Design Educators Community

Turn Over

January 13, 2016 / By Kenneth FitzGerald

While the calendar may express change, there’s nothing discernibly novel to experience with the New Year. January 1 looks a lot like December 31, on a grand scale. For me, and I suspect many of my teaching peers, the New Year starts in late August when we return to campus for a fresh academic year. While many aspects of the job remain the same, there’s enough of a turnover and reset to make it feel novel. There’s even a change of season close at hand.

While the difference is lessened in January, there is the start of a new semester to provide a semblance of renewal. Different classes to teach, a different crop of students. It’s something.

I’ve long thought the frenzy of New Year activities is an attempt to generate a sense of rejuvenation that reality doesn’t provide naturally. Having arbitrarily chosen a date as winter (or summer, depending upon your hemisphere) is gearing up, we grasp at whatever new we can find.

Between holiday family activities over this break, I’ve been immersed in reviewing applications for two separate open positions in my department. Serving on search committees is a slog that does offer a degree of anticipation of change and replenishment.

A major part of the drudgery of what should be a hopeful effort is sorting through reams of cover letters, CVs, teaching philosophy statements, and either writing samples or images of student and personal work, depending on the position. It often feels like a Christmas where you have to unwrap a hundred elaborately wrapped packages just to find one with a present inside.

The physical tedium of the process has been somewhat ameliorated by my university’s adoption of an online application system. Of course, if you prefer the paper, it’s a further complication. As neither of the two positions is for graphic design faculty, I welcomed the change. However, I don’t know how I’ll feel if it were.

As I noted to my committee colleagues, a benefit of a design search is that I frequently didn’t even have to read applications. Often, how the materials were designed and packaged told me all I needed to know. The preparation and presentation of the materials spoke more articulately of a candidate’s sensibility and ability as both a designer and design teacher.

Of course, not all design positions are the same, nor are designers. I wasn’t sorting based on an agreeable aesthetic but simply if the effort was designed. This means in opposition to employing a default presentation. Since an “undesign” is nonexistent—everything carries a rhetoric, especially the “undesigned” look—adoption of a clichéd, template form is design’s alternative.

This is the worst, and immediately disqualifying, feature in an application. Once again, it’s not a matter of degree (an active, elaborate design for its own sake is no virtue) or a particular stylistic method. Just that there’s a consideration and expression of how design can and should be utilized to embody and express meaning. Oddly, many applicants appear to leave design at the door when it comes to such instances. It’s strange yet revealing.

Fortunately for the discipline overall (in that we can all feel good about the general state of competency), I’m pointing to a distinct minority of applicants. But too many applicants don’t seem to consider that the rhetoric of design can and should apply to an application for a teaching position. There’s no category of artifact that lies outside design and should be subject to intervention. And if there’s anything that should be design-thought out, it’s this.

Don’t tell me how adept you are at relating design—show me. Scrawled handwriting on your CD (remember them?) of work samples? Where’s your printed label? A bunch of loose JPEGs instead of, at least, a PowerPoint presentation? You’re kidding, right?

I often scold my students on how the majority of them are essentially hobbyists, however serious their classroom labors. Most students’ design lives begin (or end) only at the classroom threshold. Outside of their assignments, they don’t perform design. I insist that, like a musician, they always need to be practicing their instrument. We can’t—or shouldn’t—imagine a music student only preparing and performing for a recital. I expect that designers want to design and will take every opportunity.

For non-design positions, while I don’t discount every candidate’s necessity to present their materials effectively, the rhetoric of design isn’t a factor. But it’s telling that a design educator eschews an investigation of design when seeking placement. What qualifies as sufficient inquiry is, of course, subjective, which is an aspect of design and searches. It also calls into question how we choose to define efficiency.

A component of an effective design is that it enhances proficiency. With the automated, on line system, the search process is more efficient to sort. I’m celebrating it now. However, I’m wistful that it’s not a design search, and can’t make that immediate evaluation. Still, I make some snap judgments of the applicants’ scanned documents. Oh look, someone didn’t justify all their Calibri text! The graphic designer votes Yes.


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