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what to teach/who should teach

Jonathan Baldwin’s “Pizza Flyer” discussion brings up not just his intended issues of graphic design but also issues more specific to graphic design teaching. Rather than short-circuit that conversation, let me bring it over here. At the risk of having this conversation become too fragmented, I’ll ask a couple of questions.

One is a follow-up to my challenge to the notion of turning graphic design classes into cultural studies classes. (Note that I have been accused of this and am not arguing for an anti-intellectual or a-intellectual approach, I’m trying to parse various attitudes about graphic design education.) Anyway, Jonathan said “ Graphic design has always been the subject of cultural studies, at least in European and British cultural studies.” I wonder how satisfying that answer is. Astrophysics is the subject of philosophy. Should their classes be turned into a second philosophy department? Physicists need some aspect of philosophy that others are unable to deliver, that’s one thing. If physics faculty just find philosophy more interesting then that’s their problem.

The question of what should be taught in a graphic design program is, of course, quite related to the question of who should teach it. I’ve been thinking about that even more than usual since I’m chair of a search committee that’s looking for another graphic designer here at East Carolina University. (At the risk of being too self-promotional, please pass the word to anyone who is interested in a teaching position.) So if you were in our position, what criteria would you use to determine who might be a good graphic design teacher? Experience designing? Aesthetic sensibilities? Experience teaching? Something else? Of course the answer could be “all of the above” but what’s vital?

What was valuable in your graphic design education? What wasn’t? What would have been? What sort of person was a helpful teacher and what sort wasn’t (and is there any way to identify them in advance)?

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ARCHIVE ID 2469 FILED UNDER Design Academics
PUBLISHED ON Nov.10.2005 BY Gunnar Swanson
Randy’s comment is:

I'm currently in SVA's MFA Design program. Here and also from previous experiences, I've noticed two reoccuring characteristics that help make for great design educators.

They are elloquent. - Their use of language reminds us that communication, whether graphic or otherwise, has a lot of room for error and misinterpretation. When they present themselves well, we recieve it well.

The remain connected to the profession. - Not all of them still practice heavily when they've taught, but they know enough about the development of the profession to offer insights on ethics, reponsibility, and professional practice. Often they are active in professional organizations.

On Nov.10.2005 at 02:19 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

PASSION is the number one thing, for me. My best teachers and mentors love what they do, and that positive energy flows to the students.

Freelancing or involvement in outside organizations is a great thing as well; it provides students with real world examples and knowledge that you can't possibly get in school.

The worst thing is someone who has been teaching for so long, and not practicing proffessionally, that they become out of touch with reality. The get tenure, complacent, and lose interest in anything but the paycheck.

On Nov.10.2005 at 02:39 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

The worst thing is someone who has been teaching for so long, and not practicing proffessionally, that they become out of touch with reality.

To be fair, at least when I was in school, I didn't see a correlation between actively practicing and their ability to instill passion in their students.

Many of my professors were long time tenured art/design professors yet were the most passionate out of the bunch. Not that there weren't passionate working professors as well. You really need both.

On Nov.10.2005 at 04:26 PM
Stefan’s comment is:

I agree with Keith. Teachers with PASSION were the ones who helped me make the most strides in my education, not necessarily because they taught me the most, but because they got my classmates and myself excited about design and that, in turn, sent us out to drown ourselves in design, and from that personal exploration I learned more than any classroom taught me. Sure, it's important for a teacher to have a firm grasp on what they're teaching, especially asthetics and the theory of design, but without that passion, how much will the student really learn?

On Nov.10.2005 at 04:31 PM
Chris Rugen’s comment is:

I went to the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University from '97—'01.

What was valuable in your graphic design education?

My fellow students. A few particular professors. Being in a broader academic environment. The focus on strongs concepts and conceptual thinking. Not sleeping.

What wasn’t?

My waste-of-space art history course.

What would have been?

More design history and craft focus. More typographic stringency and more technology-oriented professors.

What sort of person was a helpful teacher and what sort wasn’t (and is there any way to identify them in advance)?

The helpful teachers were unabashed in their love and commitment to what they did/taught and they could speak clearly and eloquently on the topics they taught.

The other type was the opposite. Any prof whose primary mode of communication sounds like corporate doublespeak or jargony fluff should be avoided. They shouldn't try to impress you, they should try to educate and excite you.

I also absolutely believe that being a professional, functional designer is key for becoming a professor. That's not to say that others can't critique or discuss it, but lacking actual experience just diminishes the effectiveness of the teaching. There's a certain degree of remove from the practical realities of designing when the person hasn't designed themselves.

On Nov.10.2005 at 04:40 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

The worst thing is someone who has been teaching for so long, and not practicing proffessionally, that they become out of touch with reality.

To be fair, at least when I was in school, I didn't see a correlation between actively practicing and their ability to instill passion in their students.

I'm not suggesting a correlation, that was never implied. There are lots of great professors That was just an example that I have witnessed firsthand, nothing more.

On Nov.10.2005 at 05:59 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

Sorry that above comment references Darrel's response to my earlier post, the bold should have been italic.

On Nov.10.2005 at 06:00 PM
Valon’s comment is:

Well, I've been only 3 years out of school and being that I am successfuly practicing design, I can say few words about what helped me get better.

I think teachers that have previously worked in the field and now are dedicated to passing that knowledge to their students are the best fit.

One of my design teachers was active in the field as a freelancer - I'm not sure if he was the perfect fit for the position, since every time he would come to class he had a shi*load of things to complain about, ex: how his clients are not paying him on time, how the economy is bad - it pretty much scared most of us and made us wonder if we really wanted to get in this field. However, this could have been more or less an isolated case.

As I said before, one of my best teachers who I learned a whole lot from - used to actually work in the field few years back and now is dedicated mostly to academia...I prefer that better myself.

I think one exception here is SVA - where all teachers are active in the field - and I think this has a lot to do with most of them, or I should say all them being pretty much the leaders/superstars in the field. I guess what I am trying to say is that if the teacher is an established and successful designer then YES he's a good fit for the teaching program, because everyday s/he will bring new things to the table. On the other hand, someone who is active in the field and struggling (read: trying to “make it”) as a designer than s/he is definitively not a good fit.

