Education, Career, Community: Answering Important Questions

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The following piece was contributed by Kelly Munson, a creative at mono who’s currently the University of Minnesota’s first-ever Designer in Residence.

This fall, I took a sabbatical from my job as designer at mono and graciously stepped into a brand-new role at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, as the school’s first ever Designer in Residence. It’s a nine-month program, and my challenge is to help bridge the theoretical approach and practical methods in the field of graphic design.

One of the best parts of my new role is being back on a university campus. I’ve been inspired by the energy of the students and have also been privy to some great conversations happening around design education. “We live in a time where even the change is changing” is a phrase that came out of one such meeting, and it has stuck with me.

In reflecting back on the work we’ve created at mono over the past 10 years, I realize traditional 2D graphic designs like logos, icons and layouts have been a surprisingly small piece of it. [Learn more about mono’s dedication to simplicity.] Under my title of “designer,” I’ve made stop-motion videos, crafted an esoteric swap meet, commissioned a musical score, coded a movement-driven light show, and staged a human infographic.

This variety of work has led me to observe how design today is big and bold but at the same time still very precise and nuanced. I find myself wondering how I will stay relevant in a field that is so vast and constantly shifting beneath us. And as I watch students work to expertly kern letters and master color harmonies, I can’t help but wonder whether we are doing our part to prepare them for constant change that is happening all around us.

So, I’ve spent time reflecting on the following questions.

answers to important design questions

How do we best prepare our students for success?

Teach them how to find beauty. Being able to recognize and ultimately use beauty to make projects powerful is when regular old problem-solving really gets exciting and turns the corner toward design.

Help them create excitement. There are becoming fewer formulas that guarantee a good design graduate, but excitement for the profession is something that can at least guarantee some level of success.

Encourage cultural awareness. It will help students prepare for a career in activism, but it will also make them good marketers.

[Read about 12 students who traveled from Pasadena, CA to Berlin to work for a semester at Art Center’s pop-up design studio in Bikini Berlin.]

Highlight the importance of listening skills. In our industry, it’s becoming apparent that being a good listener is almost as important as a having a loud voice.

And lastly, consider the metaphor designer as connective tissue––having skill sets that allow us to make connections, draw conclusions and create movement in areas of stasis.

How do working designers prepare for a career of infinite possibility?

Prepare to be a lifelong learner. Chances are the moment you master a tool or an application it will be out of date. But in lean times with decreasing budgets and shorter timelines, “learning time” isn’t always possible. So …

Make friends that are smart in ways you aren’t. I’ve really benefitted from buddying up to folks that were willing to let me watch as they built Arduino boards, or wrote code. Build extra time into your project for this because design solutions will take on so many different forms it might make for strange bedfellows.

Prepare to collaborate. Whether you are seeking to master a new medium or gain a different perspective, set an extra place at the table and be willing to share credit.

Be more humble about what you can and can’t pull off by yourself. As the speed of business increases, you aren’t going to have the luxury of becoming an expert in everything. Sometimes the ability to act quickly beats the desire to master a certain skill. Because of that, we might need to be a bit patient with ourselves in order to make good, relevant work.

As the definition of design broadens and becomes more integrated, how do we maintain a strong sense of community?

Traditional graphic design isn’t going anywhere, but the profession of what is considered design is widening, loosening and, yes, becoming less defined. What used to be an ink-and-paper­–based profession now incorporates everything from code to clay. So, as we scatter and find our careers anywhere and everywhere, what’s going to be hard but important to maintain is our design community.

So consider expanding your definition of who is considered a “designer.” For example, I’ve done this while working to be a good partner to UX designers, creative technologists and fine artists that I might be paired with on any given project.

Even though design is taking on a form that might not be immediately recognizable, the qualities that unite design—beauty and craft—transcend any medium. And we’re all being invited to participate in a bigger conversation.

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