I have, on several occasions, encountered graphic design courses where tutors will walk into a studio full of waiting students and deliver a verbal brief similar to this: “I want you to explore the idea of isolation” or “illustrate the concept of repetition”.
You know the sort of thing – they’re called ‘conceptual’ briefs, and they’re usually the result of an extremely poor imagination on the part of the staff, or just stupid attitudes to planning.
There’s no indication of what students are supposed to learn on these projects, or how they will be assessed. For the students, it’s nothing more than a guessing game, wondering what it is that the tutors are after, and hoping that they get it right.
Briefs like this (unclear, ill-considered) have no place in graphic design education. They’re not the equivalent of creative callisthenics, the sort that might be used in writing classes because they aren’t presented as such. All they do is confuse people – even tutors can’t agree on how to assess the results, and the people who set them are notoriously contradictory in the advice they give and the way they assess.
A student approached me shortly after I started teaching back in 2000, having difficulty with a brief to design a poster illustrating key graphic design concepts. In actual fact, this was the fifth or sixth student who had mentioned this to me, and I knew there were many more.
‘What is being tested here?’ I asked, ‘Your design skills, your layout skills, or maybe you knowledge of key design concepts?’
‘I don’t know’, she said.
There’s the first problem. What are the objective criteria for evaluating the results? All graphic design briefs in industry have (or should have) this simple list. It might be ‘increase awareness of our new product among users of competitor X’, or ‘increase understanding of our core message among currently under-represented markets such as young women’. It’s those clear objectives that allow someone to judge firstly what is wanted, and secondly whether what is produced will work.
The same is necessary in education: we call them ‘learning outcomes’ in our jargon and they’re usually worded something like ‘by the end of this module/unit/project students should be able to demonstrate their ability to communicate key concepts of graphic design to…’ or ‘show their ability to experiment with different layouts and reach a rational conclusion about the best choice for clear communication’.
It’s actually really difficult to write good learning outcomes and those are very poor examples – but even these would be far better than the wooly, even non-existant intended outcomes that accompany most project briefs. The truth is, most projects have the same invisible learning outcomes: ‘students will be kept busy for several weeks while we wander round acting like gods and giving out contradictory advice, then disappear to the staff room and complain about how stressed we are’.
So this student had no objectives and, therefore, no idea about how to proceed. ‘I can’t get creative about this’ she said. Okay, well two mistakes there. Firstly this belief that you have to be ‘creative’ in graphic design. 99% of design isn’t ‘creative’ in the sense that it’s usually used in ‘our world’. To be creative means to create, it doesn’t mean to be different or special or unique or ‘knock your socks off’.
Armed with this mythical view of creativity as being different, students dismiss potentially good ideas – something they learn from their tutors – because they’ve ‘been done before’ or ‘it’s old hat’ or ‘it’s too clichéd’. Well here’s a newsflash: communication relies on clichés. If we didn’t use phrases and words and gestures that were understood through familiarity we would always be finding ourselves misunderstood. That’s if we could actually come up with something to say. And that’s the problem with our definition of ‘creativity’ – we tell our students that it means being different and so they stare into space fearful to the point of nervous collapse of coming up with anything that might be familiar, if not to them then to their tutor who has the knowledge of accumulated years of fantasising over back issues of Creative Review, the designer’s Playboy.
The second mistake revealed in the student’s comment was that it relied on the idea that creativity is something that you pray for, and wait for, like the second coming. It’s depicted as a religious experience that some people are gifted with and others seek in vain. Creativity as religious experience is bull. We create whenever we make a cup of tea or a sandwich, whenever we make conversation or whenever we shake hands. It happens all the time and we are all of us equally creative. Creativity is a response to a situation, an action that causes things to happen. It isn’t a miracle. It’s like breathing: we all do it. The secret to breathing better, to improving the flow of oxygen to our muscles and organs, is to understand how breathing works and how it can be utilised. The same with creativity – and yet we do not teach creativity, we just expect it to happen and condemn those that appear to lack the gift. Many people insist creativity can’t be taught. The thing about fallacies like that is you only need one example of someone being taught to be more creative to disprove them – and there are many, many examples to hand.
So there was my student, confused and lacking ideas (she actually had lots of ideas but as I said they were all rejected out of hand not because they wouldn’t work, but because they weren’t ‘creative’ enough).
I told her she had to set herself some objectives, to tighten the brief. And the first thing I said she could do to help would be to define her audience. Forget the client for now, I said – you can please the client all you want in graphic design but producing a design that the client likes is just massaging their ego. And designing to please yourself, the designer, or worse – to please other designers – is nothing more than what I call ‘designerwank’, okay when done in private but somewhat disturbing when done in groups or in public.
‘Who do you want to teach these key concepts to?’ I asked. ‘Because if you decide you want to teach them to 13 year olds thinking of studying design at school, it will be a different poster than one aimed at first year design students. And if you decide your audience is expert designers then it’ll be completely different again. So choose an audience and then you can go back to your ideas and see if they work.’
Immediately the ideas started flowing and I left her with at least half a dozen completely workable, creative, ideas. She only had a few hours left but none of them would take long to produce, at least to a rough presentable state (something else we get wrong in design education is that we expect students to finish everything to a ‘professional’ standard, yet in reality no idea tends to progress beyond the black marker sketch before it’s taken off to the artworkers – and the majority of our students want to be the ideas people, not the Mac Monkeys; yet our focus diverts them down precisely this path).
I bumped into the student a few days later and asked her how the project was going. She’d thrown away all the ideas she’d come up with and gone for something ‘conceptual’ – she admitted it made no sense to look at, but it ‘looked creative’ – lots of letterpress and faded letterforms. She’d taken the view that the real intended outcome of the brief was not to answer it with something that worked, but something that you could frame and stick on your wall. That is, in many cases, what attracts the good marks in design education – not design, but ‘art’. In the design world the word ‘concept’ means something concrete, justifiable, objective; in the art world it means the exact opposite. And that’s what this student had decided was required.
It had taken her weeks to do something that a more intelligently constructed brief would have taken a few hours. There’d been no teaching as such, only ‘critiques’ that left her more confused. And there’d been no rational criteria for any of the judgements made.
She had learnt absolutely nothing, produced a piece of work she hated, and come out of it thoroughly depressed. All for the sake of a misunderstanding of what ‘being creative’ means and a lazy approach to teaching.