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On design scholarship, the struggle to write, and Design Incubation

February 12, 2016 / By Aaron Ganci

Scholarship is a tricky thing for design academics. We constantly fluctuate between creative practice and more traditional scholarly pursuits, namely writing. Surely, this has always been true but those of us in a tenure track today are wading through a particularly disorienting time. Our institutions are under increasing pressure to define their worth and, in turn, are heightening their expectations around scholarship. The field is trying to distinguish itself (or not) from fine art, architecture, and others, muddying our dissemination outlets. Digital media is facilitating new and unproven outlets for publication. And, increasingly, the validity of our creative practice as a form of scholarship is under constant scrutiny.

On top of this, we often enter academia under-prepared for the reality of serious scholarship. Unlike other fields, the scholarship—and most importantly the writing—we do as graduate students does not necessarily prepare us for work as a professional academic.

But if you’re like me, you love this job—and want to keep it! So we knowingly, happily struggle to figure out how to do a variety of great work. Struggling has its perks but I have recently been looking for some support. As a visual designer, I often find it difficult to naturally communicate clearly though just writing. I also have several practical questions about the logistics of scholarship that we never really get to discuss. What are the most appropriate journals for my work? How do I know if I have enough of an idea to write a book? What exactly needs to be in a book proposal? What are good outlets to publish writing about your creative practice? What are some effective ways to build my reputation as a design scholar? My guess is that many of you have these same questions! But where can we go to discuss them openly?

Enter Design Incubation (http://designincubation.com): an fairly new organization based in the greater New York City area that aims “to create a community in which graphic designers can assess creative work through a lens of scholarly activity and academic review.” They host regular colloquia, publish work on their web site, and host an annual Fellowship program that includes an intensive, design scholarship-focused workshop. As a Midwesterner, I had only peripherally heard of them but when they released a call to become a 2016 Design Incubation Fellow, I jumped at the opportunity.

As one of the ten selected fellows, I was able to take part in the workshop which was led by a set of magnificent facilitators: Aaris Sherin (St. John’s University), Dan Wong (NYC College of Technology), Kathryn Weinstein (Queens College), and Maggie Taft (Washington University). Over the course of our three days together, we discussed the book publishing process, journal writing and editing, the review process, contemporary forms of scholarship, and framing creative work as scholarship. We also spent a lot of time reading and workshopping our writing.

In our final reflection, the fellows agreed that the experience was a much needed peek-behind-the-curtain that we had been looking for. It was refreshing to have devoted time to discuss the struggle of design scholarship with peers while also learning invaluable practical knowledge about the process of dissemination. I wish I attended something like this a long time ago and I highly recommend that you take part in the future.

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To help promote communication about writing as a design scholar and as a way to reflect on what I learned in the Design Incubation workshop, I thought I would share a few insights with the AIGA DEC community. These ideas might seem basic to some but I think they are good reminders for us all and may even help some of you jumpstart your next project. So, in particular order…

Treat writing as an extension of your creative process
As with your visual work, don’t expect your writing process to be perfect or quick. Be persistent! We wouldn’t expect to develop a flawless design solution after a first pass and we shouldn’t expect that with our writing either. Trust the process you use to design and apply that to your writing.

Explore alternative avenues for scholarship
Peer-reviewed journals may be the gold standard but technology has afforded us new ways to share our work with the design community and the general public. Non-traditional publications like blogs or online journals are now options for us even if their worth requires a little extra explanation to our T&P committees. If you’ve only written for strictly academic outlets in the past, propose an article for respected industry-centric outlets like A List Apart or Smashing Magazine. Find a podcast that you could be a guest on and discuss your area of expertise. These outlets are academically less rigorous but they can have a much higher impact factor than traditional journals. These can’t be your only outlets for dissemination but they can really help as you build a reputation. Remember that good scholarship can come in many forms; explore as many as you can.

Make time to write
Reflecting as you go can be more important than reporting on the work at the end. Writing about what you do, see, and encounter as a designer should become an integral part of your process. This is a hard one as we are often pulled in many directions. Schedule big blocks of time (adding up to at least 1-2 days per week to begin with) to just focus on writing, especially if you are wanting to write a book.

