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Comments (26) Posted 12.01.05 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

Cease and Design


When my daughter, Fiona, was five years old and first learning to write, she came home from school one day and set to work. Pencil gripped firmly in her tiny hand, she wrote a word — then plunked her first and second fingers down together on the page, and wrote another word. I mentioned to her that I thought this was probably enough word-spacing to choke a horse, whereupon she told me very matter-of-factly that this was how her teacher had instructed all the children to measure the distance from one word to the next, so there.

I retaliated by teaching Fiona how to do an fi ligature — since she was, after all, fortunate to have one in her name. This, of course, thrilled her to no end, although her teacher was less than pleased. Soon, Fiona was insisting on writing oldstyle figures in her math book, and the war had begun.

It's not really a war, but more of a battle — and a silly one, at that. As an educator myself, my instinct is, more often than not, to defer to the person in charge — which says a great deal about my willingness to believe in pedagogical principle and even more about my faith in the promise of education. But sometimes I resist; I get frustrated, or confused, or annoyed by what's being taught.

Or more to the point, what's not being taught.

Then, I get angry.

Where graphic design education is concerned, I feel deeply committed to participating in a system that serves to advance the quality and substance of learning. I believe in principles and in history, even more so in a structure that allows for growth and discovery. And I understand that at its core, design curricula will vary somewhat from school to school, depending on materials and budget, faculty strengths, student-body demographics, ideological consensus, media resources, library shelf space, and so on.

Yet in spite of such variance, what is there to be said of the global phenomenon of students getting credit for sending questionnaires to practicing designers? Each year I receive numerous such requests from students all over the world: Australia, the UK, and yes — from students all over the United States who are being asked to choose a working designer and interview them.

What purpose does this serve? Are we training designers? Or talk-show hosts?

A year or so ago, I received such an inquiry from a young woman who had, quite literally, been asked to "imitate my style." (I wasn't aware that I had one and if I did, this made me want to change it immediately.) Others have targeted inspiration ("Who were your influences?") and priorities ("What are the roles and responsibilities of a designer in this day and age?") though I would have to say my personal, all-time favorite question came last Spring, from a charming, if misguided young designer in Sydney, who asked: "In 200 words or less, can you sum up what your perception of Visual Communication is?" (Readers familiar with my writing will instantly appreciate the irony here: I am not even remotely capable of summing anything up in 200 words or less, period.)

Frequently, I have found that the questions aren't even pertinent to making work, but address, instead, much more pragmatic and even personal issues — issues about money and priorities, client management and resource allocation. I can appreciate, I suppose, the degree of maturity, or even hubris, that an aspiring designer would have to have to even ask such questions — they want to embark on a professional path equipped with a kind of knowledge that is hard to come by in school — but why does such information need to precede the diploma? What ever happened to apprenticing — to learning on the job? Why shouldn't time in school be spent learning how to think, how to solve problems, how to make work — frankly, how to be a designer?

The counter-argument here is that these student questionnaires are themselves a kind of problem-solving activity. Yet, more often than not, the questions themselves reveal more of an inquisitive, even prurient interest in biographical data: this is the sort of interrogation that leads to hero-worship, not learning. I am not suggesting that by being the target of such inquiries any of us, the recipients, are deemed heroic — but rather, that the very notion of the interview seems more influenced by celebrity culture than by creative pursuit. And that's a problem.

But what about precedent? Clearly, there is no doubt that art education has a long tradition of teaching through imitation: this was, after all the master-to-disciple model that paralleled the studio process, in which an artist (or tradesperson) practiced their craft. Stone cutters, society portraitists, aspiring makers of all kinds learned by watching, by assisting and gradually, by doing.

By doing. Not by interviewing.

It is worth remembering, too, that design education has, over the past century, evolved from a constrained series of principles-based exercises to a more robust, complex and fascinating series of pathways: while critical inquiry remains at the core of all art study, students today are freed from many of the procedural demands of the classic academy model. Contemporary students benefit unquestionably from new technologies, but even more so from a more expansive educational culture that encourages invention, imagination and new and unusual forms of interpretation.

