Graphic Arts and the Liberal Arts

An Interview with Design Educators Liz Deluna and Mark Zurolo

Can you be a great designer if you attend a liberal art school? What are the advantages and disadvantages of learning design outside an art school? TypeThursday sat down with Liz Deluna and Mark Zurolo to find out more.

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TypeThursday: Thank you all for being here for TypeThursday.

Liz Deluna: Thanks for having us.

Mark Zurolo: Thank you.

Graphic Arts in the Liberal Arts panel discussion. In conversation from left to right: Mark Zurolo, Liz Deluna, Allan Espiritu, Jessica Wexler, Nick Rock, Kelly Walters, Dan Wong, and Jessica Wexler

TT: Earlier in November 2016, I was at a TDC panel discussion about design education. I have with me Liz Deluna and Mark Zurolo who moderated the panel. Liz, I know we were talking about this before we started recording, but for the audience who weren’t there, what was the conference at TDC?

The number of students that attend non-art school graphic design art programs is a very large population, and they’re going out into the market, and they’re highly competitive.

Going to Art School vs. Liberal Art School

LD: The title of the panel was Graphic Arts and the Liberal Arts. It’s a topic that’s been discussed before and one that we are interested in exploring further at Design Incubation. Mark and I attended an AIGA/NY hosted panel Designing the Future of Design Education

Earlier in the year where all of the moderators and speakers were more specifically from art schools. Because our constituency at Design Incubation is mostly comprised of faculty from Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges we thought it would be interesting to open up the conversation to other institutions that teach graphic design and where there is a huge population of graphic design students.

Mark, do you have something to add to that?

MZ: You summed it up nicely. That’s what it was about.

TT: If I understand correctly, the reason why you feel an impetus to have a panel discussion about education and liberal art programs is because of the kind of students in these programs, is that correct?

MZ: The number of students that attend non-art school graphic design art programs is a very large population, and they’re going out into the market, and they’re highly competitive. Liberal art schools offer some tremendous advantages. At the same time, liberal arts institutions have other challenges that art schools don’t face, such as competition for credits whereby students aren’t earning as many studio art credits as they might in an art school.

TT: For both of you, Mark and Liz, what are your backgrounds? What motivated you personally to be interested in this topic of education?

MZ: I started teaching sort of on a bit of a lark after grad school. I hadn’t intended to go into teaching. When I graduated with my MFA there just happened to be an opening at UConn and a colleague from grad school and I went up to help out for one year, and it turned into 15.

LD: Almost the same for me. Mark and I went to graduate school together. I had no intention of teaching. I came from a background in film and went into motion graphics. As I continued to work in motion graphics, I realized that I lacked training, most specifically in typography. I didn’t have any education in graphic design per se. I studied Film in an art school. After graduate school, I went back and started doing some more motion graphics work, but and I still felt like the other part was missing. At that point I also wanted to give something back; I wanted to take some of the education that I’d gotten and some of the languages that I’d learned and start to be to give it back and broaden the way that I looked at graphic design.

TT: For clarification, you both went to the same grad school. What school was that?

MZ: We both went to Yale, in the same years.

TT: Very cool. That’s where you both met. For both of you, it came by accident in a lot of ways. You jumped into a position in programs or education and after you graduated from grad school and ten years later, here we are.

LD: I wouldn’t say ‘accident, ‘ but it wasn’t intentional. I don’t think either one of us went to grad school with the intention of getting an MFA so we could teach. But I do think once we got on the path of education it became very intentional.

Teaching has changed my relationship to graphic design.

The Value of Teaching

MZ: For me, teaching and design education is the ultimate meta-design problem. You are constantly looking for new ways to engage and interest your students, and revising or writing new briefs with which to engage them. It’s so parallel to the profession in many ways, and yet it’s also about this tremendously gratifying factor of curiosity and energy from young students and what they bring to the discipline. The classroom is always so stimulating and energizing.

Liz with her students at St. John’s University

LD: I totally agree with that. I also think that teaching has changed my relationship to graphic design. Teaching in a liberal arts institution has made me think more about how I break down and teach visual language, with bite-sized pieces of accountability so that students can absorb information and then deliver it back. I have to be very conscious about that because most of the students, certainly in our program, don’t necessarily come in particularly visually cultured. So there’s a lot of educating from the ground up. It’s an ongoing challenge of what is graphic design? How do we teach graphic design? How is it important for the students’ lives?

TT: It sounds like, for Mark, with education a lot of it is the youthful vigor; a mode of exploration outside the constraints of commerce or client relationships. Education is kind of a youthful spring of possibility, of thinking, of the boundaries of what design can be.

For Liz, education is space where that’s possible in addition to the real world challenge education of having to convey knowledge to people who may not be very knowledgeable in a field and have success in that.

Is that a fair summarization of what you guys just said?

