Kenneth FitzGerald | Essays

Yourselves: Declaring Ourselves

Teal Triggs, Associate Dean in the School of Communication, Royal College of Art, London.

The graphic design discipline has a lot to learn: its history, the best methods to craft its artifacts, its relationships with culture, society and technology, and how to meaningfully and honestly evaluate itself. It could also use some lessons on how its diverse groups of disciples should meet and sort these issues out. All these endeavors are the natural province of educators to investigate. More specifically, they are interests of the AIGA Design Educators Community (DEC).

Though active for over a decade, the DEC is still endeavoring to reach out to the diffuse company of design educators to alert them to the group’s existence and its activities on their behalf. Cultivating and sustaining similar awareness among the wider AIGA membership follows close behind. DEC seeks to play a leadership role for design educators, becoming the authoritative resource for them to learn about and advance their profession — as well as advance their careers within it. A primary effort involves discerning and articulating educators’ needs: the special considerations that come with teaching design, and how the interests of academia relate to and differ from those of the design profession.

Foremost amongst those needs has been the desire to establish and maintain an educator network. An earlier attempt to establish a design educators’ organization went the way of its supporting organization, when the Graphic Design Education Association and its partner/parent, the American Center for Design, both ceased to exist by late 2001/early 2002. The DEC has its origins in the early 2000s, when Frank Baseman of Philadelphia University began advocating for and nurturing increased connections among educators. Through “cobbled together” meetings at national conferences and email lists, a presence of design educators was established within the AIGA. This was solidified when Baseman became the founding chair of the DEC steering committee in 2001, and then served on the national board from 2003–2006.

Currently, the DEC steering committee comprises eleven to twelve members serving staggered 3-year terms. New members are selected from applications to an open call to create a geographic and (institutional diversity amongst the committee. An ex-officio member currently serves on the AIGA national board, an ad hoc arrangement the DEC hopes to formalize in the near future.

This is a small but important initiative that the DEC has launched to increase its visibility internally within the AIGA, and outward to design educators and practitioners. AIGA’s ongoing support for the DEC demonstrates an admirable commitment to education and educators. (Speaking personally, I remain grateful for the discounted membership and conference fees for educators that allowed me to stay involved and attend conferences.) Educators have an increased presence at the national conferences, and now host our own roster of activities the day before the conference proper begins, and that are integrated into the main conference schedule.

Understanding and promoting the concerns of design educators is increasingly vital to the AIGA’s future, and that of the discipline overall. Design students are literally the future of both. Practically for the AIGA, however, students make up the majority of members for many chapters. Through educator representatives, many more students are able to initiate contact with the AIGA, and, in some cases, build career-long involvement within it.

With over 1,800 higher education institutions in the U.S. offering two- to four-year degrees related to graphic design, and employing more than 4,000 full-time design educators and over 10,000 part-time faculty, the potential membership for DEC is substantial. Currently, the overall AIGA membership is half educators and students.

Despite these numbers, the popular sense is that educators are a minority constituency in the AIGA. The organization’s practitioner membership is still its face and driving constituency. As a professional organization, this is reasonable, but it also obscures the true status of educators within the discipline of graphic design. Because of this, another leadership role that DEC seeks within the AIGA is to be the originator of its education initiatives.

A paramount enterprise of the DEC is to directly foster the creation of design knowledge and work for its dissemination. To this end, the DEC offers two separate two-year grants to fund research: a $7,500 award to aid in continuing or advancing a design research project in progress; and a $2,500 grant to initiate a new proposal. These constitute an expansion of the original singular $5000 grant in the previous four rounds of funding. At the conclusion of the two-year term, recipients report their findings at a DEC design education conference. (New recipients have recently been announced.)

These annual design education conferences are the most prominent DEC activities. Four events are approved and supported by DEC over a three-year cycle (the pre-conference day at the national conference is included). These conferences are proposed and organized around general themes, covering a variety of design-related topics.

Over the past three years, conferences have included this year’s Connecting Dots in Cincinnati; Blunt: Explicit and Graphic Design Criticism Now in Norfolk, Virginia; Geographics: Design, Education and the Transnational Terrain in Honolulu. Connecting Dots focused upon “what constitutes appropriate and effective research” in a design context; Blunt examined critical thinking and writing, and Geographics presented “the design projects, programs, and research that a global body of educators are implementing within transnational contexts.”

All of these conferences seek to explore their topics from a variety of perspectives, and engage in the examination of the practical application of ideas, both in the classroom and everyday practice. The most common conference structure relies on traditional paper and panel presentation formats, which parallel the models of other academic disciplines, and is pragmatically useful for academics. However, as the presentations provide a variety of approaches and structures to design activity, so can the encompassing conference structure. One example of this was 2010’s, New Contexts/New Practices at North Carolina State University, which was divided into “co-authoring” group sessions around six topics introduced to attendees by a “provocateur.” Summaries were then presented at the conclusion of the conference by session moderator/authors.

The upcoming September 2014 conference, New Ventures: Intersections in Design Education in September in Portland, Oregon, will be organized in a panel discussion format, one similar to that seen in College Art Association and several other large annual conferences operated on behalf of other disciplines and professions.