Well, Gunnar I hope this helped.

On Nov.10.2005 at 06:23 PM
Josh’s comment is:

I would repeat many of the comments above, but they will always be in debate.

As far as looking at potential teachers, I sat through a few presentations for professors i did and did not have while in school and learned this.

1) Hire them for areas that fit their skills. Typographers for type, not general art credits.

2) Give them an opportunity to show their approach to a class they could be teaching. What are their expectations for the class and of the students in the small timeframes these classes usually have.

3) Ask them how much time they would be willing to commit to students(based on an average work week).

>>I recently counted the hours of an old professor of mine and barring staff meetings(which are not much)they may work an average of 24-28 hours a week(non-grading times). To be honest I would like to see professors work a 40 hour standard work week if they are full-time professors.

4) Hire people with vision/passion

>>The reason I didn't put passion first is i think vision implies working first within the system, where passion may fly wildly in the face of progress and subsequently lead to dismissal or resignation.(something my alma mater goes through alot primarily because of the chair)

Overall if I was hiring I would ask them directly what their professional goals are (is teaching a pit stop?) and what kind of effort they are willing to make to help their students(and the schools product)turn out the best.

Coming from the Midwest and knowing alot of great designers that honed their craft in this area, im less impressed by where they have been and more interested in where they want to be. Their work shouldn't define them, where their attitude and commitment should.

On Nov.10.2005 at 06:31 PM
matt crest’s comment is:

Who should teach?

Designers with the ability to inspire/push students on an individual basis. Not those that just show fancy work or tell cool war stories, but really make a concerted effort to push each student (granted - each student has to want to be pushed) to do the best they can on each project.

I know the personal attention from my instructors is what made me want to become the best designer I can. I still ask for advice from my old instructors (relating to my career instead of homework, but I still like to be inspired by them).

On Nov.10.2005 at 07:53 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

I’ll supply the passion, thank you.

I want it to be guided, shaped, encouraged, and taken to the mat when necessary. I’d like the teaching staff to have experience. Experience in a design studio is nice, but there are many ways to be relevant. Just be honest, and as Josh said—teach to your expertise.

Anyone who teaches anything to do with graphic design should have a good sense of typography.

I want teachers who genuinely like people, enjoy and respect their professional responsibility. Teachers who have the social skills to say the harsh thing without insulting or demeaning an honest effort—and will not tolerate a lack of effort.

Gunnar, does ECU have a vision? What makes your school unique? Do you look for people whose visions match? I think that the best teachers are ones who are happy in their program, that their cirriculum has a context within the larger one. Just like any job—their efforts are supported and complemented by their peers. Is it possible or reasonable to expect any kind of continuity within a program? Is that your ideal?

On Nov.10.2005 at 08:36 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

The weakest component of my educational experience overall was the counselling and guidance, areas that probably do not fall under an instructor’s domain. But honestly, some of the advice I did receive was naive and misguided at best, and usually centered on, “you should sign up for (x) course,” or my personal favorite— “you have to find those answers on your own” (without even a little help pointing to possible directions).

As far as the classroom instruction, I’ll think of two instructors whose personalities were opposite and use their 2 types of teaching styles as extremes:

The Communicator

Thoughtfully prepares for class time, presents well, manages time effectively. Students always know where they stand, and have a context for what they are learning.

I love this teacher. This teacher respects me. S/he carefully keeps her lectures focused and on time, to leave room for lab work and answering questions one-on-one. To summarize— balanced, professional, undeniably passionate, and focused.

The Auteur

I'd love to go out for beers with this one and let them open up on their philosophy, war stories, and name-dropping. But please—not in the classroom. I could learn alot from this type, because I have to dig that much harder on my own to understand what they are talking about. Critiques are vague and feedback can change from week to week (literally, I once brought the exact same piece and got 2 completely different directions on it).

This type will act like an art director, and then when questioned about vague instructions will say, “That’s how it is out there.” I appreciate the warning, but student and professional are 2 very different situations.

On Nov.10.2005 at 08:58 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

My god, this whole conversation sounds like one I'm having with a colleague of mine, where we're trying to figure out what direction curriculum should be taken. It's a timeless issue, to say the least, and I'm happy to see it opened up by Gunnar.

On Nov.10.2005 at 09:26 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

Basic business skills. I snickered once at a friend of mine who was taking business courses back in school as electives. Oh what a foolish boy I was…�one of the most important things students could come out of school is the knowledge of how to make it as a freelancer.

On Nov.11.2005 at 01:26 AM
Garrett Lubertine’s comment is:

This topic instantly reminded me of a presentation from my Fredonia State Associate Professor and good friend Jan Conradi. She presented this during the FutureHistory Design Education Conference in Chicago 2004. She and Paul Bowers efficiently run one of the best, most underrated design programs in New York State. I feel she really hit the nail on the head in regards to describing "A Model for Education". To read the presentation, click here - in pdf format.

PS. Also for anyone interested I do know she has been diligently researching and writing a book documenting Unimark International. Coming out...whenever its finally completed. The supplemental site is provided below.

Unimark International

On Nov.11.2005 at 01:50 AM
aubrey island’s comment is:

I'm currently enrolled in a small community college in Las Cruces, NM. Dona Ana Branch Community College to be exact. I enrolled here, originally, for it's affordability. But, when I got into the Digital Graphics Program, it became more clear why I really ended up here.

One of my favorite instructors, Abby Osbourne, I'd say would be my favorite to learn from. She's always talking about those days "before computers." I really learned to love graphic design through what she's shared with me. Before it was just using a computer, now I find myself putting aluminum, black mattboard, and newspaper together to make some crazy design for my office hours on my door.

In my state, New Mexico of course, there isn't alot of good designers around. Although there are probably alot of better schools, and that I blame what I know mostly on what I've learned and see on my own, I'd have to give a shout-out to the Digital Graphics Program there.

