I teach graphic design for the same reason I practice graphic design: I want to use my skills for communication to affect positive change in the world. I believe my potential impact as a teacher of my craft is exponentially greater than my potential impact as a designer alone. I was first attracted to the field of graphic design because of the opportunity it afforded to trigger a change in the thinking of an audience. I am, at heart, a communicator, and throughout my life I’ve found different ways of expressing this need. I have been a writer, I’ve played music, and I’ve used art and design to share my own thoughts and other people’s messages that I believe are important. I cannot feel fulfilled in life without a sense of larger purpose in my activities; teaching is the ultimate way to develop and nurture others while stimulating growth in myself as well.
Beyond the traditional sense of importance of the profession, I feel that today we are at a crucial juncture in our path as a people and in the profession of graphic design. Our educational systems are in flux, as our world rapidly evolves, and we need educators who can keep pace with the exigency of the moment. I bring a sustainability and systems-based approach to my design philosophy which is ideal for this time and place. Our next generation of designers must be equipped with systems-thinking skills to deal with the peculiar problems which will arise in the decades to come.
I am an unyielding believer in the joy and the power of education. While many people can teach themselves to use Adobe Illustrator and InDesign, only through education can a designer grow to her full potential. A design educator’s job is to teach a student how to think and problem solve, how to use his or her skills, and how to apply knowledge to experience.
I subscribe to the Designer’s Accord school of thought around how education must serve a design student so that the student can serve the world; for example, students must be taught to approach a problem holistically, rather than incrementally. My graduate-level education focused on systems thinking and the ability to frame a design problem within the larger context in which it exists. No design lives in isolation and all of our choices as designers have repercussions that we must consider. I seek to pass this point of view on to my students in order to foster responsibility as professionals.
Once we have taught our students to approach a problem, grasp it, turn it in their hands, and break it down into a solvable bit of matter, we have to insure that they have the technical and creative skills needed to create the solution they can imagine. This includes a knowledge of how to do good research, use materials, and connect with people of other disciplines, in addition to simple programmatical skills and artistic talent development. Because design is, at its core, a communication discipline, an effective educator must encourage her students to speak and write in a compelling manner and to focus a message to an intended audience.
Finally, our students must be capable of working in interdisciplinary and collaborative teams in the real world. Therefore, we must provide them with a learning environment which fosters and encourages the active application of all the abovementioned thinking and designing skills. Curriculum must be flexible and adaptable, giving the student the chance to learn according to his or her needs. Students must become adept at articulating reactions and evaluations of peer work, and at accepting and learning from evaluations of their own work.
A systems-thinking, sustainability-based approach to design education creates new graphic design professionals who are equipped with the skills needed to initiate a paradigm shift in the field. This interdisciplinary, user-centric perspective will take graphic design beyond simple graphics and toward a new co-generative approach to communication. These new raconteurs will possess great power to tell better stories and hold sway over audiences through the quiet act of juxtaposing text and image in deft composition. Effective university-level instruction can serve as the surging tide that raises the level of communication in our society.
My Creative Philosophy
Beauty | Utility | Sustainability These are the three pillars of my design practice, and the measures of evaluation I use to determine success. The Roman architect Vitruvius coined a similar phrase, positing that design should focus on strength, utility and beauty (firmitas, utilitas, venustas). My interpretations of these words likely vary from Vitruvius’s intention, but the spirit remains. Beauty is that aesthetic quality in a work that pulls the viewer in. I don’t mean design must be pretty! Often dissonance can be just as engaging as traditional forms. While it may seem to go without saying, designers should strive to improve upon the invented world through aesthetic excellence. To me, Nature is the ultimate example of beauty. Therefore I seek to learn from Nature, which has had thousands of millennia to cultivate its own elegance and grace. Utility is the ability of a design to serve its audience well. It can apply to any type of design, from graphic, to industrial, to apparel. If a design does not have utility, it does not deserve to exist. I believe designers should ask themselves first if a project is worthy of execution, and continually evaluate the usefulness of a design throughout the process. Without intended functionality, design begins to slide toward art. To me, this is one of the great distinctions between art and design: design must serve its public. Likewise, design that fails to fulfill its function should not be considered Good Design. Sustainability is the final corner of my design triangle. In the past, we believed that we had a right to create more things. Our resources may have been finite, but they would last well beyond our years, and as long as we recycled our newspapers we were probably going to be ok. That is not today’s world. Today, we know that our actions have repercussions, and as designers, we have the ability to affect change, both positive and negative. If we ignore the chain reactions caused by our choices in message, material, quantity, and processes, our impact will almost certainly be a net detractor from our future prosperity. Designers have an imperative to consider the whole lifecycle of their outputs, and understand the systems in which our designs will live and operate. Just as no man is an island, no design is without a system. If sustainability isn’t considered from the onset, our solutions will always leave us just not quite there… yet. Beauty and utility add to the overall sustainability of a design. Things which are cherished because they are attractive, or speak to a person deeply, or make a chore simpler or more fun, will be kept. Vitruvius’s firmitas cornerstone will flow from the place at which my three criteria meet. Designers should turn away from the temptation to contribute to the proliferation of Crap. Crap is all the Bad Design, all the clutter, all the disposable items that our society has become incredibly efficient at making more of. We must stop thinking of our audiences as Consumers. Consuming/Consumerism is not an attribute to celebrate. Our audiences are users, viewers, clients and customers. They are who we work for. Our jobs are not to sell them more Crap, but to serve their needs, solve their problems. And they are part of the unbelievably complex system of the Earth. Any damage our objects do to this system, we do unto our users. Therein it comes full circle; treat your audience with respect, treat the Earth with respect, treat aesthetics with respect. As Allan Chochinov once wrote, design is a means, not an end. We design things to solve problems for people and our human system. We must be willing to part with the idea that each design we create is necessary, and in turn, if it is not deemed necessary, we should not insist on its coming to fruition. We must be accepting of all the other means which can also take us to the ends we seek, and not become betrothed to our own ideas. The bottom line is, Good Design should serve its audience, its people, and its environment. As we tumble through the anthropocene era, it’s our responsibility as people with the power to craft and communicate to use our powers for Good, not indifference. We must design with intention and with our eyes wide open. And we should search our souls to ensure the aggregate of our work moves us forward, always.
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