While design educators’ conferences first look to educators to shape and present content, active practitioner engagement is always an essential objective. However, design educators are often the last place practitioners turn for a lesson or to increase their general knowledge once they’ve concluded their collegiate studies of design. Educators readily attend design conferences intended for practitioners (making this an essentially unnecessary distinction), but practitioners are unlikely to consider traveling to an educator-organized event.

This is unfortunate, as one place where educators are leading by example is in the conduct of substantive, wide-ranging conferences.

Alongside the varied content of these events — where design’s history, theory, practice, and social, economic and technological impact is considered from diverse perspectives — the meetings could prove instructive to practitioners regarding how to structure gatherings. It has been a longstanding lament amongst practitioners that their presentations are often little more than portfolio presentations and opportunities to observe elite practitioners at a closer, yet discreet distance. The 2013 AGI Open in London is a case in point, where a commendable effort was made to inject a critical, participatory element to the affair. What was innovative in that context was standard for educators.

Drawing distinctions between practitioners and educators is always problematic. Many educators transitioned from the profession to education, and continue to actively work in design — necessitated by desire and the need to address research requirements at their schools. Additionally, working designers play valuable adjunct roles in academia, bringing the immediacy of practice into the classroom. However, the profession has yet to fully come to terms with academics whose first and total calling is to academia. Academic credentials still carry little weight amongst professionals, most of who count professional achievement as the greatest teaching credential.

Bridging these gaps benefits the entire community and remains a central concern for the DEC. Educators are dedicated to having their investigations be substantive and accessible, so as to inform their peers and the public. This informing needs to take many forms.

Recently, the DEC put five initiatives before the AIGA board for which it is seeking support. One is to tackle the ongoing need to simply raise awareness that the DEC exists, through community promotional materials for distribution at AIGA events.

Another is to establish a peer-reviewed DEC academic journal. These publications are a sign of a healthy scholarly environment. For design academics, they are a resource to keep current on contemporary ideas in the field. Practically, they are also forums readily recognized by other academics, facilitating design educators’ recognition and promotion in academia.

While an overabundance of journals is possible (and troubles other more established academic disciplines), design is nowhere near the saturation point. Visible Language, Design Issues, and Design and Culture each have and continue to play important roles in nurturing design research and in facilitating critical dialogue in and around design. Yet there remains room for publications that will host and promote the unique types of investigations done by design educators.

Alongside adopting the established forms of academia — the research paper — design educators can lead in presenting new, substantive methods to create and present design knowledge. The special rhetoric of design should be demonstrated on page and screen, not only described in text.

As it stands, much of the material presented at educator conferences goes unarchived. The DEC journal would be a primary forum to publish papers presented at its conferences, for wider dissemination. Also, another of the DEC’s new initiatives is for a dedicated fund to have video documentation of conferences, for online access.

This access will also give practitioners the ability to sample what is happening not only at the educator conferences but also in design education overall. Once again, the popular conception is that educators’ product is dry, jargon-dependent material. Encompassing academics this way is as accurate as stereotyping all practitioner-presented content as vapid, self-promotion.

Practitioners could also be enlightened by the eventual contents of another DEC initiative, the Design Projects Repository. This online resource would allow design educators to share instructional resources, class projects and documentation along with the methods, strategies, and outcomes that surround teaching design.

Practitioners may have a grasp on their individual learning experiences — and opinions on how design education relates to practice — but will benefit from discovering educators’ imagination in providing an education through the study of design. Equally valuable is a broader understanding of how educators address their greater responsibility as academics.

An ongoing dialog between practitioners and educators is vital for both groups — and students. So too exchanges amongst design educators. Neither can occur without the success of associations such as the Design Educators Community. For the DEC’s initiatives, the DEC asks for the support of educators and practitioners. Additionally, DEC welcomes educators to participate in its activities. It also seeks new members of its steering committee to further its mission. That mission is to support “AIGA by enhancing the abilities of educators to prepare designers for excellence in critical thinking, research, practice, and lifelong learning. Each aspect of that statement will benefit every educator and practitioner alike, and the DEC welcomes all to join its efforts.

Information on the DEC, its initiatives, and to apply to serve on the Steering Committee, please go to http://educators.aiga.org/.

Kenneth FitzGerald is a member of the AIGA Design Educators Community Steering Committee, and a co-organizer of the 2012 conference Blunt: Explicit and Graphic Design Criticism Now.

Posted in: Business, Education

Comments [2]

Great article. Impressive stats: "1,800 higher education institutions in the U.S. offering two- to four-year degrees related to graphic design, and employing more than 4,000 full-time design educators and over 10,000 part-time faculty." Excited to hear the outcome of the initiatives currently before the AIGA board.


These passages from the article really made me think: "Academic credentials still carry little weight amongst professionals, most of who count professional achievement as the greatest teaching credential." and "...the popular conception is that educators’ product is dry, jargon-dependent material. Encompassing academics this way is as accurate as stereotyping all practitioner-presented content as vapid, self-promotion." I'd like to see those dynamics change. In my community, I see great examples of practitioners in non-design related fields partnering with their academic counterparts, with little to none of the inexplicable dichotomy that can sometimes exist between design practitioners & design academics. In those professional areas, both sides have seen the collective advantage to taking down the walls between practice and academia. Hopefully, the AIGA DEC can help to do that for the design profession.
Jim Wolf

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