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Jessica Helfand

Annals of Academia, Part I: What I Didn't Learn In Graduate School


When I was in the ninth grade, I was required to take a class in environmental science. Having then, as now, virtually no scientific aptitide to speak of, I feared the uphill climb of my life. But instead, I was happy to discover that the curriculum was centered around daily visits to a creek on the school's property, where we were each asked to keep a journal, and to write down everything we observed: changes in the color of leaves, variations in climate, details about the insect population and so on.

In retrospect, this extended study in observational awareness may have had more to do with my decision to become a graphic designer than just about anything else.

Yet as a graduate student in the MFA program at Yale some 13 years later, I resisted precisely such rigors. Here, ruthless observation took the form of strict visual problems with extremely formal restrictions: plaka and gouache and ruling pens were the common currency, and drawing the same thing over and over again was more the rule than the exception. Even the format was specified: 8x8-inch square fields were thought to be "neutral", and were therefore the format of choice for most assignments. Were I to have approached these assignments with the openmindedness with which I once greeted my daily forays to the creek, I might have seen them as liberating, even creative. At the time, however, all I could think of was how intellectually stifling they were, and I longed to see my experience in graduate study informed by broader notions of history, philosophy and ideas.

It was with such airs of superiority that I spent every free moment during my two years at Yale buried in the corner of the library. Consequently, I produced a long, somewhat densely written thesis, yet one which was directly connected to my angst in the studio: in an effort to try and discover what great and intractable truths lay in these highly formalized assignments, I wrote a minor tome — 194 pages, in fact — on the history of the square. (Readers who think I only write about geometry will be relieved — or possibly horrified — to learn that I was a daytime television writer once, also.)

The bad news was, I spent so much time researching my thesis that I ended up designing it in about a week. And it looked like it. The good news was, there was only one person on the Yale faculty who I knew would take the time to sit down and actually read it: and that was Paul Rand.

Yet while I can claim to have spent a wonderful, deeply enriching period of my life working under the guidance of Rand (whose own insatiable, intellectual thirst was similar to my own, or so I liked to imagine) I regret that there was no better way of merging thinking and doing, reading and making, researching and inventing: a fusion between the life of the studio and the life of the mind. (Interestingly, this is exactly what I pride myself in now with my own students: like parents who hope for better opportunities for their own children, I derive enormous gratification from my students' succeeding where I — or my then-curriculum — once failed.) Perhaps, I remember wondering some time later, if Rand himself had accompanied us to the library and then on to the studio, where his classic exercises in visual semantics were given, there might have been a way to capture the observational thinking that I had long ago discovered as a ninth grader, and merge it with the resources and capabilities that really good colleges and universities can offer?

Looking back, those of us who found such riches did so as a consequence of our own curiosity and initiative. By filling in the spaces between those educational gaps ourselves, we probably found greater meaning — and more lasting value —in the work we did as a result. At the very least, we learned how to scrutinize the questions as much as the answers. This, it seems to me, is a very good thing for any graphic designer to know how to do.

Posted in: Education , Graphic Design, Theory + Criticism

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Comments [24]
Your comments resonate with me as I have just finished my PhD. I was blessed with committee of mentors who were able to let me explore the proverbial creek and, at times, get completely lost. It sounds like rigors of Yale may not have allowed that freedom. It was, perhaps, too scripted?

I work for an organization at the univeristy that studies teaching and learning and am surprised by the number of conversations with faculty about finding the point in each students careers that 'scaffolding' can end and self-propelled learning can take over.

Although I am proponent of teaching essential, fundamental design skills (including traditional art techniques), I would argue that you were were ready, at the Master's level, to explore - you had learned to be an intrinsically motivated designer and student (every instructor's dream!).

I worry now, especially in regards to public institutions, that the fiscal climate is such that discussions about accountability and student learning outcomes will further tighten or restrict curricula and the student's ability to chose an educational path that is personally meaningful.

(Afterthought: If you are doing your Master's at Yale you are already in the elite - the 99th percentile of educated persons globally! You could've done your thesis on rabbit poop and you'd still be assured a very respectable salary when you graduated. So, you might as well have spent it in library!)
Gregory Turner-Rahman
05.12.04
04:53

Looking back, I think ninth grade turned me into a graphic designer as well. I was told by teachers that "graphic design" was a possibility for me, so i looked it up in the encyclopedia and for quite a while, due to the density of my skull, had the sense that graphic design was equivalent to op-art. Why? I guess that one example of graphic design in the reference book had a sort of black and white vibrational effect. It wasn't until I got into college that I gained any sense that graphic design was in fact about what I was really interested in: the design of books and other forms of communication.

But around the ninth grade I was also given one of the first big books that I actually read. It was "Father, Son and Co.", and it was the autobiography of Thomas Watson Jr. at IBM. My father gave it to me after reading it during his time getting an MBA in the NAVY (submarine service). He was retiring and planning to start his own janitorial business. I think the title of the book made him think about the possibilities for a deepened father-son relationship through the creation of a family business.

When I finally did hear the name of Paul Rand, I felt a special affinity with his work because of this early reading experience. Ironically, my resultant interest in graphic design has led me competely away from the idea of ever taking over or devoting myself completely to the family business.