They're doing a damn good job.

- Thanks Abby.

On Nov.11.2005 at 01:53 AM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:


Thank you for that link. It should be made into posters and plastered on walls of design schools everywhere.

I’ve been in conversations about standardization and certification and all sorts of things that all lead to the same point: just exactly what constitutes the fundamental knowledge an aspiring graphic designer needs?

She has summed it up beautifully.

On Nov.11.2005 at 05:05 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

There a few things that I look for in a teacher. Curiosity. Passion. Interest. Awe. Fear. Integrity. Charge.

This might seem too long of a list, a bit random perhaps. But I have encountered them, I have had the pleasure and the luck to work with them and learn from them. Usually, having a teacher with these characteristics will further the relationship outside of the four walls of any particular classroom and the debates, critiques and questions will (and do) continue even though I graduated years ago.

The curiosity is still there. The passion, the interest, the awe and the fear, the integrity and the charge. That is what I need. That is what I seek. And that is what I try to install in my students.

As far as what needs to be taught, without going into too much detail since most have been mentioned already: typography, typography, typography, the business of design, selling design, presentation skills (at all levels), cultural design, social responsibility.

On Nov.11.2005 at 08:39 AM
Shaun Morrison’s comment is:

Oh — this is HOT issue at the moment at my university at the moment. I am a third year student at Brighton University, England in the process of writing my dissertation/ research project entitled �The Purpose of Degree Level Education’. On my blog here I have created a sketch that I believe illustrates the two camps that people seem to fall into when debating this issue. Please leave your comments and help me formulate a more informed opinion.

One issue that is often picked out is the notion of teachers vs. practitioners. Having taken arms to both sides in assorted discussions had with tutors, practitioners and students, I have found that the argument of the �star designer makes a great tutor’ a flawed one. A designer respected for his/her design does not necessarily make a caring, passionate or informed tutor. Through (admittedly nascent) research, I would even say that generally the opposite is true — designers who are revered are usually the ones that have that unique �touch’, �style’, �sensibility’ or however you would like to phrase it, distinctly lack the ability to teach/tutor a class full of people who are from all walks of life, with differing attitudes, ideals and aspirations. Perhaps this is because over the years of commercial success and critical acclaim they seem to have formulated a belief of what is �wrong’ and what is �right’ and see it fit to impose their (only) way on the class. Being a famous designer does not mean you have the emotional, empathetic or — dare I say it — creative inteligence to deal, educate, impassion and encourage people. In fact are famous designers more likely to be egotistical and arrogant? Mmm…Perhaps. Another point in case is if an individual is a big-name designer whilst also being a tutor to thirty plus eager students, where do you think their priority lies, with teaching you the fundamentals of type or in scoring their next big job? I know that I get more than slightly miffed when a tutor walks out of a crit because s/he has to take that �urgent call’, or a tutor is bleary eyed because s/he has more important things to focus on.

I think people here may be touching the right spot when they mention tutors having a speciality, and not laying claim to be experts on all of the sometimes disparate parts that constitute graphic design.

At Brighton they are running a very good weekly professional practice programme, where they invite previous graduates to talk about how they got to where they are now. There are a wonderful variety of practitioners who have been involved in club flyer designs, animations, non-profit and governmental organisations — a good chunk of the design/illustration spectrum. When asked in private about their educational experience, most spoke highly of it, but all of them freely admitted it did not really prepare them for that �real-world’ leap. One matter that was raised by all of the practitioners was the lack of a basic knowledge and fundamental skill-set they left university with. I know that �creative’ and �measurable learning outcomes’ are words that don’t sit easily in the same sentence, but shouldn’t a university — perhaps as criteria for passing — make sure students have that seemingly universally needed knowledge and skills set?

Now, a bit of a disclaimer: Jonathan Baldwin is a lecturer at my university and needless to say I have been influenced by his (incessant) questioning of graphic design and other areas; however, we do debate and disagree on more than one or two issues, and I am anything but brainwashed by his opinions. I hope readers have gathered that my opinion is far from being solidified — should it ever be? Also I would like to say that Brighton university has allowed me to question and criticise it (as well as other institutions) openly without having any immature knee-jerk reactions. I believe this fact alone speaks volumes about it being an open-minded and unique institution.

A reminder: please comment here on that sketch

On Nov.11.2005 at 12:44 PM
Belonax’s comment is:

I believe Bryony's list of adjectives are near perfect.

Jan Conradi's presentation is amazing.

But I feel like an important aspect to our two questions is missing: Who is be taught?

A successful educator (not just a graphic design teacher) must recognize and respond to the strengths and weaknesses of each of his/her students. One of my best professors knew when to push students farther and how to push them. At the end of the day, it's about the students.

On Nov.11.2005 at 02:12 PM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

... it's about the students.

No doubt. For the most part, a good teacher will recognize that students are teaching themselves.

On Nov.11.2005 at 02:40 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>the argument of the �star designer makes a great tutor’ a flawed one

I agree. A good designer does not necessarily make a good teacher. But a good teacher should always be a good designer.

On Nov.11.2005 at 02:44 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Gunnar, does ECU have a vision? What makes your school unique? Do you look for people whose visions match?

First, the disclaimer: I am not speaking officially for East Carolina University. While I am the chair of the search committee, I am not the whole committee nor am I the single decision maker. Anything I say here does not reflect policy regarding the hire we are about to make.

Of course institutions do not have visions. People who make up the institution do. The School of Art & Design and particular people within SoAD (especially illustration, interactive design, and photography faculty) have a strong influence but we have three full time people in graphic design. Eva Roberts and Craig Malmrose have each been here for more than twenty years. Both are accomplished, award-winning designers and good teachers. Eva is on phased retirement so Craig and I are the major players in the vision thing (to borrow a phrase from George H.W. Bush) and whomever we hire will add to that. Eva has been area coordinator (the closest thing to a department chair since SoAD has no departments) and I am taking over that position in a few weeks.

