I believe that design education begins with the two-dimensional study of black and white, form and negative space, and composition. Students who have been given the task to think abstractly without a computer, and with the most simplistic forms—the line and the dot—are challenged to make interesting marks, create their own methodologies and define the design process before a computer has the chance to distract them from their ultimate goal and task—which is to communicate with graphic forms such as photography, painting, drawing, and perhaps most importantly for graphic designers — letterforms and typography.
Armin Hoffmann—the eminent swiss graphic designer and educator— once discussed the ways technology was affecting students’ abilities to think critically about what they produce. More than 50 years ago, in his book entitled Graphic Design Manual, he warned of the threats against collegiate and elementary art education— that new and developing technology at the time ( 1960’s ) was interfering with students ability to learn and effectively implement the design process. Hoffmann states that “the school must vigorously oppose the view that, given proper modern technical equipment, one can live in a perfectly functioning organization requiring no personal effort or input, and automatically enjoy success and financial security. The instruments and aids that are placed in our hands nowadays are far too tricky for us to use them unquestioningly. The more cunningly devised they are, the greater the knowledge that is required before the can be put to wise and responsible use.” ( Hoffmann, 1966 )*
Today, educators in the field of graphic design are faced with this same great ( if not greater ) challenge to extend our skills and our philosophies to the modern college student surrounded with “subscribe” buttons, streaming television shows, and video games. Graphic designers need to be critical thinkers … problem solvers while simultaneously building and maintaining advanced technical skills. Therefore, my courses and assignments must strike a balance between theory and practice. At the heart of this reasoning is that a graphic design student is an art student — an art major. And similarly, a graphic designer is both an artist with many skill sets and also a professional practitioner who provides a service to all types of clients and industry. To ensure success, my assignments, course structure, content, technology, and conversations emphasize a healthy balance between theory and practice.
*Hofmann, Armin. Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice. New York: Reinhold, 1966.
A. Leading the Classroom for Art & Graphic Design
For all of my classes, introductory through upper level, and regardless of the content or schedule, each class begins with a few minutes of general and casual discussion. Students are given time to build relationships with each other and find commonality among peers. The conversation also sets the tone for the meeting.
One advantage to starting class with conversation, especially for introductory classes, is that I see an improvement in confidence among the students over the course of the semester ( and beyond ). Casual conversation offers students the opportunity to discover things about one another. And even more, they tend to feel more at-ease when speaking with the group and providing feedback to each other. This is particularly helpful in a critique setting. Critiques can be intimidating and overwhelming, even for seasoned art students. When students feel comfortable, they are more likely to provide honest and critical feedback to their peers ( while also skillfully receiving feedback on their own work ).
Another advantage to having students break the ice at the beginning of class is that it helps me gain insight into, and respond to, the many variables that exist in the classroom. By encouraging conversation, I’m able to discover student personality traits or learning styles. I can also come to understand how satisfied or dissatisfied students are with the course, the curriculum, the department or the university as a whole. This is helpful for student retention, but also provides me the opportunity to build a healthy rapport with students.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly – I’m able to discover students’ tech savviness. A few critical details I come to find out very quickly can include: Is a particular student a Mac or PC person? Have they ever used a Mac before? Do they use iPhones or Androids? Are they intuitively skilled at understanding the user experience of software? I’m also able to determine if technical skills and techniques from previous courses have carried over from one semester / AY year to another.
For every class meeting, after general discussions and setting the tone for the class, students will participate in the following types of activities:
- Demonstration & Instruction
- Student Presentations
- Quizzes and Examinations
- Group Projects / Collaborative Activities
- Trips—On and Off Campus
- Production, Work in Class, Breakout Sessions
B. Graphic Design Course Content and Approach
At the beginning of the semester, I review the syllabus with my students and make adjustments each semester. As do many other professors, I refer to my syllabi ( Volume 2 Section G ) as living contracts — treated as an agreement of expectations between students and faculty.
Strategically, my syllabi are flexible, relevant and applicable to the group of students in the course. And so, my syllabi adjust over the course of the semester and respond to significant variables existing in virtually every course that I teach: different majors, different learning styles, and multiple levels of expertise with technology. Naturally, variables and expectations can change and I can edit the document or alter based on how the semester unfolds.
I also review the syllabus with my students at the end of the semester. Students reflect with me at the end of the semester to discuss how the course content is relevant to the practice of graphic design. I ask them the following types of questions: Did the semester go well? How can I improve the course? What worked / what didn’t work? What was your favorite assignment or project? What ways can you improve your work after the semester, and how can you put into practice the techniques and/ or methods learned in the course?
