Dangerous Ideas on Design Education
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I learned to design the same way I learned to swear: I had to pick it up in the street. I failed out of a university and was asked to leave a design school. But as destiny would have it, I’ve spent the last 20 years teaching in the classroom, running my own workshops and lecturing around the world, and I’ve developed my own ideas about how to teach design, encourage creativity and even inspire creative courage.
I’m no expert on design education’s merits or faults; this treatise is more of an “If I were king of the forest” scenario. I have no scathing account of how design schools got it all wrong; there are islands of creativity out there, hothouses of experimentation, but education on the whole has become an industry (“20 years of schooling and they put you on the day shift,” as Bob Dylan said), and design education is no different. My own purpose in teaching design has always been to help shepherd strong, opinionated creative individuals capable of handling this tool. My job is to make it hard for my students, to set a high bar. I ask them to seek answers inside of themselves, then make the huge leap of faith to believe in those answers. In doing so, they learn not only that they will not die, but also to trust their intuition, their gut, in order to make new, unique, exciting work. My ideas are not for everyone, and I don’t care.
As a teacher, I’m a dreamer and an idealist. People follow dreamers and idealists. Our work demands these qualities from us because good work inspires us. When we see freedom in someone’s work, it frees us up; when we see intelligence in someone’s work, it makes us smarter; and when we see vulnerability in the work we feel closer, more human.
Many of my peers see this as dangerous—I am the fox in Pinocchio, leading the good little boys and girls off to a life in the circus. “But however will they find a JOB? !” they ask. When pushed to invite danger into their work, my students find something much better than a job—they learn to create their own place in this world. I want them to learn to embrace danger. Danger requires bravery. It requires us to risk everything, to do our best work, embrace failure and leave it all on the track.
Herein are a few dangerous ideas about design education.
Weird is good.
Students are attracted to design in the first place because they see the world in a different way, slightly askew. They are weird. Most of them have heard this many times in their lives—and it was not intended as a compliment. But Weird is good; it’s an anomaly and it’s unique. I teach on the simple premise that the things that made you weird as a kid make you great as an adult—but only if you pay attention to them. If you look at any “successful” person, they are probably being paid to play out the goofiness or athleticism or nerdiness or curiosity they already possessed as a child. Unfortunately for most people, somewhere along the road their weirdness was taught out of them or, worse, shamed out of them. Crushed by the need to “fit in,” they left their quirks and special powers behind. But it is our flaws that make us interesting. We need to not only hang on to them, but hone them. I don’t try to make my students “Designers.” I want to make them “free-er.” It’s my job to teach them to look inside, to covet their weirdness, to help them direct it and take the rough edges off—or even add a few new ones. It’s my job to help students understand and cultivate their individuality and innate weirdness and turn them into a powerful tool. Weird is good, but only if we put it in your work.
Design is not math. This is what makes the work hard. There are no right answers and very few wrong answers. I’ve always thought of design more as an innate skill set that we are born with—a small ember waiting to be coaxed into a larger flame. What I see as problematic is when we teach design as if it is something outside of us. As if the students are in an assembly line holding empty shoe boxes, waiting for them to be filled with rules and theories and Photoshop. These tools are important, but they will only get you so far. I don’t believe design can be “taught,” but rather that it can be “reminded.” We need to remind students to use what they already have inside: their history, their loves, their fears. We have to teach students how to use their brains, to make their senses of association and imagery sharp and flexible and urge them to seek their own way and express their individuality. We have to push them to think for themselves, form an opinion—and know that their opinions matter. Essentially, we have to “teach” them to be themselves and put it in their work.
In my classroom, the first crit question is always, “What do YOU think?” A student’s explanation of her work may start, “When I was a kid, my dad took me to the beach, where we collected stones. …” Brilliant! This is relatable. When you do a good job of telling me your story, your fears, your loves, I see my story, my fears, my loves. Your particular story has meaning to a wider audience. So I spur my students to look inside for answers, not to constantly look outside and drown in a sea of reference materials or look for regurgitated, ready-made answers. They never have to make up a story. They have the story and need only look inside. This frees them from being in the people-pleasing business—looking over their shoulders for a “popular” answer. Thus, they avoid the world’s worst question—“What do THEY want?”—and they understand that the far better question is, “What do I have to say?”
Through this process they learn what others respond to in their work. This trains them to learn who their audience is. They learn that their audience is not me, nor the other students nor other designers, and certainly not onanist (look it up) design competitions. They learn that their job is not to try to appeal to everyone (a patently impossible task) but to tell THEIR story and find THEIR audience. Ultimately, they’ll make work that makes them happy, and they’ll get paid for it. The more we love what we do, the better off the field will be.
Humans come before design.
After I was asked to leave design school I began interning for one of my professors, a prolific book jacket designer named Paul Bacon. Paul was a master letterer and could draw and paint like a genius. But what he taught me about was wine and auto racing and well-told jokes, and he inspired in me a love of jazz. With these passions and a few of my own, I realized that I had everything I needed to be a successful designer.