In closing, and on behalf of practicing designers everywhere, I would like to thank the numerous students who have approached all of us with questionnaires over the years. None of this is your fault, nor am I attacking you in any way. (Indeed, for those of you who sent thank you notes after we answered, consider yourselves blessed by good manners. This, no matter where you go, will serve you extremely well.)

Furthermore, I envy you. It is a great time to be a design student.

My critique here is directed not to students, but to teachers giving assignments that oblige students to conduct online interviews. And to you I say: designer questionnaires are not only time-consuming, but from an educational standpoint, they are pointless. Such practices can not possibly be expected to truly advance our students — let alone our profession.

Let's teach our students to become better designers by asking better questions not of us, but of themselves. (If Fiona had followed her kindergarten teacher's lead, I wonder just how bad her word-spacing would be by now?) What may seem adorable in kindergarten is just deplorable in higher education: for while it may well be considered a sincere form of flattery, imitation — in the context of design education — can only lead to limitation. And that's not good for any of us.


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Comments (26)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Isn't the real problem the culture of design celebrity? A teacher of mine once said that she was tired of students of hers approaching her with " I want to be a STAR!" Good solid design skills, clever use of your limitations, innovative solutions to common problems... yes yes that's great but will it make me famous? By famous of course, they mean design-famous which is pretty low on the famous continuum (IE higher than a renowned dr. of molecular pharmacology, but lower than that one guy from Madison that was on Road Rules 7). Even though fame is maybe not what it used to be, design students are clamoring for it nonetheless. Sometimes the closest they can get, is talking to someone famous- and hoping that some goodness rubs off on them.

But maybe they should be begging for stardom. Fame appears to be a necessary part of survival in the design world. Clients and peers really do not take you seriously unless they have seen your work in publications, or heard you speak at a conference. I showed some of my unpublished independent work recently- and I was greeted with "I love seeing designer's experiments, it shows me what they're capable of." Two phrases, intended as compliments, had cut my work down to the projects that unemployed designers do as obvious bids for commercial work. I had actual financial backing, plans and uses for my projects, but since I never submitted them for publication- they are forever interesting experiments.

If legitimate work cannot exist without being published, your only choice as a designer is to become famous. This is the attitude that I see floating around. This preoccupation with fame often does our field a disservice, and more than filling your inbox with pesky interview requests.. Sometimes it creates Ze Frank.
zander
12.01.05 at 11:02

While I agree with your piece by and large, Jessica, I think that these questionnaires are not 100% pointless. The do point up a failure on the educator's part, but I think that they serve students in one regard: they let in a little light on the "real world" of people working in design.

I actually received a questionnaire this week from a student (probably the third one in as many years for me) and it's the usual general questions. But the purpose of the assignment, as gleaned from the questions, is not actual design instruction. I'm not giving tips on word spacing or how best to render a 3D-looking globe, say. And the purpose is certainly not tips on my critical inquiry on design,which is something I do on my own time anyway as a working designer.

Rather, the purpose seems to be to expose the student to what the working designer deals with as a working designer. There is precious little of that kind of preparation in design schools--again, the educators' fault, not the students. If these questionnaires serve to bridge the gap between school and work, and to demystify the hero worship that the entire profession, actually, engenders, then I think the questionnaires aren't the worse thing. Same with the assignments to post on blogs: students interacting with "real" designers. It's not graphic or critical preparation, but it is professional exposure. And maybe in the end, we're also the ones being taught how to speak to students without condescension. For me it's good to be reminded where I came from and how clueless I was/am.
Sam Potts
12.01.05 at 11:11

In my humble opinion.
Good design skills is the last thing you need to be a successful professional designer.
In other words bad designers I have seen be successful and good designers I have seen fail.
University is for design skills, theory, history.
Being a professional designer is about being good at business, your people skills (manners), you salesmanship, experience.
Nathan Philpot
12.01.05 at 12:00

I would disagree — while I agree that the skills of dealing with clients, etc., can largely be learned in the field (and will have to be learned in the field for the most part, regardless of what is done in school), there are some useful things that can be taught to students in school.  Those kinds of soft skills are an important part of the profession, and they do deserve a modicum of respect.

