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Blow Up the Design School!
Part 1

by DK Holland

Don’t go to school to become a graphic designer: a year’s tuition ($30,000)1 is just too close to a year’s salary ($40,000)2 and there are too few good design jobs available anyhow. Ironically, at no time has the world so urgently needed good designers than right now.

When I graduated from design school (AKA trade school) an as (associates degree) was all that was offered and a year’s tuition was $10,000. But my first job’s salary, as a one-person art department for a small publishing company, was $30,000. And I landed it right away. So I got lucky.

In my school we were taught we could change the world through design. Our professors told us we should bluff (Take it on, then figure it out. A good designer can design anything!). After three months in my first job, I called the chair of my school's graphic design department. With grave disappointment I demanded to know, "Why didn't you teach us production?" His answer, which I will never forget, was, "You didn't want to know." He meant my whole class.

The school was the world-famous Parsons School of Design and the time was the late ’60s. The Vietnam War raged on. There were massive anti-war protests in the streets and homegrown left-wing terrorists, the Weathermen, were blowing up buildings hoping to be catalysts for the overthrow of the U.S. government. My generation was idealistic, radical, counter-cultural, generally in revolt. And so I realized two things after I made that phone call that day: Production was boring and schools couldn't afford to have students quit on them right then. So we were fed what we wanted, not what we needed.

Fast-forward 40 years. Designers don’t use T-squares or X-acto knives. Production has a totally different meaning. And everyone seems to be, to some degree, a designer. There are a million good, bad or ugly design programs out there. BFAs, MSs, MFAs and ASs abound. Even a few PHDs. The U.S. is entangled in many wars. Terrorism is a way of life. Our planet is one humongous ball of gnarly, wicked problems.3 There are few street protests from the younger generation who are more realist than idealist and WikiLeaks is the 21st century Weathermen, bent on causing disruption through Web technology using information “bombs.”

Now is the time that everyone should be a designer and help disentangle the mess. Some of the biggest gnarls: human population explosion; environmental and wildlife degradation; food and water shortage; extreme discrepancy between the “haves and have-nots.” These humungous problems have only come into sharp focus in the last century as our access to information has opened up through technology.

Consequently as the world has seemed to shrink, fear has also spread. Optimism has become an essential survival skill for any designer since clients do not “buy” dreary, they buy uplifting. And so designers are poised to motivate people to envision a positive future when the media forecast is so often doom and gloom. And, even if the current generation is not revolting in the streets, many are keenly aware of the dire issues of the world. Nurturing a passion for positive, smart, creative engagement is an opportunity that any design school can embrace. This means attracting the right faculty and students. It means developing curriculum that incorporates an understanding of real-world conditions while promoting sustainability, social innovation, transformation and the cross-pollination of disciplines.

TED, a conference about ideas, convenes annually with 1,200 invitees in attendance. Content stayed within that community until TEDTalks went online just a few years ago. Since then well over 300 million people have seen the ideas presented on the TED stage online for free while the entry fee for the annual conference has increased from $4,000 to $6,000 (and still sells out a year in advance).

Facebooks were used as internal networking tools by exclusive schools like Harvard and major corporations like Citibank. But the recent phenomena of inclusion led to offering free service4–and yet Facebook itself, with 250 million users, is worth tens of billions.

The movement from exclusive to inclusive (a trend which cultivates cooperation, collaboration and multiculturalism) correlates with the desire all humans have for control of their individual destiny. Young graphic designers, who have only known freedom, expect to have access to information as a matter of course. That the Internet opened the cage and set information free, aided by its endless spawn Google, Wikipedia and an estimated 35.3 million blogs5 is a no-brainer to them. This paradigm shift is occurring in many arenas now, including education, and is something we are all witnesses to.

Cameron Tonkinwise, associate dean of sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design, says “Universities are very privileged spaces–resource rich, time rich, information rich. The only people who typically have access are paying students and leisurely teachers.” Can we balance out the use of these resources? Tonkinwise says, “The degree and the content are different commodities. People want the degree and will pay for it, but schools needn’t be clutchy about their content.” It only increases the cachet of any institution to expose a broader audience to its good offerings (think TED, Facebook). This is especially true of educational institutions for which appealing to a youthful audience eager to absorb and digest knowledge is absolutely essential. Tonkinwise says, “For instance, anyone can access MIT’s courses. Anywhere. In fact, their graduates ‘Edu hack.’” He explains, “Grads become social entrepreneurs by tutoring those who can’t afford to attend MIT.6 It’s like a stoop sale." This has not hurt MIT’s enrollment or appeal (tuition is almost $40,000) in the slightest.

The Parsons brand is access to The Ultimate City, it’s NYC, it’s Project Runway7 so although, when students come to take a look at Parsons, they may not see state-of-the-art studio spaces or technology, they don’t care. And Parsons enrollment is doing just fine. With well over 4,000 students, Parsons has doubled its full-time design faculty to 150 in the last five years, complemented by 800 professionals (part-time professors). Tonkinwise believes that, “Students will be more valuable to the world if they can tackle tomorrow’s problems. Full-time faculty has the luxury to think hypothetically. Professionals (part-time professors), on the other hand are solving today's problems, working on deadline. And together they bring a rich, broad range of perspectives to the classroom.” Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.