Anyway, as I'm also driven by the desire to resolve the dichotomy of thinking and doing, I wonder if Jessica Helfand would be able to share some of the ways she makes this merging more possible for her students.

To me, it seems rather ironic that the end of 'scaffolding' and the beginning of self-initiation coincides with the beginning of a strong self-righteous rebellion, which itself later has to be re-understood and come to terms with as dependent on that which was rebelled against. It is as though one can't teach self-initiation; one can only set up the circumstances for a rebellion and hope that it takes place. This is my most charitable reading of rigid institutions, but unfortunately, by much of my own personal experience it has been shown to be a bit of an overestimation of the wisdom of teachers. Some seem so deluded by these practices that they can't see when the system has worked well. The self-motivated student is not always every instructor's dream; s/he can also be a worst nightmare, if the teacher doesn't fully understand his or her actual role in the process of learning.

Because of the tension in my undergrad experience, I am looking for a grad school that is a better fit. But maybe tension is what I need. I feel good about where I am now and I have to admit that UG schooling indirectly played a large role in getting me there. I may be better off at a school that stresses "doing" (which I have been very suspicious of), if only because it will make me think more.


TheorySavage
05.12.04
08:06

I guess this is a bit of a personal post, but I think it relates to 'thinking' vs 'doing' and self-initiation. When I was a kid--or more of a kid than I am now--I wanted to be an animator, the next Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, but that eventually fell by the wayside and I went to university to study Politics. After two of that I decided that Politics were not a field I would like to be actively--ie professionally--involved on a daily basis, although it was, and is, something I love to think about and read about on my spare time but not something I want to do. Luckily, I came across a Typography degree in the University that I was already enrolled in and decided to tranfer to it.

I did not apply to any other school, because I thought--rightly in retrospect--that the one at my University was perfect for my needs. The course is intensely practical, and even the theoretical dimension of it is firmly grounded on practice. For example, we get taught about studies done on typographic cueing for screen design and legibility research, while semiotics were mentioned once in passing throughout the four-years. To me this is a very valid approach since the emphasis of the course is in producing people who can effectively communicate and articulate complex information on a printed page, this is done however, to the detriment of 'creativity'. One could say that this course produces doers--people who, in theory at least, know how to make usable and practical documents, with aesthetics as an essentially secondary issue--not 'thinking' desingers.

This may seem like a stifling environment, but it really is not. It gives us what we need to know about well formed and articulated documents, and really makes us think about information. On the other hand any person who feels he or she needs to be more creative does so anyway by approaching the projects and the issues involved in new and interesting ways. In fact, in my case, the limitations have actually pushed me to strive further and try different things--with varying degrees of success--and I have always been supported by my tutors in this. In other words curiosity, and the need to look at, think about, new things and apply them in one's work is something largely innate, which can be helped and boosted by good teaching, but it seems to me that if it ain't there it ain't there (by the way I do not equate curiosity with good design or talent, they are related but they can exist without one another).

Also, since I am at the stage of finishing my degree and am considering my options, I would very much like to read your thoughts on further study vs. work in the 'real' world?
Achilles Yerocostopoulos
05.13.04
07:36

Describing her work, Maya Lin once said: "'I create places in which to think, without trying to dictate what to think."

A good lesson for us all.

I am always aware of the paradox of higher education when participating in graduate admissions, where as a member of the faculty I am asked to evaluate and consider prospective applicants from all over the world. On one hand, one wants a mature individual with experience (not just design experience, but experience as a person in the world) and an independent sense of his or her self. At the same time, we ask them to leave their proverbial "baggage" at the door, leaving themselves wide open to huge amounts of input and quite rigorous critique. Not an easy task for anyone.

It's not just design education that is changing, but design as a discipline that is radically shifting from a service business to an expressive medium all its own. In my view, institutions that cultivate design thinking and doing (i.e. "the academy") must respond to these changes in a way that not only accomodates what's happening now but anticipates future needs as well. Where will the design profession be in 10 years? Where will the designer be In 20 years? What will the world need from us? And what, more importantly, will we offer in return?

It seems to me that the big change is that (here I go): you no longer need a client or a brief to be a designer. This is not so much a crisis of authorship as a crisis of intent: it's a new profile for design and designers, befitting its own, entirely new pathology. And soon.

The deeper ramifications of this paradigm shift in design education and culture will be examined more closely next week in Part II of this post.
Jessica Helfand
05.13.04
10:03

"you no longer need a client or a brief to be a designer."

yes, but-this as an honest and straightforward question-what is new or different about this?

taking (semi-arbitrarily, but how far back should we go: cave painting?) the great exhibition of 1851 as a point at which the notion of a designed object became cuturally relevant, isn't there a line that can be traced through william morris, the bauhaus, destijl, man ray, henrik wermann, willem sandberg, bruno munari, the eames, victor papanek, archigram, tadaonori yokoo, hipgnosis, hard werken, grapus, studio dumbar, john chris jones, why not, miles murray sorrel fuel, up to dot dot dot, ryan mcginness and geoff mcfetridge (all for example) that indicates the notion ('no longer' needing a client or brief) as underlying design as a given, a basis, rather than an alternative or recent development? isn't it actually the tradition?