As far as surveys and interviews go, don't consider them as a method for trying to teach those skills — they can't and shouldn't be one.  What they can and should be is a way for students to understand what they're actually training for.  What does it mean to work in design?  What will their lives be like?  Giving students a vision of themselves past their degree is very important, and I think it can be a big contributor to students staying the course.
Dymaxion
12.01.05 at 12:38

Jessica -- your concerns have some validity. (I'm not an educator, but I have been on the receiving end of these question/answer sessions.) Yet, doesn't the ultimate value of these interviews hinge on what the student does with the feedback after receiving it? If they merely pass the questionnaires back to the instructor for credit, then it becomes a rote and potentially meaningless exercise. However, if the student is required to somehow process the feedback in a way that forces them to critically consider the interviewee's process, style, or influences, then I'd say the exercise has a useful and educational purpose.
Daniel Green
12.01.05 at 01:31

Here is the thing:
design as an artistic and intellectual discipline and design as a vocation are two distinct entities. In my recent self-interested experience, grad-level design programs vary widely in the emphasis of their design curricula. Some are vocational training programs whose goal is to equip graduates with a kick-butt commercial portfolio to land the best jobs (interpret that as you will). Others provide the structure and environment for study of design history and principles as the means for personal exploration and discovery - here evolution through self-expression, making continually ascending work, is the end itself. This cannot be learned in the marketplace.

Interestingly, there are programs where students seem to go for the express purpose of studying under a particular somebody-small programs, usually unaffiliated physically or historically with a venerated academic or university tradition. These are close to the master-disciple models you mention.

But the unsettling truth is this: many graduate-level design programs choose to use professionals in the field as faculty based on their demonstrated commercial success (and celebrity). Thus the marketplace defines design education. And in our American culture of professional celebrities and celebrity professionals and worship at the alter of Commerce, it's no wonder students are calling you to glean the secrets of your success.

So tell me again: what is good design?
Meg Dreyer
12.01.05 at 04:40

I'm involved a little in education and am somewhat familiar with the 'survey thing' but don't do them myself (and I agree its a curious aspect in design education). In my experience the surveys are used as part of a larger project where they are used in an essay or project that often deals with wider, critical issues and are not focussed on designer/celebrity as such. But not always. Often they are efforts to explore design's application in the real world - and often that's business. I find that whilst we can teach that in part - its much better picked up 'in the field' as mentioned above. In the field 'business is business' - a great teacher.

This also leads in some respects to the designer student quasi-celebrity (let's talk about me - which is on the increase I find). Adrian Constantyn mentions in the latest ID Magazine that "Design education needs to prepare students to better understand their roles as functionaries rather than as isolated, pampered visionaries." I'm finding that some of the current era of students readily fall into that category - which also has its roots in the larger socio-cultural sphere.

And - students get a credit for merely doing a survey?
Andrew Haig
12.01.05 at 07:44

It's not so much that they get credit for it per se — but I'm not so sure that students, by their very nature, have the internal resources to make objective, analytical, considered readings of the answers. And why should they? They're students. They're supposed to be isolated, so they can focus on their work. Visionaries, idealists — sure, it's easy to skew this as impractical, but it's just as easy for today's visionary thinkers to become tomorrow's innovators. Not tomorrow's interviewers.
Jessica Helfand
12.01.05 at 08:17

Although I have nothing at all to add to the argument of design education, I felt a need to post a reply from the other side.

I had this EXACT same project as a student in art school. I was to interview a prominent (dare I say famous) designer and then do a poster for that person in their 'style'. And although I agree that on the surface this project seems like busy work (and tedious for the interviewee) I found it immensely valuable.

