware. I love this blog but it'll make me spend too much if I set out to acquire all that it reviews or promotes, from the lowliest 'newspaper' to the costliest MFA. So I lift and separate.
In southern California the latest 'marketing' is a consortium of schools exhibiting their recent graduates' work in an unusual architectural structure. The price tab for a degree from UC Irvine however is probably much less than CalArts, or maybe not. I haven't looked into it because my BFA followed a BA from a different EI (educational institution) and I was definitely more 'mature' when I did the course work for the BFA five years later. Part of it because of a habit I'd taken on while living in overcast London, of reading The Guardian everyday (The Observer on Sundays) which continues to this day. Only it's the LA Times now and it can't really be the 'lowliest' because the subscription I pay lets me read well written commentary that 'the paper' does not make available online.
About dramatizing: it's your blog and you can veer if you want to ("it's my party and I'll cry if I want to...") and dream. Except that aren't you much more able to make the dream a reality than the rest of us? If you need a co-author look no further than your incoming class at Yale; or someone like Marian or I, looking to bankroll the ongoing expenses of being culturally in tune : )
06.01.04 at 01:13

The problem with pro/con discussions about the validity of theory goes back to the Big T/Small t Theory distinction that Rick Poynor made. Theory has a "political stigma", continually renewed by seemingly "apolitical" conservatives like Mr. Blowhard.

To me, the problem is not that design programs don't teach Derrida; the problem is that the level of self-reflection is so low in general, and that these unreflective practitioners attempt to justify themselves by way of a self-contradictory, but still deceptive, theory of non-theory. It would be better if the conservatives in design would attempt to really justify their approach. What are the actual reasons for uncritically accepting the roles given to us by the system?; there are possible arguments: the rationality of tradition, reasons (? please share) to embrace consumerism, etc., and these arguments should be made in order to make meaningful criticism possible.

My latest sketch of an argument for the inclusion of theory in design education comes from a text by Habermas which specifically addresses the responsibility of the university to help the student to develop extra-functional abilities and to act politically (within the system of education and AS the institution with a role in democracy) in order to fulfill its role as an institution producing enlightenment. These are concerns above and beyond the transmission and production of mere technical, "apolitical", knowledge and skills.

Tom Gleason
06.01.04 at 03:43

I was not advocating a the establishment of a canon for the introduction of theory in graphic design programs. Quite the contrary, when schools offer The History of Graphic Design, isn't a single course tantamount to teaching a canon? My point was that having been through 10 interviews for teaching positions, the majority of questions I was asked were about what sort of studio exercises I would assign. Other than at CalArts, there was not an interest in discussing the philosophy of exposing students to one particular body of knowledge over another.

Why not offer a palette of history/theory and criticism courses: "A History of Agitprop: From Russian Constructivism through Feminism and the AIDS Crisis"; "Theories of the Surface: William Morris to David Carson"; "Provocations of High and Low: The Vernacular in American Graphic Design"; and so on...

I am making these titles up, but these are NOT the kinds of discussions that I was having when I was searching for a teaching job. I agree with Tom Gleason that a university's mandate should produce good citizens in addition to professional skills for jobs. I don't have the article available, but when I was at Princeton in 1995, President Harold Shapiro wrote a two issue editorial for Princeton Alumni Weekly on why a liberal arts education is still necessary. I still agree with his message, I am just waiting for graphic design schools to catch up.
David Cabianca
06.01.04 at 06:02

in response to stuart, i have to say that i find it a sign of cynicism that, as a teacher, you encourage such careerist attitudes in your students. whether studied in the context of a university, a vocational school, an art school, on-the-job or self-taught, there is a professional field and market need of graphic design that exists in which the skills you are learning can be marketed. however, i would hope that at four-year institutions and graduate-level programs, one is engaged in something other than market demands, and that there are teachers who are not promoting a student's marketability, but rather focussing on their talents and leading them or at least helping them along in their explorations, and encouraging in them some love for and curiousity in what they are doing.

yesterday i was reading New Philosophy for New Media by mark renner (actually i was just skimming through it at barnes and noble) and came across some writing about walter benjamin's essay "the work of art..." renner was writing about how benjamin's essay remains applicable today, especially in light of the hyper-distribution of new media objects. to me, benjamin's article is still highly relevant because for the graphic designer, the tools of both production and distribution are literally at his or her fingertips. essays like benjamin's help to locate the work of the designer, and the designer's agency, in the world at large. renner's book, or lev manocich's writings (whose arguments renner basically tears apart in his first chapter), are important because they engage the tools that graphic designers work with everyday. self-discovery and skills-building at the graduate level are definitely important, but i also think that knowing and thinking on one's place in the world, one's possibilities and limitations, is also necessary to be aware of, and that, for me, is where theory can come in.
manuel miranda
06.02.04 at 03:00

To start, I would like to state that I am new to this community of designers, and hope my rhetorical inquiries will provide some value to your discussion.