graham
05.14.04
05:05

Yes, Graham: but when did that particular tradition actually begin to impact upon and truly reveal itself in the work we're seeing coming from our students?
Jessica Helfand
05.14.04
06:07

the central school? glasgow? the bauhaus? ulm? the royal college? not too sure, but lots of places i would've thought.

around the end of the nineteenth/beginning of the twentieth century and forwards.
graham
05.14.04
07:14

I take Gregory Turner-Rahman's worries quite seriously. The institutional emphasis on student outcomes have now become commonplace within colleges and universities. Because of pressures derived from professional practice, the education of graphic designers has had to contend with the outcome issue since the discipline entered the "academy." The perceived (and very often dogmatic) requirements of the professional practice of graphic design have too often resulted in students who have low expectations of themselves as critical thinkers.

In his recent novel, the Nobel Prize winning writer and critic J.M. Coetzee writes, "We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity. There is something self-stultified in the way in which scientific behaviorism recoils from the complexity of life." Coetzee titles his novel, Elizabeth Costello. The chapters that I refer to here were originally delivered as the Tanner lectures at Princeton and later published under the title The Lives of Animals in 1997. These words are from a fictional lecture given by Coetzee's protagonist Elizabeth Costello. Costello is an aging Australian novelist of some repute. She is a woman of conscience. The treatment of animals by humans weighs heavy on her.

Over the course of a series of lectures, she compares how behavioral science studies primate and human behavior. Her startling claim is that behavioral science, because it strives for simplicity (rather than complexity), understands behavior as being primarily motivated by instinct. Broadly speaking, science maintains that what distinguishes humans from primates is the ability to reason at a high degree. More specifically, behavioral sciences studies primates in order to isolate basic behavior, because it assumes that primates don't reason at the same level as humans, if at all. This study of basic behavior apparently contributes to what we can know about more complex behaviors aided by reason. But this assumption, as Coetzee by way of Costello points out, is based on an overly simplified and instrumental definition of what it is to reason.

In 1917, the Gestalt psychologist, Wolfgang Köhler, as part of the Prussian Academy Study of Science, conducted experiments on anthropoid apes on the Island of Tenerife. As a part of his assignment, Köhler studied gesture, language, and perception in the apes, determining their place on the developmental scale. The apes were subjected to a series of tests whereby they would have to overcome a variety of obstacles to obtain food, usually bananas. Köhler observed that his apes, Sultan especially, showed signs of genuine intelligence and insight. And from his observation, he concluded that apes could be educated.

Köhler based his conclusion on already pre-established criteria of what would constitute intelligence and insight in Sultan's behavior, the behavior of an ape—as being based on the primal instinct to survive. All Sultan has to do is survive to be viewed as having some intelligence. Faced with the possibility of starvation, Sultan performed the appropriate tasks of overcoming obstacles to obtain nourishment. He survived. In this life or death scene, Sultan shows intelligence because he does what he must do to feed himself.

Coetzee has Costello complicate this scenario by suggesting that Sultan's intelligence may lie elsewhere. Costello reads: "Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one's thinking. But what must what one think? [...] The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?"

Costello believes that it is not that Sultan is incapable of thought and of a high level of reason, but that his teacher (for that is what Köhler takes himself for by "educating" the ape) cannot conceive of Sultan's capacity to think and reason at a high level. The teacher has very low expectations of his pupil. Coetzee has Costello put it this way: "At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied."

From this, I take it that Sultan's low self-esteem is a reflection of his teacher's low expectations. The ape cannot but have an ape like concept of himself, because he is constrained by the definition of ape intelligence that Köhler established with the proposed outcomes of his experiment—ape exhibits intelligence by thinking right thoughts and coordinating his behavior in such a way that he meets the predetermined criteria of success. Despite the obstacles, he gets the bananas.

No doubt, there are lessons to be learned from Coetzee's allegories. Elizabeth Costello is, after all, organized by chapters that are titled "Lesson 3: The Lives of Animals," "Lesson 4: The Lives of Animals," and so on. I'd like to think that the example of Sultan is informative, not only for exploring how it is that humans classify the intelligence of animals but for analogizing how it is that humans classify other humans relative to intelligence. And since I'm discussing lessons, the analogy seems closest to how it is that students are classified according to the expectations of their teachers and of institutions of higher education. Like Köhler's Sultan who possesses an ape like concept of himself, because he is constrained by the definition of ape intelligence that his teacher established with the proposed outcomes of his experiment, students may possess ape like concepts of themselves, because teachers expect their students to think the least interesting thoughts, thus propelling them towards the most basic forms of reason.

The philosopher Ian Hacking has suggested the possibility that humans can take on attributes that are impressed upon them through an institutional process of categorization. Hacking says, "People spontaneously come to fit their categories." What he means is irreducibly more complex than his statement lets on. Hacking like Michel Foucault and Donald Davidson, claims that the study of humans in order to categorize them into kinds of humans is a way of "making up people." We make up all sorts of people when we collect data on human practices, like suicide, prostitution, drunkenness, madness, and others. Hacking maintains that before the compellation of data on suicide, for example, no such category existed. Of course, making up people does result in more positive models of human conduct. But, what Hacking attempts to establish in his exploration of the vicissitudes of making up people through naming, what he calls "dynamic nominalism," is the broad "spheres of possibility, and hence our selves [...]."

