Education for design
What education did for me and what it should do for design
I always had an issue with education. Well, the way I was educated throughout the various tiers of schooling, anyway. I couldn’t comprehend why I couldn’t grasp some of the matter being taught to me (I wasn’t a stupid child, probably bordering between ‘average’ and ‘above average’ (based on the current pigeon holes children are put into)), and because of that, I was frustrated. I acted out a bit and had a bad few years.
Until relatively recently, I never really realised that I was always a ‘learn by doing’ kid. I’m still that way inclined today. As a child, when I was literally doing things rather than being told how to do things, I was able to visualise the information that was being communicated in a way that a textbook or a teacher standing in front of a blackboard (remember those?) couldn’t.
The practical stuff didn’t happen that often in the 90’s / early 2000’s. Apart from Art, Design Technology and some bits of Science, everything was approached conventionally, like a whitewash of standards set by vintage practitioners with no wiggle room for experimentation or personality. Primitive methods of educating just didn’t resonate with me. And for that, at certain points in my long (probably too long¹) educational journey I was ridiculed in reports and test results for not aligning with that way of teaching.
That eureka moment came a couple of years ago when I first saw this cartoon. Of course! It all became so clear. We were all being treated as equals. Which is great when talking about the gender pay gap, or the issues the LGBTQ community face. But not so good with a group of 20 or so 15-year olds attempting to understand GCSE physics in middle England.
We were assumed to have the same minds and the same physical capabilities. We are obviously not equal (in the way one learns). All of our life experiences, backgrounds, social dynamics, likes and dislikes etc., all boil down to us being radically different kinds of children. That only manifests as we continue through to adolescence, and if one is left un-nurtured in the way information is taken on board that makes sense to the said individual, then that child is doomed to fail.
Casting my graphic design career into the abyss (for now), I can truly say that I feel dissatisfied by the way I was educated in my youth. I think education is flawed on the whole. It’s not about the student thinking they know best — at all. But, the student knowing best how they learn with the most potential.
As Sir Ken Robinson put it:
“Education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”
At any age — ask a child, a teenager, an undergraduate a few things about what they are interested in and it gives you a strong indication of how best to teach that person. Ask them if they prefer watching sport or playing sport, if they would rather write 1000 words or draw a picture to tell a story. Getting inside the mind of the ones you are communicating information to is absolutely key. Instead of the education system treating every young person like a blank canvas, with no personality or life outside of education, I say that getting to know that person will help leaps and bounds when it comes to educating that person.
Not only will a student-teacher bond be stronger with the levels of trust between both parties starting high from the start— the student would believe in the teaching methods because they can directly relate and understand them [as the teacher can mould the teaching methods to suit]. It is the duty of the teacher to be the cast of the students requirements and processes, rather than the other way around. It is the duty of the entire education system to transform itself and stop trying to teach a modern society in the way that was created for post–industrial country.
So how do my views relate to design education? As presumed visually–biased people; is the best way to learn through visual research, influence and practice? Or are traditional academic or master / apprentice means still relevant in a modern design culture? I think graphic design has a middle ground somewhat — it requires a sideways approach and vast appreciation for the unknown to come up with a unique solution to a brief — but the solution’s rationale and reasoning that is grounded in reference points, that have meaning and context, is makes it stand apart from art for the sake of art.
The exploration of any brief is paramount — an overwhelming amount of creative experimentation and wild accusation more often than not are the processes that lead to the end result. The rational thought process that makes it accessible to the unaware [of the experimentation] is the acclaimed bit that makes truly great design work stand out.
It probably means textbooks, lectures and guidance from industry masters are actually as important as getting stuck in and getting it done yourself.
I thought I was doomed for a while, scraping through High School into College, then scraping my way into University. The fact that I was doing something I wasn’t very good at² in those latter years only confirms my point. It wasn’t until one day I just started doing the kind of work I liked that I became any kind of good at ‘work’.
I didn’t even know what graphic design was a thing until I started doing it at University. I’d forgotten all about doing GCSE ‘Graphics’ — designing PlayStation game covers and festival posters—since then creating street art stencils and putting them up around my home town, as well writing (what now seems ludicrous) scrawling on walls. I started doing gig flyers for a local punk music promoter, starting with intricate hand-drawn typographical posters that listed all the necessary information in a very DIY kind of way (not the ‘torn paper’ punk visuals of Jamie Reid, necessarily).
But the point is, I was just doing it—and enjoying it—without really knowing what it was. And I learned so much.
I can probably credit my involvement in graphic design to three things:
Myles was doing graphic design when I was just finishing failing product design (I make no excuses about this — I failed badly), and I saw the stuff he was doing. It was great and it really resonated with me.
I didn’t really know why I was doing graffiti— other people were doing it and I thought it was cool—so I thought I would too. Plus, pretty colours.
