Loading ...

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.

FROM NAÏVE TO MINDFULIn 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.

FROM EXCLUSIVE TO INCLUSIVETED, 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 facebook.com 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.

WASTE NOTCameron 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.”

A willingness to take a risk, to go off the road and explore, leads to innovation. But Tonkinwise sees a deficit, “Since we’re not even teaching the importance of research in many schools, designers aren't thinking beyond the space of the design brief. They are only dipping their toes in the problem.” They are being taught to be vendors, not complex thinkers. Parsons is one of the only design schools that offers a business degree as well as a design degree at the undergraduate level.

We are all painfully aware that the Internet has changed the playing field for many professions, including graphic design. Tonkinwise says, “American designers will get annihilated by Chinese designers who can create a brochure faster and do it far cheaper–and good enough.” Designers must be needed as part of the team, on site, valued at a higher level to survive and thrive.

DESCENT FROM THE IVORY TOWERSchools have historically set themselves apart from community. Students and faculty seem to parachute onto campus, oblivious to the larger community's day-to-day reality. But some schools are connecting to their neighborhoods in remarkable ways including SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) and MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art and Design).

Scott Boylston, an energetic and deeply engaged professor of sustainable practices in design at SCAD, says, “Sustainable design is bumpy, sweaty and uncertain, but I do believe that wicked problems are called such for a reason–and someone has to deal with them.” SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program encourages the formation of multidisciplinary teams to take on local projects relevant to their studies. During the design thinking8 process, teams consider all angles, solutions and consequences plus the possibility that they may not be able to finish what they start.

THRIVEWhile still suffering from some historic economic inequities (the poverty rate is 22 percent), Savannah is otherwise an economically healthy city. Thrive A Carry Out Cafe is in a small, dreary, one-story strip mall, a throwback to another era, off two four-lane highways in a part of town surrounded by marshes. Owner and chef Wendy Armstrong thought some outdoor seating might help improve the mall and bring customers into her store and it was with that idea that she approached SCAD for help. A team of nine zealous scad students and Boylston descended on the area to scope out the problem, identifying several dilemmas: 1) The mall is an eye-sore; 2) Thrive, working with local farmers, was promoting healthy, organic, delectable food in a city not yet embracing sustainability, much less the farm-to-table concept; 3) the outdoor seating couldn't interfere with parking in front of the store; 4) after heading to the rear of the mall to consider alternate locations for parking, the team discovered a veritable swamp, resulting in wasted space and substantial runoff threats to the surrounding tidal marshes. All these conundrums, combined with the mall's highly visible location, presented welcome opportunities to SCAD’s team.

SOLUTIONS FOUNDThe team figured there would be big energy savings (and a way to control runoff) if they built a green roof on the entire mall, a plan that was later embraced, not just by the tenants, but also by the landlord and the county planning commission, which went after a grant on behalf of the project with Boylston's help. SCAD’s extensive research resulted in a holistic plan that would turn the location (the roof can be seen from the two intersecting raised highways) into a model to help green coastal Georgia. Parking could move to the rear of the mall once they solved the drainage problem (again, the county would help) so outdoor seating (to be constructed from reclaimed materials from a nearby public housing redevelopment project) could indeed be up front and center. An effectively designed campaign using strong and appealing graphic tools was planned to promote Thrive's food philosophy and to educate and excite Savannah residents about the store’s healthy, delectable offerings. Thrive’s commitment to work with local organic farmers and fisheries to create world-class offerings also became the centerpiece of a reception and food tasting for 400. Held in a vacant store in the mall, walls were transformed with informational posters designed by the SCAD team. This event resulted in a PR bonanza for all involved.

Team member and industrial design (MFA) and design for sustainability (MA) candidate Charisse Bennett, who looks to make Savannah her home, says, “The community connections were an encouraging glimpse into a level of participation and recognition of green issues within the community that none of us had been aware of. This involvement was highly contagious.” Bennett’s poster, a graphic presentation of the farm to table philosophy, won the poster design contest organized by SCAD.

Students are, by their nature, transient while on a path to learn, so Boylston created “Pass it on,” a document that provided the dynamic team with a record of the strategy, accomplishments and as well as the future goals of the project.

US AND THEMJohns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to start solving the challenging health problems of hard-scrabble East Baltimore but they did not have a way into that community. So Hopkins formed a partnership with MICA. While Bernard Canniffe, graphic design chair of MICA when the MICA/JHU Design Coalition was formed, was clearly daunted by the prospect he also realized the opportunity for his students to understand what it’s like to work as a designer. He says, “When you get out there and start doing graphic design, if it’s not what you expect, it’s going to be a disappointment if the gap between design school and the real world is too wide. So when Hopkins came to us, I developed a design class that could bring the students out into the community in need.”

Canniffe, whose thick Welsh accent recalls the rural coal country of Wales from whence he came, is well aware that “When you are paying $30,000 a year, that's about privilege. It’s a bubble.” He recalls, “Entering East Baltimore was like meeting my demons.” He says, “East Baltimore is $12,000 annual income, sixth-grade reading level, murder rate of 600 per year. It’s high syphilis and heroin addiction; 9/11 didn’t even register to them. They were disassociated.” Canniffe instinctively gained access through building trust relationships with the community leaders he met in the heart of East Baltimore. They related to his accent and his working class roots. He observes the effect the class had on students, “Normally when you force students to work on teams, they rail against it. There was a seismic shift when we formed the Coalition. There was no ‘I’ there was ‘Us’ (MICA) and ‘Them’ (Hopkins). I’d create roles for each student–funder, project manager, junior designer, art director.”

