A Few Notes on Teaching Learning Applying Considering it All

There is no ‘how it is.’

Twenty years ago this January during the Super Bowl, Apple Computer, Ridley Scott and Chiat/Day showed us how 1984 wouldn’t be like ‘1984’—they introduced the MacIntosh and promised blue skys. Only in the past five or six years have we seen a respectable integration of the computer into graphic design education. This all happened much slower than I’d have guessed while using Cricket Draw and playing Dark Castle on an SE during my Junior year of High School. In any case, we are there now. No more turning extensions on and off. No more waiting for Quark to upgrade to OSX even if we didn’t wait and made friends with InDesign. One can have a bit of attitude in saying, ‘sorry you don’t have the bandwidth or proper browser for my site,’ even if you don’t choose to. Most graphic designers will never max out the capabilities of a G4 (unless billboards start printing at 200 line), let alone a G5. We have hit a threshold in many respects. The machines have caught up with our needs and the software we use is pretty good even if we don’t want to admit it. iDVD and iMovie are proof of those blue-sky promises and we have accessibility like we’d hoped for when, beyond all belief, we maxed out that Quadra 950.

With this newly found respectable integration of the computer into graphic design education comes a maturing, expanded set of skills and the necessary questioning of generalization versus specialization. How deep? How broad? How much can be fit into four years? A conservative list of contemporary study includes typography, photography, writing, illustration, print, motion and interaction design, as well as the corresponding history and theory. This study will likely include some editorial, advertising, identity, packaging, environment, cinematography/videography, 3-D animation, and sound. Aside from design, we’ve learned that any good firm worth its salt also does planning, development, management, and maintenance, so add those to the list too. ‘Hosting’ is in there as well, but a line must be drawn.

Prior to the dot-com slide, I had a post with a firm that didn’t—we could debate ‘couldn’t’—hire junior designers without print plus either interactive or motion experience. It wasn’t about the size of the firm entirely. It wasn’t about their software skills entirely. Nor was it about being generally well rounded. These junior designers had to be more than competent in understanding, authoring, and producing in more than one medium—they had to be proactive and know how things fit together across media. The skills required are better described as those of a strategic generalist and a multi-specialist. This was a healthy demand of any recent graduate or the professional degree programs in which they graduated. More often this incredibly broad range of skills is necessary for employment, and rightfully so, to balance the demands of cross media design. When it comes to what may be expected of a graduate there is no one ‘how it is.’

There is need to get excited about the possibilities (again).

Who and what are we looking to for definition of how it should/could be? This is always a popular pastime and it seems many don’t want to look in the direction of screen-based media or the rapid synthesis between formal languages. Bemoaning the fact that nothing is going on in American graphic design and that the ‘new generation’ is slacking off seems to be tied back to some easily quantifiable single image and sound bite. For all the ranting about finding something new and definable, I welcome the lack of such style-driven definition. Maybe we have finally moved past defining what colors we’ll use this year and are responding to the chameleon demands of a range of well-defined messages and slippery structures—ones that require a host of visual languages. I said maybe.

Graphic design press has gone back to print in a big way. Even the editors who supported a rich dialog in the 90’s seem to have forgotten this and want to ignore the complexity and dynamism of cross media pollination. The recent Cooper Hewitt Triennial didn’t seem to find a great range of screen-based media to trumpet. Publications devoted to graphic design’s version of interaction design (in service to branding) are all but extinct. eDesign magazine popped up after the bust—maybe too risky. Somehow the web and its possibilities lost favor ($$$). Seems like someone turned off the lights ($$$). The dialog about all those things non-linear, interactive, or ‘experience’ related are no longer the most amazing challenges and opportunities. Even motion design seems to suffer from finding a rightful place in graphic design dialog. Ranting about any particular style, approach, or process that seems easily quantifiable generally makes for easy pretty-picture press, is exclusionary and a dead end.

For all the noise about something missing in today’s graphic design and the strange lack of interest in screen-based media, simultaneously an anti-synthesis of easily commodified forms along with a consideration and synthesis of cross-media influences is flourishing outside mainstream graphic design. Folks aren’t writing as much and adding to the discourse in the old modes. But the list of skills young designers are taking on—design, production or both—is much longer and the discourse in which they are engaging rarely happens in print.

There’s much more to be learned/gained.

Some of the noise is sure to fade. We can assure that it does by recognizing opportunities in media and content outside the boundaries we assume for ourselves. It is quaint now, but in my first few years of teaching I found students lack of interest in Typography absurd. Students straight from design fundamentals would invariably state in no uncertain terms that they were not into Typography nor did they have any inclination to learn the craft. They would be side-stepping that little part of the equation and do just fine working without it. This stance certainly never lasts long and after acknowledging Type, the side-stepping has to do with screen-based media. “I don’t do that. I am more of a print person.” This is quaint as well, but without the humor and sarcasm—‘quaint’ as just fondly archaic. In both cases, Type and digidesign, this sort of nonsense could be tracked to fear of the unknown.

The primary challenge is overcoming assumptions of where we begin the teaching/learning process, how we get to the final product(s), and what it/they may be. Far too often there is the tendency to define a specialization with a particular medium. It is all about the classification of the thing and not what makes it work. In this way, understanding of serial and sequential imagery across media falls outside the rubric of graphic design and is rarely discussed.

Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple and many other films, have sought to fill their portfolio with range. Diving into a range of film genres, researching archetypes, and bending those archetypes while staying within the genre have proven to make for a strong balance of breadth and depth. The Coen Brothers leave their signature and hang their success on defining characters and circumstances, but their greatest contribution comes in their acknowledgement of, and drive to explore, the rule systems and history of genre within their medium. Seeking to do the same within graphic design offers great promise for new hybrid structures and redefinition of the old ones. Our range and access to media has never been as great, nor have the opportunities to compare/contrast and fuse their possibilities.

Early in study during my sophomore year I assured myself that graphic design was the study of everything. In that vein I coined my firm Diversified Consolidated and sought to design outside any comfortable confines. If ‘knowing enough’ makes me dangerous, compounding that knowledge as a strategic generalist or a multi-specialist would certainly make me exponentially dangerous. Learning a broad range of skills while reflecting on them individually and in concert is needed and will only grow in importance for graphic designers. Isolation and lack of diversified influences only breeds more noise and redundancy. Learning to program, design, manage, illustrate, animate and write doesn’t exclude the necessity for collaboration and teamwork. Rather, it supports and builds respect for any one specialization. We have a tendency to build stringent boundaries with binary oppositions, but in most cases the seemingly awkward one-person band can play some surprising music. Paula Scher has said, “I’d rather be the Beatles than Phillip Glass.” I know what she means and agree, but I’d rather be both.

posted by Tony Brock on April 10, 2004 | comments: 0 | post a comment