Design Educator Profile: Leslie Friesen

Interview by Natalie Tyree

Design Educator Profiles
We are excited to share profile interviews that highlight members of the DEC Community with a focus on featuring the many roles we hold as educators in a variety of institutional settings and job titles. In this month’s edition we share a profile of design educator Leslie Friesen.

What was the moment you decided to be an educator?

I’m going to turn that question around. When did I decide NOT to become an educator? I’m a professor of practice, not a typical tenure-track faculty; so, I came to teaching by a non-traditional route. I thought I’d never have the opportunity to be an educator. 

After my undergrad degree and working for three years as a designer, I decided I wanted to go to grad school, because I did want the opportunity to teach. I was accepted at Indiana University, had a teaching assistantship, then, in April of that year, two things happened that made me rethink my decision. I was invited to be on the board of a local arts organization and I was elected president of the running club I belonged to. Both made me realize I had a stake in the Louisville community. Going to grad school would mean another three years in school and then moving again. I made a deliberate decision to stay. At the time, I remember thinking very clearly that I was giving up the opportunity to teach.

Fast forward 20 years, I get a call from the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute asking if I would be interested in a 1-year term appointment as “Designer-in-Residence.” I jumped at the chance. The position was newly created in order to provide an additional faculty member in the graphic design program, which had been transitioned to a BFA program from a BA. That meant more classes in the curriculum and the need for more faculty. Anyone who has been in academia knows how hard it is to get a tenure line added. So, our department decided to opt for the professor of practice role as a term line — and bring someone with professional experience into teaching. In addition to teaching classes, I was also told to “be a liaison with the professional community, to start an internship program and to create a portfolio event [for the senior capstone class].” The position involves teaching a 3:2 load, and with a big service load which has evolved into not just internships, portfolio events, professional liaison, but also alumni relations and development. That was 2002. I’m obviously still serving in that role and this spring I’ll see the 20th group of graduates complete their degree. 

I absolutely love teaching. I consider it a great privilege and a great responsibility. When I first started teaching there was serious imposter syndrome. You think “who am I to impart knowledge?” It made me think a lot about what we as designers do, and what is important for future designers to experience and learn in their undergrad education. I did a lot of reading about design and teaching design and I realized those 22 years of professional practice where I ran a creative group with about 5 designers had taught me a lot — much of which I hadn’t necessarily articulated — about the design process and how you approach and solve design problems. 

I’ve also gained experience (sometimes through trial and error) in how to set up an assignment, how to pace it, how to evaluate it, etc. My colleague, Steve Skaggs, who is the head of our design program, and I get together every Monday morning during the semester at 7:30 before classes. Sometimes we talk about sports, our kids, our travels, whatever, but a lot of it is talking about what’s going on in our classes and thinking about our curriculum. Over the 20 years I’ve been teaching, we have expanded our curriculum in a thoughtful way that has continued to strengthen the program. And I’ve learned a lot from faculty in other areas — observing a crit in printmaking or drawing and seeing how those faculty handled it, participating in workshops and presentations by UofL’s Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning. One of the things that I think has been the biggest help and biggest energizers is attending design educators conferences. I attended my first one in 2008, and from there it was trying to attend them yearly if possible. I learn so much from hearing what other faculty are doing, from the workshops and discussions, and just connecting with other faculty and sharing “what works and what could work better.”

How has teaching impacted your design practice?

It has made me a stronger designer and has informed my own approach. I feel like I know more. Teaching has definitely given me a much stronger background than what I had when I was “just a designer.” When you are teaching a class, you read more and learn more about it than you might have otherwise. If you are going to teach something, you feel like you better know what you are talking about! I always loved typography, but never would have read Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style if I hadn’t been teaching. That’s just one example. My shelves are now filled with design books that have both informed my teaching and my own approach to design. 

I suppose there is a flip side. If I weren’t teaching I would have been designing a lot more. Full-time teaching is just that… full time. Professional practice is limited. But, I think looking at the students’ work and their creative solutions is a good motivator. The work that they are doing coming out of their BFA blows me away many times. They are so much better prepared than I was when I started my first design job!

How did teaching during a pandemic change your approach to instruction?

It was a really fast pivot. Things continued, but in an online world. This brought about the need for more flexibility, observation, and a strong focus on empathy. One of the things that has always been really important to me as a faculty member is to be accessible to my students. I want to be there for them. I think that goes to my initial imposter syndrome of “what do I have to offer?” But, it’s also part of who I am. I come from a family of teachers and mentors, so it’s something I value.

During pandemic semester 1 (spring 2020), we were just scrambling to finish the rest of the semester in a productive way. We had little to no time to vet online platforms or convert our projects and teaching to an online mode. I was teaching two classes — senior portfolio class and Foundations Design Methods (the students hoping to get into the BFA). Two very different cohorts with two very different needs. With the seniors, I engaged them in helping to shape what our portfolio event would be since it would not be the usual in-person celebration and review. That was a challenge, but we worked through it with online breakout sessions where they discussed options. I held one-on-one Zoom talks with each of them to hear about their concerns… ultimately we did do a virtual portfolio event and it worked surprisingly well. We will actually keep components of that when we are once again able to do an in-person event.