Although I went to a proper accredited art school, through a series of events I found myself without a single foundation art class, nor did I have an understanding of design history that was older than a year or two. What this project forced me to do was research my subject so that I could interview him without embarrassing myself, giving me a mini design history lesson in itself - which got me interested in the people that influenced this designer, which lead to... and so it goes.

The interview reached a level where we were talking about process and how he approached projects - which I was able to use on the project so that I wasn't simply imitate his style, but rather his method of doing the work (albeit it at a very limited capacity). And yes, I did copy the method, but it showed me a way of working that I hadn't been exposed to before, broadening my way of thinking about design. Not only did I find him inspirational, he was also eloquent, passionate about design and patient with my stupid questions - which went a LONG way for me as a student. I was a very design ignorant student and he showed me a passion greater than my own for what we do, which was invaluable. I wanted to learn, and he inspired me to look beyond the aesthetics of design, and move towards communication of ideas. I'm not saying that had I not interviewed him I would not have come to this in time, but he certainly lit a fire under me.

Granted I interviewed him in person and was given half a day, which is very different than a form questionnaire. I guess what I'm trying to say is that although some people will take the easy way, some of us genuinely benefit from what appears to be a pointless exercise. I understand you are referring particularly to questionnaires, I just hope the baby isn't thrown out with the bath water.

Corey Holms
12.01.05 at 08:23

"What ever happened to apprenticing — to learning on the job? Why shouldn't time in school be spent learning how to think, how to solve problems, how to make work — frankly, how to be a designer?"

My question would be does the profession still support this model?

Most job postings require a host of problem solving and technical skills right after graduation. Most positions also assume good communication skills and common business sense. Writing requirements in most universities do not necessarily prepare students to create effective business communication. The more exposure students receive in creating professional communication with appropriate follow up, such as thank you notes, the better off they will be. Yes the annual wave of questionnaires can be annoying and overwhelming, but if you do not have the time or the correspondence is not professional then simply tell the student this is the case.
jpfjr
12.01.05 at 08:31

Jessica:

Your story about Fiona made me chuckle and I wonder if one day when I have a child of my own if I too will feel compelled to teach elements of good typography to my kindergartner.

I teach a professional practices course at the university level and have assigned and been on the receiving end of "the interview". My expectations in assigning this 'project' are not that the student learns to 'worship' or 'mimic', but that they learn to make the types of personal connections that are critical to the profession.

We make connections every day — with our spouses, our families, our employers, our coworkers, and our clients. These connections help us to understand problems and create appropriate solutions. Asking our clients the right questions, listening (really listening) to what they say, and making objective and sound recommendations is a key part of being a good, dare I say honest, professional.

For my assignment, students are asked to contact either a former student of our program, an individual who practices and lives in a city where they think they might want to work, or a designer who works for a company that they might like to work for. It is an opportunity for them to explore and assess the possibilities that will open up to them after graduation. They make connections, gain mentors, receive feedback on their portfolios, and every once in a while get a job lead. My hope is that it aids each individual in making an informed decision about where and how they apply the skills that they have refined and enhanced throughout their education.

I agree that many professional skills can only be learned on the job. So, charged with the task of teaching professionalism, I look for ways to help students refine the skills that will make them good practitioners. In addition to being inventive and curious creators, they need to have strong writing skills, be good listeners and communicators, and understand the balance between confidence and humility.

I appreciate your criticism of the assignment (especially the hero worshiping and imitation, which is NOT what my assignment is about), but I am surprised to hear you say that our students should be 'isolating' from the realities of design practice and that asking them to process and analyze the comments of a more mature and experienced professional is too much to ask.
Vicki Crowley
12.02.05 at 10:59

Years ago when shopping around for art schools I talked to a representative of one college about their program and he told me before choosing them I should consider whether I was "more interested in a practical or theoretical design education." Faced with an either/or decision, can you fault students for choosing schools that teach the specific skills desired by employers over colleges that teach theory and history valued mostly by other designers? Outside of academia there's not much demand for design theoreticians.

