Frontin’ vs. Keepin’ It Real: A case study for design education

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 designed by Joseph Mann

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 design education?

Typography made from cassette tape, designed by Dan Marino.

Typography made from cassette tape, designed by Dan Marino. (photos: David Maki and Dan Marino)

Keepin’ it real

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 this.

Stairwell graphics spell out lyrics from Rapper's Delight.

Stairwell graphics, installed by Toni Chester and Shannon Marklin, designed by Toni Chester. (photos: Teresa Cunningham)

Makin’ it real

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.

Spray paint cans suspended in front of graffiti installation at Hip Hop Haven show.

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.

Exhibition with large hanging portraits of the Hip Hop Haven kids 
Members of Hip Hop Haven

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).

Passing the mic

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 you.

*Bold italic text indicates lyrics from Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper's Delight”