September 22, 2016
When I was working on my MFA in graphic design almost ten years ago, one of my first instructors began class by stating that the purpose of all design was to “tame the complexity of content.” As a dutiful student (with no formal background in graphic design thus that much more eager to learn all I didn’t even know I didn’t know) I wrote down this phrase and posted it to my workspace. The idea of the world being all sorts of out of control and designers being wild beast tamers captivated me. Whether it was through information graphics or publication design or even environmental signage—I was going to bring the wild things of complexity into submission and make the world a better place in the process.
This phrase became a mantra of my grad school years and when I began teaching students of my own, this was one of the first phrases I passed along to them in the hopes that it would inspire them as it had inspired me.
But here’s the thing…more and more I think it might be wrong.
The past three years of being a doctoral student (not to mention the past thirty-four years of being a human) have shown me that if anything…complexity is gaining the upper hand as it aligns me to its rhythms of serendipity and teaches me each day to have open hands in the midst of constant unpredictability. Rather than taming complexity, complexity may well be taming me.
Meredith Davis, a design educator from North Carolina who has been foundational in one of the first design PhD programs in the States, says that design education today is ill equipped to deal with complexity thus students today are leaving programs ill equipped to actually function as designers in society.
Design education is defaulting to simplistic, reductionist methods allowing a student to “solve” a visual problem over the cycle of an eight, ten, or sixteen-week class. Though these problems are somewhat grounded in real-world practice, they are always under the control of the teacher. In this narrative, students do not learn to navigate the complexity rather they have the illusion, as I did, of taming a creature that in fact…was never fully wild to begin with. Davis calls on educators to make pedagogical shifts so that students’ educational journeys are more about learning to be comfortable living in the complexity rather than reactively reducing or taming it.
This morning my supervisor was part of an opening keynote debate on the shortcomings of art + design education at the Designs on eLearning (DeL) Conference, an international conference on technology in art + design higher education. Though I completely wanted to attend in person because technology in art + design higher education is basically my life, a whole bunch of complex and decidedly un-tameable (hahaa) circumstances prevented me from making that a reality.
And so this morning I drank coffee in my pajamas with Ruby Joy and tried my best to hear from a seat about 700 miles west of center stage, mediated completely by Twitter. Though he’s lately been very into emotions and wellness and what it means to be human, I don’t see my supervisor as being a particularly relevant guy to the artsy crowd so I was curious just what he’d have to say about the shortcomings of art + design education.
That said, though my perspective was exceptionally limited as it was cobbled together from the experience of about three people live tweeting, it seemed as things unfolded….he and Meredith Davis are apparently besties.
According to my supervisor, design education is failing in its ability to provide students with experience navigating complex systems. It’s solutionist and reductionist and ultimately views the world as a complicated set of items to be sorted and classified as opposed to a complex set of variables with multiple points of engagement that no one person can fully grasp. Design goes for the low hanging fruit of pleasing aesthetics while ignoring the deeper issues of social justice, cultural engagement, and sustainability. In other words…design education is operating under the assumption that if we can tame the wild things—charm them into submission so they look respectable, this is enough.
I want to say that I don’t agree with him and as design educators we’re so far evolved that it’s all about systems thinking and design-for-good and equality and yet…I know what my curriculum looks like and I know my institution-mandated learning objectives and both skew way more toward surface-level taming, with as little complexity as possible.
That said I also know educators who are making a profound impact moving design from exclusive studio space to inclusive interdisciplinary domains. In many ways I think they are living in embodied solidarity with the wild things and both their students and their institutions are much better for it. I hope this is our future.
It was a fun + challenging dialogue to watch (in a highly detached manner) as it unfolded. I think it’s very good for design to have these dialogues, as I know too well from conferences I’ve been to it’s too easy as educators to geek out about visuals and type and the minutia we’re all passionate about and forget that we have actual human students in our care and nurturing them to care about the world by interfacing their skill set may well be even more important than making sure their type skills are flawless (or perhaps a very very close second)….maybe my supervisor is relevant to the artsy crowd after all.