And I'm afraid apprenticeship in most professional industries has been replaced with unpaid college internships -- not a financially viable option for many students.
Patrick Broderick
12.02.05 at 02:11

I don't understand where interviewing and mimicry exercises come from, nor do I condone it as an educator. If anything, I would like to see more students embark on field research where they interact or interview their said audience. This sounds so basic, but most students appear flabbergasted by the idea. They prefer pushing the mouse around their desk until something appealing reveals itself.

Jessica's notion of educational advancement in graphic design (having students ask better questions of themselves) is a good place to start. This should be happening at the graduate level, and it's a shame if it's not. Moreover, graphic design students at any level need to be taught how to be inquisitive. A lack of critical thinking and enquiry seems pervasive in most programs; it's about time we move beyond the vocational.
Jason Tselentis
12.02.05 at 05:37

I was amused and interested about the anecdote with Fiona, but I'm afraid I don't see the connection between it and what this article is about: an educational model in which students are learning by interview rather than by doing. The incident with Fioana and how she was learning her handwriting reflects more on poor typographic and lettering literacy by non-practitioners (I find it more annoying than troublesome) than on how design students are being educated.

I'm a certain sort of expert on one end of design education because I'm a student right now, and regularly deal with these issues. I have never been asked to interview anyone. I think the Graphic Design World of annuals, conventions, and magazines is silly. I have learned both by asking questions of designers and by doing and have found both useful: sometimes it's an issue of discovery, of practical doing, to understand a principle—and sometimes you just want someone who knows what the hell he is doing to tell you how, so that you can evaluate ways in which that information can work for you.

I've often wondered what a certain designer thinks about when creating work... what his "definition of visual communication" might be, so that I can get a peek inside his head, approach the challenge of communicating from a different perspective and maybe discover some new things along the way. The benefit relates to the questions being asked and the rationale behind them: chances are good that the questionnaires you find troublesome are ones in which students are only asking because they were required to do so.

Jordan Winick
12.03.05 at 02:10

Jordan, I think it was a humorous intro that could be segued into her main topic.

(Although I do believe it has some merit. The fact students are still taught to use MLA writing style in high school seems somewhat arcane, but thats my own pet peeve. I digress . . . )
Derrick Schultz
12.03.05 at 09:04

The discrepancy between MLA specifications and proper typographic form is deserving of its own post: double spaces between words may well have its provenance in the two-fingered approach my daughter was shown in school, and thank you, Derrick, for pointing this out.

To address some other points: I agree that while apprenticeships may not be what they once were, and accept that students may find interviews useful if the interview process isn't the final goal. Still, I think questionnaire-giving sidesteps the fact-finding that should lie at the center of a student's emerging process. Better, I think, to ask questions through making work, and for those seeking tangible, actionable results, addressing real audiences — not other designers.
Jessica Helfand
12.04.05 at 08:18

Jessica, I feel your pain and would like to add two aspects to this. Several years ago, my wife Elissa and I were at a portfolio review at one of the design conferences, when one of the young ladies greeted me by name and in a very friendly manner. I couldn't recall her name, nor face, which is not unusual for me. However, I quickly glanced at her name card on the table and introduced my wife, having no idea where, or how I was to know this lady from. Soon she started to say things like, "I know your favorite ice cream flavor is pistachio, you're a libra, you do stretch exercises in the morning" and other rather personal things. It turned out that we had never met before, but she had sent me a questionnaire, which contained these kinds of silly questions. I had obviously answered them in a moment of weakness. This, however, was rather difficult to explain to my wife who had gotten somewhat suspicious during our dialogue.

