Strengthening Conceptual Skills in Graphic Design Students

Advertising, so the maxim goes, is the mother of design. This rings true even if we havenít spent a lot of time exploring the historical roots of the field. And most of us can also agree that graphic design is fundamentally about persuasion: intellectual, logical, emotional and aesthetic. We intuitively grasp that even when a piece of design is not hawking a particular product, brand or lifestyle, it is always hawking an idea or making a pitch to the emotions. Good designers are effective persuaders. Itís easy to note this, but much harder to make it a steady reality in our studio classrooms. What can a program explicitly do to produce such designers? What does it take? Should we do what it takes?

To be an effective persuader, I believe one needs more than creative drive, technical know-how and aesthetic insight. One must also have a nimble and discerning mind that is able to draw from a large pool of experience and knowledge. Many students inevitably lack this experience and knowledge. Life experience of course comes only with time, and is generally forged beyond the bubble of a college campus. Knowledge and discernment, however, are precisely what the university was created to preserve and enhance. They are indelibly its purpose. So what can design faculty do to tap into this?

First, a word of caution; Iím certainly not advocating that Visual Communications should somehow fall under the purview of the liberal arts (a discussion Gunnar Swanson once opened up), or that design curricula should be restructured as a five-year program (as Steven Heller has often proposed). Truth be told, Iím skeptical that the graphic arts could contribute much meaningful new knowledge in the liberal arts sense. Iím certain that, in the forced transformation from a profession to a field of academic study (with all the intellectual rigor and critical research that connotes), design would lose much more than its vigorous emphasis on learning through making. It would lose the grounded practicality that ensures its relevance to the marketplace.

And it is undeniable: Our profession is firmly grounded in practical concerns of the marketplace. Career success will always play a major roleónot only in calibrating a designerís reputation among peers, but as a fundamental criterion for gauging the efficacy of the program that produced the designer. Swanson once noted that graphic design (while a robust field of ever-expanding technical and creative possibilities) is also a narrow, highly specialized line of work. As such, much of the undergraduate curriculum is concerned directly with preparation meant to enhance prospects for future employment. A well-honed aesthetic sensibility, coupled with knowledge of craft techniques and fluency in current technology, is of paramount importance. Who would deny that to forfeit visual and technological training is to cripple studentsí otherwise reasonable expectation of launching a career in the field?

In this particular essay, however, Iím setting aside concern with the aesthetic, visual and technical training portions of a solid design education. This is about the other part of the equation.

As Davis, Lupton and others have pointed out, the liberal arts do indeed hold enormous insight into the work of design. Awareness of some things, like Gestalt theory, can have an immediate practical impact on oneís design. I believe awareness of other things, like classical literature or social psychology, can have a deeper, if perhaps less obvious in its surface application, impact on the designer. (And really, in the end, on any thinking human being of any vocation).

Teaching students how to think critically and clearly, exposing them to the best of what has been thought and said, and creating a broad awareness of history, literature and the social sciences can help them grow enormously as thinkers, makers, and citizens. Visual communications however is not a liberal art. Design programs and curricula are not about producing the fullness of mind that comes from widely diversified knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.

That said, I must admit I see the tenets of a liberal arts education, distilled into a few underlying goals, as key factors in awakening student potential across any major. And ultimately I see them as a part of producing designers who excel. First, a word of caution: There are plenty of things we can do to encourage this aspect of becoming a well-rounded student, but they must be implemented cautiously and without sacrificing emphasis on the many other necessary aspects of an excellent undergraduate design education.

Of course, it is painful even for expert educators to admit that, although they can convey a great deal of knowledge and skillfully foster an environment conducive to the development of certain traits and attitudes, there are certain indispensable aspects of student excellence that must come from within the individual student. Drive, for example, is a necessary precondition for student excellence. So is an unquenchable curiosityóvisual, creative and intellectual.

Perhaps these seeds cannot be planted by educators, but they certainly can be fostered.

An effective and well-rounded degree in visual communications requires, without question, a basic awareness of communications in general. I believe awareness of the interrelated techniques of communication (debate, critical argumentation, persuasion, rhetoric, oral skills, et cetera) does two important things: It is a wonderful resource in creating more vigorously persuasive design, and it also empowers students not to stumble through common missteps in their own thinking.

The question comes down to what we can do to support, as fine arts faculty, initiatives that help teach design students to thinkóclearly and critically as well as creatively. Why are the non-visual techniques of persuasion, from rhetoric to critical thinking, propaganda to debate, so conspicuously absent from studentsí training? What can we do, not just in classroom pedagogy but also in curricular structure, to produce first-rate thinkers as well as exceptional designers?

posted by Dan Warner on December 21, 2004 | comments: 6 | post a comment

I was fortunate enough to attend an arts magnet school that offered a year-long course in graphic design. Our instructor had been a practicing designer and illustrator for a decade so he understood both the art of design and the realities of the marketplace. After completing our projects, we had to present them to the class and undergo a series of questions from him. The purpose was to get us used to explaining our creative decisions and justifying our use of a particular image, typeface, color scheme, etc. At times it felt as if our work was being nitpicked to death. But in the end, by having to justify and consider every aspect of my work, I feel that my conceptual design, critical thinking, and verbal communication skills improved tremendously.