I’d always been into ‘alternative’ music, and as I got older that interest became more and more obscure, until I was going to shows at local pubs with a crowd of only about 20 people (any more than that was a good turn out). I spent the majority of my time truly in the depths of modern Hardcore Punk. Those were the days of MySpace prolificacy, and I started a profile offering ‘design’ services to the world. Pretty soon, I was doing t–shirts and album covers for local bands, even some from the U.S and Europe. Looking back, none are very good, but I was enjoying it, and I felt that I was good at it.³
As I got into graphic design, I continued learning by doing, and enjoying it because of that. I had found something I was actually passionate about. I wasn’t thinking about it, I was just doing it (I still quote “Don’t think, do” as one of the best things anyone has ever said to me. The talented John McFaul spouted the inspiration whilst I was helping on a mural job in Glasgow).
The aforementioned passion sparked another penny dropping moment for me. Why am I not doing this properly? Instead of winging it, why don’t I get someone to teach me how to do it properly? So, torn between attempting to finish my product design degree or starting again on a graphic design award, I went for the latter. I remember the course leader saying she wasn’t sure whether I’d make it (but it’s all worked out… so far at least).
Even at the time of full-swing critiques in the eventual graphic design course days, I felt unsure about how I was learning and the way we were being encouraged to approach design (maybe I was being a rebel for the sake of rebelling (those Hardcore Punk tendencies of mine) or maybe it was the falsified influences⁴ around me), now I look back and thank, and applaud, the way the course was ran — it has helped me to no end.
The very fact that design (amongst other creative subjects) were going to be stricken off the curriculum in the UK recently (until a great campaign stepped in to stop it) shows how demeaned and ill-considered the creative sector is to the country’s government. Will a future focused solely in academia change the world for the better? Will those people who only think logically and without caution help society push through its ills? I think not.
To make it clear however, a society without an academic presence is also flawed. It takes balance, and people with all kinds of minds to think about solutions for a better world. Without a doubt, it needs the people who are willing to think beyond convention and without logic to be wild enough to suggest these solutions — whilst working alongside the contrasting academic minds to pull them back to an achievable reality.
I often heard quotes from my old students along the lines of ‘I learned more in a month as an intern than I did in a year on my course.’ That is evidence of the ‘learning by doing’ perspective that works wonders. Put a student in an environment where they are actively doing the thing they are learning elsewhere, twinned with the fact it is what they actually want to be doing in the first place, and they will learn what they need to quickly and well.
Without this trickle of key information, alongside internships at key points, I don’t think a student will be truly ready for the design studio. The commercial world is fast paced, aggressive and ruthless, and for the most part, design courses are slow and forgiving. So, students: get out there and experience the industry. It’s something design awards just cannot emulate⁵.
But what for the academically–sided that might find themselves on design courses? Should we dismiss the fact that there might be those that have slipped through the net and found themselves in the wrong place? It happened to me — sure, I was on the field, just in the wrong position — so it could happen to anyone.
It’s the difference between a good and a great teacher to identify those who aren’t in the right arena. One could safely assume that if a student had got as far as degree level in design that they have an interest in it. But maybe the interest isn’t in designing? Maybe it’s thinking, maybe it’s handling, maybe it’s pitching. I think these kinds of students should be nurtured in those areas at design schools if this is the case — regardless of the tutor’s preferences or course requirements. There could be some great talent out there that are being pushed into focusing on the wrong areas of design.
The design focused students that graduated from the course have an understanding of the account managers part to play, the account manager’s appreciation for the copywriter, and so on. I think this approach to learning company structure in sole graphic design awards would be massively beneficial — the potential for increased studio harmony is great — which in turn would mean a better workflow and hopefully a better outcome for any work produced down the line by these students.
To be honest, when I graduated, I had little understanding of the roles non-designers play at design studios. I saw them as individuals to battle with, almost. I soon realised that this wasn’t the way to do things at all, and especially now I have to play project manager as well as designer (as well as everything else)—I have a huge appreciation for those folk and what they do.
As a past educator, I was in the lucky position of being able to practice my methods, as long as they aligned with the learning outcomes on the course. I agree with those desired learning outcomes, and I think my methods align with them too. The great thing about the Advertising & Brand Management course that I taught on is that all of the previously mentioned eventualities are accounted for — students were all encouraged to explore the roles that one could work within the design sector, and it is applauded. It makes for interesting relationships between students, and an appreciation for every single role that exists as part of the creative process.
For all I know, this approach to exploration into roles and individuals could be happening up and down the country right now, and it could have been happening for years. I may be waffling on with crazy incriminations of lazy tutors who push outdated agendas on demure students. Sorry, if so.
¹ I was at University for 6 years — College for 2 — High School for 5 and Primary for 5… I think. Having lived in Australia I went back a year in 1992. That’s 19 years total!
² In High School we did ‘Design Technology’ that consisted of moving between Graphics, Product Design, Woodwork, Metalwork and Textiles. We were then told to pick the one we enjoyed the most. Somehow I ended up doing Product Design even though I enjoyed Graphics. I did this all through College and then for 3 years at University. I was not good at it
³ A publication that goes through the hidden visual language of Hardcore Punk has been on the back burner for a while
⁴ An article for another day — one which explores the way students may be being wrongly exposed to the graphic design industry
⁵ That said, the subtle refinement of three years on a design award is unrivalled. Don’t doubt the process, trust your tutors.