Quite often my answers to student questionnaires are getting confused in the final dissertations, which I at times request a copy of, I find statements which make my skin crawl. According to such publications, I was a pioneer, having brought single handedly Swiss design to the US of A, (never mind Herbert Matter and a host of others who came way before me), or that I had studied at the Bauhaus ( I'm old, but that's going too far) , giving me credit for the CBS eye, (Time Warner eye/ear, yes; CBS eye, no) and other wonderful inaccuracies and distortions.

But then again, it's dangerous to answer questionnaires or give interviews to anybody, including the press.

Steff Geissbuhler
Steff Geissbuhler
12.04.05 at 03:46

Giving out personal information in a world rife with identity theft and bi-polar personalities is risky at best--take care, the world is too dangerous. Curriculums that spend more time on history, what's been done and who did it, robs students of the best hands-on learning experience--following a path of natural progression in creative exploration that comes from practice and participation; not studying the work of others. Mistakes and inhibited limitation are the true teachers in design and you'll only face yours through practice and experience. Curriculums should present tools and techniques followed by endless assignments that provoke exploration of expression and self. JMO.
SDK
Susan Kirkland
12.04.05 at 04:41

I would have to disagree with the points of Ms. Kirkland. To quote an overused aphorism, "Those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it." A balanced approach to design education is of greater pedagogical value. The romantic myth of the autonomous artist (or designer) unfettered by the exigencies of the world and happily working away on his or her work is just that, a myth. We are born into a world already made and affected by what we see and experience from our first moments of life and language. We are obligated as instructors to give our students the tools to be able to evaluate their own work and the world around them. An understanding of history, criticism and what constitutes a discipline is part of that obligation.

I do agree with Ms. Helfand that the interview exercise is of dubious educational value. That exercise moves the responsibility of teaching from the shoulders of the instructor and places the burden on the interviewee. And while the results are unique in the case of each students' experience, its quality is possibly of uneven value as well.

The reason to study the work of an individual designer or firm, is not a matter of "hero-worship" or "design authorship" but to learn about the discipline we practice. The constant claim that by naming names one is advocating "celebrity" is ridiculous. We study Shakespeare and Duchamp because of their contributions to their respective disciplines: how their work contributed to expanding the discourse of literature and painting respectively. An identifiably coherent body of work represents an idea or particular way to see the world. An individual designer with a strong vision of design acts as a filter to the world around him/her. But because the history of living individual designers and their contributions to design have not yet been written, not yet contextualized (we have designer monographs, but not critical evaluations--yet), instructors suffer from being unable to present a critical assessment to their own students, thus relying on the interview exercise to teach something. But as instructors we are obligated to make the attempt.
David Cabianca
12.04.05 at 05:20

Jessica,

Although I usually like what you write and consider us to be like-minded, I would have to say that I almost totally disagree with you on this one.

Haven't you even written a fan letter? This can be a very exciting exercise for a design student. Of course it's not expected that this will suffice as the bulk of their design education or in some way serve as a substitute for opinions reach through the rigors of design experimentation. Of course not!

It has a different purpose. For one, it forces them to muster up enough courage and professionalism to address someone who they respect quite a bit, in writing. If there's one area that many design students need to work on, it's their writing. This exercise isn't teaching them to be interviewers—it's teaching them to be observers and communicators and to be able to participate successfully in design dialogue.

Second, if the responder is generous enough, it allows the student to "peak into their brain" for a minute. Haven't you ever had the chance to look through someone else's sketchbook? The students can be taught to think for themselves (and if a school is worth anything at all the faculty is doing this) but there's something really interesting about that peeking.

But the point I would consider to be most important here is that this is a compliment. These students admire your work. For many of them you are an inspiration. Don't worry, they probably don't want to be like you, or think like you, (and if they do, that's what restraining orders are for) but they definitely would like to know what you are thinking. And they will learn from it.

I am disappointed that you have chosen to alienate these students with this post and are then trying to shift the blame on to design professors nationwide. If you don't want to answer these questions just tell them "no thanks." Although, I'm guessing it would probably eat at you to just ignore these students.

