One of graphic design's strengths in its relatively short history has been its flexibility. The field has adapted to technological and economic changes over the last half century by absorbing elements of computer science, animation, cognitive psychology, architecture and filmmaking. Much of the credit for this agility goes to graphic design teachers who have (with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success) embraced the kind of change that their colleagues in other departments fight tooth and nail to resist. Despite periodic discussions
, there is no consensus about how to integrate the teaching of this evolving set of media and skills, or what constitutes the core of a design education.
A department head recently told me that next year, for the first time, graphic design majors will out-number fine art majors at his institution, and this is consistent with a trend across the country. At the same time, multimedia programs
are thriving and graduate programs like Bruce Mau's Institute Without Boundaries
and Stanford Institute of Design
are expanding the definition of design training. With so much growth occurring, this is a critical time to reconsider what exactly a graphic design education should look like.
I propose a simple four-step process for learning graphic design. It is called CARE: Conceptualization, Articulation, Research and Execution.
In order to conceive of the twenty-first century design education we must recognize that graphic design is an interdisciplinary field. In practice, a single project may involve illustration, typography, video-editing, animation, photo manipulation, web design, copy writing and sound design. Importantly, the same set of skills are at play in all of these diverse activities. This fact has not been overlooked by fine art deparments. Columbia
moved to an interdiscipinary model several years ago, effectively eliminating distinctions between media. And yet, most design courses are separted off into their own department and then further segmented according to media: typography, magazine design, web design, etc. Foundation courses tend to be in the Bauhaus tradition: practicing a series of visual skills like composition and color relationships in isolation. Media and technique are indispensable but they aren't necessarily the best organizing principles. I propose instead to put a clearly defined process at the core of design programs. An education that builds a strong process is the best way to prepare students for the complex, collaborative work of the designer and it institutionalizes the tradition of flexibility that has been so beneficial to the field.
Conceptualization is the first and most important step in the creative process. Analysis, sketching and experimentation all go into conceptualization. The more time that students spend on this phase of a project, the better the end result. But it is difficult to master the art of conceptualization when projects may take weeks or months to complete. It is important to give students the opportunity to practice starting projects before they wrestle with the intricacies of finishing them. Therefore, courses should begin with a variety of small projects, whether in seminar or studio courses. The end result of these assignments is less important (although speed and lack of pressure often yield great results) than building up the ability to envision a desirable outcome.
Articulation involves crafting the language that surrounds, supports and guides the execution of a project. Written and verbal communication skills are critical to a successful design practice, and should be developed in every course through writing assignments and critiques. These exercises in verbalization help students learn to refine and edit a concept. They help improve their copywriting. Students practice interrogating their work with questions like: What can be taken away from this idea?; Is this solution timely?; What type of execution would best suit the concept? Articulating their responses to their peers' work is a crucial way of learning how to approach their own. Equally important is learning to hear criticism: this may mean asking for clarification or even rejecting some comments. In these ways, students learn how to put effective communication at the heart of their practice.
Research should be a continuous part of the creative process. Everyone agrees that students aren't getting enough design history, but no one can explain why. There is often the implication that students just aren't interested, but I think that is partly because history courses focus on images to the exclusion of stories. Students should know that learning history requires reading. In fact, reading is fundamental
. The truth is that there are staggeringly few experts when it comes to design history. Because of this we can not expect design history to be taught in the same way as art history. There simply is not currently the infrastructure to train, nor the market to employ, design historians of the same caliber. Instead, the study of design history should be presented as a lifelong pursuit that faculty and students engage in together. History can be an invaluable swatch-book of design ideas, but we have to look beyond the artifacts. It is the stories that will help students situate their practice in a dynamic social, cultural and economic context. So tell your stories. Honesty trumps expertise. It may be more important to read a single biography
than to look at a hundred slides.
Execution involves assessing resources and finishing a project with discipline and attention to detail. Discipline and craft can be difficult to teach in a tight academic calendar. That is why it is important that every course include projects with long timelines, where students are held to the highest standards of execution and finish. The ability to revise, refine and edit (without getting stuck) is critical to the success of studio and written projects alike. In an interdisciplinary environment, execution may require learning a new skill or collaborating with a peer who has a specific expertise. It is critical in professional practice that students are able to identify opportunities for collaboration and that they have the communication skills to collaborate effectively. The success of execution largely rests on how well-articulated the concept is. A strong concept that has been thoroughly vetted, and that is well explained, makes it easier to efficiently use time and resources. An exciting concept makes it easier to enlist collaborators. However, even with the best concept and articulation, the execution phase can be brutal. It is important to let projects play themselves out: student learn as much from failures in the execution phase as from other parts of the process.
Putting this concept-driven approach at the center of design education is not an end in itself. The most difficult thing about being a creative professional is finding a way to stay engaged in your work. There is a myth that art, design and music are inherently interesting and exciting. The website for Cranbrook's graduate level 2-D Design
program reads in part, "We adhere to the advice of Joseph Campbell: 'Follow your bliss.'" But creative endeavors can become just as rote and monotonous as any other job. The only way to prevent this is to develop a strategy for keeping a practice engaging. CARE is one such strategy.