What then can we make of people that we categorize as students of design? Are they too much like apes?
Michael Golec
05.14.04
12:30

I can't tell you how timely it is to read all of this. Like Jessica, I was paralyzed by the research component of my thesis. Graduate school became a means of immersing myself in something "intellectual." More so than laboring over advertisements and point of purchase (which I did for Kmart--among others--before returning to school). Point being, the reading, comprehension, analysis, and immersion in information became more ciritcal to me than making things. When I did conceive and craft visual objects, it was one missed dart after another. I always remember a poster Rand did--perhaps for the AIGA or UCLA, it escapes me--where a target has all of these missed shots. Story goes that Rand claimed the ones who miss the most, learn the most. Arriving at a conclusion easily, rarely happens, and carries less reward.

That's what education is about. Learning on your own, and learning how you learn. I hope to always be a student. I know very little about apes, and just as little about behavorial science, but I can say that graphic design educators must look for new ways to challenge their students. Do we need to look inward more often than outward? What's wrong with a bookish thesis on design? Won't it contribute to the critical nature of our work? And, why not look into behavioral science a little? Perhaps we could learn a about the people we are trying to reach, and how to reach them better. Or is that what advertising does?

I'm looking forward to Part II, Jessica. Will you be talking about this more in Maine???
Jason
05.16.04
04:33

Michael, I don't think that teachers expect their students to think the least interesting thoughts — at least not good teachers. On the contrary, it might be said that the ideal outcome of any educational experience is to be introduced to a new constellation of resources only to emerge later with an original idea or two of one's own. If original ideas are less frequently found in the academy it is only because such a scarcity of novel thinking is often true of life itself.

I am all for looking at behavioral patterns to better understand the social structure of design education, and if I read your post correctly, I imagine that reason is what separates human beings from the animal world in general. With apologies to primates, my point is that where design education is concerned, a more progressive balance between instruction, reflection and action represents a more evolved species of designer than once existed.
Jessica Helfand
05.17.04
01:40

My post was directed at Gregory Turner's comment regarding the current pressure that public [education] institutions place a significant emphasis on so-called "learning outcomes." Regardless of the dedication of many fine teachers, more and more institutions require that students perform to a set criterion, established in advance by the instructor who identifies learning outcomes. In the case of graphic design education, learning outcomes are, for the most part, determined by the expectation that students will pursue graphic design as a career. This means that the graphic design student must perform to explicit and implicit rules that govern graphic design as a practice (in whatever form that practice might take). In the worse cases, this means that graphic design students are taught to "ape" the perceived successes of present and past design, apart from a critical acknowledgment of graphic design's role in the construction or manufacture of culture. Coetzee's allegory is instructive in the sense that once we categorize students as "students of graphic design" we limit their potential as educated persons. Certainly, there are students who will transgress the category. We hope.

On a different, but related topic, if design education is indeed changing to accommodate a shift "from a service business to an expressive medium all it's own," as Jessica states, I wonder, what does design express that it hasn't in the past? Some design has expressed, and continues to express, its allegiance to established ideologies that have created the basis for professional practice, with or without clients or briefs. It may be the case that the radical shift that Jessica argues for is an expression of a desire or a symptom of a "pathology" that is already a guiding aspect of the graphic design profession—that the profession must evolve or expire. This isn't a criticism, but rather an observation.


Michaell Golec
05.17.04
03:53

I have recently graduated with a BFA, but during school I was also very interested in design theory, and also how it correlates with literary theory and art criticism and theory.
I believe as designers we are at a crux, with the opportunity to define a new method of communication. Your post touches on this in two ways I believe. One in that the designer of this new communication will be a thinker. How does this differ from any current graphic designer? In that the current designer is attempting to use current means to communicate the problem. However, with the amount media circulating today there is no communication by replicating traditional design principles. This design melts into the landscape, (and in branding reinforces the competitors brand as much as it communicates the designers solution),
A designer should be able to analyze the communication problem (including how that communication is created for the competition) and develop a unique way of addressing that problem that will be as unique as the problem. The designer then needs to have a foundation in theory and the ability to think, as well as have the freedom to explore visual communication.
The ability to communicate as the designer sees fit is the second way design will be defined in the future. I imagine a separation between this kind of design and the continuation of design as we know it by people who aren't interested in true communication. Many people will argue that this second kind of designer (who doesn't strive for experimental communication) is a true designer submitting to the clients needs, and that a designer who will throw client needs away is more of a fine artist than a designer. I disagree. I believe that only through unique and experimental (for lack of a better word) design will companies truly be able to communicate. Which makes the designer who pushes boundaries better able to communicate which serves the clients purpose.
It was encouraging to read your insights, and shared views on the future of design, and necessity for thought in the process.
John
05.17.04
07:02

i am currently a graphic design (UG) student at a university that follows the yale curriculum & has several yale grads on the faculty. i have been very frustrated by the lack of theory in the program. is it because they think that the thingking somehow competes with the doing? isn't it truer to say that more theory would enrich the experience? if we are going out and stimulating ourselves with further exploration and feeling enriched, isn't it obvious that thinking is a natural compliment to the doing? i find myself being very critical and cynical about the defecits in my program, and i think this takes away from my experience.
rachel
05.18.04
10:57

Rachel,

I'll probably get fired for admitting this but here goes: I don't see theory (or intellectual engagement) and practice (or creative productivity) as mutually exclusive. On the contrary, we need to rethink our curricula so that these very necessary twin impulses coexist — naturally, dynamically, syntactically.

