Interview by Jason Alejandro
Design Educator Profiles
We are excited to share profile interviews highlighting members of the DEC Community, focusing on featuring the many roles we hold as educators in various institutional settings and job titles. In this month’s edition, we share a profile of design educator Mary Yang.
What led you to teaching? How has your own education played a role in your becoming a design educator?
Beyond being a designer, I’ve always known that I valued building community and fostering relationships. I knew early on during my undergraduate studies that I was interested in design education, but it wasn’t until later on when I found a clearer purpose. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing design educators who’ve generously guided me in finding my own voice. I try to provide that same mentorship to my students to help them to find their own voice and path in design.
How would you describe your practice?
I started my design practice, Open Rehearsal, in 2017 right after I graduated from graduate school. An open rehearsal space is where a musician or performer practices a piece of music or work. I view my design practice as a space for continuous learning and practicing of ideas. My studio primarily works with academic and cultural institutions on exhibition design, identity design, editorial, and book design. It just so happened that the types of clients who commissioned me earlier on when I started my studio were primarily academic and cultural clients. Coincidentally, I have found that my personal interests in contemporary art, exhibitions, education, history, and identity design, have aligned well with these types of clients and collaborators. While working on the design, I get the chance to equally learn from the content. One of my favorite projects that my studio was recently commissioned to work on was for a graphic identity for an exhibition at Harvard University’s Houghton Library about Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star in Hollywood.
Another aspect of my practice involves curatorial work, research, writing, organizing, and community building. I am the co-founder of Radical Characters, a study group and curatorial project that explores graphic design and typography through 汉字 Hanzi (Chinese characters). Our projects take on various forms from exhibitions to publications and lectures to workshops. My work through Radical Characters provides a space for me to explore my cultural identity through design alongside others alike.
Your design experience has included a variety of roles from designing books and curating exhibitions to working with well known consumer brands. How has this impacted the way you engage students in the classroom/studio?
While in school, I had always thought a designer had to choose between cultural or commercial work. What I’ve grown to understand through my own experience is the importance of developing a methodology. A methodology can be a lens for seeing, an approach to making or even an attitude for making. I encourage my students to develop a methodology and a way of making that allows them to translate that into whatever type of work they decide to pursue. This essentially empowers them to have a strong point of view and clear design voice for exploring various types of work regardless of the medium or field.
What are your goals as a design educator?
One of my main goals as a design educator is to help students to find their own voice as a graphic designer. That can come in many forms such as through making with a particular visual style, finding an approach or pursuing a topic or field that’s of particular interest. Although it would be amazing if my students all became designers, I also acknowledge that not every one of my students graduates and becomes a graphic designer. And that’s okay. What’s more important to me is that they find their own use for a graphic design education whether that’s taking away a particular skill set or using design to work in a specific field. Graphic design can offer a lens for seeing and being in the world.
What topic(s) do you think educators should be addressing that are not currently being discussed in our field?
One topic that is not necessarily being discussed, but more so somewhat new and current in our field is generative Artificial Intelligence. I recently started experimenting with AI with my graphic design students at Boston University and since then have been developing an approach to AI and design pedagogy. Not all design educators are experts in AI or use AI in their own research or practice. I’m curious about how as design educators we can introduce AI into design curriculum and what critical issues students should be aware of in order to thrive in an increasingly AI-driven world as they transition into the workplace. How do we give students the necessary tools that they need to engage with AI? What critical thinking skills should students develop? How do we empower our students to use AI to their advantage and not let technology take over?
How do you continue to grow as a design educator?
Like many design educators, professional development such as attending conferences, lectures, workshops, and in general learning from others helps me to grow. I also value and enjoy growing alongside my students through testing out new projects and experimenting with new ideas and tools. My students equally challenge me to get out of my comfort zone and to see new possibilities in graphic design.
Attending and participating in art book fairs is a particularly important source of inspiration for me. The art book fair community opens up a space for artists, designers, educators, students, and other diverse participants to come into conversation and share new ideas with one another.
What are you working on at the moment, and why is it important?
I’m currently working with my colleague and co-founder of Radical Characters, Zhongkai Li, on our next project which will bring together practitioners and educators to study a Chinese type archive. The archive contains typography designed by Xu Xuecheng, one of the first type designers in China. Similarly to Radical Character’s first exhibition, Radical Return, we plan to launch an exhibition and publication for this new work by this group of designers. The work I do with Radical Characters is important because it connects contemporary designers who approach graphic design from plural perspectives to build collective knowledge within and beyond the Chinese and Chinese American community.
Mary Y. Yang is a designer and educator based in Boston, MA. She is the founder of Open Rehearsal, a design practice that works with clients and collaborators in the arts, music, and academia. She is the co-founder of Radical Characters, a study group and curatorial project that explores graphic design and typography through Hanzi (Chinese characters). Projects include exhibitions, publications, lectures, and workshops that research and build upon cultural histories, design pedagogy, and collective knowledge. Yang is an Assistant Professor at Boston University where she teaches in the Graphic Design undergraduate and graduate programs. Previously, she has taught and lectured at the Rhode Island School of Design and University of Washington and has worked on the graphic and brand design team at Victoria’s Secret PINK in NYC, the University of Washington Press in Seattle, WA, and Studio Blue in Chicago, IL. Yang holds an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA in Communication Design from Washington University in St. Louis, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.
This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Jason Alejandro, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at The College of New Jersey.