My recent exploits as a graduate of Otis College of Art and Design, led me to seriously reconsider the value of my education. While at a Community college, I once read in a Communication Arts article that so many educated artists are lacking in their own ability to articulate. This problem became painstakingly clear to me while at Otis. This was an essay subject I chose to tackle, and fate somehow brought me to face that particular issue at Otis and thus still deal with it today.

It perhaps seems viable that all undergraduate programs in design would be more pedagogical, and indeed interdisciplinary. Perhaps the college could manage to produce more intellectually enlightened individuals. There is nothing more dissapointing than seeing a group of uninquisitive artists. I was not a Graphic Design major, but I know for certain the emphasis on pedantic, recycled Design aesthetics and interdepartmental politics played too much of an influence on the Communication Arts Program.

So it is my question that if in fact a failure in objectivity in design programs produce less inquisitive self-critical minds, does this in turn create a larger void between sociological progress in times of undue stress?

It is my conclusion that at some point, it truly becomes a designer's duty to enhance the world in which he/she lives in through their own abilities. To serve a higher function other than meeting trivial individual agendas, would hopefully ultimately lead to some social progress.

Juan Bethke
06.07.04 at 03:16

A powerful anxiety emerges across this discussion thread regarding the role of MFA programs in the life of a designer. On the one hand, there is a desire for more theory, criticism, history, and purely experimental work. On the other hand, there is resentment that such work is not eagerly embraced in the marketplace.

The challenge and obligation of graphic design MFA programs is to help students prepare for the reality of the working world in a way that is informed by critical thinking. MFA programs should not present themselves as a retreat from the "real world," but as a place from which to define one's life goals and build up a body of skills, insights, and actual work needed to achieve them.

Is this vocational? I am not so fearful of that word as some of you. A vocation is a calling. One must pursue it with a measure of optimism and an acceptance of risk. A purely academic, theory-driven MFA program would succeed only in producing more academics, and it would have limited impact on the broader field of design practice. It is far more interesting to find ways to connect theory to practice than to approach theory as a pure and isolated discourse.

Be aware that students pursuing PhD's in such strictly academic areas as English, philosophy, history, cultural studies, art history, and so on have far more trouble finding acceptable post-grad employment than graphic designers do. There is thus a movement afoot in universities to define roles in society for the "engaged intellectual," who develops practical uses for humanistic knowledge in the broader community.

Designers are great models for the engaged intellectual.

Oh, yeah, and I just want to sing and play guitar, too, but if it sounds like crap, no one will listen.
Ellen Lupton
06.17.04 at 06:54

This past semester, I took two courses at the Yale School of Architecture, one a theory class, the other a computational form class. I used to look to architecture as a model for graphic design: more established discipline, longer history, etc. Though I no longer look to architecture in the same way, I do think graduate graphic design programs can learn a lot from the M. Arch. I model. I find an interesting mix of theory- and practice- related courses at the architecture school, and theory classes seem to be integrated well to the studio.

I don't think anyone is asking for purely theory-driven, academic MFA programs, as they would by definition no longer be MFA programs. Furthermore, life in the 'ivory tower' is, by definition, a retreat, or a removal of oneself, from the world of commerce. But regardless of a student's background, I think it would be beneficial for a graduate student in graphic design to walk away from a program with a facility with language, and a critical perspective, in addition to a visual fluency.

I disagree that pure theory about graphic design in the world would have limited impact on practice, and I cite architecture again as one example. In addition, there is also a lot of great writing on graphic design by people who don't design at all. In general, scholarship and writing contribute to a wider body of knowledge that exists in academia, accesible by similarly-minded people who wish to benefit from and contribute to that body of knowledge.
manuel miranda
06.18.04 at 05:17

It is hardly self-evident that graduate education is, by definition, "life in the ivory tower." Indeed, the term "ivory tower" is generally used by anti-intellectuals (cultural conservatives) to denigrate and marginalize the achievements of the academic world.

