Summer 1997

Educators seek the high ground

How We Learn What We Learn

New York, 4-6 April 1997
Sponsored by the School of Visual Arts

This conference brought together design historians, critics, graphic educators, and practitioners from around the world for three, tightly packed en-hour days of presentations that focused on pedagogical issues in graphic design education.

“How We Learn What We Learn” (HWLWWL) was an ambitious event, perhaps justified by the growth of jobs in academia for trained designers with MAs or MFAs. A full third of positions offered to artists this year required advanced knowledge of computers and graphic programs. (The College Art Association’s annual survey, Placement Review, found last year that placement listings for computer-based artists had more than doubled in twelve months). Both public and private institutions have big and ever-growing funds for technology. Two- and four-year colleges that never taught graphic design now install large computer labs and race to keep up with the most current upgrades. The tendency is to hand over instruction to computer-proficient technicians with patience, but hardly a sense of aesthetics.

So HWLWWL examined the high ground. The event challenged designers and design educators to revisit the conceptual and formal training needed for a profession in transition in light of new technologies, More than 40 speakers, a “who’s who” of vital contributors to the field of graphic design education, delivered papers and showed work that engaged the equally serious audience. Thinking about his commitment to pedagogy, attendee John Walker (Illinois State University) told me: “The design product just gets thrown away. Design teaching engages in ideas.”

Ideas there were aplenty. The symposium was divided into three segments: modes of inquiry in design history; current critical interests, especially in light of new media; and speculations about the future of the digital world’s continuing impact on graphic design education and practice. Steven Heller, the indefatigable conference director, co-ordinated presentations that ranged from the pragmatic (Katherine McCoy, Samina Quraeshi), through the personal portfolio (Stephen Doyle, Milton Glaser) and the non-canonical (Samuel Antupit, Ed Fella), to the philosophically speculative (Arthur Danto, Lorraine Wild). Among the diverse approaches a common thread emerged: critical thinking must be foregrounded to make sure that design students master concepts – as well as software. Only then can an informed, subjective engagement with form and content emerge.

Critical thinking is not, by any stretch, exclusive to design. Higher education is embracing critical thinking across the curriculum, as well as grappling with its implementation. Yet it is a good sign for the future of the graphic design profession that educators hone their students’ analytical skills, leading them to question, play, and practice.

Johanna Drucker (Yale) introduced theoretical constructs that reveal how ideologies structure lived experience, training students to “unmask the natural,” and giving them tools to develop a “living cultural criticism”. Stewart Ewen (CUNY Graduate Center, Hunter College) pointed to the cultural signification of content and social signification of presentation, in McDonald’s ads targeted at young girls who had recently graduated from Barbie dolls. Penny Sparke (Royal College of Art) and Ellen Mazur Thomson (University of Vermont) showed that historical distance – the gendered ideology of early Modernism and psychological theories lurking behind 1920s advertising respectively – can clarify ideology at work.

What characterises the “natural” today? As theorised by Sherry Turkle in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, it is our ability to adapt to change. Stable social worlds have broken down, and we now accept flux as well as open systems and networks of cultural exchange. We adapt to new jobs, new gender roles. Underlying the many presentations at HWLWWL that linked critical thinking to the making of meaning, were metaphors of the dynamic and fluid, which also characterise Turkle’s model of a fragmented yet coherent identity. For Michael Worthington's students (CalArts), exploring on-screen typography provides the occasion for “shaping text”, an investigation that recognises form and content equally, and lets loose the poetics of language.

Warren Lehrer (SUNY, Purchase), recognising the limitations of one fixed identity, trains designers to write as much as possible and writers to design as much as possible, in order to break the “tombstone of the text to get to rhythm and voice”. Kristina Woolsey (Apple Computer Research Labs) is developing software which will convey subjective ideas through sequential visual images, communicative montages that she described as a confluence between verbal and cinematic visual language . Even Lorraine Wild’s (CalArts) invocation of “tacit knowledge”, an intuitive knowledge of craft gained only through long practice, allows mastery, spontaneity, and chance to co-exist. Zen and the art of design.

Crystallising the issues at stake throughout the weekend, was Piotr Szyhalski’s (Minnesota College of Art & Design) design performance. Szyhalski delivered a speech, at first subtle propagandistic oratory which soon transmuted into the oracular, then the ominous, and back again. Seen simultaneously on a screen and scrolling at an even pace, was a billboard-size manuscript, comprised of red, all-cap block type filling the space. Although neither speech nor manuscript made sense as each unfolded in time, something more startling occurred. The instant that the spoken and seen words were comprehended, they cancelled each other out since no correspondence existed between them. The audience’s attempts to make meaning were short-circuited as all became loud blather, with an emphatic tone set by a cacophonous soundtrack of music, noise and speech.

The piece worked well because its layers of signification reverberated with explosive immediacy. Whether viewed as political theatre, as a raw demonstration of the impossibility of fixing meaning, or as an intentional disruption to conventional thinking, this “design as performance” highlighted the receiver’s unconscious will to construct a seamless logic, however futile. If Szyhalski's performance had been scheduled early in the weekend, its power may have weakened presentations such as Michael Rock’s (Yale) wrestling with auteur theory as a model for the designer's evolving identity – a development of an essay published in Eye (no. 20 vol. 5) – or Janet Abrams’ caution regarding the mystique surrounding “iconic environments of the Web”.

HWLWWL was an intense conference that provided myriad ideas and reflections to sink one’s teeth into. As a community, design professionals need to keep talking at every opportunity. Without such a continuing discourse and dialogue, there is a danger that our field of the visual may be flooded by expedient means, methods, and end born merely of technology.

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