Assignments and Assessment Overview: A balance between theory and practice.
Graphic design is both a form of art and a professional practice. With the tasks I assign my students I make every effort to balance design theory and real world practice by combining different types of projects. Students are encouraged to become skilled at expressing abstract ideas and concepts ( theory ), while also building technical and practical skills to use in the professional field of graphic design (practice)
When assessing the projects and assignments, a number of factors lead to conclude whether a student has produced a successful project. And the most difficult part of assessment for art and design is that the content and images produced are, in many ways, open to the interpretation of the viewer. When it comes to visual communication such as a poster, a graphic, or a brochure, there may not be an exact “right” or “wrong” answer. And yet, there may be “better” or “alternative” solutions.
Therefore, I believe my role as an educator and my pedagogical approach is to lead the students to understand that visual communication — the things produced such as posters or logos — should not simply be regarded as beautiful or ugly. Alternatively, students need to learn the skills to analyze and broadly define effective and ineffective visual communication. Further, students need to learn how to implement effective visual communication through a process.
Experimentation, exploration, discovery, and reflection all play a role in the process of creating something visual. Incorporating this process and methodology, as well as a student’s act of refinement, become important factors to consider when assessing their work.
There are three main areas of technology that must be taught for students to be successful in the classroom throughout their time as college students, as well as for professional practice. Students must have a strong foundation and knowledge of hardware, software and online applications — common digital tools used to create something visual. They must readily accept that they will forever be learning new skill sets. And they must also become skilled at independently learning new technologies – without the oversight of a professor, instructor or technician.
A technique that I use to teach technology while encouraging self / independent learning, is to pair the lesser-tech-savvy students together. Regardless of the course or content, I can get less advanced students up to speed by providing them with small group demonstrations or lectures. Other times, I can pair the less-tech-savvy students with more advanced students. They can then learn from each other. For the very advanced students who have many technical skills or quickly grasp new concepts, I will rely on them as “Teaching Assistants”. Oftentimes, I will also create extra assignments on the fly and keep the most advanced students challenged and engaged in the classroom.
Website Programming and Design
For website programming and website design, I encourage my students to become intimately aware of open source programming available online. The internet is full of documentation on how to code and troubleshoot websites. Students must come to understand how to navigate online searches for current trends and how to implement current coding techniques.
The most critical coding languages for graphic designers to have knowledge of include HTML and CSS and JQuery. These are the primary languages used for coding simple websites. It’s beneficial for students to also have experience with PHP or other server-side coding platforms. It’s also beneficial for students to have knowledge of, and have experience working with, content management systems such WordPress, Drupal, SquareSpace or even Wix.
Craft and the Handmade
In addition to having a knowledge of software applications, graphic design students need understanding of, and respect for, good craft — for the handmade.
Therefore, I teach my students about paper—where it comes from, how it’s made, the different brands, varieties and colors available. We discuss how it stretches when wet and how it’s affected by humidity. Students also learn about paper properties such as grain direction, the different sizing and coatings and the difference between archival and acidic papers. Students also learn sustainable practices and how to conserve while maximizing print production. Students learn how to fold and manipulate paper. They learn gluing and pasting techniques as well as cutting and ripping techniques.
Social Practice and Civic Engagement
Over the past 3 years, I have had many opportunities to incorporate social practice in my courses. My students have worked with local nonprofits and organizations providing design work, artwork, and service. In my courses, my students have collaborated with the Sidewalk Parade in Newport, HEZ, the Met School, the Mount Hope Learning Center in Providence, among others. In my courses, where possible, I try to incorporate real-world assignments and projects which provide contributions to Community Partners.
My teaching philosophy is responsive. With each class I teach, the learning community is unique. The subject matter and content may be the same from one year or semester to the next, but my approach for each course and each student is different and remains flexible throughout a semester.
I’ve had the opportunity to teach at two universities with very different student body makeups. For each institution and for every semester I have taught, my courses are made up of students who are non-art majors, come from different countries, have different religious affiliations, learning abilities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and ethnic backgrounds. In a single class, I may have a group of students with backgrounds stretching from extreme wealth to students who come from underprivileged families, first generation college students, or students who have immigrated to the US and may be English language learners.
No matter the student make up of my classes, making genuine connections to each student for me is a priority. Classroom success requires listening, encouraging ( and intentionally incorporating ) dialogue about diversity and inclusion, gaining knowledge from the different perspectives, and leading the dialogue in such a way that the content is relatable to the various learning styles and personalities in the classroom. Additionally, discriminatory comments are not tolerated in my classroom and are dealt with promptly and directly.