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There is a term among river rafters that describes the feeling
of bewilderment, depression and confusion they experience after a
rafting trip as they leave the tranquility and escape of the river
to go back to normal life. It is called “re-entry.” Many serial
rafters have a ritual for how they ease back into their daily
routine. It usually involves padding the trip with time in
populated areas with traditional amenities so that the shock of
society is lessened, and the transition back into everyday life is
Contemplating re-entry. (photo: Brooke Chornyak)
I have recently graduated from North Carolina State University's
graduate program in graphic design. And I find myself, along with
many of my fellow classmates, attempting a re-entry of my own. When
I first applied to graduate school, I had what I imagine were
similar goals and aspirations for my education as many of my
colleagues (at NC State and other institutions). I imagined
graduate school to be the opportunity that I had been missing in my
professional life—a chance to explore, push boundaries, immerse
myself in new topics, ways of thinking, experiences. Grad school
was, of course, all of that. It was liberating at points,
frustrating at others. It was transformational. And while I knew
all along that I likely wouldn't want to go back into a traditional
role as a designer—or project manager, art director or client
consultant—I struggle to define an alternative. That is the
blessing of a graduate education. It is also the curse of it.
Many of my fellow classmates feel as bewildered as I do. We find
ourselves wanting to continue our work outside of traditional
design settings. Thinking about design and ways of communicating
within the limitations that are typical of client work will not
satiate our creative, independent urges. We find ourselves
unwilling and unable to re-insert ourselves into these environments
because of our exposure and experiences over the past 2+ years of
speculating, exploring, failing (and sometimes succeeding). Is
there a place for us, we who are straddling and negotiating
boundaries that are unfixed? We are not worried about failing. In
fact, we embrace that opportunity. Failure is liberating, and
telling, and exciting. In order to fail, we must put enough of
ourselves out there to be at risk. We are interested in how people
understand design and also how they might change it, own it, tear
it apart and reconstruct it. The notion of 'measuring success' has
taken on new meaning—it is not absolute. We want to understand our
world, to think about how we understand each other, what makes us
love something, hate it, react against it, champion it or be
complacent about it. And while many of us griped about the
challenges we faced during our graduate educations, we now find
ourselves wanting to continue it—to find opportunities to work
together and extend the explorations that we only just began.
Ready for the real world? (photo: Brooke Chornyak)
So the question becomes, who are we designing for? Is it for
ourselves? Is it for the public? Obviously, in school it was
primarily for us. And while the undergrad experience prepared and
excited us for the real world, the graduate experience has invited
us to question what it was that we thought was “real.” So our
re-entry to the professional world becomes about reconciling what
we thought we knew and what we now think we know.
Much of the design world—especially the most successful
designers and design firms—work to define methodologies and apply
identical or similar approaches to the work that they do, and
become known and successful for that approach. What grad school
taught me was how nimble and flexible that approach really needs to
be. That it's less about defining or designing a formula and more
about looking at situations and contexts and designing not just an
object, but a system for that set of particulars. Even more than
that, the role of the designer is not just to respond to a problem
but rather to identify and call out issues and problems that exist
in our lives and experiences. This is what is exciting about
design. That is where I want to live in the design world.
What does this mean for us? Some of us are cobbling together
work that is a mixture of the mundane and the experimental. Some of
us are going back into settings in which we are familiar, with the
hopes that we can find some new stimulation there. Some of us are
trying to make a new way—in education or practice. But I think all
of us are seeing our future not as climbing some ladder of measured
success, because success as a designer has taken on completely new
meanings. It's not about design awards or titles; it's about
personal satisfaction, and research, and finding new ways to
understand our world. That is the thrill of design today, and we
are not willing to give that up just yet, or ever.
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Section: Inspiration -
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Section: About AIGA -
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Section: Inspiration -
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