The misguided notion that too much thinking inhibits making is where the dumbing down of our profession originates. (In my humble opinion.)

In our now-controversial talk in Vancouver last fall, Bill and I admonished the design community for its lack of engagement with the world — an appraisal which we stand by, and which I, for one, feel informs my own work as an educator. But if I feel strongly about guiding my students toward unorthodox paths of research and recovery, I feel equally impassioned about instilling in them a sense, if they don't have it already, that they need to make things, lots of things, and they need to keep on making things even when they think they're done making things.

Making work does not imply abandoning the intellect along the way; on the contrary, it is precisely such theoretical inquiry alongside active visualization that makes the examined life worth living.
Jessica Helfand
05.18.04
11:29

Rachel's comments strike at the bone. Her questions and frustrations should be taken seriously and addressed by graphic design educators. As an undergraduate student of graphic design, she is not alone in her criticism and cynicism. I believe that her and John's interest in theoretical issues, whether drawing from literary criticism, visual cultural studies, art theory, or elsewhere, should be encouraged and addressed in the studio environment. As it stands, I would imagine that such issues are addressed in graphic design history courses. Unfortunately, a good deal of these courses present students with a chronology of styles, intended to give the student a visual data-bank that she can draw from in the studio context. Such an approach to the history of graphic design, it seems, hardly meets the challenge that Rachel and John put forth.

Recently, Steven Heller has suggested that graphic design programs should adopt a five-year course of study. The precedent for such a program can be found in undergraduate professional architecture programs. While architecture is as beholden to professional practice as graphic design, as a profession, it does see the value of a broad humanities based education. This may in fact have more to do with the architectural profession's consciousness of its own history as a humanist enterprise than with a desire to meet the contemporary needs of clients (although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive). A broader more rigorous liberal arts or humanities education could be the result of graphic design programs adopting the five-year plan.
Michael Golec
05.18.04
11:35

This assumes that the burden, or emphasis for a more robust design education should happen at the undergraduate level, but I'm not so sure. Speaking from my own experience which was biased toward a liberal-arts curriculum, I am not convinced that 18 and 19-year old students have the attention and/or depth of understanding to make such a system worthwhile. Again, I speak from personal experience: I know I didn't have the stick-to-it-iveness as an undergrad. But I did have it as a graduate student, and I suspect that the emphasis may be better directed toward smaller programs that cater to a slightly more mature student.

That said, any program framed by these kinds of rich resources will depend upon a significant endowment to support its efforts. It is probable, even likely that those programs which do craft curricula which respond to broader cultural demands will groom designers who are better poised to interact with — and contribute to — the bigger world out there. Earlier posts (Gregory's, for one) have pointed out the fiscal scarcity that makes new and improved design programs an imperiled commodity: nevertheless, in the absence of academically validated systems to protect and promote the way designers learn, we owe it to ourselves to begin to address the imbalances in the current system(s). Integrating the humanities within a design program; encouraging our students to read and write, to speak a second language, to learn how to talk about things besides design — these goals should not be beyond our reach.
Jessica Helfand
05.18.04
12:43

I agree with Jessica. I believe the 4 year UG program would need to be evaluated and improved before even considering a 5th year. As a non traditional student myself, I can attest to the lack of attention and depth of understanding of the majority of my classmates. I have arrived at my graphic design education after persuing a zoology degree, traveling the world, working and owning my own business in the service industry and a brief stint as an architecture/historical preservation student. I bring allot of life experience and perspective to my current role as a graphic design student. I have observed that the vast majority of my fellow students are very young, and while they may be interested in graphic design, their view of design is very narrowly focused and I see little in the way of broadening that focus (by including discussions about theory for instance) in our cirriculum. The graduate level does seem the appropriate place for a deeper exploration, but that leaves older students like myself, grossly understimulated in our UG years.
rachel
05.18.04
01:30

This is a thread of fresh air.

I was surprised, Jessica, in my conversation with many of your students, to find a lack of interest in critical theory as it relates to graphic design. In fact they kept referring me to one particular student if I wanted to talk to the 'theory head' of the group. They were also frank in explaining to me that less than half a class might know who Barthes or Benjamin was, let alone have read a specific essay I might try to raise. I was distressed by this news; if not at Yale, then where?

On the other hand, your recent posts are great encouragement to me. I believe it is Andrew Blauvelt that talks about a 'critical making,' and you appear to be a lone voice for this approach in New Haven but at least you're there. Too often, a craft like writing is thrown out simply as 'copy' and not part of the designer's task. Primary research with the chemists in the lab when designing their departmental collateral is considered useless. Easy design, however beautiful, is disgusting. Arbitrary decisions based on personal preference are made all too often in front of PowerBooks around the world. Choose a blue because the chemist told you in his lab that its hue represented final-phase summaries, NOT BECAUSE IT MATCHES YOUR DESKTOP.

