Posts tagged ‘design education’
on wild things, being artsy, and taming + being tamed by complexity
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.
One year ago….
March 15, 2015
I am writing this one day post-Assignment 2 submission thus will freely admit what follows has been born from mostly half-formed ideas created while running, while drinking, and in pre-dawn hours while trying to go back to sleep. Please forgive the ramblings, unformed ideas, etc.
Due to the magic that is the Timehop app, I realized that one year ago this week I was at the AIGA Design Educator Connecting Dots Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Timehop informed me that apparently I was a Tweet-writing machine as I was encountering so many new ideas, meeting so many new people, and in many ways coming out as not only a design educator of the online tribe (which is rare in design education) but the dean of a fully online graphic design program (which in the graphic design education world is pretty much the equivalent of being a unicorn.) As it was only a year ago, re-reading what I’ve tweeted has brought back the memories and the overall context of the experience which has been the catalyst for a good nostalgia session as I compare where I was a year ago with where I am now.
The main theme that seemed to stick out to me last year was the need for designers to be engaged in Research (yep….cap R for “Research” because designers love a good capital whenever possible!) This checks out with my own memory as it seems a lot of the keynotes rotated around the fact that design pedagogy kind of has its own “cold start problem” going on because it wants so desperately to be a legit academic field but because graphic design is ubiquitous, young, and practice/apprentice based and designers are very much an “other”…it’s just an academic hard sell.
In addition, I think what really might contribute to these notions is that designers and even design educators don’t interface with more mainstream academia because they have so effectively established their own communities of practice. Don’t get me wrong, these communities are amazing and I love designers almost as much as I love people from Canada. But…this year has convinced me that designers have done a fabulous job establishing their own niche at the expense of becoming part of the larger education conversation, and especially educational technology/digital literacy conversation that is going on.
This lack of voice is curious to me as graphic design in general and design educators in particular seem to have so much to bring to the table when discussing how to navigate the very murky spaces of technology, learning, and human empathy. Perhaps it is because I’m ignorant to the conversations (as I have legit spent more time lately in the edu sphere as opposed to the design sphere). I hope this is the case as I think this bleed area matters in some pretty profound ways.
For the next couple days I’m going to both get back on the writing wagon and engage a bit more with these ideas. What is design pedagogy? Why are designers not integrating with the larger narratives of digital literacy and network learning that are going on? Or are they and it’s me that’s just missing it because my own vision and network is too narrow?
designers of the future…
October 23, 2012
Meredith Davis is my new design education hero. She’s smart, and thoughtful and she cares about the future of the profession in a forward-thinking, inspirational way. She is a total visionary. And it seems like she has published, presented, and drawn up the framework for pretty much every major design education initiative that has happened in the past several decades. Designers of 2020 and beyond….thank Meredith Davis first off that your programs were so amazing and enabled you to be the leaders making policy and designing a new cultural lifestyle that we, as mere early twenty-first century dwellers, can’t even imagine .
I first became familiar with Meredith Davis while I listening to a recorded presentation Davis and Ric Grefe (the current executive director of AIGA National) hosted on Undergraduate Educational Outcomes and Competencies in Communication Design. The presentation was basically a discussion on where the profession is headed and how we as educators can empower our next cohorts of students to be better prepared to enter and be a positive influence in the communities they are a part of once they graduate. Design has experienced some pretty fundamental shifts in its short life and we’re in the midst of yet another shift as we move from designers who are primarily concerned with the creation of artifacts to designers who are primarily concerned with the creation of systems.
While I completely resonated with everything that was discussed (and finished the session with warm fuzzy feelings that I am indeed in the best field every because the potential for design to leverage positive change is pretty much unlimited) I couldn’t help also leave the session with a bit of a sinking feeling about my band of distance ed students. Many of my students (and indeed students in distance education settings worldwide) come to school because they want to learn the trade of making practical artifacts because having that skill will allow them to move out of a somewhat grim living situation. Is this new shift in educational practice going to further alienate my distance ed students from their on-ground peers? How can distance ed implement these new theories if the majority of distance ed students are more just looking to learn a trade? Will the future of design contain some sort of split in those who design artifacts and those who design and implement the artifacts into a larger system/campaign?
It’s an interesting time for sure because it does feel like there’s a lot brewing and change occurs so rapidly. But I suppose that if indeed design education is at the early stages of a pretty significant shift in theory, who better better than design educators to wrestle with how the shift will impact not just ground schools but also distance education learning?
You can view the recording in its entirety here.