Graphic Design – Where Does it Belong in the Academy?

Monday, June 21st, 2004

Over at Cranbrook Design forum we’ve been having an interesting discussion about the teaching of history in graphic design courses.

A broad concensus appears to be against the idea of simple survey courses favouring instead topic-based approaches that attempt to draw links between seemingly disparate cultural texts.

[Edit – I’ll suggest a couple of examples another time]

It is an interdisciplinary approach and one that seems to be lacking despite almost universal desire to do it. Part of the problem surely lies in the fact that for it truly to work, the whole degree program needs to subscribe to the interdisciplinary ethos, not just the “critical theory” portion.

The discussion generally eschewed the idea that graphic design should be taught as a skills-based course, but more as a “liberal art” (I am crudely summing up a long conversation here) that does not shy away from the fact that graphic design is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is an occupation. For my own views on this, see the article that started me off on this blog in the first place, Graphic Design Education is Failing Students.

Despite my fierce advocacy for an unashamedly intellectual approach to graphic design (particularly where it claims degree status) I am conscious that the production of design is important.

During the discussion, David Cabianca commented that:

There is a fine line that exists between a highly structured graphic design course that is so skills-oriented to be vocational, in which case one ends up producing individuals who are incapable of engaging ideas in a broader context. They lack an appreciation for art, literature, or even science, beyond the scope of their myopic education.

At the other end of the scale, a overly diverse humanities centered education leaves students lacking the skills to engage their ideas outside verbal form, without the ability to translate verbal skills to image-based materials.

To which I responded (slightly edited here)

I think you can take it too far, I agree. However, the course you’re describing could be said to be “about” design rather than “in” design, if you like.

I see problems with that here in the UK particularly where you have art/design history courses next door to “making” courses and the two hardly ever communicate and regard each other with suspicion. There must be a third way and a university willing to develop it or (if it already exists) come out and admit it.

As I’ve said elsewhere, moving away from the purely “skills” approach will probably produce better skilled designers.

But after 20 years of design being promoted as a way for “thick” people to get a degree (not by me, but by schools and careers advisors) there is a trenchant anti-intellectualism in some, not all, design education, and a perpetuation of lower expectations in some of the students we get. Potentially brilliant designers and critics of design are put off and go and study something “proper” instead. I think it’s time to start grabbing back the subject as an academic one without being ashamed of saying it, if we are to recover the curiosity- and intellectually-driven design that was lost when people started substituting Photoshop actions for thinking.

Now it was early in the morning when I wrote that, but I don’t shy away from the substance of what I said. Art and design is promoted to kids who are seen as intellectually lacking, and those with “brains” are positively discouraged from going down that route. We have a job to do in schools and with careers advisors, and with applicants to courses who might see design as “easy” when it isn’t. We devalue our subject if we strip it of the discourse that has been its reason for its place in the academy and instead turn ourselves into training establishments turning out Mac Monkeys. (For the record, I’ve been blessed by the students I’ve had at degree level but it is depressing to see some of the candidates for entry to pre-degree courses who turn up with a tracing of Homer Simpson and are convinced this is their last chance to salvage something for themselves. Even more depressing when the order comes from on high to accept anyone who can hold a pencil, knowing that they will drop out despite your best efforts, and that they should be trying to mend the damage done at school, not paper over it).

Anyway – more on that another time (resist the urge to flame me until I am more coherent!)

But all through the discussion at Cranbrook I’ve been thinking about where I would place the subject of graphic design in relation to where it is now. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but this morning I put pen to paper and scribbled something on a handy post-it note- a literal position paper if you like.

Here’s the original post-it:

And here’s a cleaned up version:

I think it speaks for itself – I see the study of graphic design as belonging not in “Art and Design” nor in “Art/Design History” but firmly in culture and communication studies, concerned equally with production and consumption of design.

I’ll leave it there for now. Diagrams are useful as they give you something to focus on and ensure that the debate starts from a common understanding rather than flouncing about misunderstanding what everyone means because the same word is interpreted differently by everyone involved. But they also suffer because they oversimplify a complex situation.

But it’s a start.

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