I'm also surprised that someone functioning as such a steward of the profession of graphic design (giving your time in writing for this site and many other outlets) has decided that any such contact between seasoned professionals and new students could be bad. You have quite a bit to teach about the profession (different aspect of design than education). I guess it is your prerogative to keep it all to yourself if you like, but I'm also guessing by reading some of your other posts that that's not the way you think.

If you really want to stop receiving these questionnaires, you should start doing really crappy design work. That should take care of it.
Tobias Brauer
12.05.05 at 02:51

Completely contrary to the spirit of the article in which it was delivered, I'd like to open up a little interview with the professional designers here.

I'm a fourth year graphic design student and am 22 years old. As my impending ejection from the insulation of school looms near, I am faced with finding a job and the hazards of living by and with my work. Yeesh. For those who have surpassed my point in life it probably doesn't seem like a big deal, but for me, in the midst of things, it's a little unnerving.

  1. My social life is okay, but I haven't met that girl, you know the one, who makes me nervous inside, excited, and inspired. How could I? Graphic design is a lot of hard work and requires me to be isolated facing a screen for most hours of the day. What kind of life do you have outside of graphic design? How do you manage to pursue your interest without becoming uninteresting to others? How do you meet people beyond the workplace?
  2. Sometimes I feel like graphic designers have serious problems with trees. I like books, I like designing books, but honestly, sometimes the best design solution is not to make the design book for designers. What's the deal with all of those books?
  3. I know that not every job is going to be love, but do you have the drive to design in your free time anymore? How about pro bono work — I know design has probably become your new wife or husband, but in the second free left in the day, do you have time to help out the people who really, really need it?
  4. Many designers would be happy if their life achievements were merely chronicled in the design annuals that were read by other graphic designers. I think that's kind of lame. Not really a question, but I thought it needed to be stated.
  5. Why does graphic design history only cover the work of the few the design community has chosen to elevate? What about the work that wasn't so good or so visionary? Why don't we learn more about that? It would certainly make sense out of a lot of the way the world is now (Hey! Why don't we make a design book for designers about design that was made by people who were not designers? But not about those Mexicans or something — someone already did that — I mean, the vernacular that isn't already considered cool).
  6. If you have poor vision and wear glasses, and you probably do because you look at your computer monitor more than you look anywhere else in the world, would you risk losing it to get lasik? Discuss.
  7. I wouldn't design a CD package for a CD that contains DRMed music (Google search "SONY rootkit" if you're confused), unless my cover design WAS the DRM and license agreement (Hey, that's a good idea. You do it, I'm taking credit.) How would you have handled being given an assignment with an ethical dilemma when you were fresh in the game?

I've got plenty where those came from, but I know if I add more I won't get responses because designers don't read (HAR HAR). Takers?

Jordan Winick
12.06.05 at 03:41

Jordan, you disappoint me. No questions about my zodiac sign or favorite ice-cream flavor? You can do better than this.

With regard to the issues Tobias raises, I'm not looking to alienate anyone or cast blame — but rather, I'm raising a red flag. I think there are better ways to "peek into" someone's brain than through sending questionnaires. Alec Wilkinson's profile on Matthew Carter, in this week's New Yorker, is an excellent place to start. There have been other, numerous biographies done of prolific designers (Martha Scotford's book on Cipi Pineles comes to mind, as does Steve Heller's monograph on Paul Rand) — my point being that biography is a craft, and exploring biographical data that's founded in solid research and penetrating insight is a welcome addition to any student's design education. But I do not think the student-driven questionnaire accomplishes quite the same result. As for browsing through sketchbooks? Bring it on, I say. And while you're at it, browse through some real art books, and some real art galleries. As for the fan letters, I confess: I'm at a loss to see how this contributes much, to a design student, in the way of real anything.
Jessica Helfand
12.06.05 at 07:57

I guess we are more in agreement than I first thought, Jessica. If these questionaires result in the bulk of the student's research than that is a problem. I would hope that faculty are expecting/requiring students to look toward the sources you mention as well as many others for inclusion in research assignments.

