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In my first year teaching design, a joint task force of AIGA and NASAD
(National Association of Schools of Art and Design) identified me as an
instructor of “concern.” I warranted suspicion as a recent MFA graduate
with “little or no professional practice or teaching experience and
whose masters’ may be their first degree with a major in graphic
design.” Guilty on all counts.
The alert came in a 1997 report, “Selecting and Supporting Graphic
Design Faculty.” It was a timely study. New design programs were
proliferating and enrollment escalating in established ones. The economy
was on a roll, giving designers even less incentive to choose teaching
over practice. As a result, schools were hiring faculty whose engagement
with design practice ranged from tenuous to wholly absent. I was
teaching some undergraduates with more professional experience than I
Put forth as “analytical and consultative only,” the report allowed for
exceptions. But was I one? Am I now, years into a career and facing a
tenure decision? I believe I can “do” design—yet don’t care to. At least
not the way the field regards as significant. Experts in the field have
to certify my work as noteworthy. With dubious professional
credentials, scrutinizing design’s educational values isn’t a
theoretical concern for me.
Nor is it to the design field as a whole. What are the standards that
define the nature and role of a design educator? Articulating what makes
a good design teacher describes the field’s values as much as
pronouncing what makes a good designer. In place of a definition for a
good teacher, design offers equivalence. A good designer is a
good teacher. Of course, when you considered a specific individual’s
facility there are exceptions. But in general, the cliché is inverted:
those who can should teach. Professional repute equals teaching
potential, with designers of renown the most desirable instructors. This
assessment cuts across the spectrum: from full-time tenure-track
faculty to individuals whose primary dedication is to their practice.
After that, design hasn’t much in the way of objective standards.
There is logic at work here but how much of a factor is notoriety? At
issue isn’t if practitioners bring a valuable perspective to education.
They obviously do; and have done so throughout history in various
disciplines, not just design. It’s also proper to think educators might
achieve and maintain esteem for performing the art they profess.
With apologies for the pun, it’s a matter of degree. Is professional
achievement overvalued in education? Could the privileging of celebrity
be holding design back from realizing its potential as a discipline—and
shortchanging students? And could the incursion that concerned the
AIGA/NASAD group actually be an opportunity? Do you have to be able—or
desiring—to make something to know it’s good?
If a designer’s answer to that last question is yes, what does it say about the attitude toward clients? (Perhaps they
are the ideal design educators.) If you cite the need to be formally
sophisticated, then you’ve also said something that doesn’t quite track
with the rhetoric of design being problem solving.
Unsurprisingly, as I outline an alternative to the common description of
a design educator, it looks increasingly like me. This is a problem
with drafting guidelines: they inevitably resemble the drafter. At best,
they’re idealized portraits—what we aspire to be. At worst, they’re
full employment acts and a rationalization of the status quo.
As design is engaged in pure culture, describing the specific skill set a
master practitioner possesses is difficult. A music teacher, for
instance, can exhibit an expertise with an instrument. In design, it’s
near doctrine that a facility with design-making tools (a flair with
software) doesn’t make you a designer.
The asset that practice brings is experience. The knowledge of what has worked is significant. But does that necessarily lead to the capacity to speculate on culture—to imagine what might
be? This means much more than hypothesizing formal novelty. It’s
considering design’s role in society: how and when it may be employed.
We must also recognize that the majority of students will not go on to
practice. Who might best provide for them? I don’t know—but I can
To craft meaningful guidelines for teachers, we must consider the nature
of the process they’ll be engaged in. Is it education or training? Both
are worthwhile pursuits, as long as the institution proclaims which
it’s providing. A program that claims to offer training for aspiring
graphic designers should be weighted toward practitioners as faculty.
Academia has dual, eternally conflicting, functions. It’s a place where knowledge is preserved and
advanced. The former requires conservatism in its literal sense, while
the latter demands challenging the status quo. Ideally, an educator
respects and speaks to both these purposes. If not, programs should seek
balance across its faculty.
Balance was an important and encouraging aspect of that AIGA/NASAD
report. It pragmatically advised combining the savvy with the
inexperienced faculty. (And I can testify to personally benefiting from
this arrangement.) It recognized alternative methods of research—things
other than doing commercial design. Overall, the report remains a
thoughtful and expansive view of design education. Of course, where it
raised caution, I saw an opening. Yet I will go further. As an
interloper from fine art, I’m not far enough removed from
design. The field has been absorbing my kind forever. Design must
recruit more educators with backgrounds in the other liberal arts. The
insights about design that I most admire, that illuminate how design is
part of the continuum of culture, come from such individuals. Isn’t this
design’s dream—that serious people take it seriously? And then, spread
For all of us, standards must be an internal devotion. Being dedicated and inspiring is the minimum
standard for educators. Finding new ways to encourage students to excel
is what comes with the job. What more are we doing to further
knowledge? How are we being tested? Before we ask students to
challenge their preconceptions, to not be in thrall to celebrity and
surface, we must, as teachers, do so ourselves.
Kenneth FitzGerald is author of Volume: Writings on Graphic Design, Music, Art, and Culture, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2010. He was a co-organizer of the AIGA Design Educators Community conference, "Blunt: Explicit and Graphic
Design Criticism Now" in April 2013. He produced The News of the Whirled, a novel in the form of 4-issue limited-edition magazine that received awards for excellence from the American Center for Design and AIGA, and is in the collection of Goldstein
Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota. As an artist, his work is included in public and private collections primarily in New England and New York, with numerous artist books in the Franklin Furnace/Museum of Modern Art/Artists Books collection. He
received an MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and is currently a Professor of Art at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Louise Fili is recognized with a 2014 AIGA Medal for impeccable craftsmanship, elegant use of typography and designing with a passion and focus that is the envy of every designer.
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