Cramming Conceptual Abilities into Design Curricula

American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)

Learning how to think critically and clearly, exposure to the best of what has been thought and said, and a broad awareness of history, literature and the social sciences can help you grow enormously as thinkers, makers, and citizens.

By Dan Warner

Advertising, so the maxim goes, is the mother of design. This rings true even for those students who haven’t spent a lot of time exploring the historical roots of the field. And most can also agree that graphic design is fundamentally about persuasion: intellectual, logical, emotional and aesthetic. Students intuitively grasp that even when a piece of design is not hawking a particular product, brand or lifestyle, it is always hawking an idea or making a pitch to the emotions. Good designers are effective persuaders. It’s easy to note this, but much harder to make it a steady reality in our studio classrooms.

To be an effective persuader, I believe one needs more than creative drive, technical know-how and aesthetic insight. One must also have a nimble and discerning mind that is able to draw from a large pool of experience and knowledge. Many students inevitably lack this experience and knowledge. Life experience of course comes only with time, and is generally forged beyond the bubble of a college campus. Knowledge and discernment, however, are precisely what the university was created to preserve, enhance, and cultivate.

First, a word of caution; I’m not advocating that visual communications should fall under the purview of the liberal arts (a discussion Gunnar Swanson once opened up), and I see many hurdles in restructuring design curricula as a five-year program (as Steven Heller has often proposed). Truth be told, I’m skeptical that the graphic arts could contribute much meaningful new knowledge in the liberal arts sense. However, I’m certain that, in the forced transformation from a profession to a field of academic study (with all the intellectual rigor and critical research that connotes), design would lose much more than its vigorous emphasis on learning through making: It would lose the grounded practicality that ensures its relevance to the marketplace.

And it is undeniable: Our profession is firmly grounded in practical concerns of the marketplace. Career success will always play a major role–not only in calibrating a designer’s reputation among peers, but as a fundamental criterion for gauging the worth and merit of the program that produced the designer. Swanson once noted that graphic design (while a robust field of ever-expanding technical and creative possibilities) is also a narrow, highly specialized line of work. As such, much of the undergraduate curriculum is concerned directly with preparation meant to enhance prospects for future employment. A well-honed aesthetic sensibility, coupled with knowledge of craft techniques and fluency in current technology, is of paramount importance. Who would deny, as others have noted, that to forfeit visual and technological training is to cripple students’ otherwise reasonable expectation of launching a career in the field?

The department or program that aims to send its students to the top of the profession, and do so with some consistency, obviously cannot afford to devalue the vocational aspect of design training. In this particular essay, however, I’ve set aside concern with the aesthetic, visual and technical training portions of a solid design education. The following will focus on a different part of the equation.

As Davis, Lupton, Wild, Heller and others have pointed out, the liberal arts can hold much insight into the work of design. Awareness of some things, like Gestalt theory, can have an immediate practical impact. I believe awareness of other things, like classical literature or social psychology, can have a deeper, if perhaps less obvious in its surface application, impact on the designer. (And really, in the end, on any thinking human being of any vocation).

Teaching students how to think critically and clearly, exposing them to the best of what has been thought and said, and creating a broad awareness of history, literature and the social sciences can help them grow enormously as thinkers, makers, and citizens. Visual communications however is not a liberal art. Design programs and curricula are not about producing the fullness of mind that comes from widely diversified knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.

That said, I must admit I see the tenets of a liberal arts education, distilled into a few underlying goals, as key factors in awakening student potential across any major. (i.e. 1. Exposing students to multiple perspectives on a given topic or subject [not inculcating students, but equipping them to see nuance and complexity]. 2. Enhancing reading, writing and critical thinking skills that will enable students to evaluate the merits and fallacies of the ideas and assumptions they will encounter throughout life. 3. Generating awareness of what humankind has thought, said and done throughout the history of our species.) Ultimately I see these as a part of producing designers who excel.

I also believe an effective and well-rounded degree in visual communications requires a basic understanding of communications in general. Awareness of the interrelated techniques of communication (debate, critical argumentation, persuasion, rhetoric, oral skills, etc.) can fulfill several important functions: It places visual communications in a larger context, it is a wonderful resource for creating more vigorously persuasive design, and it also serves as a foundation for empowering students not to stumble through common missteps in their own thinking.

The question comes down to what we can do to support, as fine arts faculty, initiatives that help teach design students to think–clearly and critically as well as creatively. Why are the non-visual techniques of persuasion, from rhetoric to critical thinking, propaganda to debate, so conspicuously absent from students’ training? What can we do, not just in classroom pedagogy but also in curricular structure, to produce first-rate thinkers as well as exceptional designers?


© AIGA  Used with permission.