|Writing||L O R E T T A . S T A P L E S|
The New Design Basics
Educators and students aren't really in agreement about what matters anymore in design. Teachers struggle to synthesize "principles" and "tools," while the tools continue morphing into something else, deconstructing the principles along the way. Students struggle to stay current, motivated by market opportunities ("how can I get a job?") and seduced by the powerful allure of the tools themselves. The digital has exploded our expectations, blurred our boundaries, and rendered obsolete what we thought we cared dearly about. What are "the basics" in teaching and learning design anymore?
Technology (and technique) have moved to the forefront of design education in the past 10 years. Before then, "the principles" were upheld by stripping as much technology as possible out of the picture. As a matter of course, foundation classes in graphic design delved into the basics of form and structure through black and white, manipulated through the direct techniques of the hand. Even "color" impinged upon this simplicity by introducing more complexity than your average freshman was thought able to bear.
The widespread adoption of digital technology in the early 1990s didn't just streamline the processes of production, though a number of schools chose to treat it that way initially. By relegating digital tools to the "layout and pre-press" arena, many educators were able to stave off the "basics" issues, at least for a while. But rapid developments in software and hardware, along with pressure from (paying) students for digital empowerment, demanded that the technical issues of design be addressed earlier and earlier in the education process. To some extent, this worked (and still does). All those black and white basics--line and shape, form and composition--seem almost tailor-made for computational manipulation. Copying, pasting, and duplicating--all the standard editing operations--make it easy to cover the basics of form and pattern quickly, collapsing multiple iterations into abbreviated time frames. The computer even enables additional learning to be leveraged in the design education process through simple scripting, programming, and markup languages like HyperTalk, DBN, and HTML.
All this is good and exciting. The mesmerizing power and sophistication of software tools invites the kind of exploration that students relish. But there's a down side, too. Increasingly, teachers are relegated to the status of software "trainers," walking semesters' worth of students through the latest version of soon-to-be-upgraded software. On the faculty front, curricular debates devolve into arguments over which software package would provide the best instructional platform for teaching X, while students--who can only appreciate the brand names they see in the job ads--balk at not having the latest, greatest, and most expensive options at their fingertips. The infrastructure demands of computer instruction are immense: costly, unsustainable, and very difficult to scale and support. But of course, this is never a student's problem (nor should it be).
And that's not the only problem. The sheer time it takes to learn the software cuts into the time that would have been spent on the "other stuff." In days of yore, there were reasons why the details of offset printing weren't covered in Graphic Design II. It simply wasn't the priority. It wasn't what the class was about. But these are different times. Design and production are one in the same in the digital realm. It's good in that it re-couples concept and form, revitalizing a sense of craft in the practice of designing. It's bad in that it demands an awful lot (of time) from teacher and student both--more than can fit conveniently into semester and trimester time slots.
With so much time given over to the technical side of things, less and less time is available for focusing on "the other stuff" that surrounds and permeates design: history, audience, social context, cultural critique. Some programs bring these neglected topics to the forefront in belabored theoretical programs that students scarcely understand but are somehow able to mimic ("is it syntactic, semantic or indexical?" ugh.) The best efforts strike a balance between the technical, the cultural, and the critical. (The computer is a cultural appliance after all.)
It's more crucial than ever for designers to critique through design. Design seems to have emerged as the new linqua franca, flowing through commoditized daily life as never before. Conspicuous design is everywhere: on every kitchen shelf, atop every desktop, enveloping every body. Design increasingly reaches into the intimacy of nature, through bioengineering and cosmetic surgery alike. Yet the vastness of design's influence scarcely creeps into your average design curriculum. How can it when we have so much software to keep up with?
So where does that leave us?
In comparing the past and the present, it's easy to feel sentimental about the good old days of design basics, yet those times (and the pedagogies that went with them) were fraught with their own glaring omissions. Formal beauty accompanied a supposedly neutral visual rhetoric ("information design") in design pedagogy, which tended to ignore the larger cultural and symbolic contexts of design and the corporate imperatives underlying them. The "communications" component of graphic design education tended to consist of some mix of marketing messages and "information," with an occasional semiotics lesson thrown in. That part of things hasn't gotten any better in general, though deconstruction has replaced semiotics as the philosophical underpinning of the moment, and vague references to "interactivity" abound.
So given the current mix of opportunism and technological enablement, what still serves us in the long haul? I offer a partial list of study topics:
The History of Design
©2001 Loretta Staples