Craig has a broad graphic design background but his major personal design interest is in letterpress printing. My work is more diverse/varied/eclectic/all over the place (depending on how rude one wants to be in describing it) but I have a strong interest in typography (both in the work I do and in my philosophical beliefs about general graphic design education.) We do not need to hire someone to teach typography classes but I’d be amazed if we were happy with someone who did not have a strong interest in typography or if such a person were happy with us.

I am getting done with designing the website for the program. (Sorry. Nothing to direct you to right now. I there will be in a few weeks.) The primary image on the main page will be lead type. Here’s an excerpt from our email conversation about the web design:

From me: I think many people may come to the page and have no idea what lead type is. They will likely see it as a cool image with backward lettering and something like they've never seen. At least them the image is "cool but not like everyone else."

Others will understand and either read it as "anchored in tradition and understanding our heritage"* or "crazy luddites mired in nostalgia." I think when they look at the student work and faculty work, the latter group will reassess their view. If they do not, they probably don't belong here anyway.


* I hate mission statements and sloganeering but I do think focus and understanding are good. I'd propose "anchored in tradition and understanding our heritage and looking into the future (but without ignoring the contemporary)" as a first draft on a mission-ish statement.

I’d say our vision is one of a balancing act: a concentration on craft traditions—saving the typographic knowledge largely lost with the first generation of computer users and the formal revolution(s) of the late ’80s and �90s—while preparing students for a future where designers need to be deeper thinkers and team players and at the same time preparing them for the contemporary/near future job market.

On Nov.11.2005 at 04:14 PM
Danielle’s comment is:

My favorite kinds of teachers were the ones that made me THINK before I actually started working on projects. Teachers that make students research ideas and focus on concept before they put mouse to mousepad. These teachers are flexible, open to argument; they listen to student concerns and are adaptable to change.

Good teachers can manipulate their lesson plans on the fly based on the particular dynamic in each class. The worst teachers are the ones who are dogmatic and authoritarian in their classes, stifling questions and promoting a certain kind of status quo. All the student work in these classes tends to look the same. Work coming out of great teachers' classes is highly diverse, reflecting a nurturing of the students' voices.

Good teachers want to learn as much from their students as they are teaching them, so that education is a two-way street — more like a conversation or collaboration, rather than a top down hierarchy.

On Nov.12.2005 at 05:08 PM
Meryl’s comment is:

Not to be snarky here, but as far as "ability to communicate" is important, I would say "ability to communicate verbally with your students" is key. I have had two professors in my design education who had trouble speaking/understanding English. While I understand that having professors from the world over gives a great perspective to students, if they are having a hard time communicating with their students, it can be frusterating, to say the least, especially when seeking guidence with something technical in a program, or even something conceptually. I've often thought that if I had been able to understand one of my former professors, I would have liked him more, but because it was his first term teaching at our school, his English frusterated him and us.

A successful educator must recognize and respond to the strengths and weaknesses of each of his/her students.


On Nov.12.2005 at 06:09 PM
Mark’s comment is:

Tan’s comment is:

I agree. A good designer does not necessarily make a good teacher. But a good teacher should always be a good designer.

I totally agree with Tan. Assuming first that you're picking from a pool of "good designers", the most important skill, IMO, is an ability to explain concepts, theories, etc., in a way/language that us students can understand. Someone might be a brilliant mathematician, but as such (with a higher level of knowledge) might not be able to step back and explain WHY 1+1=2. The worst answer to WHY would be "it just does".

I'm a first semester design student at a community college in Florida. I've done desktop publishing for many years as a small part of most of my jobs (newsletters, database interfaces, flyers, etc). My biggest fear going into design school was that I didn't see/think of myself as "creative".

Two of my classes are Intro to Illustration (which I was terrified of) and Intro to Macs/InDesign (which I figured I'd love and would be a breeze). It's been just the opposite and it's almost entirely because of the teachers.

My InDesign teacher makes mention frequently about working for clients, etc, to let us know she's in the field. But her teaching methods are abysmal. She'll tell us one thing, then contradict it. Or she'll lead with her personal way of doing something then follow a long time later with "how it should be done" -- totally confusing everyone especially about why the 2 are different.

If you ask her why she does something one way rather than another -- rather than explaining her theory, or ANY theory she just says "that's the way i do it". I don't doubt that she knows what she's doing, or that she gets gigs as a designer -- her major problem is that she has no way of imparting her knowledge to us in a way that makes sense to us

As a fairly green designer (and unlike me, many of my classmates have no experience w/ InDesign or Quark) I really am looking for theory + practice. One without the other just leaves me confused -- theory w/o practice is too abstract, practice w/o theory I could have done on my own w/o paying tuition.

Explain how to do something, then explain why -- what are the implications, benefits, etc. -- then have us execute what you just showed us, then talk about our execution.

My Illustration teacher does just that -- she gives us an overview to a new metiod, then talks about why things are done a certain way or goes into some more depth about the process, then makes us utilize that skill in a project, then leads a group critique (which itself changes project to project).

In critique she doesn't focus on whether something is simply "good" or "bad" -- or have us discuss each other's work that way -- but how our design might have been better and why -- for projects that are really weak, she'll still point out what element might make it much stronger. For projects that are strong, she explains WHY they're strong and why they might be more or less if we changed an element.

The InDesign/Phtography teachers just says "this is good" or "this is blurry". When a student says "I don't know why.... I used a tripod" she'll say "you need to look in your manual..."

On Nov.12.2005 at 10:59 PM
Harriet Stevens’s comment is:

I am also a student from the University of Brighton, in the same year as Shaun who posted his comments earlier in the discussion. I am doing my dissertation based around this HOT topic as well, the role of the designer and our education. Jonathan Baldwin, like Shaun, has been an inspiration to me throughout my time at University, I respect his views and find them similar to mine but I have been questioning the education of a designer due to personal experiences.

