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As a designer and educator teaching at North Carolina State
University, I am aware that many of the “jobs” my students are up
for go something like: “This is an unpaid position that will give
the design student an opportunity to work on a real project.”
Solicitations like these are the only growth industry in a stagnant
economy. Sent from for-profit companies that like to keep profit
“for” themselves, they suggest two things: (1) a “real” project
must be so inherently valuable as to transcend fair compensation,
and (2) school work is not real work.
Hip Hop Haven exhibition introductory wall. Laser-etched records
designed by Joseph Mann; cloud label by Toni Chester.
Why do we devalue school work so? Because design education is
faking it. Yes, exercises with hypothetical content, clients and
audiences are ubiquitous. They sensibly fix variables to train the
beginner. Like riding a stationary bike, these assignments give you
a work out and cause no harm if you fall and spin your wheels.
Indeed, speculative projects promote imaginative engagement.
Students think further—they ask why and why not;
how and how about; what and what if.
But it all stops at the Photoshop mock-up, which is a problem.
Can't we do something more with this potential? How can we elevate
Typography made from cassette tape, designed by Dan Marino.
(photos: David Maki and Dan Marino)
Professors should design outcomes that not only benefit the
student but encourage the student to benefit society. We need to
recognize students' capability. Training begets talent. By senior
year, students work fluidly, design innovatively and think
logically. Given this, assignments should champion them in the
(real) world. But how? If ya ask me why I rock so well,
a big bang, I got clientele.*
Find an “un-client” or those who don't have the opportunity to
hire: the homeless, the elderly, the youth, the trees, the
squirrels. Rationalize away lack of compensation. (Rewards from
improving social conditions are payment themselves.) Now imagine
the impact if every senior in every university engaged like
Stairwell graphics, installed by Toni Chester and Shannon
Marklin, designed by Toni Chester. (photos: Teresa Cunningham)
Our school has production luxuries: a laser cutter that
precisely cuts type out of Plexiglass, cardboard and wood; a photo
plotter that allows for large-format output; and a CNC router that
carves wood and metal into stencils and reliefs. No missing
fingers—it's all done by computer! Impose a design process that
takes postulation into production.
Defining the many styles of graffiti, installation, designed by
Amber Majors. (photo: Nick Schlax)
Now what you hear is not a test — I'm rappin' to the
beat, and me, the groove and my friends are gonna try to move your
feet. This describes our semester. We kept it real,
we made it real and we moved people's feet. In line with the
extension and engagement mission of NCSU, our downtown studio
partnered with a nonprofit to design an exhibition together. No
longer was 3-D design flattened into 2-D elevations. We constructed
space! Our photo-faked printouts turned into interiors. And the way
it unfolded was extraordinary.
Enter Hip Hop Haven.
This nonprofit reaches out to inner-city youth, providing a home
away from home. They use hip-hop as a vehicle to address social
problems. Adolescents meet there to take classes or get help with
homework. The Haven just opened and they just happened to be our
neighbor—a big bang, we found clientele.
The goal of the exhibition was twofold: to raise awareness for
Hip Hop Haven and give my students exhibition design experience. In
doing so, we learned about hip-hop. “Rapper's Delight” stair
graphics made you hip-hop up the stairs. A “B-boying” video told
why it's not the same as “break dancing.” A timeline hung on a
clothesline. Graffiti styles—throw-ups, tags and wild-style—were
classified on spray-paint cans floating in midair. We also
exhibited collateral material—gifts for the Haven that included
stationery, brochures and posters, supplemented by a website.
Portraits of the Hip Hop Haven kids, taken by their peers, were
suspended from the ceiling (top, photo: Nick Schlax). Pictured
above (clockwise): Anthony Smith (by Jermal Hooker); Kevin Barber
(by Demarcus McNeil); Kevin Barber and Briana Robinson (by Demarcus
McNeil); and Charles McPhail (by Shahndle Smith).
But the heart of the show was in the heart of the room:
larger-than-life photographs of the Hip Hop Haven kids that were
mounted from the rafters. All of those portraits were taken by the
Haven kids themselves, who had little or no prior experience with
photography. Of their own accord, the NCSU students—spearheaded by
Nick Schlax, Helen Shaffer and Dan Marino—taught the Hip Hop Haven
students about lighting and framing. After presenting the basic
functions of the camera, my students set up a photo shoot. The
hip-hop kids brought in objects that expressed themselves. Lights,
camera, action, we have amateurs shooting like professionals.
Setting up real situations to work in, you get real results in
which everyone learns something.
I discovered in the process that to be a better teacher I need
to prepare my students not for real world experiences but
for better world experiences. Not only did my class design
a real exhibition; they proposed an exhibition that would not have
happened otherwise, which brought hundreds of visitors to a place
that deserved recognition. We made the rhythm of the
boogie, the beat. So, balance design education with
training and trajectory and go where the beat takes
*Bold italic text indicates
lyrics from Sugarhill Gang's
In an expansive global design economy, diversity is not a social cause but a business imperative.
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