If you are interested in the changes afoot in PhD programs, look at the bold new thinking taking place in the humanities:

Woodrow Wilson Foundation: The Responsive PhD

Of particular interest, the article
"Toward a Responsive PhD," by Robert Weisbuch, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By no means do I suggest that there is not a place for pure, disinterested research within or around the field of graphic design. But by and large, most MFA students are not looking to pursue careers as scholars, but as designers. It is possible to do both, and to feed one hunger with the other.
Ellen Lupton
06.18.04 at 02:04


I agree with you that the term 'life in the ivory tower' may have a ring of conservatism to it, hence the 'scare' (insert bunny rabbit finger motion here) marks, but I do think that graduate level education is a removal from the demands of the market.

Technically, the Yale School of Art (I'm speaking from my own experience here) is considered a Professional School within the University system, as opposed to the Graduate School, which is the School of Arts and Sciences. The stipend and loan system is different depending on the category under which one's department falls. But, most students at the Art School do receive some kind of funding, whether through grants, loans, or their parents, that makes it possible to not have to worry about bills while in school. This temporary financial freedom for two or three years allows students to, as you say, define one's goals, as well as to experiment and go down paths that are more difficult to explore when one is working. The time also allows students to discuss ideas and question paradigms that the working professional does not have as much time to do.

I do believe that academia is part of the 'real world', but student life is different to professional life in that it is, as I said, a chance to dedicate oneself (and mostly on one's own terms) solely to one thing, every day, for an extended period of time. This is a luxury that many people do not get to have, or do not understand, but should be taken full advantage of as one may never have the chance to do it again. If that involves reading a lot of theory, taking seemingly unrelated classes, and producing experimental and exploratory work that will not not make money, then I'm all for it.

Which brings me to this question: What exactly is preparation for the reality of the working world? Many people who come to the Yale program in graphic design have already worked, and some are at the top of their field. Beyond the basic skills of certain software programs, and an ability to work with type and image, I think the best thing to take from graduate school and into the real world is conviction tempered by a good sense of self-criticality. Speaking from my own experience, I believe that conviction is hard won as many of the critics here are extremely demanding and do not let their students off the hook so easily, and constantly being questioned on what you are doing makes you constantly question yourself as well.

But perhaps my point of view is too individualistic, and maybe it would be better if there was more integration between the industry and students. I think the core of what Yale (again, I'm speaking only my opinion and no one else's) is teaching its students is to design from a self-aware, worldly, critical, and personal perspective. Which I suppose isn't too different from what Ellen says is the obligation of MFA programs. But in the end, MFA programs are populated by students, and students are always in a different position from that of the working professional.

Again, just my own, highly solipsistic, two cents.

Manuel Miranda
06.18.04 at 09:06

I do think graduate graphic design programs can learn a lot from the M. Arch. I model. I find an interesting mix of theory- and practice- related courses at the architecture school, and theory classes seem to be integrated well to the studio.

Do most architectural programs provide a good balance of practice and theory, sure, however I find the often comparison of a Graphic Design education to that of an Architectural education model often misleading. The MArch model is supported by a profession that requires a "professional" degree (a 5-year BArch or a 4&2 MArch) for licensing. Anyone seeking to practice architecture on their own or as a registered Architect will often have to seek a MArch (as the number of 5 year programs diminishes). This provides the educational system of architecture the number of physical bodies (more students = more faculty) to support both practice/studio based courses and theory/history courses. The field of graphic design does not require an MFA or any type of licensing exam to practice. Therefore students do not have to pursue the degree. Most graphic design programs in public institutions exist of significantly smaller numbers than that of architecture, limiting schools to provide less theory/history courses.

Within the University of Texas at Austin grad Design program the burden of seeking out theory relies solely upon the student's ambition to look beyond the borders of their own college/discipline. A large public institution such as this, makes this an acceptable model, but it seems to often miss out on the synthesis of that knowledge into students own work. Such a model would also be difficult to implement at places such as Cranbrook and CalArts.

Which brings me to this question: What exactly is preparation for the reality of the working world?

