The thesis presentations are finished. My time as a student of visual communication has quickly drawn to a close. And whenever a phase of life comes to an end and great change is in the air, a time of retrospection and summing up begins. What did I learn? How did I learn it? And – in my particular situation as a young designer – what role did the academy or the teachers play in this learning process?
For me, this retrospection also became a question of teaching design in general. As a student and someone who considers becoming a design teacher someday, I’d like to summarize the experiences I’ve had during my studies and from this develop my own basic idea of teaching design. It isn't without reason that it is asked again and again whether design should be taught at all, or whether the academies lead their students into a kind of visual homogeny. So the first aspect I would like to consider is the intention behind an academy's curriculum.
In my opinion, the goal of an academy offering studies in visual communication should be the shaping of independent and self-reliant designers who are capable of dealing with communication problems and developing innovative and compelling solutions. The focus should be set on the cultivation of the individual and self-confident expression as the fundamental base of every artistic decision.
The biggest handicap of a young designer is self-doubt, a phenomenon I've observed among my fellow students as well as myself during the final months of work on our thesis projects. This is exemplified by finding oneself absolutely unable to decide anything. But as all we know, design is all about decisions – over and over again. Therefore, one of the tasks an academy has to accomplish is to continuously encourage students to reach decisions as early as possible, to risk failing and to develop solutions based on experiences gained during this process. Errors continuously challenge the conceptual foundation and lead the student to comprehend design not only as a craft but as way of thinking. Fostering the courage to have ones very own point of view is fertile ground for the development of an autonomous artistic language.
Who oversees this process of development? The lecturers and mentors, of course. Unlike the situation at other academies, we received a lot of guidance during our three-year bachelor course. But it's not only the time your mentors are around that is important. An academy primarily needs a shared vision, a common goal, a clear mission statement every member of staff is committed to. This was one of the aspects I missed here. The subjects often seemed to be disjointed, the teachers were often contradictory, holding opposing points of view. The latter by itself might have been full of quite positive potential if this inner controversy had expressed itself through a discernible discourse on design as a part of academy culture.
In my view, it was another unfortunate fact that most of our mentors worked exclusively as teachers. The majority do indeed have a lot of practical experience they gained in their earlier years. But year by year, these experiences move further into the realms of memory. Particularly during the thesis semester, this often manifested itself in suggestions for methods of production that were absolutely unrealistic, or even based on technical misjudgment. I have never seen employees at print shops shake their heads in disbelief so often. But the most important aspect of applied design, and in my opinion something every design teacher should do in addition to teaching, is to actively contribute to the production and definition of the cultural value represented through the term design. By doing so, they continuously develop and challenge their own points of view and play a part in the global discourse on visual communication. It would be a false to conclude that this could be done on a purely theoretical basis. Having publically recognized work that is competitive in a non-academic setting cultivates a natural and honest respect for the teachers as their achievements continually provide evidence of their competence in a real-world context.
Design courses are often praised for creating a sandbox condition, a protected framework separated from economic constraints and interests where experiments can be done to search for entirely new approaches and solutions. There is no doubt that this is a necessary condition in order to convey to young designers the idea of design as a way of thinking. But in several discussions with my fellow students, it was continuously criticized. Working on entirely fictitious projects without any limits was often a perceived as a cause of frustration. In the few but nevertheless very important workshops we attended, we were confronted with a completely different experience. Professionally active designers lead us through meaningful projects with realistic and practical boundaries. Ultimately, it was work on these projects that provided students with some of their most useful experiences.
Deadlines and financial constraints found in the outside world have great academic potential. Within the course of study, it should be the ambition of every academy to create as many connections between the sandbox and the economic reality as possible, especially as the Bachelor is considered to be focused on professional qualification. In cooperation with external companies and institutions, a kind of partnership should be created, to expand the school's network and involvement in its local, cultural and economic environment. I consider this another fundamental aspect allowing an educational institution to be continuously involved in contemporary design discourse and to assure that its course content is up-to-date.
During my studies, I noticed the existence of a false pretense on the part of design schools. Even if names like an Armin Hofmann or a Wolfang Weingart once in Basel have an attraction as figureheads of a design school – as they are or have been the representatives of a particular vision –, the real and living, progressing face of such an institution is its output: the students' work, the attitudes they share. Where else is the achievement, the quality of the unique approach to design education reflected more obviously? A disappointing graduate exhibition – for instance – documents the need for reconsideration of the school's doctrine rather than the possibility that an entire year of graduates are of poor potential.
Accordingly I can't imagine that there is anything more satisfying for a teacher than to accompany and witness a student’s progress and see their first steps into the exciting world that their profession actually is. And I'm convinced that working on design processes together with unbiased students in a mix of sandbox conditions and real life settings along with the collective search for new approaches and solutions will be an enriching adventure for the teacher as well. In the end I consider the teacher just the more experienced student. But who seriously thinks he reached a kind of finish line, gets from design to repetition or even complete stagnancy.
So, dear lecturers, mentors, professors and anyone else who is or will be teaching design: Dare to create a respectful and cooperative dialog with your students on a level playing field. They will return the favor through respect, appreciation and real commitment.
Tagged: reflections, thesis, design schools
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