I met a design teacher from the Lebanon last year and always meant to pursue our conversation further – his description of how design is taught over there, and the design profession, fascinated me. It’s an area that never really comes up on the radar (at least not here – in the UK we annoint ourselves the “world leaders” and tend to ignore what goes on elsewhere, which if anything surely disqualifies us from the title?).
I like the sound of the American University of Beitrut’s Design in the Community program – it sounds similar to a module I tried to introduce on the last degree I ran, much to the derision of the rest of the staff. Personally I think all design courses should attempt some form of contextualisation in their projects and teaching, but I think that’s not going to be popular in the current climate. Papanek was saying this thirty-five years ago of course in “Design For The Real World” where he suggests design should be about changing people’s lives – not just decorating their walls and filling coffee-table books as I think it is in danger of becoming.
Some courses do this Papanekian stuff quite well – I know of a couple in London for example that run isolated modules often because of a single committed teacher in each case who perseveres against the odds – and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the idea in a workshop on integrating “employability” on courses I ran last year for teachers from different institutions, particularly as we came up with some really good ideas for developing students’ research skills while having an impact on the community. If I remember correctly, it was something to do with interviewing pensioners about their personal treasures and mementoes and developing visual responses to them which would be shown as an exhibition in the town centre – quite simple really, but as we developed it the idea grew and it was clear that in tackling it students would experience far more than the old project which really expected them to do nothing more than stare into space and be “creative”. As the delegates dispersed there was great excitement but also an acceptance that, when they got back to their place of work the idea would be crushed at its first mention. Ah well – I suppose it’s like turtle eggs. You have to lay thousands and hope that just one survives…
Anyway, here’s the article. Interesting from all sorts of angles:
Graphic design in a blind market
By Paul Cochrane
Daily Star staff
Friday, June 25, 2004
BEIRUT: A typographic collage of cut-out words by a student at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in many ways sums up the predicaments that graphic designers face: “The hardest thing to see is in front of your eyes.”
These words refer to critical image analysis – a central aspect of the discipline of graphic design – and also to the challenges designers face regarding their role in society, job aspirations, unappreciative clients, and too many students graduating in the field.
The demand for professional graphic designers, who specialize in designing visual information for print or digital media used for advertizing, publications or websites, has increased in importance in the past decade.
Accompanying this demand has been an upsurge in the popularity of the subject throughout the world, including here in Lebanon, with the American University of Beirut (AUB), LAU, Universite Saint-Esprit de Kaslik (USEK), Notre Dame University, the American University of Science and Technology, and Hawaii University, among others, all offering courses. At LAU there are 400 graphic design students, 200 at USEK, and around 25 graduating every year from AUB. With so many students studying the subject, employment opportunities for quality graphic designers are increasingly scarce, according to professors and students at LAU, AUB and USEK.
“There are too many students graduating in graphic design, which means many of the less qualified and skilled designers will work for less … this affects the designers who are wanting to work on original projects that require more time and effort,” said Hanna Abi Hanna, 22, an LAU graduate. Consequently, the “best way out,” to do genuinely creative work, Hanna said, is to do freelance work or advertizing.
The problem is not just an over-abundance of graduates, but also the relatively small demand for graphic designers in Lebanon. The country may be “the graphic design leader in the Middle East,” as Yasmine Taan, the coordinator of the graphic design program at LAU says, but many graduates end up traveling to the Gulf and other Arab countries for a chance to apply the creative skills acquired at university.
“I worked here for about a year and a half and was doing OK,” said Rami Haje Obeid, 25, a graphic design graduate from the University of Kentucky, “but basically, you work for the day and not for the future.”
Obeid is leaving Beirut next month to work in the United Arab Emirates, as here “you stay on the same (creative) level, unless you work for a major firm. The job market in Dubai is much better, the city is young, there is a lot of work, and you’re guaranteed more money and professionalism,” he said.