Most designers around my age (19) just want to create something that looks cool. This is why there are a lot of examples of design that look interesting but don't really communicate anything more than "The person who made this is really good at Photoshop." I think if design educators spend more time (constructively) picking apart their students' work and forcing the students to justify their decisions, the students would begin to understand the importance of ideas over mere ornament.

Posted by Sam Edwards on December 21, 2004 10:35 PM

As far as curricular structure goes, I would say that the way to put more "design" in graphic design is to devote the first couple years, if not the first four, mostly to Design Studies. Vocational training is best accomplished on the job or in a vocational school.

Sam's comment supports my opinion that there is a (Piagetian) logical progression in the development of a design mind. It is not wrong for students initially to think of design as advertising or coolness; it is completely natural. It's a belief in magic, basically, and it betrays an incomplete understanding of both worthwhile ends and means. I'm afraid, though, that the lack of real *design* education (education concerning the rationality of our creations) tends to stunt growth at this first stage.

Posted by Tom Gleason on December 23, 2004 11:19 PM

i think putting more design [vs technical training] into the experience is important, but it's also important to gain a broader understanding of the world at large. the school/intructor's responsibility here lies in pushing us toward information. assign reading and let's discuss it in an engaging way. what about contemporary art movements? politcal movements [in a "safe", non-partisan way of course....]. how do these ideas influence my ability to communicate and what i am choosing to communicate? are there websites or listservs that need to be on a young designer's radar? there is so much information available online today that it could be hard for a 19 yr old to sort through - students need your guidance and direction right now.


it is also important for there to exist a real sense of community among the upper and lower-level students .. i think a post/discussion forum along the lines of this site would be an ideal place for us to meet, talk, and learn.

Posted by lauren b on December 24, 2004 09:54 AM

I agree, Sam. Being able to articulate your design decisions, even the tiniest ones, and especially those that were incorporated on an aesthetic level, is an ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY skill. Aside from the most important benefits, which you mentioned, it often later becomes part of the professional game too, in attempting to reassure clients that they're in good hands and you're worth what you charge. I believe a good piece of design usually operates on (or guides the viewer through) several communicative levels (e.g. visual, verbal, intellectual, emotional, etc) and is able to sustain interest and engagement in the general populace well beyond a passing glance.

Yet the "visual language" in which design operates and influences is also very different from the modes of rational thinking that are often employed to justify (or judge) aesthetic choices in design. I don't know what to make of this sticky observation, really. My dark side starts to think of a famous quotation by I-forget-who: "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." On a certain level this rings absolutely true. Words are horribly limited. They, and the meanings anchored to them, are flatly incapable of expressing or describing or BEING the whole of human experience. That's why we have art and music and cuisine and the languages of other creative forces. I guess it's good to be aware of both the limitations and advantages of talking about design and attempting to verbally justify certain aesthetic choices. Some decisions can be justified on a more or less rational level, but others, at least in my experience, I can better talk about in terms of striking a certain mood or building an emotional tone. Still, I guess this is reasoning of a sort, too.

Tom, if I recall, it was your Point-Design site that had a link introducing me to this one. Let me take the opportunity to say thank you much, and good luck with your work. Your posts at the Cranbrook Forum and design observer are usually intriguing, and always lively.

Lauren, these are some excellent comments and suggestions too. Push your instructors to push you toward information when they are flagging or failing to do so. A sense of 'we're in this together' between design students is absoutely worth fostering too. A friend tells me at Penn State's upper-level design program (which has a strict portfolio review, accepting approx. 20 students per year), the juniors and seniors have a rivalry that plays out in an annual softball game and inevitable after-party (they design their team's shirts together, too).

Posted by Dan Warner on January 8, 2005 12:55 AM

Iíd like to add education as an objective along side Danís listing of effective persuasion. The most engaging and fruitful projects for my students are those that have a focus on information design. Be it interactive periodic tables [ AIGA Loop ] , the history of Palestine, or the mechanics of an engine, it is hard to beat a strong focus on educating and informing. This shifts the sell mindset and gives the student a broader perspective. I think we could all benefit from a band of student designers motivated in this direction.

Posted by Tony Brock on January 8, 2005 05:57 PM

Thanks, Dan. I'm glad I found this site too. I hope it can grow.

Advertising is the mother of design as subjectivity is the mother of intersubjectivity, or as selfishness is the mother of selflessness. It rings true because it is logically necessary. Design is fundamentally about persuasion because reason is fundamentally about argumentation. Good designers are effective persuaders not primarily because they have an uncanny power to convince, but because they concern themselves with what is really convincing--what is true, right, and sincere. If we try to create students who are merely "persuasive" without helping them to understand that persuasion is a matter of effective, sound argumentation and reason, then we are merely creating manipulative people.

The idea that all design education should begin with a broad Design Studies program is not to say that visual and technological training would be forfeited. It is simply to say that understanding is more important than activity--that activity without understanding is often misguided.

A cultural and philosophical Design Studies program can help to link the liberal arts with design education and help students to understand how relevant the whole of human knowledge is to their work. Design Studies would not try to teach all of the liberal arts; it would only reveal this link.

Above all, it can teach there there is no such thing as an exceptional designer who is not a first-rate thinker.

Posted by Tom on January 9, 2005 01:20 AM