In any case, the student (undergrad/grad/postgrad) must always bring an enormous amount of his or her own initiative to a school. The student without this internal drive isn't worth the education of any institution. High school is for getting by, University is for getting As. I hope Part 2 will address some of your proposals for how educators might best intersect theory with practise, transdisciplinary learning with formal analyses, writing articles with forming letters.
Andrew Breitenberg
05.18.04
04:56

It strikes me that students' rejection of "theory" is not completely invalid. Too often the theory mongers dredge up whatever they think represents a show of intellectualism rather than a foundation for making, doing, or even for understanding design. Sure, Barthes and Benjamin have a couple of worthwhile-for-graphic-designers insights but one can do a fair amount of wading without getting near them. Most of what is foisted on graphic design students doesn't even have the saving grace of being contemporary thought; for some reason graphic designers love not just tripe but out-of-date tripe.

Theory might be rejected by graphic designers because it is hard but it usually should be rejected because it is not graphic design theory. Universities are full of people who are actually qualified to teach political science or literary criticism. Most people teaching graphic design aren't even qualified to teach graphic design.
Gunnar Swanson
05.18.04
07:45

This is from my site but it seems more relevant here.

Gunnar Swanson has suggested that what "theorists" do may not be the work of graphic design. Theory as it is generally practiced in relation to graphic design, though it may be interesting to graphic designers (who supposedly have a set of their own specific concerns), is not necessarily, he says, "graphic design" or even "graphic design theory".

OK. I can understand the first part. The argument is that critical theory is critical theory, even when it is applied to graphic design. But the development of critical theory is more abstract than its application. To think about rationality in abstraction is not to apply it. Critical theory applied to politics, graphic design, or anything, is the work of a theory of politics, design, etc., not of critical theory itself. When Habermas wrote Between Facts and Norms, he was "doing" political theory through the lens of his critical theory; he was generally not working on critical theory itself, which he did in the Theory of Communicative Action, and he was not "being" (specifically doing the work of) a politician. These abstract distinctions, however, do not mean that Habermas was not engaging in political activity by writing Between Facts and Norms and abstaining from a professional political life.

Similarly, to think about morality is not to apply it, technically. When a theory of morality is applied to everyday life, you are not "doing" moral theory, you are participating in daily life. Moral theory applied to life is the work of moral living. Abstaining from certain actions is positive work in the field of living. You might say that an ascetic monk is not "living", but he would beg to differ.

What is the purpose of theorizing a distinction between the act of creation and the thought that goes into that creation? And furthermore, what is the purpose of theorizing a distinction between the thought that goes into creation and the thought about that thought? The purpose is to develop our understanding of various modes of action and thought and to increase the level of self-reflection which leads to human progress; it is not, ultimately, to try to put people into these boxes as if everybody should occupy a particular spot. The theorist doesn't cease to be a practitioner. Apparently, though practitioners can cease to be theorists.

Or can they? Gunnar is falling prey to his own criticism here, actually, because he certainly seems to believe himself to be doing the "work" of graphic design and graphic design theory in making these observations; he intends to solidify something, protect it from invasion; he intends to abstain from "lily-gilding". But in doing what he (I assume) thinks is positive work for the profession and for design theory, he is actually simply theorizing about the distinctions between thinker and doer, thinker and thinker on thought. This is the work of philosophy, not of graphic design. Graphic Design as a Liberal Art is not "graphic design" either. He may object that his writing does not claim to be "the work" of graphic design, but again, this is a fairly meaningless defense based more on semantics than intent. Is his intention not, in that article, to promote and further the development of graphic design even at the expense of its basic, limited definition? I think so. Should he care? I think not.

Am I not a designer because I "think" about graphic design? Of course not. (I may not be a "graphic designer" for other reasons, to come). All designers should think about what they are doing, and indeed they need to think about that thought. By thinking more, they don't cease to be designers (although they may cease to fit into some conservative definition), even if that thinking leads to radical changes in their behavior. Is that not the purpose of a liberal arts education? The fact that "design" is a part of the term "graphic design" makes such a shift possible, in a way that would not be possible with, say, a plumber. Since design involves morality, art, and science, its broadest sense of practice includes considering the efficacy of abstention as well as production and utility.

What would be the point of calling a monk "inhuman" just because he has given up on the typical life of humans, other than to implicitly argue against growth and change in the very concept of being human? Faced with an inflexible definition like that, the monk would happily conclude that he is not human, but perhaps rather super-human.

How does your concept of graphic design as a liberal art fit into your current stress on vocationalism?
Tom Gleason
05.19.04
06:56

Years ago I knew someone who solved the problems of the universe every time he took LSD. Unfortunately, he came out of his trips not remembering the solution. He decided to keep pencil and paper with him and to remember to write down the solution. When he came down from his next trip he looked at the paper. He had written the word "everything."

Of course the solution was right. It just wasn't very useful. I am, by nature, and academic Wobbly. Instead of "one big union" I envision one big department. In my fantasy I see painters and physicists justifying their work and its value to each other. Perhaps the right solution. Just not very useful. The value of disciplinary grouping is that, at least at its best, people with real and specific competence are in control.

