Interview with Richard Wilde

Posted inDesign Education
Thumbnail for Interview with Richard Wilde

For Richard Wilde, chair of the School of Visual Arts Advertising and Graphic Design Department, it is 40 years and counting. In 1969, the Brooklyn-born designer was hired by Bob Giraldi to teach in the advertising department at SVA. Two years later, Silas Rhodes, founder of the school, appointed him, at the age of 27, as chair of the advertising department and art director of the SVA Press. Two years after that, he founded SVA’s undergraduate graphic design department.

During the past 40 years, Richard Wilde has graduated many thousands of students, all of whom run through the gauntlet known as the Visual Literacy class, where their conceptual fortitude is put to the test. Wilde is first and foremost an idea man, and while the tenets of good typography and strong image-making are key to his design pedagogy, it is the concept that is truly king.

To celebrate his impressive contributions to design education, SVA has mounted “The Wilde Years: 40 Years of Shaping Visual Culture,” an exhibition showcasing 130 of Wilde’s most illustrious grads (that’s a lot of grads). While he was planning the show, I asked him to talk about his views on education—how it has changed in the 21st century and what must remain constant—and what he has planned for the next 40 years.

exhibition 1

Exhibition photo by John Wyszniewski/SVA.

You are dyslexic. How has it affected your teaching and your practice?I do have shades of dyslexia and curiously enough, I’ve found numerous other creatives who fall into this category. For me, during my formative years, I took in information differently than most students. This only became clear later on in life that the left-brained academic world was not equipped to educate me. So, because of this inability, I had to educate myself by inventing creative, problem-solving methodology to bypass traditional ways of learning. Eventually, I embraced academia and did so with an understanding of how this world systematically teaches right-brained individuals, which better enabled me to understand better how to educate all students. In short, this deficiency proved to be a great help later on.

How has your advertising background influenced the way you run (and teach) a graphic design program?

Actually, my background has been divided between being a graphic designer and an advertising art director. Advertising gave the graphic design program a conceptual orientation, while my graphic design background helped to incorporate formalism into a highly conceptual advertising program.

exhibition 2

Exhibition photo by John Wyszniewski/SVA.

It’s pretty obvious why your 40th anniversary exhibition at SVA is called “The Wilde Years,” but tell me truthfully, were they really wild?Growing a department which now exceeds more than 900 students was “wild” for me because it unknowingly impacted every aspect of my being. Being in charge of two diverse departments challenged me emotionally, intellectually, and creatively. It is a roller coaster, and I’m still trying to catch my breath. But that’s the way I like it.

I was watching the Sotomayor hearings this summer, and, of course, the senators have asked her about her “judicial philosophy.” Do you have a teaching philosophy?Yes, and it is predicated on creating conditions where innovative problem solving can arise. But this approach is confined only to my class. As an administrative chair, I am open to all philosophical and pedagogical approaches to graphic design and advertising. In truth, the department is not so much about philosophy as it is about practice.

exhibition 3

Exhibition photo by John Wyszniewski/SVA.

Advertising and graphic design are often like unfriendly stepchildren. The former says typography is for sissies, and the latter scorns “selling” as crass. How, in your teaching, do you bridge these polar opposites?

I see that advertising supports graphic design and graphic design supports advertising, and my students, early on in their education, are required to take courses in both disciplines. Viewed from a broader perspective, advertising stresses a conceptual approach toward problem solving, while graphic design focuses on form, but both (form and content) are needed to do great work. After a year of intense study in both areas, students then select their discipline based on their class experience, but in either case, each area is broadened by this initial involvement. But, for the record, I keep my advertising instructors as far away from my graphic design instructors as possible.

You are known—in part because you and your wife Judith published two books on the subject—for your challenging “visual literacy” class projects (and there are hundreds of them). These involve stating a problem, like your “Jack and Jill” project, and then the students are supposed to diagram the solution in sequential grids. How do these project come about?Judith and I are always trying to come up with new projects and they can arise under unexpected circumstances. For example, the “Jack and Jill” project came about when I was reading the nursery rhyme to my daughter and realized that there could be numerous ways to graphically represent this story. I then realized that if I limited the visual vocabulary to various dingbats, this limitation would structure the assignment while creating a language with which to solve the given problem. It would move students to investigate metaphorical or symbolic approaches. The success of this problem warranted a series of many other nursery rhymes to be interpreted using only dingbats.

exhibition 3

Exhibition photo by John Wyszniewski/SVA.

Give me another example.Well, there is the “Road Sign” project, where students interpreted given subjects into road signs. This came about when Judith and I saw a road sign while driving through Pennsylvania that we could not comprehend. Trying to interpret this seemingly incomprehensible road sign became the basis for this signage project, where we envisioned nonsensical subjects as road signs. Topics for the actual project included, paratrooper landing, alien sighting area, shark crossing, quicksand ahead, etc., which had to be graphically interpreted given the limitation of a yellow and black road sign. The whole process of coming up with these problems has to do with a condition that we impose on ourselves of always being in question of what might be a challenging assig

What is the goal of these projects? I know it’s not just to drive the students mad.We want to create conditions for students that will result in original imagery. The conditions bypass cliché solutions by putting students into the unknown where innovation arises. For example; creating a formal equivalent for a sound, such as a car crash, thunder, or a whistling tea kettle, where no visuals have ever been established. Students can work abstractly while grappling with design principles that include, form, color, rhythm, tempo, scale, texture, and composition to create their solutions. Under these circumstances students continually surprise themselves.

exhibition 4

Poster for SVA. Designer: James Victore

Can good design be taught?

