When my daughter, Fiona, was five years old and first learning to write, she came home from school one day and set to work. Pencil gripped firmly in her tiny hand, she wrote a word then plunked her first and second fingers down together on the page, and wrote another word. I mentioned to her that I thought this was probably enough word-spacing to choke a horse, whereupon she told me very matter-of-factly that this was how her teacher had instructed all the children to measure the distance from one word to the next, so there.
I retaliated by teaching Fiona how to do an fi ligature since she was, after all, fortunate to have one in her name. This, of course, thrilled her to no end, although her teacher was less than pleased. Soon, Fiona was insisting on writing oldstyle figures in her math book, and the war had begun.
It's not really a war, but more of a battle and a silly one, at that. As an educator myself, my instinct is, more often than not, to defer to the person in charge which says a great deal about my willingness to believe in pedagogical principle and even more about my faith in the promise of education. But sometimes I resist; I get frustrated, or confused, or annoyed by what's being taught.
Or more to the point, what's not being taught.
Then, I get angry.
Where graphic design education is concerned, I feel deeply committed to participating in a system that serves to advance the quality and substance of learning. I believe in principles and in history, even more so in a structure that allows for growth and discovery. And I understand that at its core, design curricula will vary somewhat from school to school, depending on materials and budget, faculty strengths, student-body demographics, ideological consensus, media resources, library shelf space, and so on.
Yet in spite of such variance, what is there to be said of the global phenomenon of students getting credit for sending questionnaires to practicing designers? Each year I receive numerous such requests from students all over the world: Australia, the UK, and yes from students all over the United States who are being asked to choose a working designer and interview them.
What purpose does this serve? Are we training designers? Or talk-show hosts?
A year or so ago, I received such an inquiry from a young woman who had, quite literally, been asked to "imitate my style." (I wasn't aware that I had one and if I did, this made me want to change it immediately.) Others have targeted inspiration ("Who were your influences?") and priorities ("What are the roles and responsibilities of a designer in this day and age?") though I would have to say my personal, all-time favorite question came last Spring, from a charming, if misguided young designer in Sydney, who asked: "In 200 words or less, can you sum up what your perception of Visual Communication is?" (Readers familiar with my writing will instantly appreciate the irony here: I am not even remotely capable of summing anything up in 200 words or less, period.)
Frequently, I have found that the questions aren't even pertinent to making work, but address, instead, much more pragmatic and even personal issues issues about money and priorities, client management and resource allocation. I can appreciate, I suppose, the degree of maturity, or even hubris, that an aspiring designer would have to have to even ask such questions they want to embark on a professional path equipped with a kind of knowledge that is hard to come by in school but why does such information need to precede the diploma? What ever happened to apprenticing to learning on the job? Why shouldn't time in school be spent learning how to think, how to solve problems, how to make work frankly, how to be a designer?
The counter-argument here is that these student questionnaires are themselves a kind of problem-solving activity. Yet, more often than not, the questions themselves reveal more of an inquisitive, even prurient interest in biographical data: this is the sort of interrogation that leads to hero-worship, not learning. I am not suggesting that by being the target of such inquiries any of us, the recipients, are deemed heroic but rather, that the very notion of the interview seems more influenced by celebrity culture than by creative pursuit. And that's a problem.
But what about precedent? Clearly, there is no doubt that art education has a long tradition of teaching through imitation: this was, after all the master-to-disciple model that paralleled the studio process, in which an artist (or tradesperson) practiced their craft. Stone cutters, society portraitists, aspiring makers of all kinds learned by watching, by assisting and gradually, by doing.
By doing. Not by interviewing.
It is worth remembering, too, that design education has, over the past century, evolved from a constrained series of principles-based exercises to a more robust, complex and fascinating series of pathways: while critical inquiry remains at the core of all art study, students today are freed from many of the procedural demands of the classic academy model. Contemporary students benefit unquestionably from new technologies, but even more so from a more expansive educational culture that encourages invention, imagination and new and unusual forms of interpretation.
In closing, and on behalf of practicing designers everywhere, I would like to thank the numerous students who have approached all of us with questionnaires over the years. None of this is your fault, nor am I attacking you in any way. (Indeed, for those of you who sent thank you notes after we answered, consider yourselves blessed by good manners. This, no matter where you go, will serve you extremely well.)
Furthermore, I envy you. It is a great time to be a design student.
My critique here is directed not to students, but to teachers giving assignments that oblige students to conduct online interviews. And to you I say: designer questionnaires are not only time-consuming, but from an educational standpoint, they are pointless. Such practices can not possibly be expected to truly advance our students let alone our profession.
Let's teach our students to become better designers by asking better questions not of us, but of themselves. (If Fiona had followed her kindergarten teacher's lead, I wonder just how bad her word-spacing would be by now?) What may seem adorable in kindergarten is just deplorable in higher education: for while it may well be considered a sincere form of flattery, imitation in the context of design education can only lead to limitation. And that's not good for any of us.