I agree with Manuel that several MFA students do come to their respective programs with some experience as a practicioner. I often see such 'criticism' of the 'real world' coming from those who have not practiced within the profession or those who are hesitant in their abilites to bring "self-aware, worldly, critical, and personal perspective" deisgn to fruition in any form beyond the shelters of academia. Or perhaps this is a lack of "conviction".

Perhaps the question should be so what is/should be the role of those with the MFA? To educate, to operate on the periphery of the profession, to introduce new ideas/new methods to the profession and general public, to make change happen (even if incrementally). Perhaps it should become viewed more as civic responsibility rather than an entry portal into more esteemed postions in the professional world.

We as those who hold an MFA in a design/making discipline and operate within a 'commerce-based' industry (to borrow from another post of Ellen's elsewhere) are at an advantage over those with the PhD in Lit Studies or History to get our ideas out into the world.
06.19.04 at 12:23

And here's another "two cents" from Ellen (to coin an economic phrase).

Although Manuel talks about graduate school as a period of "temporary financial freedom" when students do not have "worry about bills," there is anxiety expressed elsewhere in this thread about the substantial debt that many graduate students do incur, regardless of help from parents, spouses, fellowships, and other sources.

I enjoyed Ryan's cogent discussion of M.Arch programs in economic terms (the economics of the university). One can also point out that the flourishing of design history and criticism in the UK has been enabled by the fact that these courses are a mandated part of state-funded institutions, a bureaucratic fact that helps to guarantee a market for design history and theory.

I am not arguing for a strictly technical approach to design education, either graduate or undergraduate. I just don't want to us devalue the grounded practicality of what designers do--our embeddedness in a world of living sitatuations. That groundedness is why art and design programs are becoming a model for liberal arts education, which has historically tried to remove itself from any instrumentality. A provocative article on this subject appeared just last week on the FRONT PAGE of the New York Times.

I agree with Manuel, of course, that we are not simply engaged in job training. Just as the goal of a traditional liberal arts education was to build informed and thoughtful citizens, a critically-minded design education helps designers connect their work to society in concrete and considered ways.

Ellen Lupton
06.22.04 at 04:11

I am not sure why everyone is feeling sorry for Ph. D. students. Of course, there are Ph. D. students who are not critically engaged, and probably quite a few who end up unemployed, but I think taking a Ph. D. shouldn't be viewed as a self-inflicted wound that prevents you from being relevant to society. Taking a Ph. D. is a commitment and a calling to scholarship, and it's a worthy one, not a prison sentence. Are designers really in a better position than Ph. D. students in communicating with the world what they have to say? Scholarship provides time for reflection and consideration, to explore the complexities and the depths of situations and ideas, something designers don't really have a lot of time for. On a larger scale, it all sort of works together, don't you think? These people do their part, we do our part, sometimes we can feed off of each other, no?

Many Ph. D. students who do not continue at research institutions do very well in government, foreign service, or the private sector, and many make good money. Regarding those who take Ph. D.'s in disciplines that pay less, like Comparative Lit. or anything else related to language, journalism and writing is always a good avenue. I would tend to think that 'engaged intellectual' is a bit of a redundant term; intellectuals, or thinking people, do tend to be engaged with their surroundings or interests, regardless of how much money they can make.

Why should anyone take an MFA in Graphic Design is a more fundamental question. As Ryan states, it isn't required. No degree whatsoever is required, there's no state-regulated test, and there are many out there making a good living off of 'design' who never received any education in it at all. The industry does not specify higher rates according to degree. Many star designers who never did an MFA I'm sure scoff at the idea of wasting time and money on a graduate course in graphic design when you could just work and learn the same thing and more, as well as make connections. In the end, it's purely a personal decision, and maybe the best thing to learn in graduate school is why you did it in the first place. This is where "Theory" comes in, which, in this context, really stands for critical thinking, reading, and writing about making and occupation in a discipline not normally associated with such ways of thinking.
Manuel Miranda
06.27.04 at 07:59

It would be interesting to see the student work. Are you optimistic about it, or is the work itself optimistic? Or both?

Without the work, what strikes me is the repeated singling out of Benjamin and Barthes. Why? Are they the best critics?

I know we're supposed to be brief, so here's an oversimplified summary of Modernism in architecture, hopefully relevant to the discussion.