Unfortunately, unlike Shaun I have come up against criticism from tutors on this topic, being told "we are designers, not historians" many a time. This infuriates me as there seems to be a distinct lack of focus on the reality of Graphic Design. Shouldn't we be looking at it as more of a 'cultural artefact or an industrial process' rather than on its 'aesthetic impacts'? Surely we are hoping to be successful, well-rounded individuals - how can we do this if we are taught nothing about the factors that contribute towards good design, like social, economic and political climates as well as our role in culture, society, liberal arts and having knowledge of business and marketing.

I just think there is a real inbalance between the practical and theoretical sides. We have great tutors at Brighton who have practical experience in the industry which has benefitted us all, but we never seem to discuss matters, which to me seem to be important, like how we affect society and are effected by it too through our work and profession, for example.

Great topic and discussion.

On Nov.13.2005 at 10:08 AM
Jonathan Baldwin’s comment is:

Mark I think your criteria for a good teacher are spot on, but the summary of them as 'a good design teacher has to be a good designer' often gets translated in job specs as 'send us slides of your work'.

The two don't always go hand in hand - I was always a better ideas person and art director than an actual artworker, but that wouldn't come through via slides (not that I've used slides since, like, the 17th century anyway ;-)

Also, there's a danger that the prestige of the would-be teacher's work will be an unfair advantage. I remember being on a selection panel where a candidate came in and proudly showed off his comps for some major clients, real blue-chip stuff. He thought that would be qualification enough, and in some places he'd have been right. We actually gave the job to the woman who only ever did work for local tradespeople but boy oh boy did she understand how to communicate with students and support them. Not a great designer but a great teacher because she understood the pedagogy (and had a teaching qualification, which showed - I think we're a bit mad for not asking our teachers to be qualified to teach. Imagine getting on a plane and hearing the pilot tell you she designed planes but had never flown one...)

(Just to be awkward, isn't it possible that someone would be able to explain why a design worked or didn't work but still make a good design teacher? I'm thinking of the fact that most design and advertising agencies appear to be staffed by creatives who are not actually designers - copywriters, concept people etc etc. There's a whole host of different abilities that make up the design process in my experience.)

So how would a course trying to recruit a teacher get around the fact that the qualities you (rightly) look for aren't easily communicable in the usual application procedure?

Maybe we need to ask the question, how should a teacher be chosen? And what role (if any) should students play in that? Now there's an interesting thought!

On Nov.13.2005 at 12:18 PM
RandomBoy’s comment is:

ahem* again another student of Mr. Baldwins, albit a bit older and more past student sadly...

The purpose of the design course has to be questioned.

We are forever hearing about 'the industry' claiming students are not ready for the real world - and education should adapt and 'give students the skills'

This argument fails to notice that the purpose of education is to promote change and to drive innovation. If we 'train' designers to replicate and work 'as the industry works' then education will fail.

I would say hire a teacher who has a vision about the future - and more importantly someone who can draw out other peoples visions about how they see the future.

A tutor who asks questions and debates the answers the student gives is much more stimulating and engaging and provocative than a tutor who sits back with a back catalougue of 'great work' trilling "be creative"...

Good luck finding a new tutor - and it would be interesting to have a follow up post from them and your students...



On Nov.13.2005 at 01:41 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

isn't it possible that someone would be able to explain why a design worked or didn't work but still make a good design teacher?

In abstract, yes. But the original comment was :

A good designer does not necessarily make a good teacher. But a good teacher should always be a good designer.

The ideal is to be good at both. What this shows is, I beleive, the most important part of a design education: to understand how to critique work well enough to raise the quality of your own. It’s not enough to be able to critique someone else’s work. The educator must set the quality standard, and it should be high.

On Nov.13.2005 at 04:59 PM
Jonathan Baldwin’s comment is:

I'd question that it should be the ideal, Mark, because it sets up a series of expectations against which I think everyone will be found wanting! Especially as we haven't defined what we mean by a 'good designer': I said, for example, that a lot of different abilities and skills go in to the design process - copywriter, ideas person, visualiser, artworker, market researcher, business manager, client handler...

I think a real teacher should be able to put all those things into context and relate each role to the whole process, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find one person who was a 'practical' expert in them all. Equally I would suspect you don't have to be 'good' at doing any of them to understand them. The best colleagues I've worked with in the past have fallen into that category. Indeed, sometimes being on the outside gives you a better perspective; for example, some sociologists have a better handle on the way designers work than designers themselves, it seems to me!

There's a few aspects of the subject I teach which I don't think I'm good at practicing, but I hope I'm good at teaching them, and I've seen students teach some things to each other (and themselves) without necessarily being masters of those things, far better than apparent 'experts'. If you look at Kolb's experiential learning cycle you'll see how that works - being 'told' something by an expert is not always the best way of learning it. In fact, it's often the worst because you haven't learnt it, you've just memorised and repeated it. Great for passing a studio brief, but useless in commercial practice when the circumstances aren't the same.

Maybe it's because I have also taught teachers that I'm seeing that potential in people to teach things they aren't good at themselves better than people who are. I'm aware of the contradiction, and that it's in no way a rule you can apply to everyone. But it's why I was hinting earlier that the usual recruitment process risks missing the good teachers through setting too rigid criteria about practical ability rather than the more nebulous things that most comments here have focussed on.

[pause for breath]

There's one more thing I think needs to be said that I don't think has been yet: different teachers appeal to different students who often have radically different learning styles. (It would be interesting if everyone who responded to this discussion firstly did a quick test to find their preferred learning style - I wonder if there's a dominant type here?) As someone who's run a few graphic design courses I'd say that a well-rounded team needs people who complement each other and ensure that the different needs of different students are met. Too many courses are often dominated by one type of teacher, recruited because they suit the team and course philosophy rather than the actual student body.

This week a letter in the UK's higher education newspaper pointed this out: there are 'survivalist' courses that see their job as filtering out the weak students and focussing on the strong. Then there are the 'supportist' ones that seek to help everyone attain success. But the latter are often thwarted by the prevalance of 'survivalist' teachers in the system. That's maybe because teachers are not representative of the student body they were once part of, and the techniques and approaches that worked for them ('survivalist' ones) are probably not likely to work for the majority of their students, leaving large groups disatisfied and seeking alternatives, or just dropping out. (That's my current theory anyway...)