As for the fan letter thing, I think design has taken on a different culture than it did in the past. Quite a few students now have these design heros that they hold to an almost "rock star" status. (And believe me I know just how damaging hero worship can be on the creativity of a young student.) But, for some, just making contact can be quite inspirational. It can be enough to fuel their design fire to a whole new level. It is our responsibilty as faculty to encouagre the students to think independently, but we also shouldn't stomp on their admirations and ambitions.

Tobias Brauer
12.06.05 at 09:14

I can see the interviews being very valuable, but they're happening at the wrong time. The last quarter before a student graduates is too late to react to the information a student receives.

Because of my social circles outside of work I regularly run into the parents of college students. They tell me that their child is interested in becoming a designer and ask if I'll talk to him or her. I always say yes (and in the back of my mind I'm still thankful to the seasoned designers who gave me their time when I was in my student shoes). Then I talk with the students and try to give them an equal dose of inspiration and fear.

The Inspiration --

I absolutely love what I do. There's nothing more gratifying than having a client say that my work doubled their business, or that their customers are saying things like, "I finally understand what your company does." Walking down the street and seeing something I've created is also very satisfying. The people I work with and my work environment are very exciting. And my favorite part, I try to explain the feeling I get when I'm stewing on a project and I'm not even thinking about it and WAMMO! the idea hits me. There's nothing in the world that feels better than that.

The fear --

When I was in school I was always working on homework much later than any of my roommates who majored in business, chemical engineering, pre-dental, etc. My first job was as a production artist where I fulfilled NONE of my creative visions. My first real design project had to happen after hours because my boss said the only way I could submit a design was if I did it without pushing any of my other work aside.

I could go on forever about how inspiring design is OR how scary it is.

The interview with the "Prominent" designer is valuable. Not because it helps a student work as a designer. But because it has the potential to help them understand how a designer lives. So if the said interview were to happen at the beginning of their design program it can be valuable to help them decide what kind of student they want to be. It can also help them see that maybe they don't have what it takes to be a designer (I had one interviewee change his mind completely and become a doctor, now he's making buckets of money -- I'm not sure how I feel about that).

I've also seen students see that it may not be for them when they've just finished design school. That doesn't do anyone any good.

So yes, interview. But interview early.
Sheepstealer
12.07.05 at 02:01

Apparently, college-level interviewers have some competition. This just in from an esteemed colleague who forwarded the following, from a junior in high school who writes: "My topic is graphic design and I would like some input from a current graphic designer ... my first question is:  how can someone get started in graphic design? Can a high school student get involved in the design world? If so, how? I have heard that some colleges and universities require a portfolio, is that true? What makes a good portfolio?"
Jessica Helfand
12.07.05 at 06:00

I am similarly mystified by the questionaire. It's inherent vacancy of potential value gained is very limited. I don't believe I ever had to gain anyones attention this way and I don't believe it to be necessarily the best way to connect any dots in the puzzle that is the graphic design practice.

Off of Corey Holms earlier thought and the ageless practice of imitation, i think initially it is a good practice. That's what inspired us(Didn't Michael B. once speak of drawing type as a boy. Mine was baseball cards). Though I don't really see the correlation between interviewing a designer, then creating a poster. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to surround yourself with their work and figure out their process with or with out a description.

An interview sounds like writing cliff notes, when figuring it out for yourself gives better insight and lasts longer.

Off topic a bit but if the object of the interview is to connect and learn, why does it seems that professionals that aren't part time teachers really don't donate time to helping area students. Where are those mentors that take time to inspire students with personal interaction? Do they only count if you are paying them?

Sort of my way of calling out the contradictions that exist between the reality of design cultures and the web-based philosophical meandering that has yet to benefit a student.
Josh Peters
12.09.05 at 08:55


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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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DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

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

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

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