Most of my college students jumped straight out of high school into a design degree. Personally, I think this is crazy because (apologies …): You don’t know shit. As a teacher, I am searching for interesting, qualified people. In order to teach you to be a designer, I have to first ensure that you’re a compassionate, curious, intelligent being. I need to figure out if you have something to say, if you are talented, strong, smart and can handle the responsibility of access to the public. My best students have always been the ones who failed some other course of study or life choice—because they carry with them the fire of that experience. Their peripheral vision is stronger; they can pull from their outside sources, interests and experiences beyond graphic design. I believe in taking a wider view. I think we should encourage everything else, and then design.
… Fuck specialization in branding or advertising. Most branding is cookie-cutter boring, made by specialists. The obsessive concern with the intricacies of any tiny branch of design proves a myopic point of view. You know a lot about a little. I understand the importance of learning the complex rules of typography, but it’s like hygiene—know about it, but don’t obsess over it. Specializing is something a student should learn or be drawn to on their own. What makes a good designer is how they think. My students’ interests in cartography or magic tricks or motorcycle repair makes them better, more interesting and stronger. The best designers are interesting people first. Smart, funny and curious. Learn everything. Then forget it. THEN design.
Creativity can be killed.
Design is a commercial field, a business.
Creativity and business do not always make the best fit. Creativity seeks the “New”—new tools, new ways of doing and seeing things. But new is not always welcome. In fact, “new” is generally accepted only after it’s been accepted. In any form, whether it’s fashion, music, culture, even product—“new” is seen as a threat to the status quo. Design is no different.
Business is the opposite of creativity. Business wants tried-and-true. Business wants safety. Business would like to be creative, but only after the value of that creativity has been proven. Business likes to be in second place because first place is dangerous.
As educators we want to do our students a service, understanding that they’ll accrue debt and need to make a living. In order to make their parents happy and shield our young charges from financial failure, we teach to-the-business. We teach cowardice. In order to get a “job,” students are taught that goal No. 1 is “Please the Client.” Newly weighed down by the practicalities of making other people happy in order to get paid, students lose sight of themselves and the reason they started out on this path. We all know that “acceptable” is not good and will never be great. Hell, anyone can hold down a job. As Joseph Campbell put it, “I think the person who takes a job in order to live—that is to say, for the money—has turned himself into a slave.” I want students who have a vision and keep their eyes fixed on that goal to avoid getting waylaid along their path.
The problems start down the road. On my YouTube channel “Burning Questions,” we often find ourselves answering queries from mid-career designers who have lost their way, unsatisfied by the doldrums of creating color-corrected, acceptable work. They were conditioned to leave the “creative” part of the business out, and replace it with the merely “clever”—well-behaved little ideas that match the carpet and are so bland that they can pass through a focus group’s anus unscathed. Boring work that succeeds for the mere fact that it offends the fewest number of people.
My first and main concern is to foster confident, creative individuals that the world cannot ignore. It’s my job to urge their spark into a flame—to make their worlds larger, not smaller. Larger means to see the potential of human-to-human communication, the power of images and words, the strength in their opinion and personal histories—the freedom from “making shit up.” Smaller means catering to the whims of a client or constantly seeking the approval of others, guessing what other people want.
Of course I want my students to be extremely well-paid for their work, but what my students do with their flame, the commercial application, is their own damn business. Whether their highest esteem is to pay rent or to shoot for greatness is up to them. It is not the teacher’s role to preen students for cubicles and fluorescent lighting, but to prepare them for the longer road, to prepare them for careers 10 and 15 years down the road. In a field populated more and more by MBAs with color swatches, I push my students for creativity. I want to fill them up with a myriad of creative possibilities—not only the obvious and logical and marketable answers. As educators, we need to push for experimentation, risk and failure, not supply a safety net and easy access to a 401(k).
Here is a short list of a few “added bonus” ideas I like to impart on my students to help them on their path:
Know that not all clients deserve your attention. Designers are not one-size-fits-all.
Ask the questions. Why are we doing this? What are we contributing to the world?
Have boundaries. Be able to say NO and to never learn the taste of shit.
Ask for More—more time, creativity and always more money.
Learn about money management.
Enjoy your work and the process.
If you don’t enjoy it, how can you expect anyone else to?
Your work is a gift.
The highest ideal I can try to get my students to understand is that their work is a Gift. This is a truly dangerous idea. When your work is a Gift, it changes how you think about it. It changes why you work, what you make and even who you work for. When your work is a Gift, your goal is no longer to satisfy a boss or client—or even to gain a paycheck. You now work to make yourself happy, and in turn speak directly to your audience because you give them something of value: a piece of yourself. Designers should understand that this is how they will be paid best: to be themselves.
What motivates and excites the world is to witness one person, engaged, energized and empowered. This is the path to creativity. This is the way to great work. And ultimately, this is what makes us attractive to clients.
What I propose is a difficult and dangerous path, but then again, my ideas are not for everyone. Just the sexy people.
James Victore is a graphic artist, author and activist. Described as “part Darth Vader, part Yoda,” Victore is known for his timely wisdom and impassioned views about design and its place in the world. He reaches thousands with his weekly Burning Questions video series, delivers life-changing talks around the world, and leads Avant-Garde workshops to help creative types of all spheres live and work successfully. At the helm of his independently run design studio, Victore continually strives to make work that is sexy, strong and memorable; work that toes the line between the sacred and the profane. He taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City for over 20 years.
This article originally appeared in Print’s Summer 2015 issue, with design by Kyle J. McDonald