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L’importanza del curriculum

Juliette Cezzar and YuJune Park in an excerpt from Issue 29 of Progetto Grafico (Milan, Italy), “L’importanza del curriculum” (Importance of the curriculum: Do graphic design schools prepare for the relationship with clients and commissioning parties?)

1. What are the most common job opportunities for your graduates?

Most of our graduates stay in New York City after graduation, and opportunities here change from year to year. In the last three years, the majority of graduates have taken up jobs in studios, startups, technology companies, branding agencies, publications, and in-house design teams in almost equal proportions. While there are still some here and there, we have seen fewer students go into the advertising agencies, television/media companies, and small corporate branding agencies that were the major employers five or ten years ago. One thing that has remained the same is that while they may take on side projects, very few of our students freelance full-time in the first three to four years.

2. Does your school devote a part of the curriculum to prepare students to the relationship with clients? 3. If so, how? Is the client simulated in the exercises or do you organize real projects with external clients?

Because we are in New York, the line between school and work is very blurry for most of our students. While other schools may struggle with bringing the real world into the classroom, our struggle is to keep it out long enough to give students room to create, reflect, and think for themselves before they go back outside. And in any given semester, six out of seven faculty will be a part-time instructor running their own studio, or with a respectable full-time design position at a company, so the outside world is also visiting the classroom each day.

The relationship of designer to client is always changing. We want students to imagine new forms for the client/designer relationship, not to reinforce old ones. We don’t have classes that specifically aim to prepare students for working with commercial clients, but rather we have collaborative classes that require design students to work with other students across the university and make things together. This helps design students find a way to explain what they do and respect the expertise of others. At the same time, it helps non-designers imagine new ways to work with designers, and to respect them in turn.

We also run classes every semester that do pro-bono or community-facing work that put students in contact with non-profits and their constituents. Students in these courses learn about audience and end users as much as they learn about working with clients, something that we feel will be more important in the coming years, not less.

4. Does the curriculum encompass courses of design management, marketing, strategic design, aimed at preparing the students to the relationship with managers or other figures of mediation with the customers?

Parsons offers a BBA degree in Design and Management, and for those students who are interested in the business side of design, we encourage them to take Design and Management courses. At the New School, outside of your required courses, you are free to take courses across the university that are taught by experts in those fields. The downside is that the course won’t be specifically aimed at you – Design and Management courses, for example, are intended for students who want to go into business positions around design – but the upside is that you are learning what they learn, and if you listen, you can understand their worldview.

5. How important it is the collaboration between graphic design students and companies? What are the pros and cons?

Commercial companies approach us all the time to do collaborative projects, but after doing them for a few years, we found that they often duplicated what students learned already in internships. Companies also regularly expected students to compete to have their work produced. While it meant that students were working on real projects, a tournament is not a collaboration.

It is important for graphic designers to understand the different contexts in which designers work, and often working in those contexts is the best way to discover what works well for you. Internships have always been a great way to project the student into the work environment. But we are far on one end of the continuum: New York is one of the largest design markets in the world, if not the largest, and has more graphic design students than anywhere else in the United States, if not the world. Companies pressure students to work more in their internships, or to leave school and work full time, with the promise that they will learn more under their supervision than at school. The idea that one does not replace the other – that there are things to be learned in school that can’t be learned at work, and vice versa – is easily lost when students, parents, and employers believe the purpose of school is to train students for entry-level positions.

6. Do you prepare your student to the idea of becoming design entrepreneurs?

Only in the sense that we emphasize that they think for themselves. The definition of entrepreneurship is fuzzy year to year, and complicated by immigration status (40-45% of our students are international, and therefore unable to become independent workers right away). There are many programs in both New York and San Francisco that promote design entrepreneurship through digital product design, but once you break it down to U.S. nationals that already have an appetite for risk, it’s a small slice of our student population.

Rather than pushing that agenda, we ask that they complete a two-semester thesis their senior year that is highly structured. We ask students to respond to a problem or dilemma through design, consciously moving through the design process— research, ideation, prototyping, iteration, and presentation — and thoroughly document that process. Many students do make digital products, self-published books, and self-produced campaigns. Along the way, they are also helped through their own self-made roadblocks, and forced to learn on their own. With this intense year, we hope to build and strengthen habits of curiosity, independence, and commitment that will make it harder and harder not to do their own thing in the years to come.


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