I always find graphic design about graphic design to be a little mind-numbing. Graphic design is meant to help other disciplines communicate and that’s when it gets fascinating

Education as Exploration

MZ: I think so. The classroom is a great place to be able to test out ideas about graphic design and ideas that are also wholly outside of graphic design. One of the advantages of being in the liberal arts institution is that the students come with all these other classes, information and credits and they can bring those perspectives into the classroom. I remember when I was at Yale we went on a field trip to Mohawk Papers. We were in the conference room of Mohawk waiting for the presentation to start and the professor , Greer Allen, went around the room with eight of us, getting to know us a little bit, asking where we were from. Liz and I both did the prelim year which included an additional year, so it was a three-year program. In that first year you meet a lot of people who have come from many different walks of life, not specifically graphic design. I told Greer I didn’t major in art as an undergrad, I was a history major. He said something like “people with those backgrounds always make for interesting designers” because you come with these interests and this information that’s outside of design and it just brings a different perspective. It’s what designers are about. Design is about communicating about other fields. I always find graphic design about graphic design to be a little mind-numbing. Graphic design is meant to help other disciplines communicate and that’s when it gets fascinating

LD: One other thing I want to add here is the reason that we were able to come together and do this panel. Graphic Arts in the Liberal Arts was a collaboration between Design Incubation which I mentioned previously, TDC and AIGA/NY. Design Incubation is a collective of design educators. Our goal is to create a community in which designers can assess creative work through a lens of scholarly activity and academic review. TDC helped with the venue, and both TDC and AIGA/NY assisted with getting the word out. The idea was that here we are in New York City and there are all these design educators, but we don’t talk to each other. We don’t necessarily share information. Before I became a part of Design Incubation, I didn’t know many design educators who taught in the City and State Colleges and Universities.

Mark and I are both enthusiastic about teaching, but we’re also practicing designers, and that is our research and scholarship to some level, and it doesn’t exactly fit into academia in the same way as it fits in for other disciplines. If you are in humanities, you write and publish. If you’re in the visual arts, you make art and have exhibitions. But if you’re a graphic designer, it’s a little bit of an odd place. So the guidelines are not so clear because you’re making professional work that you’re getting paid money for and that is your research. A lot of people involved in graphic design have come up against this; what is scholarship in our field? — not all of us are writers — and what are best practices for research and scholarship and tenure when it’s not clear.

MZ: Design Incubation is working to try and bridge that gap, to help especially young designers and young faculty understand those systems and parameters.

LD: So it’s multi-faceted. We teach, we practice, and then we try to put it all together.

TT: My impression is design education is this ‘wild west’ — is that a fair assessment of the situation?

For schools comprised of many adjuncts I can understand how it might be difficult to create a cohesive community.

Is Design Education a Mess?

MZ: It’s not the wild west in terms of mayhem or lack of control, but there are a lot of constituents and issues both formal and technical to address like curricular diversity, multi-disciplinarity, and how curriculum stretches across boundaries. The role of adjuncts is also a big issue, especially in universities the size of ours. For adjuncts, the conditions of their positions are often tenuous. Full-time faculty positions, on the other hand, are hard to come by, but essential to strong programs. For schools comprised of many adjuncts I can understand how it might be difficult to create a cohesive community.

LD: I agree with Mark on that. I do feel like there are a lot of benefits when you have full-time faculty. Certainly, most departments are not going to have all full-time professors, and it’s fantastic to have adjuncts because they bring in a lot of different perspectives and most of them are working in the industry, so they always bring that in. To create and grow a program and to watch the development of the students, that’s something that I think I would not be able to do in the same way as an adjunct.

You watch the students go through four years, so you’re very conscious of things that are working, and not working. It’s super-evident. But the ‘wild west’ part is interesting because one of the takeaways that I got from the panel was how different each panelists approach is — not only to curriculum but everybody’s teaching style in the classroom are completely different. Maybe the quality, of course, is going to vary, but there are a lot of smart people out there teaching a lot of interesting things in very different ways. I certainly got that from our panel; from very open briefs to very directed briefs, from much more conceptual to much more practical and technical.

MZ: In our program we responded to the adjunct question a little differently. A few years ago we started a course in which we split up the semester among a number of visiting designers so that one designer would only have to commit to three or four weeks. The designer proposes a brief and meets with students on Fridays. It was low demand on their professional time, but allowed them a day out of the studio to engage with students on a brief that they were interested in. It’s been gratifying. It was something that we also took away from our London experience and how curriculum and teaching are structured over there — shorter, more intense, briefs that engage both instructor and student in more charrette type experiences.

TT: Guys, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time.

MZ: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

LD: Thank you. See you soon.

Curious about design education? There will be a panel on Typography Education at Type Directors Club on Saturday April 1, 2017.

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