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  • An Instructor of Concern

    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 had.

    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 relate.

    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 the word?

    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.

    About the Author: 

    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.

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