I quickly tried and either passed on or adopted various online learning platforms. Microsoft Teams didn’t work for me. I couldn’t see all the students. I quickly went to Zoom (paying for my own account but it was worth it). I wanted to be able to see the students and as much as possible create the connections and community that happen when you are meeting in person for 3 hours. I decided that classes would still meet for 3 hours… even online. I felt that just giving an assignment and going over it and telling them to post work-in-progress before the next class just was not adequate. I would feel like I was not providing the students a good educational experience. In our virtual classroom, I could do the presentations needed, and we could use breakout rooms for students to provide small group peer feedback (one of many feedback methods I use in in-person classes). I’d set up 10-15 min one-on-one appointments in a breakout room where I could do the equivalent of a “desk crit” or just check in with how things were going. I wanted to help students manage and set goals for what they could accomplish both in the three hour class and over the duration of the project. I set expectations, but was mindful of my students and was flexible when needed (like adjusting the schedule, removing an assignment, and giving them all a personal day the day after the Breonna Taylor verdict was announced). Although I felt it was important to be a stable force, I also allowed myself to be vulnerable with them.

One of the best additions to my toolkit I learned in an AIGA Design Educators virtual meetup last October was the use of Miro. We were all sharing various methods and tools we were using in our year of online teaching and someone mentioned Miro. I looked into that and immediately started using that in my classes. I used to wish that every student had a giant pinup wall where they could just put up everything and show all of their work in progress (sketches, moodboards, everything) and Miro provided that space. It’s another tool that I am continuing to use this year while teaching in person. 

Last year, you helped initiate the InterConnected Speaker Series. Can you tell me more about how that came to be?

In Summer 2020, with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and everything happening in the racial justice movement, there was heightened and hyper awareness of racial injustice. This caused a lot of us to reflect on what we are doing in our roles as educators (and as individuals) to address the issues of DEI. I was following social media and I wasn’t chiming in much yet, because I thought, “do I have anything to add to this conversation?” It made me think a whole lot and I asked myself, “what could/should I be doing?”

I sent out a survey to our students and alums asking what our program could do to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive. I got a lot of responses and one of the things that came up in many responses is that they wanted to hear more from designers that were more diverse. I thought OK, we can bring some guest speakers into our classes… albeit virtually, which turned out to be a great advantage. I thought about bringing a speaker into the classroom, but that only reaches 15-20 students. The next thought was a brown bag lunch/speaker for all of our majors, but then I thought, let me go beyond that and see if my colleagues around the state would be interested in joining this. Rather than everyone tapping the same group of people to present and them getting over asked, I wanted to minimize their work load and our own workload by working as a team. 

So, I reached out to other design educators across Kentucky to gauge their interest in collaborating to create something like this…the result was a resounding yes. To me it was a win-win. Six institutions agreed to host one lecture and made it really collaborative. We were able to invite people that we might not have known about (since we all have different circles and contacts) and we were able to pool our resources and collaborate with our regional AIGA Chapters. The side benefit was getting to know faculty around the state and being able to compare notes. I knew a few of the educators, but I didn’t really know everyone that we wound up collaborating with. It’s been delightful to create our own “AIGA DEC Kentucky” subset, of sorts. I’m not glad for the pandemic, but it did force our hands to reach out more and we learned some new tricks out of it—for that, I am grateful. 

Where do you think design education is going?

I think we’ll continue to broaden and expand the ideas of “what design is”. We’re more cognizant than ever of DEI and how we bring in more diversity in future students (pipeline issues in education). There is a focus and shift of continuing to infuse design process, research, context, etc. (the thinking behind the making). We’ve learned that it’s not enough to just create attractive artifacts. I feel like we’ll continue to (try to) collaborate with other disciplines outside our design silo (which is typically in a studio art program) and ask how we can work across disciplines, like engineering, business, anthropology and psychology, communications, etc.

What are your top three design book resources right now? What have you looked at most recently?

  • Creativity for Graphic Designers by Marc Oldach — a good bridge between being a professional practitioner and being a design student
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. A delightfully humorous look at the creative process, officially “writing” but just substitute the word “design” and it still resonates. 
  • Graphic Design  in Context — Graphic Design Theory by Meredith Davis. I’m a big believer in the importance of considering context with design projects, plus it’s Meredith Davis. How could I not pick up this book!

Just read this summer:

  • User Friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work, and play. Important topic that goes deeper than just “good user interface and experience” but also points out some of the pitfalls and unintended consequences of things like the “like” button. It will make you think.

Leslie Friesen is a Designer-in-Residence at the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville and has more than 40 years experience as a professional graphic designer, which she brings to this position. Prior to teaching, she was the Art Director and head of the Creative Services Department for a public relations firm for 17 years. Her projects there ranged from publication design (magazines, newsletters, brochures, annual reports), to internal communications, to logo design. She maintains her design practice through Point A Consulting, and is the Art Director for Edible Kentucky & the Southern Indiana magazine.

This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Natalie Tyree, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Western Kentucky University.

More about the InterConnected Lecture Series:

InterConnected is a monthly lecture series and collaborative effort produced by university art & design programs across Kentucky for students and the professional community aiming to highlight and celebrate the many voices, practices, and philosophies that make up the design community. 

Watch a Sample of Recordings from Last Year’s Speaker Lineup*:

Britt Davis, Senior Designer, Atlanta Falcons and AMB Sports Entertainment

Kaleena Sales, Designer and Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Tennessee State University

*Featured recordings collected by each participating university are shared via permission of the speaker with the understanding that recordings would be shared on public platforms.

By Natalie Tyree
Published October 6, 2021
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