I think it is the duty of teachers to make the connections, to help students understand why all of these classes aren't unconnected entities. Design affects political history. Religious theory is applicable to design. . . getting that across is an important job of a teacher, as is the encouragement of broad and integrative thinking on the part of students. There is, however, a point where a literature teacher has stopped connecting Metaphysical poetry to current politics and is instead giving his version of current politics with reference to Metaphysical poetry. There are several problems with this: Aside from the ethical dimension of asking students to pay for a class and invest their time under a false pretense, graduates who are assumed to have knowledge of Andrew Marvel will not, a message will be sent to many students that said poetry is not worthy of serious attention, and, perhaps worst of all, the school will be in the position of having political science taught by someone with no qualifications in the field.

My argument is not with liberal education. I'm a big believer in the value of broad education and in disciplinary education that some see as "useless." (Hell, I had many majors from photography to marine sciences, have a degree in art history, and was one class shy of another degree in Scandinavian literature.) My long-ago and widely-misinterpreted Design Issues article on graphic design as liberal art was about reinventing liberal education. It suggested that a result of the specific proposal could be the reinvention of graphic design. That would be great.

What I object to is the abandonment of disciplinary rigor without offering an improvement over single-discipline focus and the use of graphic design as a foil for other disciplines. When "theory" is taught to graphic design students as a part of graphic design it needs to be justified: Why is this being taught specifically to these students and why is it being taught by this faculty?

As to vocationalism, professional academic fields are inevitably at least partially defined by the nature of the profession. If graphic design is taught as graphic design (as opposed to being taught as a nexus of other knowledge) how else should we define it? (That's an actual question, not a rhetorical one.) If students are told that they will be qualified to act in the profession, would it be honest to define it another way?
Gunnar Swanson
05.19.04
12:48

Good lord, y'all, can't you see what the obsession with "Critical Theory" has done to departments and fields that have embraced it? Destructive destructive destructive. Would someone please name a field that has grown healthier thanks to its embrace of Critical Theory? I mean, aside from the field called Critical Theory?

One example: a novelist friend who's taught at Harvard tells me that many of the kids there who really care about reading and writing no longer go into English Lit. They know that all you get there is Theory, and who needs that. So they go into Creative Writing instead, where they're at least guaranteed a little hands-on experience. So much for English Lit.

Do you really want this happening to your field? If so, say Yes to Critical Theory.

I dunno, it strikes me as quite possible that one of the reasons design is reasonably lively these days is that it hasn't been too, too thoroughly intellectualized, let alone Theorized. Design might also be benefitting, not suffering, from the fact that it doesn't get too much intelletual respect and intellectual attention, both of which have been known to kill art forms. Remember the great line about post-bop: it's what happens to jazz when the intellectuals get hold of it. Once the intellectuals sat at the wheel, they ran jazz into over-intellectual dead end after another.

But even granting that a little Thinking-about-it isn't necessarily a bad thing for creative types, why not face a few facts:

* "Critical Theory" specifically has a pretty bad record, and a reverse-Midas touch, at least for those who aren't interested in becoming Professors of Theory. Many of those who "do" Theory dig it, and seem possessed by some weird kind of cultish fervor that can be kind of impressive. But what's their creative record?

* There are many, many ways to approach thinking about the arts, and maybe some of them will prove more productive than Critical Theory, which by the way seems to be on its last legs. (About time.) I'm a fan of evo-bio, for instance, as well as neurophysiological approaches to thinking about the arts. This is a happening approach to the arts that's on the ascendent, by the way. It's got some life in it. It also strikes me as enlightening, helpful, and solidly-based in experience and history. (Unlike Critical Theory, which strikes me as empty wheelspinning.) Many students might find a read of Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" or Ellen Dissanayake's "What is Art For?" worthwhile.

* Can we agree that there really can be such a thing as too much thinking? This is just common sense, after all. The kid who comes out of school topheavy with thinking is an all-too-common phenom, and is at no advantage in the world whatsoever. It often takes these people years to unlearn the baloney that got laid on them at an impressionable time in life.

* And, let's face it, many visual people aren't the most gifted people around at rational-style thinking generally. Forgive me for saying this, but most of the visual types I've known, however bright in a general sense, have primarily been look-and-feel people. That's their strength. They aren't great at evaluating the worth of verbal and logical arguments. They're often credulously eager to buy whatever's fashionable just because, well, they're look-and-feel people after all; they dig what's fashionable, and they've got a feel for what's chic and cool. Which isn't a trivial gift, and which is certainly part of what makes them talented designers. But why try to turn such (often) sweet and gifted creatures into intellectuals, let alone philosophers. Who exactly is being done a favor here?

I mean, why not strengthen their rational/discriminative abilities a bit if possible. But I'm afraid I don't understand why this should even be considered hyper-crucial as an education goal. Wouldn't the time and energy be better spent learning skills, learning the history and functioning of the art and the business, gaining experience and taking chances in a relatively safe and open environment, and maybe receiving an OK decent basic general education? Can you realistically hope for more than this?