Sorry that's a bit rambling and lacking in references, so it sounds more like opinion than being based on knowledge of current educational research. If anyone wants references email me privately. Design pedagogy is a growing discipline but it needs more people involved and discussing it.

(The test I linked to is overly simplistic but it might be fun!)

On Nov.13.2005 at 06:09 PM
Claire Mills’s comment is:

what to teach?

graphic design- history and present

basics of interconnecting subjects ie. anthropology, gestalt

fundamentals ie. typography, layout, grids (this may seem obvious but many courses lack in the obvious)

hmm this is a good question...I think i'll have to keep thinking about it

who should teach?



working tutors

who can push students

if your interested in graphic design education please visit my weblog at Thoughts of a Graphic Design student

On Nov.13.2005 at 07:21 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:


You raise valid issues about learning styles. I’m mulling it over.

There are a lot of components to being a designer, agreed. The rubber meets the road when you actually execute the design. That is where you need the highest level of craft in typography, and best use of the principles of design, etc...

What good is a good concept, if the execution fails?

On Nov.13.2005 at 07:39 PM
Tom G’s comment is:

I think all these points are valid, and especially the idea that different students have different needs/interests at different times in their education. A good faculty should combine teachers with very different strengths, so the constantly changing needs of growing students can be met.

I would stress that every department needs someone who specializes in "design philosophy" or "history and theory", and who is as free from practical concerns as possible.

On Nov.14.2005 at 07:20 AM
Jonathan Baldwin’s comment is:

What good is a good concept, if the execution fails?

Quite - but what is the goal of a graphic design course? It used to be to produce graphic designers (an education in design) whereas it is now - certainly at degree level I would say - an education through design.

The days when every student studied graphics because they wanted to be designers are long gone, and even those who start with that intention may not end up going in to the profession. So a course needs to offer a curriculum that suits a variety of outcomes.

That includes the whole concept/execution thing. The first course I worked on essentially focussed on art direction, so everyone's work looked fantastic. But come graduate show the employers were all looking for the sketch books. The student they all thought was a genius had nearly failed the course because it was execution-based, but they were after ideas. 'Universities educate, employers train' was the general response, and I think that's a neat summary of my own approach. (I remember EA Games pleading with me not to train designers how to use particular software packages, but to teach them how to apply the principles in different situations. They said they would do the technical stuff because not only did their methods and styles change year to year but so did the proprietary software).

[Mind you, I'm working with some employers' organisations in the UK at the moment and they're beginning to ask for 'ready baked' graduates. Personally I think expecting a 22-year old to possess the same expertise as a 32-year old is a shocking attitude, as is the idea that employers have no duty of care either to their employees or even to their own business to invest in development and training. The industry is failing itself if it thinks all education and training should happen before they employ people.]

There's a concept in education known as 'surface learning' and 'deep learning'. Courses that focus on the product rather than the process appear to encourage students to engage in surface learning. Their work at uni looks great but they might suffer in industry. Students who engage in deep learning may produce great ideas though not great-looking final work, but they demonstrate skills and the ability to develop after graduation (whether working as designers or in another capacity). (That's a broad generalisation, of course!)

A graphic design education isn't terminal - it shouldn't attempt to produce 'ready baked' designers but individuals who possess the skills and knowledge that allow them to grow and develop in a number of future careers. It makes me laugh/cry when people scorn student work, as though what they're doing now is in any way indicative of what they'll be doing in six months, never mind six years... Some of my former students' work is unrecognisable even a few weeks in to their careers.

I remembered a great article last night that might give people who are interested food for thought: Learning and the design entity. It's a preliminary paper and the final one is available in print. Again, I have the reference if anyone's interested.

On Nov.14.2005 at 08:10 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

Quite - but what is the goal of a graphic design course? It used to be to produce graphic designers (an education in design) whereas it is now - certainly at degree level I would say - an education through design.

So you have been reading me! I'm flattered, despite the lack of attribution...

An education through design rather than in design should be our goal. If that’s not possible, what does it say for all the claims of design’s significance to and in the world? Is design just for designers? A shift in education away from a professional emphasis may also benefit students dedicated to a career of making. Designers claim their activity is all about ideas—not software, not formal facility. Educators are called upon to foster a critical sensibility: a questioning mind capable of intellectual discipline.

--"I Come to Bury Graphic Design, Not to Praise It," Emigre 66, 2004.

On Nov.14.2005 at 08:53 AM
Jonathan Baldwin’s comment is:

Kenneth: I'm afraid I haven't read your article in Emigre, or any others come to that - so much to read, so little time. Sorry.

But 'education through design' is a very old phrase, as I'm sure you're aware.

Take the oft-quoted Herbert Read (his 1943 book 'Education through art' proved influential in British education, the phrase cropping up in various guises - 'design', 'photography', 'fashion', 'music' since then.) I wouldn't be surprised if it was much older than that.

It appeared in the USA ('Education Through Design'. North Carolina State University, 1994) and M. Niederhelman wrote a paper entitled 'Education Through Design' in Design Issues, Volume 17, Number 3, 1 July 2001, pp. 83-87

And there was (is?) also a journal called 'Education Through Design and Craft' in the UK. I think there was a conference with the title in Australia or the USA not so long ago - so it's not a new idea by any means. I've certainly been talking about it to educators for the past five years or more.

I'm glad you're an advocate of it too and I'm sure you'll be pleased to know there are many more over here.

Take a look at my blog from 1 June 2004 and the article I reference there from The Guardian for more on Herbert Read's influence on the approach to art and design education in the UK.

On Nov.14.2005 at 10:30 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

But 'education through design' is a very old phrase, as I'm sure you're aware.

I wasn't but now I am, and the better for it (revised attribution in my essay to follow).

