Designing the Future of Design Education
Excerpt on curricula in design education from AIGA New York’s “Designing the Future of Design Education” discussion held on June 6, 2016. Rachel Berger (Chair of Graphic Design, California College of Arts), John Caserta (Head of the Graphic Design Department, Rhode Island School of Design), and YuJune Park (Director of the BFA Communication Design Program, Parsons School of Design at The New School) were invited panelists. The event was moderated by Juliette Cezzar and Bryn Smith.
Juliette Cezzar: So we’re going to go on and actually ask some questions about curriculum. One of the things that I think is a big divide in some ways is that about ten years ago there was a huge emphasis on teaching hard skills and software. And it used to be that in 2006 if you knew how to do Flash or whatever, you were golden. That was your ticket to the moon and a lot of these schools judged themselves based on how quickly or slowly they were adapting to that paradigm.
So my question to you guys is where are we now? Do you still even teach software? What do you do about hard skills, how do you handle it, what are people’s expectations? What do you think are, in terms of skills, what do you think students need to know? And not the soft skills stuff. How do you approach this question?
John Caserta: I assume we can just kind of bounce around and get all excited and stuff and not (Laughter)…
Juliette Cezzar: You don’t have to go in order, but… wanted to lay ground rules.
Ground rules for laughter and pleasure because I’m excited to be able to talk about this stuff with everybody. Maybe I’ll start because RISD has always done a great job of not teaching hard skills. (Laughter) And I'm not proud of that, but I think we’ve figured out maybe a rationale or a way to make sense of that as opposed to previously maybe everything was going so fast that the full-time faculty weren’t able to keep up.
Juliette Cezzar: So now the answer is no longer “we don’t know how to use Photoshop, so that’s why we’re not teaching your Photoshop?” (Laughter)
John Caserta: We’re finally all on OSX right? So QuarkXPress is finally in the distance officially. But seriously, we’re defining like units of study where skills are maybe part of that, so if we wanted to teach about let’s just say drawing icons or representing something visually, Illustrator or Sketch is probably a part of that. So the teacher or the TA needs to acknowledge that first by saying there’s something on your computer called “Illustrator” and then ideally doing a bit of a demo, or looking at or posting some files that they can look at.
So it doesn’t have to be active teaching like taking up class time, but there needs to be an acknowledgement of it and it needs to be put in context with some learning objectives. So we integrate the hard skills. I would say still fairly lightly is our view of it within larger learning objectives and projects that hopefully they’re excited to jump in and do. And I always tell them it takes three years to get pretty good at all of the stuff as opposed to learn it all right away and then go use it. I think of it like a progressive JPEG loading as opposed to the top to bottom loading jpg. So it’s all kind of blurry for the first year, like your projects are kind of okay, and your skills are okay, but they get better and better.
YuJune Park: Parsons used to have more classes that were like “Introduction to Photoshop,” “Introduction to Illustrator,” but we now try to make it so that technique is never really separated from concept. Tool and idea should go together because tool also influences the way things look, right? And that comes with a certain amount of meaning. So I think we’ve kind of tried to roll skills into projects. And a big question I ask myself is what do students need to know when they graduate?
The problem with skills is that they’re tenuous, right? The skills they learn their sophomore year could be irrelevant in five years, and we have to acknowledge that. I think hard skills help people get a job as a junior designer; but really being able to see, being able to ask questions and come up with concepts is what’s going to help you become the creative director. So we’re trying to balance those two needs. We’re still trying to find the right balance.
Bryn Smith: Do you get pushback from the students wanting to learn more of the software?
YuJune Park: I think definitely there is a desire. You see people asking for hard skills, but the hard thing is we also want students to learn how to learn. We teach the most software skills their sophomore year, but we also want to provide students with the tools to continue learning these things on their own. You see it in Creative Coding and in Core Typography. They learn the basics, but they’re also empowered with the tools and resources to continue learning the software themselves.