A critical recap of the Sept. ’14 AIGA DEC Conference “New Ventures: Intersections in Design Education” in Portland, Oregon

As the conference title suggests, this gathering of (mostly) visual communication design educators was devoted to presentations and discussions about what should inform and constitute collaborative or cross-disciplinary educational experiences between 1. design students and educators and 2. students, educators and community members or other stakeholders from outside design.

Tangential to these topic areas, several presentation sessions and roundtables also addressed what their participants felt needs to be changed, or at least improved, in and around design education if it is to continue to prepare students to navigate viable and sustainable career and life paths over the next few decades. The idea that the visual communication design students of the future—near-, mid-term and beyond—will have to possess skills and abilities that exceed and transcend the making of visually compelling and conceptually clever artifacts and systems of artifacts recurred throughout the conference. Rationales, approaches and methods for effectively implementing and facilitating design curricula and course projects that could help trigger and sustain positive social and cultural change fueled many presentations. A social media post toward the end of the proceedings by panel presenter and participant Liz Resnick synopsized much of what had been on offer over the two days worth of presentations and discussions:   “…social design thinking running through most of the presentations on all the panels.” This concept manifested itself in many different ways as New Ventures evolved, as did the idea that perhaps more design professionals could derive benefit from what the design educators participating in this conference were actively learning.

Design educators participate in AIGA and other professional design conferences (and have for many years). It is high time more design professionals were encouraged to participate in design education conferences, as it might help dissuade many of them from the limited and limiting notion that design education functions merely to prepare students to enter the discipline. The three main New Ventures speakers—Maria Giudice of Facebook and “Rise of the DEO” notoriety, Wilson Smith of Nike and illustrator/designer Craig Frazier—did not deliver much content that was relevant to what was presented and discussed during the majority of the conference breakout sessions. This was and is symptomatic of the growing disconnect between what has been occurring in design education over the course of the last decade or so and what has been occurring in the professional sector of our discipline over the same span of time.

The bulk of what was addressed and discussed at New Ventures dealt (directly and indirectly) with helping emerging designers identify, chart the means to navigate and operationalize new and different roles for themselves that DO NOT involve measuring success according only to the level and frequency of peer recognition one receives. How many pieces you have showcased in a given year in one of Communication Arts “awards” publications, the Print Regional Annual, or other such venues now often pales in comparison to assessing how the outcomes of design processes you have guided actually affect social, technological, economic and political change. Additionally, “doing design to do good” as evidenced merely by assessing the formal outcomes of design processes—“isn’t this a cool app/poster/website/wayfinding system?”—is now perceived to be but one among several measures for determining design success. Assessing the outcomes of design processes in terms of how well given users or audiences think and then act as a result of what has been designed for them, or, even better, as a result of what they have worked with designers to co-create, now also carries significant criterial weight, as was evidenced in many of the presentations.

It might have been enlightening to have a had a session or two devoted to “Intersections between design education and design practice” during New Ventures, at least as a pre-cursor to what ought to be the theme of an entire future design conference. How many design professionals are aware of the fact that user experience designers are now being hired at twice the rate of graphic designers, and at twice the pay, as Clinton Carlson revealed in his portion of the panel titled “Sustaining Innovation in the Tidal Shift?” What are design professionals doing to better prepare themselves to engage in the types of inter- and trans-disciplinary collaborations that ground design decision-making in real social, economic and political consequences, as described during sessions by New Ventures presenters Stacie Rohrbach, Natacha Poggio, Meta Newhouse, Paul Nini, Bernard Canniffe, Matt Wizinsky, Kate La Mere and Aidan Rowe, to name but a few among many? More opportunities need to be created to facilitate critical comparisons between what design professionals are doing and what design educators are doing to ensure that what we each foster and create positively affects what real people working and living in the real world actually think and then DO.

Another strongly articulated conference theme involved teaching people to utilize design processes to facilitate reflective and relational thinking, to learn how to learn, and to guide critical thinking processes. The idea that teaching students to cultivate understandings about how and why design frames and is framed by diverse value sets and belief systems is not new, but the methods for facilitating this that were suggested by Dennis Cheatham, Graham McLaren, Ruki Ravikumar, Eric Benson and Helen Yuko Sanematsu were. (If you have studied and implemented, or attempted to implement, ideas from Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner in your curricula and classrooms, you would have felt quite at home during these sessions.)

As was announced on the second day of New Ventures, bridging the many, diverse gaps that exist between education and practice and theory and practice in and around design is one of the reasons a new journal is being developed with support from the AIGA Design Educators’ Community AND the AIGA National Office in New York City. To those who argue that there are already lots of publication venues devoted to design research, scholarship, criticism and (lastly) reporting—“so why do we need another?”—please bear in mind that there are still precious few publications that get beyond reportage found in most professional design offices and educational settings, at least in the U.S. More simply put, there are far more design offices in the academy and the profession WITHOUT copies of Design Issues, Visible Language, Design Studies and Design and Culture laying about than there are with them laying about. Additionally, design is unlike most other disciplines that operate in and across academic and professional realms in that it does NOT have a journal sanctioned or supported by its leading professional organization that focuses on issues pertinent to how the discipline is taught.

Participants in future design education conferences could learn, sadly, what NOT to do while presenting their scholarship or research from some of the presenters at New Ventures who either never learned or simply refuse to acknowledge the following axioms regarding the presentation of their research and scholarship:

  • Reading directly from a paper you have written is, in most conference settings, guaranteed to sew disdain and disinterest in the minds of our audience.
  • (Obviously) NOT having rehearsed what you “show and deliver” during your presentation tends to make you appear (to put it politely) “less-than-thoughtful.”
  • Exceeding your time limit for speaking—TED talks last 18 minutes, and tend to accomplish their objectives effectively in this span of time—is, at the very least, impolite, and, worse yet, can turn out to be perceived as reprehensible by people less inconsiderate than you.
  • Session moderators and organizers need to carefully and critically read and VET all of the presentations that they choose to initially accept, lest a lack of rigor result in the acceptance of weakly premised, structured or articulated presentations.
  • Session moderators and organizers ALSO need to function as effective editors and critical analysts of the papers/presentations that are developed to be given during their respective sessions. This is an iterative process, and one that requires at least few cycles of feedback between author/presenter and session moderator/organizer between the time a paper or presentation idea is initially accepted (months before the conference) and the time it is given during the conference.


Michael R. Gibson is an Associate Professor of Communication Design at the University of North Texas College of Visual Arts and Design. He is the coordinator of two master’s level graduate programs that immerse designers in learning experiences informed by evidence-based approaches to design. As a design researcher, he has worked on several interdisciplinary projects that have addressed issues involving children’s health and well-being, the development and implementation of technologies to facilitate diverse approaches to teaching and learning, urban revitalization and freshwater conservation, among others.

By AIGA DEC blog post by Michael R. Gibson | Photo by A.H. Palma
Published October 13, 2014
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