The difference that good graphic designers provide is in their approach and understanding of the subject. Talking of the plethora of graphic design graduates, Zeina Maasri, assistant professor of graphic design at AUB, said: “There will be a crisis at some point. I have a problem with new colleges and programs – not with competition, but regarding (the teaching of) critical awareness. We are really part of social and cultural production, so graphic designers have a large responsibility” to prevent a decline in the quality of images that make a daily impact on our visual life.
AUB, LAU and USEK are attempting to counter this problem by requiring students to have as broad an education as possible, with a strong emphasis on the liberal arts and business to aid in the transition to the workplace.
One of AUB’s courses, Design in the Community, aims at stimulating students’ theoretical and critical awareness of the subject and of their role in society.
“It calls the students to be more engaged politically,” said Maasri, “and to address and rethink their own concerns. It is trying to say that graphic design is not just market related … it is about ethics. This is something the advertizing agencies have lost, choosing to beautify myths” at the expense of more realistic images and portrayals of society.
Being critically aware, Maasri says, prevents such artificial thinking and discourages students from working in fields in which they do not believe: “We teach students to look at images as a loaded one, not just aesthetically” and at face value, she added.
This approach to studying graphic design, corroborates Nathalie Fallaha, an instructor at LAU, enables designers to aim for original work in the industry.
“A lot of firms can’t see the difference between an original logo and a copied logo, so we talk a lot about how to educate the client. We stress the whole research period before the design – market research, the firm’s image, competition etc.,” she said.
If taught well, graphic design is a multidisciplinary subject, within and outside the discipline, which aids student’s employment prospects.
“It is a wide field that crosses many boundaries and fields, such as in design, television, animation, interactivity (web design), printing and publishing,” said Taan.
She said LAU attempts to go beyond teaching techniques by working with companies on projects, and offering specialized courses. In the past year, students have been working on a packaging design for a new brand of arak. The winner of the project will have their design produced and the opportunity to work with the company through the final production phase of the product, Taan said.
Fallaha said the program is “trying to respond to saturation in the market with graphics by transcending traditional approaches and pushing for multimedia, web design and packaging. There is a very high need for that in industry. For instance, web designers are not as creative as graphic designers – there is not a bridge between graphics and technology, or information architecture in the market.”
Adding to the market focus of the program, the LAU administration encourages instructors to interact and work in the graphic design industry. Fallaha runs her own studio outside of the university, hiring AUB and LAU graduates to work with her on projects. Fallaha says this helps her to keep a modern edge in teaching graphic design, and to avoid professional redundancy in the industry.
AUB is aiming for professional recognition by registering the program as a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design in New York. Such professional accreditation enables graduates to be accepted into higher education programs in the US and Europe, said Zeina Maasri.
Typography, the technique of printing with moveable type, is another aspect of LAU and AUB programs that deal with a contemporary market need. LAU’s 2004 graphic design exhibition, entitled “Closer,” is a compilation of typography and visual design concepts.
The importance of developing Arabic typography into digital type is its application to digital typefaces for computer and visual-media use, an area of graphic design offering a wealth of possibilities in the region.
“Latin digital type designers are well aware of the necessity of making this variety available for graphic artists,” writes Zeina al-Abed in the “Closer” catalogue. “Arabic digital types currently present in the market lack this variety and are mostly imprisoned by classical construction principles set by Arabic calligraphy,” she adds.
LAU students have designed more than 80 typefaces, stemming from abstract shapes and conceptual ideas such as human veins, music-bar lines, and the famous moustache of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
“It is hard to adapt Arabic to digital typefaces,” said Abi Hanna, “as the letters are all attached, unlike Latin script. It is also difficult to find a font that is interchangeable between Latin and Arabic script.”
With such an abundance of quality work on display at the LAU exhibition, as there has been at other universities over the past few months, the competition among future graduates will be fierce. A wealth of creativity in coming years is assured – that is, as long as designers are able to express themselves and clients appreciate what is in front of their eyes.