On Nov.14.2005 at 11:01 AM
Shaun Morrison’s comment is:

Does anybody remember actually feeling a bit afraid of approaching their awe-inspiring tutor at university? I know that I and everybody else on any graphic design course anywhere that I have met has said something to the effect, �yeah but Greg’s not gonna like it’, or simply avoided speaking to the tutors because they have nothing valid to show them, when in fact they were the one’s in need of most guidance. Having something I am confident a tutor is going to like, I unashamedly look for praise under the guise of �asking for advice’, but if it is something I am struggling with I am actually less likely to show the tutor. Having had many (mostly heated) discussions with peers it became evident that I was not alone in thinking this, although they may have substituted the word �afraid’ for something less emotive.

In these discussions, one person’s name was brought up a number of times as the model for a near-perfect tutor. Some of the words used to describe them were approachable, encouraging, passionate, wise, friendly, not self-important, challenging, funny and knowledgeable — what a number of people have stated here already. It was mentioned that this tutor seemed genuinely interested in what students had to say. Perhaps this is a huge presumption, but I think a key contributing factor to this tutor being so successful is because they are no longer practicing professionally (but I’m sure they are still involved in the creative circuit, occasionally working for other people and personal projects) — that tutors’ priority is with their students’, and not with their client. Even though their work is actually widely respected in the creative sphere, I don’t think that this is what makes them a great tutor. In fact, an overbearing knowledge of a tutors’ eminence can actually be quite threatening, and it should be their first course of action to dispel the myth of arrogant star-designer — and certainly not propagate it! I am certainly not (na�vely) suggesting that being an ex-pro automatically makes you a better tutor, but simply questioning what seems to be the status quo that being a successful practicing professional is all you need.

Conversely, it is also important for a university course to have connections with �what goes on out there’ to maintain a handle on reality, create a real air of excitement, and for the students to use affiliates to gain work-experience and knowledge. Like most things in life, it appears the solution is a balancing act: a combination of practicing professionals, with dedicated tutors, the technicians, academics etc. Perhaps people are crying, �we already have this!’ Yes a lot of universities do already have the right ingredients, but to my mind they haven’t mixed them properly. When attending a course meeting with tutors it became apparent that the — now clichéd — dichotomy of the practice vs. the theory sections of the course still had a deep and wide ravine running between them. It was brought to attention that our tutor didn’t even know our lecturers name let alone what he taught (and vice versa, I’m sure). It seemed strange that graphic design is all about communication and yet the tutors and lecturers didn’t seem to have any kind of correspondence with each other. It was suggested that one side of the course should inform the other, and even the more radical view that there shouldn’t be different sides — just one united whole. Utopian visions aside, it does seem to me that if there were an increased degree of co-ordination both sides would benefit. Hopefully they could learn something new and challenging from each other.

Belonax’s comment It’s about the students I am particularly interested in. One of my friends, another third year graphic design student felt there wasn’t enough interaction between years on the course so independently he went and organised weekly inter-year crits. This friend, being highly independent and driven, is making the course his own and making informed decisions about the way his work wants to go. This is the attitude I believe the university wants to, and should encourage. Which brings me rambling onto one obvious, but perhaps overlooked observation: the people who are excelling in the course are the ones who are happy with it, but the ones who are not doing so well feel let down by it. Perhaps if more attention were diverted away from the people who have already attained enough motivational momentum, to the person who is a bit shy, can’t speak English perfectly, or just seems disinterested, it would help them attain the skills and motivation to start effectively learning and acting independently, becoming more interesting and useful to both peers and tutors.

Guys and gals I know you’ve got enough intellectual and motivational KAPOW to help me out by challenging my assumptions and contributing to my final year research project on the topic of Graphic Design Education. Visit my blog here and comment!

On Nov.14.2005 at 12:10 PM
sgj’s comment is:

The most successful educators I have encountered, were the ones that passed on their drive and hunger to me. Their fervor for design, for creation, for process, for critique, for success, even for mistakes.

Terry Irwin (an accomplished professional and educator), while a visiting professor at the graduate program at NCSU, instilled in me the importance of curiosity (and honestly this was a characteristic exhibited by the majority of the faculty at NCSU). She wanted the students to push themselves, their ideas, their individual processes; regardless of the resulting solutions. The growth/process was more important (at least in this case) than the end result.

So I add this quality to the growing list of "What makes a great educator…"

Requirement # 741—

Curiosity, and the thirst to grow as both practitioner and academic; and the ability to transfer that trait onto your students.

On Nov.14.2005 at 03:52 PM
tommy’s comment is:

If I were interviewing a teacher who already had taught classes, I would like to see a written brief for a class assignment, corresponding readings, and the students work that resulted from the assignment.

On Jun.16.2006 at 10:54 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Tommy—What would you look for in the brief, the readings, and the resultant work?

On Jun.18.2006 at 01:58 PM
Stacy Rausch’s comment is:

I have had some good teachers and some lousy teachers. I started my college education at a small Community College in Arizona, moved on to a state school in Arizona and finished at a small Catholic Private school in Virginia. To be perfectly honest, some of my best teachers were at the community college. I am not sure if it was because they just loved what they were doing (they obviously werent in in for the piddly sum they paid the teachers there), or if it was because the classes were small and they had more time with each student.

One of my worst teachers ever was at the state school in my junior year of a graphic design program. This class was a requirement for my degree, only taught by one person, every other semester. I ended up dropping the class mid semester when I knew I would be moving to Virginia and would be finishing my schooling there and would get to re-take the class. That is how horrible this professor was. He was the type of person that made me and my fellow students want to leave class at 10 am and go get drunk...
Anyway... this teacher had never taught before (this was an upper level class, you would think they would have brought in someone who had experience), he was from Brazil- so there was a slight language barrier, when asked a question he would give what I like to call non-answers (this would be where he talked for 20 mins about everything but the question, and when you tried to get clarification on what he said, would say he answered you, ignore you and move on), he was rude to most of the female students in class, especially those of us who questioned what he was doing, he would very obviously pick favorite students in the class during critiques and talk about how great their project was, etc. even though most of the students would be standing there trying to figure out why. He gave really vague instructions for class projects and wouldnt explain more in-depth what he wanted (or maybe he couldnt verbalize it) and then get mad when you turned in projects that didnt fit the bill.

