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What is the greatest problem facing graphic design
education today? Not enough quality time. With the exception of
occasional two-year programs, most undergraduate colleges and art
schools offer four years—one of them being foundation, a questionable
squandering of significant design teaching time. So the average
education lasts three years, which is insufficient to cover everything
today’s well-rounded graphic designer should know. What might ease this
“crisis in education?” Perhaps what this country needs is a five-year
Of course this assertion contradicts prevailing beliefs. But, arguably,
the increasing number of applications (particularly from graduating
seniors) to the growing number of American graduate design programs is
evidence that today’s BFA students are not entirely prepared (or
confident) to function in a world of integrated practice and advanced
technology. Let’s face it, a three-year education is old school.
Proficiency in requisite technologies, not to mention a slew of optional
techniques, easily takes a year or more to master in a rudimentary way.
Acquiring fluency in the design language(s), most notably type, is an
ongoing process. Then there is instruction and practice in a variety of
old and new media—print and web, editorial and advertising, static and
motion, not to mention drawing and photography—these take time to learn,
no less to hone. And what about the liberal arts: writing, history and
criticism? Theory is also a useful foundation if taught correctly, but
it is often perfunctorily shoehorned into studio classes. How can a
design student function without verbal expertise, let alone the ability
to read and research? This must also be taught in an efficient manner
that takes time. And then there is basic business acumen; every designer
must understand fundamental business procedures, which are virtually
ignored in the ultimate pursuit of the marketable portfolio.
Whew, that’s a lot to accomplish in just three years. But, added to this
are the necessary internships that also take chunks of time. Frankly,
students should not be allowed to enter the field without a little real
world experience under their belts. So shouldn’t there be time set aside
for a few solid internships or work-abroad programs in addition to a
strong course load?
Art and design schools that ostensibly begin to teach design majors in
the second year have barely prepared their sophomores for design
literacy. Foundation classes may offer some credits towards graduation,
but what good are these credits if the knowledge has little bearing on
the major? It is hard enough being merely competent these days, but
fluency in type and conceptual thinking is so essential that more, not
less, time must be devoted to it. Most sophomores, even those who excel
in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or In Design, are plunged into problem
solving without the ability to parse the problems they are asked to
solve. Sure, their instincts and skill-sets evolve over time, but in the
truncated three-year timeframe there are greater chances that too many
students will be left behind.
The greatest single area of ignorance among students (and some
professionals) is type and typography. It takes a sustained effort and
practice to produce a type literate student who knows how to compose
type, what type is designed to express, and the history of letterforms
as design components. By the senior year too many students are still
type novices, following superficial trends or rote traditions, and the
portfolios prove that the standard for literacy is not as high as it
might be. If nothing else, BFA graduates should flawlessly “speak” the
language of type. Regrettably, claiming proficiency with computer
programs seem to be more important.
Blame can sometimes be laid at the feet of instructors, but not always.
How many times do good teachers lament the lack of time devoted to their
specialty, or complain about the overall course work packed into a
short time period that diverts student attention? In a three-year
program the number of required classes (and credits) often exceed the
ability of the student to be well taught, or at least to retain what
Given the programmatic and bureaucratic intricacies of higher education,
a five-year program is probably unrealistic, but not altogether
impossible. One solution is to eliminate foundation. But more
importantly, it is necessary for administrators to accept that
twenty-first century pedagogy is more complex than before. More, not
less, schooling is demanded in many fields today, especially design. At
the same time, design students must not be encouraged to view graduate
school as merely a two-year supplemental extension of their
undergraduate education. MFA faculties should not have to teach remedial
type or computer programs—leave that for continuing education classes.
Rather MFA programs should offer an additional two (or three) years to
analyze and research bigger ideas for which there is no opportunity in
the workaday world. MFAs should be advanced options after certain levels
of experience are attained. Undergraduate education should be a full
plate of pedagogical necessities that prepare students to enter the
Admittedly, five years is not a lot of time either, but it will enable
teaching of technology and encourage its immediate integration into the
design process in the freshman year. Furthermore, it will allow courses
on history, criticism, and theory to be more than electives or add-ons
(critical history should be a three year parallel track intersecting
with studio practical classes). The added year(s) should allow for more
advanced minors in interrelated subject areas. More time could also
allow for longer and more varied internships as requirements towards
graduation. Five years of dedicated design pedagogy will better prepare
students to enter the workforce, where doubtless they will learn even
Undergraduate design education is not the last word in creating the good
designer; work experience is essential. Yet more education accelerates
professional growth. There are many terrific graduates emerging every
year, but just think how many more there could be if graphic design
education was not hampered by such a truncated production line. An extra
year or two could make a big difference for everyone.
Ann Willoughby is recognized with the AIGA Medal for her inquiring design mind, social responsibility, sustained leadership and influence in the design community, and for championing the role of women in the profession.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview
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