Layla Gharib | Report

Disrupting Time and Space

Image: Chloe Russell Photography

How can we navigate realities versus possibilities, and the nexus between? The latest Graphic Design Educators’ Network conference, Time and Space explored how graphic design pedagogy can re-evaluate the structures that we operate within and how we can use those structures to create, rather than hinder, progress. By zooming out to reflect on the realities of the environments we work within, the conference proposed that we may be able to edge that bit closer to an alternative existence for graphic design education, one where the go to excuse isn’t “I don’t have the time and space”.

The two-day discussion hosted by the University of the West of England brought together educators from near and far and even accommodated myself, a non-teaching recent graduate, now MA student. Not being an educator, I was uncertain how my contribution would be received, however performing as one of the first workshop facilitators meant I had the chance to introduce myself as something more than ‘Oh, I’m actually a student…’ I’ll attempt to outline just a few of the interesting presentations, papers and workshops that I attended/participated in over the two days. My workshop — Framework Fictions — looked at disrupting the unfolding realities of graphic design education by facilitating the space for new futures to be imagined. The workshop used world building activities that encouraged the construction of future realities. This was enabled through design fiction artefacts that transported participants twenty years into the future. By examining a reading list from a future universe, we could reconsider the effects of our current practice. Participants proposed a series of ideas that challenged traditional learning structures — the abolishment of learning outcomes, and the call for bad work — the rationale being that students are often reluctant to test ideas due to their perceptions of what they think “good” design is.

Images: Chloe Russell Photography

The first keynote presentation delivered by Helga Schmid, spoke of our increasing sense of time pressure and how our behaviour is currently shaped by our western societal reliance on “clock time”. Relating that to design education and research, she discussed the idea of ‘time masters’ and how time shapes our agency within teaching and learning. Are tutors ‘time masters’ working within a time pattern that suits them? The university timetable frames a specific way of working — but what would happen if we disrupted that? Would a new way of practicing design be unveiled, and would it create a much needed shift in hierarchical systems between staff and students? I begin to imagine a future where lecturers work around student hangovers and their midnight creative surges.

Disruption was a constant undertone throughout the two days. There was a sense of restlessness, and an appetite for change. I attended the Disrupting Simplicity workshop facilitated by Abbie Vickress and Laura Knight. It was a really interesting series of exercises focused on exploring what process looks like to different people. In a room full of educators, this often looked like an array of up and down diagrams and a lot of squiggly lines that represented the chaos often involved in the delivery of a design education. The activities were accompanied by a series of anecdotes from the presenters on their own experiences with processes and a desire to look beyond the traditional method of working towards a physical outcome. Referencing the Design Council’s ‘double diamond’ method, that many of us had engraved in us during our time at art school, the presenters proposed we rethink how we shape a project. They presented us with a set of varied diagrams generated by students, that depicted what they believe design process looks like, thus revealing the different ways students experience and work within a design programme. However, one element that I found concerning was how all of the student diagrams, with all of their differences, all resulted in a physical outcome. What does this tell us about the way graphic design is being presented to students? Are we still glorifying polished artefacts? And if so, how can we work towards reframing graphic design education as a practice beyond solutionism? Perhaps graphic design educators need not be as afraid of something that isn’t solved, otherwise they’re shaping students who are obsessed with providing answers and don’t know how to use their discipline to provoke questions. We’ve developed a worryingly, comfortable relationship with project finality as both educators and students.

Comfort isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, one of the paper readings by James Corazzo, Principal Lecturer in Graphic Design at Sheffield Hallam University, was quite literally a documentation of comfort and discomfort within the design studio — the focus of the research being on one particular studio and one particular object: the sofa. James presented the studio sofa as not just a comfortable place to sit, but itself a pedagogical actor. Photographic documentation of the space revealed the ever shifting, mutable nature of the piece of furniture and the variety of encounters it allowed for, formal — informal, teaching — non-teaching. The paper began to show how the objects we live amongst in our university studios have agency that allow for certain realities and restrict others. I remember reading an essay by Jean Baudrillard a while ago about how an object no longer defined by its function is defined by its subject. This gets me thinking about how we could begin to re-evaluate our environments in a way in which unremarkable objects like sofas begin to unveil quite remarkable pedagogical functions. Understanding the interdependence of human and non-human actors should be central in our search for uncovering who, and what, come together to create learning experiences.

Image: Chloe Russell Photography

One of the most refreshing contributions of the two days came from Amrit Randawha, a relatively recent graduate turned educator from the University of Salford. His paper Not Really the End, posed questions around the concerns of contemporary graphic design education. Amrit posited that the priority must be to teach the role of the graphic designer as one of an artist; that uncertainty must be met with experimentation. He alluded that only then will we have more answers, as well as more interesting questions. Amrit also provoked thought around the relevance of student competitions such as the one led by the British educational charity, D&AD: ‘There is no greater empty sign than that of the D&AD pencil’. Whilst competition briefs not always being ideal, I do think that when strategically woven into a programme they can really work for some students. That being said, I understand his frustration with such competitions reaffirming that design worthy of being recognised fits into a certain aesthetic.

The issue around competitions was further discussed in a workshop led by Darren Raven, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader from The University of Salford. Darren encouraged us to consider the role and value of current student design competitions and asked us to question if there is space for alternative competitions that are more academically focused. As a research addict I can vouch for the students who get enjoyment from reading papers, and I would have valued competitions that look at design as a tool for investigation rather than just a way to make things look pretty. I still think a lot of graphic design courses have an unspoken assumption that the ultimate aim for students is to join a design-industry studio once they graduate. This attitude may be the very thing blinkering students from roles in academia and research. It never fails to surprise me how little academic roles are discussed by academics.

So as I sit and try and process everything that I experienced during my few days in Bristol, I think it’s clear to see that we do have the time and space for change, but perhaps not the rage to ignite the action yet. We talk of disruption yet we seem comfortable, realities can be shifted and systems can be broken but that requires action. Speculation of the future has no place if we don’t begin to weave it into the now.

The Graphic Design Educators’ Network conference, Time + Space, ran from 5-6 September 2019, hosted by The University of the West of England. For more information, see www.graphicdesigneducators.network.

Layla Gharib is a Graphic Designer/ Thinker/ Researcher. She posts @laylagharibdesign

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