I have never hated a class or person more in my life. when I quit going to his class and told him I was dropping it because he was a lousy teacher, he turned it around and made it sound like it was my fault and I was difficult, etc. I have always gotten along with every teacher I have ever had, it was a convienient cop-out.

on the flip side...

teachers I have loved were ones I could talk to. They would give examples of why your work was good or bad, and if things werent quite working they would give reasoning behind why and suggest ways of improving it.
I have loved attending classes were the professor was entertaining and made the subject come alive for their students- even if it was something kind of boring like art history or theology.
I love a professor who knows about the subject they are teaching in depth, and if you have a question are willing to explain it more than once.
I liked professors who were willing to spend time outside of class to explain projects further, look at your work a little more closely than in a group critique, look at work from other classes and give an honest opinion.
I liked professors who acted like they were just normal people, not "above their students" because they teach at such and such university, or own whatever studio... down to earth people you can talk to.
I liked teachers who took a "hands on" approach and showed how to do something. Not just tell you. In my experience most design/art students are very visual people and just telling us how, doesnt always work.

Some professors who fit some of these examples were ones that I remember some very small thing they said in class, while other teachers that didnt possess these qualities I barely remember their name or what they taught- only the fact that I hated it and barely passed the class.

In short, I think a good teacher is one who is experienced at what they are doing, LIKE what they are doing, possess the attitude and personality that is inviting- not intimidating, don't mind students who may not totally grasp what they are teaching the first time, and above all dont act like they are better than their students.

I had a favorite teacher in high school that gave all of his students 100% respect as long as he received it. He called is sir and miss, shook your hand and talked to you like an equal (to a certain extent). that to me is a good teacher, if I remember him and still respect him 10 years later.

thanks for letting me put in my two cents and blow off a little steam.


On Jun.19.2006 at 11:08 PM
tommy’s comment is:

Gunnar--It's late and I am tired and all I can think of to answer your question is: I would look at the brief and see if its worthy of the students time. Same with the readings. Also, I would be interested to see if the lecturer had a good schedule, with critique days, due dates for process work, semi-finals, before the final deadline. By this I would know whether they organized and planned their classes well. I know teachers who don't plan thier classes at all, and have no readings that go with their projects, and just tell students what is due each week-verbally. I don't respect that. Where I teach we have hired teachers with all the right degrees- who just wing every class and do a minimal amount of prep work- or no prep work for their classes. I would hope in asking for briefs, readings, final work- you could spot these people.

On Jun.21.2006 at 08:14 AM
Patrick St. John’s comment is:

THANKS all for your comments. I'm pondering going for an MFA with the goal of teaching at the University level (teaching is in my blood, and I find both the theory and practice of graphic design to be immensely rewarding). This has given me a lot to think about, and plenty to inspire me.

On Jun.22.2006 at 10:02 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Tommy—Thanks for your comments. You’ve defined a good disqualifier for teaching: organization, planning, and preparation are vital and connecting reading with action is important; anyone who doesn’t do that wouldn’t pass your test. But I doubt that organization itself makes someone qualified for you.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the answer were in the material you would ask for. What makes a brief worthy of students’ time? Is there one proper sort of assignment and/or brief or does that vary? Do good assignments have something in common (other than goodness)? Is there a particular relationship between assignment and readings that is important?

We just hired Kate LaMere to teach graphic design at East Carolina University; her plans, syllabi, and pretty much everything else she did were almost scary how detailed and well organized they were. Being that fastidious wouldn’t have gotten her the job by itself but her organization did reveal an ability to think clearly about appropriate issues. (She’s knee-deep in defending a PhD dissertation right now but watch out for Kate when she has a chance to come up for air.)

On Jun.22.2006 at 10:46 AM
Ghazaleh Etezal’s comment is:

I'm an undergraduate student going into my third year at Ontario College of Art and Design. A course called 'Think Tank' has been implemented in our new curriculum concerning "Design & Humanity". It's a course literally what it says it is: a think tank. Teachers can have their own approach on conducting this course as there is no specifics for a course package; it's just supposed to make you think.
I was fortunate enough to end up in the class of one of the best professors at the school whom I had as a teacher in first year for Graphic Communication. Everyone and anyone who has him as a teacher will have nothing but positivity to say about him. He has been teaching for a couple decades I beleive and his dedication, knowledge and ability to teach and communicate to his students is astounding. He builds a strong bond with all of his students and his knowledge on global issues, history, humanity and anything you would expect an intellectual teacher to know, he knows.
It was in his class 'Think Tank' that I became who I am today; that was only last september that I had a life chaning experience and realization of my place in the world as a creative designer with superpowers (this is not egotistically but definitive of the profession itself).
In a nutshell, my epiphanic experience consisted of exposure to information that I had not been fed in a classroom. We did a project on 'survival' and had to create a survival plan if we were in a catastrophic event. We did a project on consumerism and brands by tracking what we consume and the brands we encounter. Furthermore, we had class discussions every session based on different topics and new and interesting things. I realized that creativity is applied to anything in any given situation. Cleverness, simpliciy, logic and understanding are what make us better as designers. It's not just about selling things but communicating ideas to other people.
If a teacher can do this to at least one of his/her students and actually change their mentality and course of career, I would have to say this teacher has acheived his mission and guided his students to a direction where they can grow as indivuduals and prosper their education in design and intellectuality.
We need more of these teachers and more students who are willing to think and apply to reality what they have learnt.
I have recently gotten a designer position (for the summer) as an intern at takingitglobal.org and could not ask for a better working environment. I've found my niche, as a designer and a person.

On Jun.23.2006 at 10:56 AM
ArsenalFan’s comment is:

my graphic design teacher has made the class less fun but piling on work on top of work and not explaining it at all and then he wants to complain about it to the students not finishing the work on time when all he does it make us do tutorials that other people have odne instead of working it with the students..basically getting paid to do nothing

On Jul.28.2006 at 03:01 PM