Teaching to the power of 6: Design Incubation Engages Educators in Conversation

On a bright and recent Saturday afternoon, hoping to gain insight into the current realities of educators of design and critical thinking, I decided to make the most of my AIGA student membership privileges to attend this informal panel discussion. As a practicing Graphic Designer, and first year student of the MA Designs Studies interested in pedagogy, I was intrigued to hear how far the moderators would take their guests on the topic of teaching graphic arts in the liberal arts. The following is
a summary of what I observed.

Graphic Arts in the Liberal Arts
Panel Discussion, November 12, 2016
Hosted by the Type Director’s Club, Sponsored by AIGA/NY and Design Incubation
Moderators: Liz Deluna, St. John’s University and Mark Zurolo, University of Connecticut

What challenges and obstacles do graphic design programs encounter today as they work to balance the multitude of critical thinking, and conceptual and technical skills needed to help students grow into thoughtful, adept and culturally aware design practitioners? How do programs housed in liberal arts institutions differ from those in art schools?

Graphic Design and how it is taught in the classroom provides a never-ending topic of conversation. Educators find themselves adapting to serve diverse student communities whose interests reside in a growing number of design fields that range from advertising to packaging design and animation to UX/UI design. The challenges faced by graphic design programs residing in liberal arts schools were addressed openly by an experienced panel of educators who expressed their desire to establish a common platform of knowledge and understanding for their students by supporting the necessary skill-sets and instilling the creative language required for students to succeed as design professionals in today’s job market.

The intimate room at the Type Directors Club in New York City was crowded by a generous gathering of professional designers, students, and fellow educators, as moderators Liz Deluna and Mark Zurolo lead Saturday’s informal discussion with their six guests inviting them to share their impressions regarding the advantages and disadvantages of teaching graphic design in liberal arts institutions.

Associate Professor Allan Espiritu was the first to highlight the availability of cross-disciplinary exchanges at his Rutgers University, Camden program. In Espiritu’s program pursuing courses outside of the design curriculum is often a necessity because of limitations in faculty and course offerings. At Rutgers-Camden, the BA in art allows students to choose a focus in Graphic Design. Within this academic structure, Espiritu pushes his students to look beyond the art program for growth opportunities in order to take advantage of electives offered as part of the greater Rutgers curriculum.

Since “form making is not enough” looking outside of the School of the Arts where graphic design is housed at Purchase College, State University of NY (SUNY) is something Assistant Professor Jessica Wexler emphasizes to her students. Likewise, students from the School of Fine Arts at Boston University are encouraged to make better use of the shared resources within the engineering and computer science departments. Assistant Professor Nick Rock explains how laser cutting equipment and coding classes provide insights and strong foundations to further his student’s design explorations at BU.

Access to extensive research libraries and inspirational archives are only a few of the many benefits described by Mark Zurolo at University of Connecticut. In the UConn program advanced technologies provide students with the option to create a hybrid space where a nexus can found between the liberal arts and the art school. With a typographic analogy, appropriate to a gathering of visual thinkers, Professor Robin Landa from Kean University expressed her objection to  “I” thinkers and her strong belief in fostering “T” thinkers, or “individuals that are able to span out to other fields” and remain “nimble” —as she referred to her recently released book by the same name where she expands on this concept. The Human Rights Institute at Kean University provides unique opportunities for students to engage in social justice through design—just another example of the type of multi-disciplinary initiatives found in Liberal Arts.

As part of a public academic institution with a mission to provide opportunities to immigrants, low income, and underrepresented students, New York City College of Technology (CUNY) is unlike many other art and design programs because it does not require a portfolio review. Students can even bypass a high school diploma with placement tests. The specificity of the City Tech program presents a different set of challenges for Associate Professor Dan Wong, as he described teaching students with uneven competencies in language, craft and design.

Not so much a challenge, but a perceived disadvantage of the liberal arts model came from Kelly Walters Assistant Professor at U. Conn who, having experienced both art school and liberal arts studies in her formative years, lamented the lack of immersion in art and creativity at the University of Connecticut. Something she found ubiquitous at art schools, providing endless fodder for exploration and innovation.

Qualifying her question with the clear understanding that the world of academia moves slowly, Deluna asked, “How fluid should a curriculum be?”

In the case of City Tech, past enrollment and students interest had called for a more siloed approach with specialized courses. Wong described how a new approach to curricula has paved the way to focus on strategy and studio skills. In comparison, Purchase College students are taught “craft as a means of learning how to learn, not as an end result,” where as in Kelly Walter’s U. Conn introduction to web design course, she describes how students are taught to use the browser to create “form” as a quilt (or collage) using images, music and text. The program at Kean University looks to industry for inspiration where Landa follows published job descriptions closely to determine what the industry expects from her students. In return, her program includes classes with a critical, creative and technological focus.

A consensus was voiced regarding teaching challenges posed by student’s cultural differences and varying language skills. In response, it is important to remain flexible and sensitive to the students needs when generating creative briefs and assigning projects for group development, something Nick Rock sees in his design program at Boston University as it continues to attract a broad international community of design students.

All six of the panelists agreed that “Design thinking and critical thinking” remain at the heart of the education conversation. Several panelists stressed the importance of teaching history to foster the necessary vocabulary of design and achieve higher fluency with a broad array of skills—an important path to success for their students. Just as the “happy hour” bug struck, Wexler left the audience with the following question, “How can graphic design provide agency for undergraduate students?” A timely question indeed, one that does not discriminate between art school and liberal arts models but gives pause to all graphic design educators alike.

Our contributing writer Diana Duque describes herself as an observer, a communicator, problem-solver, editor, translator, curator, creative thinker and cultural diplomat. With a BFA in Communication Design and several decades of professional work experience, Diana’s interests range from Book Arts and Signage to Product Design and Typography. Inspired by generous “design thinkers” and former mentors, she is currently absorbed in the study of theory and criticism of Design in pursuit of her MA in Design Studies as part of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons, The New School. You can write to her at duqud889@newschool.edu

By Diana Duque Parsons, MA Design Studies ’18
Published December 6, 2016
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