Meredith Davis, who comes from a family of teachers, says, “I don't remember not expecting to teach—it's in my history.” Her first job, after earning two degrees in art education, was as a middle-school art teacher in Pennsylvania. Then, in the mid-1970s, when her interests steered her to design, she went to Cranbrook Academy of Art. There, funded by a grant from the Michigan Council of the Arts, as part of a student team, she developed a curriculum for use in 500 Michigan public schools that introduced students to communication, objects and environments as outcomes of design decision-making. This was the beginning of Davis's long and multifaceted investigation of the complex relationship between design and education.
Upon graduating from Cranbrook, Davis embarked on the phase of her career most directly connected to design practice. Practice for Davis, however, was never far away from teaching. Her first position, as a curator of education and designer at the Hunter Museum of Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee, enabled her to straddle both fields. Not only was she teaching full-time and administering programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, she was also running Communication Design—the firm she founded in 1979—where she oversaw large-scale projects for clients such as Best Products, the United Nations and Twentieth Century Fund. “This was to make certain I knew that what I was teaching could live in the world of practice,” she says.
Among the notable pieces of work Davis did at Communication Design, in collaboration with her two colleagues Robert Meganck and Rob Carter, was the 1980 annual report for Best Products Company. The report gained the design community's attention and received multiple awards for its innovative integration of the editorial and financial information, its use of black-and-white photography, and its rejection of what were, at the time, conventional approaches to report design, such as full-bleed photography on the cover. As Davis recalls it, “Our clients tended to be those interested in rethinking standards and conventions of format.”
By 1989, feeling the need for more reflection than her double life of full-time teaching and practice allowed her, Davis quit her practice and moved to North Carolina State University (NCSU) to focus on teaching. Within three months of her arrival, she was asked to head a new department of Graphic Design, and in 1997, she became director of the Graduate Program.
Davis's interest in graduate education and design research deepened, and in the same year, using an NEA grant, she published a series of Annotated Graduate Research Bibliographies that aimed to illustrate what kinds of literature support exemplary graduate teaching and research. She began to believe more and more in the need for design research as one of the defining characteristics that separates a “trade” from a “profession.” In 2005, she became the director of Ph.D. program in Design, having developed only the second doctoral offering in graphic and industrial design in the United States.
Accreditation, assessment and their associated issues are abiding concerns for Davis. Among her initiatives in this area is a collaboration between AIGA and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), which focuses on articulating a set of national standards that are sufficiently open to allow for innovation, but also rigorous in setting minimum thresholds for program performance. Davis is interested in how programs make judgments about what they're doing and what it means to the practice of design. As a member of NASAD's accreditation commission, she visits programs around the country on a regular basis. Among the issues she investigates are: how teachers learn to teach; how to develop a pedagogy consistent with one's philosophy of design; and how to develop meaningful education in the context of a reward system that tends to only value great portfolios.
Another aspect of Davis's work with design education is her writing. She is committed to the publication of literature for college students and faculty and to expanding the sources for graduate design education. In 2004, Thames and Hudson commissioned Davis to edit a series of design textbooks and to author one on graphic design theory. She makes writing a big part of the NCSU graduate program. “We require students to make sense of their work through writing,” she says. “Writing is a good way to emphasize the importance of the construction of an argument.”
Davis contributes her time to numerous professional organizations and policy-making bodies. As well as working with NASAD, since 1990, she has been actively involved with the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of Chief State School Officers. In 1986 and again in 1992, Davis took on the presidency of the Graphic Design Education Association, and in 1989, she began 10 years of service on the American Center for Design's board of directors. Later, in 1995, she became a director on AIGA's national board and has continued to serve the organization in a variety of capacities ever since. For Davis, among the virtues of these organizations is the fact that they provide what she describes as “a forum for taking on big issues that just can't happen with individuals.” She has spearheaded numerous projects through AIGA, mostly aimed at increasing designers' understanding of the role and importance of design education in relation to practice and its larger contexts.