© 2019 Padmini Chandrasekaran
Thinkers Not Just Makers
A good graphic designer has a creative process. But designers are more than just creative, they are communicators. As an educator of young designers and communicators, I strive to help students understand their own working process and utilize it to its best potential. Students in my courses learn to be thinkers, not just makers. They will not create design for design’s sake, but thoughtfully implement their process to produce the appropriate communication system for identified problems. Traditionally design fundamentals may begin with the printed page, however what I aim to instill in my students is the design thinking process–how to arrive at materials based on the message you are trying to communicate to the specific audience you have defined. This prepares them to live across multiple specializations and adapt their approach with rapidly changing technology. In motion graphics, how does the presentation of typography in a time-based medium differ from the characteristics of print materials? When designing and prototyping websites, how can they organize content with a clear user pathway, and how will their research change the delivery of information to suit web audiences. In each class I teach, I ask students to consider how the presentation of content changes depending on the intended platform or media because despite the software and skills they accumulate and specialize in during their career, ultimately their success comes down to how they think.
I begin every course with a short but demanding project that allows me to take note of how each student performs in fast-paced situations, evaluate their ability to respond to open guidelines, and determine where each student is regarding their skill set: what their natural talent and design experience so far compels them to make. All classes include students from diverse backgrounds and proficiencies, and I have found this initial litmus test vital to understand how each of them will respond to a design challenge. Whether they are beginners whose inspiration lies in the continuous scroll of Instagram or seniors preparing for careers in the field, it is important for me, as their instructor, to gather as much information about how they think and work as possible. This allows me to guide and push them to be better at their individual practices as they work alongside their peers. Design instruction does not simply lie in making the good students better, it’s important to target the students who haven’t quite found their stride and make sure they can be competitive. As a process framework, I set phases during each project so students can begin with a structure before they deviate to suit their own needs. In each assignment, they will begin with research and inspiration to inform the content and explore the current landscape. Through brainstorming and ideation, they will flesh out their concept and define parameters. Using this foundation, they will begin form-making through exploration and iteration, before moving on to adaption and refinement based on regular feedback. The outcome should be delivery of a design solution that they are able to confidently and rationally defend.
Inclusion and Staying Engaged
It is crucial to me as an educator to keep students engaged. I encourage them to be critical of the assignments they are given, and to find ways to connect to the prompts. I tell them that the last thing I want them to do is come to class bored or disengaged from the work they are creating. I encourage them to try to propose their own twists on design briefs and offer adjustments that will keep them interested while meeting my defined project outcomes. I welcome their feedback and try to find ways to adapt projects to suit each student so that everyone can find passion in the field. Critique sessions are instrumental during courses, not only to teach students how to evaluate their own work and their peers through critical analysis and appropriate terminology, but also to foster a creative environment where thoughts and opinions create excitement and inspiration for improving their craft. I ask many questions to guide students in finding their own way to solutions, and insist that they identify and qualify why they like or do something. I explain this necessity so that they can see how constructive comments can serve as useful feedback. I am dedicated to inclusive teaching, being careful to regularly remind students to strive for universal messaging. If they’re including imagery of people, are they showing a range of genders, skin colors, relationships, and body types? Are they bringing their own experiences to the table but researching and catering to their target audiences? Introducing this thinking to future communicators is imperative to prepare them for an industry that greatly benefits from more diverse thinking in media.
The Spectrum of Design Theory
A theory I introduce early on and reiterate through all stages of design education is Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet. I introduce this concept of denotative and connotative design to not necessarily enforce Warde’s theory, but to give students a chance to challenge it. New generations of designers are constantly bombarded with visual stimulation in their daily lives scrolling and navigating the internet. It would be impossible to suggest that their design should only strive to serve the content when so much of their inspiration screams otherwise. Instead of designating design as an invisible container for content, I suggest that every project belongs on a spectrum between the Crystal and Solid Gold Goblet, and it is the designer’s role to figure out where their solution lives on this spectrum. The Crystal Goblet theory can often be a divisive one in the design industry, so exposing it to students encourages them to be critical of the resources and assignments they are exposed to. It is of utmost importance to me to provide students with a variety of voices to learn from, so that their education does not simply lie with the Bauhaus and Modernists like Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold, but also diverse contemporary voices such as Jacinda Walker, Ellen Lupton, Kenya Hara, and Frank Chimero. As a designer with a career that has included global experiences, I am persistent in improving my approach to making design education more inclusive. In graduate school I founded an online publication, Margins, that featured interviews with designers and visual artists from a wide spectrum of backgrounds to further diversify my knowledge of current design from around the world. I routinely refer to AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion materials to stay up to date on emerging voices and try to incorporate their suggestions into the reading materials and design inspiration I provide. I recognize that there is always more to be learned in this respect, and strive to dedicate time and research to this endeavor.