Canniffe took students to meet, not just the community leaders, the drug addicts and dealers where they lived. He says, “It was risky. The police would stop the students assuming they were after drugs.” He says, with some modicum of pride, “Eventually students would come from other countries just to take this class. Some students took it out of social conviction. But all students came to learn about business (including budgeting, fundraising) and community. By being involved in real projects, they knew they would learn skills they could apply when they graduated and got real jobs.”

PRETTY PICTURES AND BEYONDMICA graduate Alex Pines tried working for an ad agency, but got burned out. Now he’s an in-house graphic designer at Housing Works, an international organization that fights AIDS, a job he was able to get partly because of his experience with the Coalition. He says, “They want to enact social change and that’s my background because of MICA. They’re also oriented to team project development and I know how to implement a really good solid idea on a team. At MICA, I also learned not to focus on making a pretty picture. And, since Bernard was very hands off, I learned a lot.” Pines recalls meeting his Coalition “client” saying, “Ted Sutton was a former gang member in East Baltimore (the HBO series, The Wire, was based on his gang). He went on to college, became a minister. Mr. Sutton showed us the drug corner he had worked, and we spoke with current gang members. The challenge was getting kids out of gangs. Our team created a newsprint piece that was the story of Ted Sutton and incorporated a brand identity for him. MICA funded the printing.”

Pines, who took a pay cut to take his job at Housing Works, is very clear about his values, and is now applying to graduate school to study social innovation, which will add to the debt he has already accumulated to pay for MICA. He hopes to continue at Housing Works, which is in New York, if he gets accepted at a local school. When asked about his family’s awareness of the danger involved in his activities at MICA, Pines says, “I didn’t tell my parents much, but I knew I had their trust.”

Canniffe, who left Baltimore for the colder yet gentler environment of Minneapolis in August 2009, reflects on education in general, “What’s the value students are getting for tuition? Very little. Very little. We are getting them to mortgage their education.” We must narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. He urges, “We need to invest in access to education for everyone. It’s better for all of us.”

DIASPORA, USAOn moving to Minneapolis, Canniffe, now design department chair at MCAD started learning about the very large community of Somali refugees in Minnesota who are culturally isolated. This resonated with his desire to expand the MICA experience of connecting students with communities in need. Could students do the kind of work he did at MICA without a partner like Hopkins? Canniffe’s new class encourages students to use design in the broadest possible way.

He asked each student to identify disenfranchised communities, to note where there was social injustice in the vicinity. One student group reached out to assist a nonprofit organization to help prevent bullying, another to the Japanese community to teach their language to non-Japanese and another connected to the local Somali community. Canniffe says, “They are selecting the issues they really cared about. It’s the same phenomena of Us not I. Now Somali kids are getting interested in visiting MCAD. MCAD students are going to the Somali community. They are bringing this desire to do real community projects into their other classes.”

Tousue Vang studies with Canniffe. He says, “Expect the unexpected is Bern’s attitude. It was intimidating at first but ultimately exhilarating. We started with a design blitz that lasted till 5 a.m., a fourteen-hour marathon; talking, researching, creating a mission statement about the needs of the Twin Cities. The idea was to learn more, and attempt to create conversations between the diverse cultures of Minneapolis and MCAD students. Bern said, ‘Go out and find some stories in the community. Come back and share.’ We went to the multi-cultural markets and spoke with shopkeepers. We learned firsthand just how diverse our community is. We found a bike enthusiast named Robert Mitchell who helps African-American kids in high-crime areas repair bikes in his garage. He has become a positive role model for the kids. He is improving his environment. We approached him to ask him if he needed our help. Mitchell wanted to reach out to as many people as possible to say ‘you can make a difference. Anyone can.’ But he personally wanted to stay low key. We were hoping Bernard would tell us what to do, but he put the responsibility back on us.” Vang explains, “We decided to share Robert’s story. That was what was compelling to us. So we made a video. We were challenged to understand this media, which was totally new to us. After finishing the class I wondered why this class has not always existed? It’s the solutions that drive the design. Using research to improve the process was an eye opener. It changed how I viewed the role of design and me as a designer. I felt transformed.”

There was a sense of idealism that led to despair in the 1960s. This shift caused a generation to disengage—to tune in, turn on, drop out. Forty years later, the current generation is tuned in, excited by reality, has faith it can affect change. Or at least, that is the hope. ca

Editor's note: Part 2 of Blow Up the Design School! will appear in the May/June issue.

1 Tuition for the design schools included in this article is currently around $30,000 a year.
2 Aquent/AIGA Salary Survey 2009.
3 Wicked problems, a term used in planning since the late 1960s, describes seemingly unsolvable problems.
4 Users topped 250 million, according to Facebook, in July 2009.
5 According to Technorati, there were 35.3 million blogs as of April 2006.
6 MIT Open Courseware offers 2,000 programs online.
7 Project Runway has been filmed at Parsons School of Design for all but one of its eight seasons since premiering in 2004.
8 "Thinking in Systems, Design and Otherwise," Design Issues, Communication Arts July/August 2010.

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.

With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In