Graphic Design Family Values

Graphic design education programs are like families -- and as with families, values are passed on, even if they aren't stated explicitly. It is often easy to identify alumni from certain schools by the values evident in their work. How else can one explain student projects that are very experimental and expressive at one end of the spectrum, and others that are more analytical and user-centered at the other? Values are embedded in our students’ work, and reflect what we as educators have determined to be important.

Yet I highly doubt that many high school students actually choose undergraduate graphic design programs based on such issues. My experience as an educator dealing with prospective students is that they select a program based on more pragmatic concerns, such as cost and geographic location, for example. Interested students often have very little idea of the values inherent in a chosen program, which may not be made clear until they're well into a particular course of study. It's also probably unrealistic to expect potential students to ask questions about a program's basic philosophy, as it's not likely to be one of the major concerns factoring in their decision.

This situation requires, therefore, that design educators do two very simple things. First, we must examine our own convictions, and determine which of those we wish to stress through our courses and the experiences we provide to our students. Second, we must take every opportunity to make our values clear to potential students, so that they can actually play a part in a student's decision to enroll in a design program.

So, what are your core beliefs?

The answer to the above question will, of course, differ for each of us. But there are some basic issues that we would all probably do well to consider in the contexts of our courses and programs. In a talk entitled "Legacy of a Sixties Credo" (presented at the 2004 AIGA FutureHistory design education conference), Professor and author Ken Hiebert suggests the following issues for our consideration: 1) Deception vs. Veracity; 2) Posturing vs. Substance; 3) Congestion vs. Clarity; 4) Literalism vs. Abstraction; and 5) Exploitation vs. Accountability (among others). He also urges us to allow our students to put their work to use for more noble purposes, such as enhancing the public's understanding of and participation in our democratic society through the presentation of well-structured information. Likewise, Ken Garland's well-known "First Things First" manifesto (originally published in the UK in 1964 and revised in 2000) expresses similar sentiments.

`The undergraduate program in which I teach emphasizes audience- and user-centered design, as we feel it's important to create communications that meet the expectations of those who ultimately experience them. We also deal almost exclusively with informative communications (as opposed to persuasive), as we have little desire to convince viewers. We simply wish to present the necessary information for decisions to be easily made. Other programs are more oriented toward advertising, where persuasive communication approaches are employed toward various ends. Still others follow a more fine art-based approach, where developing the designer as "author" (that is, someone with a strong, individual voice) is the ultimate goal. Obviously there are varying beliefs at work in each of these types of programs — but are potential students aware of the differences, and are we doing enough to articulate them in how we describe our efforts?

Tell it like it is

Our students find out about us through a variety of media, such as web-sites, printed literature, posters, etc. — but how many of these items actually go beyond the expected program information and provide statements concerning the values on which an educational experience will be based? Such information ought to be front and center, and it should be a proud declaration of what we as design faculty believe. We not only owe it to our potential students, but also to ourselves to make our ideals known. What we stand for as design faculty ought to be plain for anyone to see.

It's confusing enough for the graphic design student to determine which kind of program to choose. Would a BFA be better than a BS Design, or a BA? Is the program a comprehensive major, an emphasis, or just a certain number of design courses? How many reviews will someone go through before they're sure they can actually get through a program? Are there internship or foreign study opportunities? Do the graduates of a program find good jobs? These are the kinds of questions that are typically asked, and on which students base decisions that will affect their professional lives.

Students shouldn't have to think much about the faculty's convictions and how those are reflected through a program's educational approach, as such things should be clearly and simply stated in the information that we provide. I urge all graphic design educators to carefully consider these issues, to discuss them with their colleagues, and to determine how to incorporate such content in the descriptions of their programs. If a program has no clear beliefs on which all faculty members agree, then it's time to start talking and coming to some conclusions.

Being a professional designer means in part that we adopt values that are at the core how we practice. Our profession is diverse, and there are varying beliefs that are reflected in our education programs. It's time for us as design educators to make the values of our programs obvious. Our students deserve to know a bit more about the kind of family they're joining when they embark on their design careers.

About the Author:

Paul J. Nini is a Professor of Visual Communication Design in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. His writings have appeared in a variety of publications, and he has presented at numerous national and international design and education conferences. Paul currently serves on the editorial board of the journal Communication Design: Interdisciplinary and Graphic Design Research (ico-D/Routledge). His degrees include a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) from Miami University (Ohio, 1981), and a MSD (Masters of Science in Design) from the Institute of Design (Illinois Institute of Technology, 1988). Paul recently served as a member of AIGA's Design Educators Community (DEC) Steering Committee. He was also honored in 2011 with the Ed Grauer Award for service to the Columbus Society of Communicating Arts (CSCA).