teaching design

I’m going to teach class today at the modern8 office. This semester it’s the seniors and the class is Identity Systems and Branding. Normally of course, I’m on campus at the University of Utah where I’ve taught as an adjunct professor in Graphic Design for over 25 years. I’ve got a great classroom on campus with the latest technological tools. It’s not going to be nearly as nice in our small office.

But I think it’s important to bring the students here. I come to academics as a practitioner, that is—I don’t teach for a living—I run a design firm. The difference is likely apparent in the way I teach. In class, I’m constantly showing off a project we did at the office, talking about a client we had, or a problem we faced. They are real world experiences and that’s probably good. At the same time, I have the same self-doubts that anybody does. I frequently worry about the first few years I taught, particularly in my History of Graphic Design class, where I was reading just one chapter ahead of my students. I also keep thinking that I should be doing research, putting on exhibitions, applying for grants or writing academic papers. I don’t do that, I’m too busy at the office.

And yet I like teaching. It keeps you young and exposes you to cultural references you wouldn’t otherwise encounter—an important attribute for graphic designers (particularly when most of the students are younger than my own children). Teaching design influences my own design. I see new ideas. I am forced to articulate my own ideas. I align with a statement by Phillip Meggs, an author of one of my textbooks, who said regarding teaching, “I found it to be a magical yet challenging experience. Teaching a creative endeavor is a difficult balancing act—imparting information, coaching and critiquing without destroying the student’s confidence, and trying not to impose your vision onto the student’s work.”

I believe there are some students who learn more from classmates than from teachers. I’ve arranged for the students of this class on branding to be very interactive with their peers. The class often acts as the “client”—making selections, indicating preferences. I also require the students to present and speak in front of the “client”, forcing them to become familiar with the vocabulary of marketing.

I have been guilty in the past of giving out one-shot design problems—a series of unconnected assignments based on applications, like a poster, a logo, packaging, advertisements, etc. I structured this class to be just the opposite. It is, in essence, a single semester-long project. The students select a Utah public corporation, research the company, its history, marketing materials and competition. They determine a positioning strategy, propose a new name and three conceptual directions based on the strategy. With input from the “client” the students create a new identity, apply it to different applications from a business card to a website and then design a brand standards manual.

In this class, the students have to write—an exercise that doesn’t always come easily to those who are primarily used to visually-based thinking. They must write the results of research and strategic recommendations and compose brand guidance. As seniors, the students have reached the professional stage. That is, the abstract, principle-based exercises that are the main component of the sophomore level classes have been replaced by an emphasis on concept and problem-solving; an assignment that is much like what one would encounter in a professional situation. As seniors that’s appropriate. To often, early design students are too eager to move beyond the very important abstract, theoretical stage.

While it may be helpful, I’m certain that it’s not necessary for every graphic design teacher to be a good designer, let alone a practicing professional—only that they be a good teacher. I’m not sure where I stand on those counts, but I’m certain that I’ve grown in the process and I hope that some of my students have as well.