Set reasonable goals and cut yourself some slack
Anticipate a struggle and rely on peer-review to get better. If you are just starting out, go for the low-hanging fruit: write a book review for an established journal, start writing a personal blog to build a portfolio of work, set an achievable goal like “write 500 words per day” and work your way up. Make an outline for a book idea and start filling in the sections in one paragraph a time. Most importantly, just start writing something. Don’t get stuck (as I have many times) in the ambiguity of design scholarship. You have valuable things to say! Start writing them down and a publication will come with some persistence.

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Outlets to discuss the act of design scholarship are few and far between. The Design Educators Community continues to be a hugely useful resource in this area and I’m happy to see new opportunities emerge through Design Incubation. Our community desperately needs to find more ways to converse about design scholarship and I look forward to being a part of that conversation. I hope you will join me!

Now…go write something!

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Aaron Ganci is an Assistant Professor of Visual Communication Design at Herron School of Art and Design, Indiana University, IUPUI. In addition to being a 2016 Design Incubation Fellow, he is a practicing UI/UX Designer, researcher, and educator. His research involves the study of contemporary industrial practice and the use of technology to personalize design artifacts. You can read more about his work or contact him at http://www.aaronganci.com

Image: The New York Public Library. “An illustration of writing brushes.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Meiji 41 [1908]. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-83a5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

COMMENTS
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.
  • Jen Roos

    Great summary of the workshop Aaron! Thanks for posting – nice to see you writing here.

  • Natalia Ilyin

    I’m going to recommend this article to the young academic designers with whom I work. I do think, however, that writing 500 good words a day is a big objective if you’re also prepping, teaching and commuting. I spend many of my days writing only to find that I’ve gone backwards in my word-count.

  • point

    The problem is not with design. It is with academia focused on narrowness for tenure. That is not the future of higher education. Indeed, those that argue for the liberal arts should be learning more about design and hiring more generalist practitioners of it. It is the future of higher education. Not intense specializations or pure research, both of which are and will remain of value but, for tenure, in design, the reality is, most design MFA graduates or pros seeking to teach, are still generalists. They should be.

  • http://faculty.design.umn.edu/mccarthy/ Steven McCarthy

    Professor Ganci’s enthusiasm is infectious.

    Indeed, graphic design scholarship is now more complex, more varied, more interdisciplinary and less codified than ever before. The writing alone ranges from opinion pieces on blogs to trade magazine essays to double-blind peer reviewed journal articles to edited academic and popular books. But which of these activities are examples of scholarship?

    Potentially, all of them. Contextual framing goes a long way toward demonstrating the scholarly merit of anything – does it contribute to the discipline? Is the contribution original? Is the contribution significant? Was the method of selection based on rigor? On objective standards? On editorial intention? What is the reputation of the publication? How many people read it? Bought it? Was it cited by other scholars? Did it light up the comments section?

    Ganci mentioned the reception of design writing by tenure and promotion committees. This is a critical point, as the language in departmental tenure codes typically governs the way scholarship is judged (external review letters matter too). Most of these documents were written by senior faculty like myself – tenure track faculty need to ensure that the words that will determine their career success are relevant, contemporary, inclusive, and encompassing of the many forms of design scholarship that exist today (and tomorrow).

    There’s a writing project for you.

  • http://www.eggnerd.com Alex Egner

    Aaron, thank you for the thoughtful article. As someone who completed the tenure process in just the past year, I can relate to many of the obstacles you describe here. It seems that design educators have been having the same debate about the value (or lack thereof) of creative practice as a form of dissemination for years with little to show for it. Many in academia have already arrived at the same conclusion that you and your fellow fellows have reached, namely that a greater emphasis on writing and journal publication—following the trend of other scholarly disciplines—is the clear path forward.

    But I find it peculiar that a group of people so adept at creating rich, captivating works of visual communication would ignore their discipline’s obvious strengths and turn instead to the lifeless, insular prose of academia. Imagine if all the Michelin starred chefs of the world chose to eat nothing but dry shredded wheat. What a shame.

    Perhaps the community of design educators should innovate entirely new forms of scholarly dissemination. Perhaps an academic journal devoid of imagery and typeset in 12 pt. Times New Roman isn’t the proper medium for our field. How about a venue that allows for sights, sounds, animation, and interactivity in addition to text? I vote to throw in a laser light show and some pyrotechnics for good measure. Perhaps then an audience might perk up an ear to listen to our message.

    After all, isn’t graphic design intended to engage the audience? So why are we seeking to put them to sleep?