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I have a prop that I use on the first day of our introductory
graphic design course. It's a box of cake mix-sometimes
brownies-that I connect to a surplus computer keyboard and mouse.
While I review the syllabus, my construction sits in the middle of
the grouped tables we gather around. Sometimes I add to the theater
by setting it up piece by piece, without comment, after the
students have arrived.
Student Rebecca Soorani with the author's computer as cake mix
demonstration (photo: Kenneth FitzGerald).
To try and maintain the suspense while I plow through the course
details, I'll occasionally pause, tap on the keyboard, and then
frown at the box, as if witnessing an undesirable result. This
still won't compel an inquiry from the students. I find their
expressions generally inscrutable in their varied states of
attentiveness-more so on a first day. Either through good manners
or disinterest, they always wait me out until I eventually explain
This bit of “business” is in service of two tasks. One is to
simply inject some mystery and anticipation into a rote
exercise-greetings, handing out sheets of paper, the ritual
mispronunciation of roster names. Actually, I'm hoping to
disrupt students' expectations of what's going to happen in
class, typically that they will just sit down at a Mac and design
will soon appear on screen.
My setup relates to this expectation, illustrating a metaphor of
design activity that I find serviceable and, I hope, illuminating.
Attempting to put the computer's role into a useful context has
been a struggle since its introduction. That it's “just a tool”
ranks as the most popular description. Contesting this is the
opinion that the device embodies a new paradigm of design
I tell students that when they look at the computer, they should
visualize that box of cake mix. The machine and its attendant
software are a premade formulation to facilitate amateurs' need to
easily create something attractive. Aspiring and professional
graphic designers are a secondary market. The resultant problem is
that, as intended, it is relatively easy-too easy-to come up
with something palatable.
Some ability is necessary. That cake, or that design, can't make
itself. And crafting suitable design isn't as foolproof as using
the cake mix, which requires just the addition of a few simple
ingredients (which could also be put in the blend, but are excluded
so the maker gets some baking gratification), and an oven with one
numbered dial. Design students need to demonstrate a facility, some
creativity, beyond following predetermined steps.
I urge students to aspire to pastry chef status as graphic
designers. They should select choice ingredients, carefully
consider the utensils they employ and eschew default choices. This
isn't to run down cake mix product, which I often enjoy. It's a
satisfactory and convenient option when you want a treat. With a
little embellishment, it can be especially tasty.
So can design. While I encourage students to move beyond
convenience, I also caution against elaboration for its own sake
(that someone might enjoy garlic ice cream doesn't make it a
must). However, there are circumstances when it's important
to start from scratch or to devise a new delicacy. And students
should graciously accept that some people are unable to distinguish
between $10-per-slice Black Forest cake and RingDings®. Just as
long as they, the students, sense the difference.
I conclude my rant by pointing out that the best baked cake or
brownie, ultimately, in nutritional terms, isn't good for
you. Whether tiramisu or Twinkie®, you're trading in empty calories
and sugar rushes. In the strictest sense, these concoctions aren't
even food. You can go without sweets and be physically
healthy-probably healthier for cutting them out completely.
However, such comestibles are prevalent and highly desirable.
We know that nutritional value isn't the sole, or even primary,
criterion for what people ingest (just as we know many graphic
designers don't enter the field due to their admiration for the
nutritional facts label). Cake plays an aesthetic, sensuous and
symbolic role: as culture food. It's feeding our feelings.
This is also the case for graphic design.
My proclamation of design=dessert isn't that much of an
incitement to students. They're largely deferential to authority
and express the same mixed range of attentiveness they will for any
random topic. Certainly, my delivery is as questionable as my
premise. I regularly receive as many vacant stares as gently
I'd be surprised-and delighted-if a student actively contested
my framing. Resistance or refutation would demonstrate that someone
had given some thought about what design's role is. Right now,
students-as do most practitioners-work from semi-comprehended
received wisdom of doing and being “good.”
A restated and more nuanced definition of “good” should be on
design's menu. Being a product of culture is worthy… just not how
graphic design has striven to present itself. It labels itself as
nourishment, essential, serious. That may be the objective
good for life, but the subjective makes life worth living.
(And not all delights lack substance. There are some pretty austere
treats out there: Swiss International Style=Nilla® Wafers?)
What's wrong with purveying pleasure? It only goes off the rails
when you get the 24K gold-flaked cakes. Dessert and design are good
for you-emotionally. Purvey that idea and more people may save room
I was raised to believe that an architect should be able to design everything from a spoon to a city. At the root this belief is a commitment to improve the design of everything that can be made—to make it better.
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