The Disciplined Designer

A discipline is defined as a specific branch of knowledge that is studied in higher education which, upon graduation, forms the foundation necessary for one to effectively practice in a profession associated with it. By definition, without the discipline to provide the fundamental knowledge and skills necessary to practice effectively, there is no profession. The current AIGA Strategic Priorities stress the vital need for more focus from the organization on graphic design education (which forms the foundation for and frames the discipline of design). The AIGA Strategic Framework only mentions design education once. It’s focus is : “Establish criteria for design education that meet the needs of the profession.”

This statement, although aimed with admirable intent, is inherently problematic. First, it is important to note that a graphic design educator is a professional just as much as a graphic design practitioner who works in a studio, agency, non-profit, or for-profit organization is a professional as well. The framework written by the AIGA should be re-thought, perhaps as “Establish criteria for design education that meet the needs of the practitioner?” However, even with this clarification in language, this statement still is not framed correctly and, more importantly, articulates an editorial stance that undervalues the role of education in design. The AIGA assumes with this statement that the graphic design educator exists only to produce graduates that are vocationally and exclusively taught to only meet the often narrowly defined needs of  professional design consultancies who must in turn meet the needs of their corporate clients. This statement is written such that the profession can exist without the discipline.

A much broader view of graphic design education positions it as a means to encourage the student to examine his/her discipline’s history in context with today’s contemporary issues. These issues are not just aesthetic trends, rockstar designers, and the marketplace, but also challenges that face current and future societies. Concerns like global warming, access to clean water, and food deserts are explored and discussed in harmony with research into new techniques for image-making and typeface creation. Graphic design education is a place for reflection as much as it is for experimentation without the constraints of commerce. It’s a place for faculty and students alike to help form a vision for a better future of the profession.

Graphic design educators do not just teach. Most, if not all, function also as a practitioner who interacts with his or her own clients and projects. Others, on top of fulfilling the role of practitioner, undertake an intensive scholarly agenda that involves researching relevant topics that advance the trajectory of the discipline. Research questions such as “how does the objectification of the female body in advertising affect teenage eating disorders?,” and “how do we foster the development of a more sustainable profession?” and “how can gaps in understanding between what is occurring in and around design research positively affect particular aspects of design practice” are three good examples of the types of graphic design research projects being undertaken in universities across the nation and globe.

One of the primary missions of the AIGA is motivated to educate the public about how and why graphic design affects socio-cultural and economic development as profoundly as it does. This is closely aligned with the current efforts of graphic design educators who are trying to educate soon-to-be professional designers about how and why teaching the discipline of design affects the essential nature and the evolution of professional design as thoroughly as it does.

This essay hopes to trigger a critical conversation with the AIGA that will lead to new understandings about what design education exists to accomplish, what it’s much more broadly conceived relationship with “the profession” should be, and how to ensure that design education is properly understood as a professional discipline. It is therefore the recommendation of the AIGA DEC Steering Committee that a better set of strategic priority statements regarding the perception of design education should be formulated. We propose:

“Design professionals within the AIGA should collaborate more effectively with the design education community to ensure that the quality of teaching upon which the future of the profession rests is maintained” and

“Find methods to ensure knowledge born of design research be best utilized by design practitioners.”

The AIGA DEC looks forward to advance this initiative, and to the broadly formed conversations it will spark and, ultimately, to the positive actions it will guide.

Published January 30, 2014
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