Yes, but there are many conditions that come into play that include an understanding of design principles, knowledge of how to conceptualize a problem, supported by a firm grasp of digital technology. When students learn to merge their formal vocabularies with content, where the two become inseparable, it is at that point that a design education works the best.

Can bad design be untaught?Again yes, given the degree of malleability and openness of a student, bad design can be untaught. It is a question of students ridding themselves of baggage, coupled with a constant search for heightening their aesthetic understanding. Faculty that will not accept mediocrity is integral.

exhibition 5

Book cover for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Designer: Rodrigo Corral, designer. Image courtesy Rodrigo Corral Design

Would you say there is a Richard Wilde/School of Visual Arts “style?” If so, what is it?

I have to say an emphatic yes, although I imagine you were expecting a no. It comes under the heading of “Stylelessness,” which I feel over the years is one of my achievements. Currently, my department offers more than 25 different senior portfolio classes where each class is distinctively different than the next. In fact, within each class there is a furthering of diversity of portfolios, being that these classes put an emphasis on students’ developing their own voice. Stylessness rules.

You’ve seen thousands of students pass through your classes. What do you try to give to these students? And what do you want them to take away?I believe that everyone has two natures—one that is learned and one that is innate. Students can bypass their reactive, habitual approach to problem solving that resides in their learned nature (in the area of cliché predictable solutions) and move toward their other nature that is more essential. It is when a solution emanates from this area that students connect to their work in a most meaningful way. So, to answer the second part of your question, it is through this connection that students are empowered, which can sustain a lifetime career in an ever-changing arena.

exhibition 6

Packaging for Miles Davis’ “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions.” Designer: Julian Alexander. Image courtesy Slang Inc.

After so many years of teaching—and so many changes in the field, stylistically, technologically, and even politically—how do you stay fresh?

Staying fresh is always a struggle that I both resist and embrace at the same time. As contradictory as this might sound, the resistance resides in my habit of falling into automatic pilot, which surprisingly, when I experience this lifeless mechanical state, motivates me to not be complacent. Also each week, my Visual Literacy class of 150 students helps to keep me on my toes.

How have students changed in all these years?

Today, students have greater technological savvy, which has positively impacted their execution. For the most part, there is a more competitive spirit throughout the department, which fortunately has had a positive effect in establishing a higher standard. And given the influx of international students, the Advertising and Graphic Design Department has become a more diverse, dynamic department.

exhibition 7

Poster for SVA. Designer: James Victore

There have been a large number of “students-made-good” from your program. What is the measure of success in your eyes?I measure success by two criteria. One concerns a students’ employability upon graduation and two, more importantly, to be able to function at a high level of competence in order to be prepared to face life’s challenges. Due to technological advancements, I am educating students for jobs that do not exist yet by emphasizing conceptual problem solving.

Do they need to be star designers?Becoming a star is based on circumstances beyond my control. It is the exception, not the rule. Success comes in many forms.

exhibition 8

Catalogfor “The Wilde Years: Four Decades of Shaping Visual Culture.” Cover collage: HanochPiven; art director/designer: Michael J Walsh; designer: E. PatrickTobin.

Do you have a student that totally surprised you? Like Keith Haring, who never graduated SVA, but after he left the fold became, well, Keith Haring?

It’s interesting that you mention Keith Haring, because he sat in on courses in my department and Bea Feitler, an industry great, took him under her wing and supported and embraced his work. But yes, I’m constantly being surprised. For example, James Victore, who received a ‘D’ in my Visual Literacy class is now a member of AGI and has gone on to become one of the young stars in the industry. But from another perspective, other students have surprised me by their career choices. Lee Kelly has become a formidable crossword puzzle creator, Genevieve Gorder has become a TV actress/producer/writer/celebrity, Craig Gillespie has become an award winning motion picture and TV director, while Mark Setteducotti has become the foremost game designer in the area of magic and illusion and Joey Skaggs has become a political/media activist. In short, I’m surprised almost every week when I learn of an alumni’s accomplishment.

Its one thing to educate students, but it’s quite another to pick the best faculty. What is your standard and are you us
ually right?
Although it is difficult to assess, what I’m looking for is a faculty member who will care more about the student’s work than the students care themselves. It is this type of instructor that truly makes the experience of becoming an artist come to life by elevating the level of work far past what I could have imagined.

Are there any taboos in your pedagogic universe? Is there anything (other than rob a bank) that you forbid students from doing?For me, it is taboo to cheat and have poor attendance. But what is more prohibitive is not giving a wholehearted effort, which is the kiss of death for any student. It is curious that you mentioned “other than robbing a bank” in your question, it just so happens that sometime back, in one of the experimental design courses, robbing a specific bank was the class assignment. Of course, this assignment was hypothetical. In an effort to work out of their discipline and in order to better understand conceptual problem solving, this was an assignment where all imaginable factors had to be considered. Students had to create plans mapping out the entire caper, where the actual bank president was invited to class to critique the work having full knowledge of the bank’s security system. Two of the projects were deemed successful, but of course, never tested.

What does the future hold for design education?Even though we are mired in a deep recession, the outlook for design and advertising education with all the new disciplines and formats that are emerging makes for a future with great expectations.

So, can you coast on what you’ve done for the past 40 years?Absolutely, but I wouldn’t dream of it. Coasting is never an option.