It’s Due When It’s Done

Why I’m killing deadlines and embracing “work harder, not smarter” in my design classes.

A lot of effort goes into planning a design course. My main tools (besides, you know, my brain) are a calendar roughly drawn on letter-size sheets and a few different colors of Post-It pads. Each color represents a project and I label individual Post-Its with key dates. I then start the process of planning the timeline—figuring out where one project should end and another will begin; the degree to which two assignments can overlap; and how many projects I can actually fit into a semester. Beside the on-going brainstorming of what the projects for that semester should be, this process will take me a day or two for each class. Once I have all my classes scheduled out I will then bask in the glory of my genius as I have planned my most exciting semester yet.

Until classes start and it all goes to hell. The first project needs an additional week. I’ll decide that the third doesn’t make sense and turn it into something else. Or, I’ll do something weird like decide I’m no longer conducting group critiques (as I did 3 weeks ago) and the new emphasis on 1-on-1 meetings will organically change all the deadlines.

Even if I didn’t change things constantly I don’t think this is the way to run a class.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that art school is about working harder, not smarter. You need to put in your 6 or more hours of homework a week because you need to DO. Of course you also need to develop project management and organizational skills along with creative strategies so you can do your work better but you don’t need to go all Four Hour Workweek and reduce the amount of hours you spend making.

The current educational model of shared deadlines for a whole class punishes most students equally. I’m forced to find ways to push a more talented student further even though a project is clearly done just because their classmates have 2 more weeks to go (this is, admittedly, a nice problem to have as a teacher). I eventually have to “give up” on certain students and help them find some hack to wrap up their projects even though they are unfinished (read: done but not amazing). Typically I’ll have to say something like this at semester’s end: “You should re-work your project after this class and deal with problems A, B, & C.” Of course, no one ever does re-work A, B, or C (though they all claim they will during portfolio reviews with other faculty).

I admit that I’ve lost sight of the fact that time spent working with your skill set is just as important as finished projects.

I’ve often thought of giving on the spot skill-building projects to those advanced students who make killer work ahead of their classmates but it felt like I would be punishing them. “Wow, you finished early and this poster is beautiful! Here’s 6 hours of exercises to do while you wait for the rest of the class.” It just doesn’t sit right with me. But it’s become clear to me that when I see a weak start to a project that I should offer these very same type of exercises to students. I need to say, “We have to re-think how you’re approaching this project because this isn’t working. For next week, I want you to first look at X, Y, and Z and then spend 8 hours doing new type treatments. Spend no more than 25 minutes on each.” Again, I don’t say that because it sounds and feels like punishment (What can I say? I’m not going down in history as one of those hard-ass macho art teachers. I sincerely am trying to build people up not tear them down), but those 8 hours would be invaluable. In a shared-deadline/group-critique environment I cannot give those kinds of re-directs because a chunk of the class will be viewed or view themselves as being behind since everyone is working on the same project. I think it will do more harm than good.

The design school environment is sink-or-swim. Most projects start with a directive of “Go make this (book, poster, movie)” without discussing what might be the best way to make X or what problems you may encounter. As a teacher I’ve often been 4 weeks into a project and realized 2 hard-working students just aren’t going to get portfolio worthy-work from it and all I could think was “Well, sometimes things work out like that.”

It never occurred to me to ask “How can I make sure that every student gets a portfolio piece out of this?” because I’d never been a student in a class where that was as an expectation.

My understanding was always that you were given an assignment and you did the best you can and hopefully it worked out. Sometimes it did. For me, at least. I saw my fair share of classmates for whom it never really worked out. They weren’t lazy, they just weren’t catching on and you can’t bend a whole class to help 1 person (though, it should be said that the 1 person struggling always gets the longest critique so things bend somewhere).

So I’m getting rid of shared deadlines in my semester-long classes (continuing education classes and workshops typically have a different success-criteria based on exposure to new ideas and I’ll hang on to deadlines in those). I’m going to keep my course-planning process but now I’ll be producing 2 schedules—a best-case scenario for advanced students and worst-case for students who are hard-working but struggling (who typically make up at least 20% of every class I’ve ever taught). It won’t be a perfect system—after all, I’ll have to give out the first assignment and just see what happens for the first couple weeks but I’m excited about adopting an attitude of a custom-fit for each student.

This will demand more of me as a teacher and I get that. I’ll have to be better prepared in terms of my ability to find the right resources for each student. I’ll have to monitor whether I’m letting advanced students breeze through projects or actively pushing them. I’ll also have to start talking to other teachers about students that I’ll be having in the coming semester. I have always avoided asking colleagues about students because I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions infecting my relationship with someone I’ve never met (I find I often most like people who have a reputation for being difficult) but that will have to change if my goals as an educator progress from one of “acceptable losses outweighed by successes” to “each student a better designer by semester’s end.”

I’ve already begun this process since I killed group critiques a few weeks ago. The work in my graphic design class feels stronger over-all as I’ve re-calibrated my expectations based on what’s happening right now and not where I want to be next week.

I’ve felt a weight lifted in my Foundation 2-Dimensional design class as I’ve allowed myself the freedom to say “Ok, you’re done with this project. Here’s your next one.” to one student and “You still need to work on the type because its visually weak so just do that for Friday” to another. I think I can sense some relief in the students, too, in that I’m not assigning them work based on both a demand for quality and a schedule (whereby they end up with more work and more stress) but instead acknowledging that they have a finite amount of time and it is more important to me that they learn and produce good work than if I get to check off a box in my grading app.

I don’t know where this experiment will lead but I know this: I have failed at least 1 student in every class I’ve ever taught as a direct result of maintaining rigid timelines based on the real world of clients and vendors, but what’s the point of introducing those timelines if you never get good enough to have clients? I’m determined that from here on out the only way a student will fail in one of my classes is if they fail themselves.

Namdev Hardisty is adjunct faculty at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and graphic designer at The MVA Studio. Read more of his writing at Early Ambient.