And even if a truly-serious intellectual broadening and deepening is seen as a crucial goal of the education of a designer -- OK, sure, why not? -- what's so complicated about how to achieve this? Why wouldn't a decent, quick run through traditional Philosophy, History, Econ, Aesthetics and Science 101 be sufficient? It'd certainly put a student on much more firm footing than immersion in Critical Theory.

Good lord, let's leave edgy Thinking-About-Thinking to ambitious philosophers, and then check in with them about once a decade. Let's not inflict a lot of fancy wheelspinning on people who aren't well-suited to it, and who've got just a few years to turn themselves into competent designers.
Michael Blowhard
05.19.04
03:33

I see language and design as running rather parallel courses. Both are forms of communication that are highly susceptible to miscommunication more often than not. Language has an authoritative source, the dictionary, to designate official meanings while the visual language is still too young to make any permanent statements of what the use of red should signify. What critical theory emphasized for me: That both systems are built of empty placeholders that we fill based on context and both acquire meaning situationally--based on what is positioned on the left, right, top, and bottom of it.

I can apply this design, and I do. Could I have picked this up elsewhere? Definitely. But I think many designers--contrary to popular opinion--do in fact read very often and very well. It makes sense that they would approach theory as a way to understand language, and thereby supplement their design understanding and education.

Design is rather permeable; things you learn from all disciplines in life can go back and forth. Essentially the skills one picks up in one communication mode will transfer over to the other, either directly or through inspiration. Understanding theory will make you a better reader, and possibly a better writer. Will it make you a better designer? Perhaps not immediately, but it might make you a more analytical "looker" and that's the first step in being a good designer.
sue
05.19.04
04:41

I agree with Sue on this one, and agree in parts and disagree on others with Mr. Blowhard. Reading theory does not generate form, and there is such a thing as theorizing too much in relationship to actually making something. Typographic arrangements alone are not capable of conveying the ideas of Benjamin or Barthes. Critical theory is good for 'reading' things that one makes, reading how they fit into culture or society and how they are informed by culture.

I myself was a comparative lit major as an undergrad at a very progressive and interdisciplinary institution. Has that major helped me in my design work? Definitely. But not necessarily because of theoretical ideas, but because of its relationship to language. Language is structured, and languaged is infused with culture, and this applies very well to design and especially to type. I think there is a big relationship between the structuring of an argument with language and structuring an argument or perspective through design choices. For me, the five-paragraph persuasive paper is a good model for design as well - introduction, thesis (idea), supporting argument 1, supporting argument 2, supporting argument 3, restating of thesis or idea, and conclusion. I think that sort of structure that is inherent in language and writing can very easily be applied to design. Writing also involves style, as does design, and also has a relationship to content. Your design of something can only be good as what that something is. If its not a good idea, or a tired one like 'buy me', then what is being designed can only fall back on stylistics.

On the other hand, I see the difficulty seeing how an essay like the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which would probably be on any graduate graphic design reading list, would generate form that is taken directly from its ideas. It could be illustrated well, it could be typeset well, but I think that essay talks more about things that are out of the designer's control and is talking more about human culture. It is more about distribution rather than about actually designing. I think Barthes' essays are similar. Reading and theoretical ideas enrich, definitely, and help you place your work, but does it generate form? I'm not sure that I really believe that. I mean, for example, what is referred to as Deconstructionist in graphic design really has very little to do with Deconstruction, I think. It actually has more to do with punk and chaos and skateboarding and the laptop than with French critical theory.

I am currently in the 3-year program at Yale, which takes people without an undergraduate degree in design. I came in thinking that my liberal arts background would be applicable in this setting in making design. I felt more comfortable within a University than an art school because of my academic background. I've finished two years, and I think my ideas have changed a lot. Definitely, it takes smart people to make smart design. But knowing critical theory well doesn't necessarily make you a good designer at all. It helps, maybe, in terms of being able to relate to language. But design is very much a 'doing' activity. You have to know type, you do have to be intuitive, you have to be experimental, and none of that really comes from reading books.

I agree with Jessica on the point that applying critical theory to design is something that would happen better at the graduate level. When youre only 19 and the only place you have left home for is college, there really isn't that much personal experience to bring to what you are making. But being out in the world, travelling, reading, being enriched, having experience, and basically being a passionate person who is hungry for the world and for what he or she is doing provides more drive and inspiration than assigned reading.

On a final note, yeah, french critical theory is so so demode. Those writers are important, but why is it that whenever graphic designers talk about theory they only mention Benjamin and Barthes? There are more contemporary writers and theorists out there, like Michel de Certeau, Hardt and Negri, Arjun Appadurai, Lev Manovich, and others who people should be reading.

But should any of this be required reading? Why establish a canon if there isn't one yet? Should Benjamin and Barthes be part of the Canon, and we can wait a few years until a few other voices get accepted? I agree with Mr. Blowhard on that one... why make it an actual discipline if it doesnt need to be? The early nineties were about blowing apart the canon (so passe now too to even talk about it), and currently at Yale School of Art there is a big drive to create a more interdisciplinary atmosphere... so if its not strict now, why push to canonize? Why not encourage a fluid approach? Isn't coherency a bit overrated anyways? Who needs a complete, categorizable thought?
Manuel Miranda
05.19.04
09:53



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