A Philosophy on Teaching Design
"The word ‘building’ contains the double reality. It means both 'the action of the verb build' and 'that which is built'—both verb and noun, both the action and the result," writes Stewart Brand in his classic book, How Buildings Learn, "A 'building' is always building and rebuilding. The idea is crystalline, the fact fluid." The same is true of design: design is both a noun and verb, the action and the object, the process and the result. For me, design is the process of not only giving ideas form, but also of forming ideas.
To teach design is to teach something I don't fully understand myself. The speed of change in the graphic design profession means I find myself working with tools, in mediums, and teaching classes on subjects that didn't exist when I was studying design a decade ago. To teach design in the twenty-first century is less about teaching hard skills — software, tools, and techniques — but to teach modes of working and ways of thinking. My goal as a design educator is not just to set students up for jobs when they graduate — for those jobs won't be around much longer — but to set them up for their second job, and the one after that. By teaching critical thinking, design theory, and individual practice, students are set up for a long career in a field that won't look the same as it does now. This is not dissimilar from the goals put forth by Black Mountain College:
Our central consistent effort is to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, to invite the student to the realization that the way of handling facts and himself amid the facts is more important than the facts themselves.1
In Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner's seminal book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the two write that the goal of education should not simply be the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, but rather to train students to be critical thinkers, anthropologists of their own culture:
This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.
In design, this means the traditional curriculum is no longer sufficient, the modernist understanding of 'good' graphic design no longer holds up2. My interest is in helping students uncover what design means to them, where their interests are, to help them uncover a multitude of possibilities in this broad, wide-ranging and ever-changing field. The goal, then, isn't always to create portfolio-ready products or award-winning projects. The classroom should be a laboratory, a place for free experimentation where students can try new methods of work, dabble in new modes of thinking, and push themselves creatively, formally, and intellectually. Failure is encouraged in the service of experimentation. It's up to each of us, individually and collectively, to figure out what works and what doesn't, what makes good design and bad design, what it is we are trying to say and do. I encourage my students not to find their own 'style' but rather to hone their 'voice'. Who are they as a designer? What are they trying to say? What is their role in society?
I teach in both graduate and undergraduate programs, in both seminar and studio classes. Regardless of the level and class type, my goal is to collapse the divide between thinking and making, theory and practice. In many of the design education programs I've been a part of, classes are split between studio classes (where "the work" is made) and lecture/seminar classes (where history, theory, and criticism is taught). This split can put a false divide in students's minds, as if one doesn't influence the other. In all my classes I bring in elements of both. Studio classes include theoretical lectures and discussions, readings are assigned, and students are encouraged to reflect on their own work through discussion, writing, and making, and thinking critically about the profession, their process, and their tools. In lecture/seminar classes, students are asked to connect theories discussed to contemporary work and their own process.
Theory should not be something separate from their work, but intimately connected to the work they are making in their own practice, and the effect it has on the world. It is important that in every class I teach, students see the work they are doing within the four walls of the classroom as connected to work in their other classes and the culture-at-large. I encourage students to develop their own personal design philosophies and often ask about work in their other classes so we can find connections between them. Lectures and discussions are not presented as project specific but positioned in a way that the ideas can be used across disciplines, mediums, and classes. Students are encouraged to be active participants in the world by looking closely at culture, their environments, and the visual vernacular they are surrounded by every day and bring these observations into to the class and take what they learn in class out into the world. I will often ask students bring in the design they find interesting or work related to the readings to see what they are drawn to, allowing their interests and questions to guide the lectures.
In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner write that education — much like design, in fact — is about inquiry. "The older school environments stressed that learning is being told what happened," they write, "The inquiry environment stresses that learning is a happening in itself." Education is also a process. My aim is to create a space for students to find a way of thinking, to develop a creative practice that works for them. To approach design as a form of inquiry means that design is a living thing with many entry points and a diverse set of processes and outputs — a lens through which we can learn about the world.
The design profession my students will enter looks vastly different than the design profession I entered when I was their age. The work I do now has little connection to the work I did when I was in school. The field will continue to change so I see my role as a professor not simply as job training, but as preparation for an ever-changing, ever-growing field; to give them the tools to change and grow and adapt with it. I believe that every generation of designers is tasked with redefining what design is to them. I hope my students will push the field forward, continually challenging conventions and finding new ways of practice. ✖
I found this specific Black Mountain quote from John Caserta's teaching philosophy. ↩
A great example of anthropology around design culture is Lorraine Wild's 1994 essay Castles Made of Sand, that is at once inside design education while also critical of modernism's rule over it. ↩