The early Modernists wanted to change the world. They had a strong social agenda, and they were reformers. This is all good, in my book.

Libeskind, Hadid, Koolhaas et al have little social agenda. Their work is interesting and esoteric and ideologically exclusionary, although we seem to be in a time of revision and eclecticism.

Part of that revisionism is New Urbanism, which also has a strong social agenda. Those who think the point of New Urbanism is to make pretty middle-class suburbs don't know New Urbanism. The point is to reform the way we build and to make good, beautiful, walkable, diverse, sustainable places with a public realm worthy of ourselves.

To be blunt, Benjamin and Barthes don't lead to New Urbanism. They can lead to Libeskind and Koolhaas, who is upset by the idea of a beautiful public realm (see his anecdote about going to a lecture by Lou Kahn, and crawling on the floor in the dark to avoid listening to Kahn's sentiments on the city).

In a recent speaking tour of architecture schools, I talked about the lack of social program in the work of the current Starchitects. The students had been taught in a vague Socratic way that there is a semiotic school of thought in the 20th century that is on the left, therefore social and reformist, and that it leads to the Starchitects of today. But they all realized that Libeskind, Hadid and Koolhaas build esoteric monuments for patrons, and that their fellow students in the rest of the university have all shown 1) they're eclectic, and 2) traditional architecture and urbanism are a part of their eclecticism. And that if you want to affect the way America builds you can't just deal with monuments for patrons.

So, what is the new optimism in graphic design, and what do Barthes and Benjamin in particular have to do with it? Are they the gurus, or is it just coincidence that they are ones repeatedly mentioned?

Please note that I comment that Libeskind, Koolhaas et al can do good work. My point is their ideological exclusionism and their narrow range of interests.
john massengale
07.07.04 at 03:36

John, I think the popularity of Barthes and Benjamin is part of the problem — i.e., that design students (and perhaps their teachers) need a more diversified series of sources to draw upon, particularly as their research takes them closer to the canon of architectural theory. A narrow range of interests is the opposite of what we are looking for: rather, an expansive view of how design fits into the larger scheme of things. (The same might be said for our mutual goal here on Design Observer, but I'll try to stay on topic here for the moment!)

And yet, I have begun to think, over time, that students return to Benjamin's notion of the flâneur, for instance, less as an architectural odyssey and more because of its potential for a kind of non-linear narrative. This is paralleled by self-initiated projects in the studio in which students seek a more interpretive response to trawling the city: I see it in books, in video projects, even in the occasional information design problem. I suppose what I am saying is that literary theory may have taken the long-way round, but it is the literary mind at work — more than the inflections of the architectural theorist — that drive these students and their work.

Orson Welles put it this way, although he was critiquing film critics, and not architecture critics. "you [film critics] always overstress the value of images," he wrote. "You judge films in the first place by their visual impact instead of looking for content. This is a great disservice to the cinema. It is like judging a novel only by the quality of its prose. I was guilty of the same sin when I first started writing for the cinema. . . . Now I feel that only the literary mind can help the movies out of that cul de sac into which they have been driven by mere technicians..."'
Jessica Helfand
07.08.04 at 11:20

It's interesting that threads like this and Where are the Design Intellectuals are drawing a lot of discussion that's all over the place.

I've responded in the other thread.
john massengale
07.12.04 at 08:13

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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

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Mr. Vignelli's Map
Vignelli Celebration: Massimo Vignelli's 1972 New York City subway map is a beautiful example of information design that was ultimately rejected by its users.

Reflections on The Ephemeral World, Part One: Ink
An elegy to the makeready — those sheets of paper, re-fed into a press to get the ink balances up to speed, leaving a series of often random, palimpsest-like, multiple impressions on a single surface — in the digital age.

Cranbrook Commencement Address
"I come to you, like all commencement speakers, as an emissary from the future." The commencement address delivered by Julie Lasky at the Cranbrook Academy of Art on May 9, 2008.

Greening the Grocery Store
It turns out that the "recycling symbol" at the bottom of my yogurt container had nothing to do with its recyclability. So why was it there? My curiosity led to findings around which I built a design class.

O.H.W. Hadank
Paul Rand held Hadank in the highest esteem because he practiced modernist formal principles even though he did not follow its dogma or style. And most important, as Rand said “Hadank was then and always an original. A profile of O.H.W. Hadank by Steven Heller...