Circling the Desert: the Illusion of Progress

If you are lost and decide to find your way out of the desert by walking in a straight line, eventually you will return to the place where you started. Because one leg is longer than the other, what you perceive in moving in a straight line is actually forming a large circle. This is essentially a problem of location. Unless we know where we are before we move forward, the perception of making progress can be an illusion.

Most graphic design departments review their programs on a regular basis, yet limited time and resources often impose maintenance as a priority over change. The pressure to prepare students for a seamless entry into the workplace makes it virtually impossible to invest time in experimental courses not directly geared to professional expectations. This problem is compounded by the time required to keep students and faculty fluent with current software. As boundaries defining the role of graphic design continue to expand and dissolve, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify a single point of departure. The only certainty is that current conditions will increase in complexity. It is the responsibility of design education to take a leadership role and develop a narrative that remains relevant regardless of evolving fashion and technological advances.

Schools have used the positive attributes of the latest technology, but more needs to be done to compensate for those aspects that do not facilitate the creative development of the individual. One of the most dramatic changes is that the physical relationship between students and their work has all but been eliminated. This has less to do with the final result than the experience of designing. A healthy design process has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most unique discoveries are made in the time between the first sketches of an idea and the final result. The computer has reduced this rich territory to a single point; the beginning and the end now occupy the same space. What were awkward and often provocative first sketches are now concealed behind a surface perfection that continues to produce instant results with the click of a mouse or a keystroke. The wonder, discovery, invention, and struggle that comes from the direct experience of physically working with tools and materials is being replaced by choosing from a preconceived list of default menu items developed to mimic visual language formerly produced by hand. This turns the students into spectators in a game of multiple choice. One of the many questions raised by this new way of working remains unanswered: In today’s high-tech environment, “What is a studio?” Prospective students touring educational facilities today may find the graphic design studios little more than empty rooms with long flat tables; the students can be discovered in one of the many labs where computers are arranged in rows, like slot machines in a casino. Unlike studios in architecture or fashion departments, which are alive with materials and activity, these spaces feel anonymous and temporary. In such a passive environment, important design issues become encumbered with technical trivia: corrupt files, missing type fonts, laser printers lacking toner, and time-consuming searches for ineptly marked files that require tedious opening of each one simply to identify the content.

The urge to create is a powerful instinct that unites us as human beings. As educators, we need to establish fertile conditions and develop assignments that encourage students to fulfill their potential. Creativity, however, requires resistance and constraints—the antithesis of the mission of software engineers. Many students enter design programs today after spending a considerable amount of time using computers, but their experience has not made any contribution to their learning “how to see.” They may easily produce words and images, but the results are undigested and often lack meaning. “Seeing,” a discipline essential to the graphic designer, can be learned and enhanced in depth—and the best means for achieving visual literacy is through the direct experience of making. “See” has a second meaning that, although frequently used in conversation, is less familiar: to understand. In learning to see, one must transcend the passive role of recognition and engage in the active experience of perception. Recognition is instantaneous; it stops, though, after labeling something familiar by name, like a sunset or a bird. Through conscious observation, perception extends this initial moment of acknowledgment to an experience that is translated into a visual language expressed with such words as light, color, texture, shape, line, and pattern. As awareness increases, more subtle similarities and differences become clearer, and unforeseen connections become possible. The relationship between seeing and understanding is essential to creating visual connections and finding new sources of reference. Design serves as a means to better understand the physical world and to better read the nature of the realities around us.

No single answer exists to the many complex questions confronting design education today, but we do need to explore new paradigms for restoring human creativity to the design process. School must function as a laboratory for experimentation, not mimic existing hackneyed solutions that abound in the practice of design. This experimentation is only possible when an environment stimulates students to explore without being afraid of producing results that have no immediate practical application in the “real world.” Our students should be encouraged to expand their frames of reference and be able to identify where art, architecture, dance, science, biology, linguistics, and philosophy intersect.

In an age that thrives on complexity it might be novel to celebrate simplicity. The core belief is that “not knowing” is a healthy prerequisite for discovery and that making is a physical process that involves thinking, drawing, and working directly with materials.

Published in Steve Heller “The Education of a Graphic Designer”

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