FIRST THINGS FIRST
The most important concept I can foster as an educator is to help students figure out who they are and how they fit in to the world around them. If they never evaluate who they are, they then cannot develop a sensitivity as a designer (or artist), and they will not see how they need to use their abilities in relation to the many approaches, positions, and purposes for image and design in this world.
Sometimes a student determines that he or she is a better fit for a different field, and my role as a responsible teacher is to listen and help them begin to pursue another path.
It can be a difficult thing to help someone else find an identity while simultaneously teaching them the skills, concepts, and practices needed to excel in a particular profession. My method involves asking questions and creating an atmosphere that welcomes inquiry of all types. I make myself available outside of the classroom for any and all topics of conversation or providing additional information. I provide avenues of further learning through examples, book suggestions, events to attend, or sharing a name of someone else to contact. I support students and listen to them. I mentor them and give advice, but more importantly I also serve as a model for the type of inquiry and activity that will help them in their education and profession. All of this is also necessary to build trust and to create an environment for the type of deep exploration that they will need to be thoughtful and effective designers.
If I can create ways to show the power of design and how I am inspired by design, and I can show them how I see design, then they will drive themselves to learn the skills and techniques at a deeper level than I could ever hope to teach them if they were motivated only by a project or terminology quiz.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ASKING QUESTIONS
The act of asking questions is vitally important to design, to art, and to the realm of creativity. Asking questions and finding the right avenue to explore is a focus in all of my classes. Furthermore, I encourage students to question me. I don’t see this as a challenge or a sign of disrespect, but as an indicator of thinking and engaged students. Sometimes being questioned allows me to re-explain concepts in a way that is clearer, sometimes a question shows a difference of opinion, and sometimes, a question stops me in my tracks because it reveals a path I had never before considered. No teacher can know everything; sometimes we are wrong or not as insightful as our students. If students are encouraged to always ask questions—even to question the teacher—then learning can come from many avenues inside and outside of the classroom. A student who asks questions throughout life has found the key to being a life-long learner.
Josef Albers said, “Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”
I try to remove the hierarchy in the classroom by breaking down the perception of the professor’s complete authority on all things. My students quickly respect me for my knowledge base and for the way I treat them and care for them. They respect that I admit my mistakes and that I do not try to position myself as being so different from them. I allow for this dynamic because students need to learn from many sources and be responsible for their own learning; seeing one figure as an authority seems to counter these ideas. It also sets up a system where students seek “correct” answers from professors, when in reality the idea of “correct” or “incorrect” inhibits innovation. (I will admit to purposefully contradicting myself in critique, and I often believe both sides of the contradiction equally.)
WHAT DO I TEACH?
The individuals who make the largest impact in our world are those with a vision. I teach students that people always come first, and that ideas and aesthetics always follow as the support to the communication and solution of a design. Design is a method of problem solving long before it is a process of making. A student needs to be open to varied solutions and to recognize when each element of a solution is or is not designed for maximum effectiveness related to the goal of the design.
It is necessary that all professors in design teach the skills, techniques, processes, materials, software, and production that are required for the profession. I spend a great deal of time in and out of class helping with questions relating to these areas. However the over arching concepts and the commitment to problem solving lies at the heart of my approach. Innovation and creativity are also crucial in one’s ability to formulate solutions. To inspire these attributes in the students, I discuss how ideas develop and meld through association and other avenues, I give them options, I give them examples, I set up contradictions for them to navigate, and sometimes I find that I need to allow them to fail in a controlled environment and then push them to rebuild while giving them support. Initial failure can lead to tremendous innovation and a deeper understanding of success.
These teaching and learning objectives can seem daunting, but they can all be accomplished while teaching through a design process. The design process helps students see how defining a problem clearly at the beginning leads to successful and effective outcome. It provides a structure to help those who are searching for solutions, and a format for both meaningful research and creativity. The design process I teach does require a commitment of time and effort from the student, but it also allows the student to build confidence because he or she can pinpoint the reasons why specific choices were made and how those choices lead us to the right solution.
DESIGN IS POWER
History is marked by poignant examples of the strength of images and design. This form of communication has the power to influence us, direct us, and change us as individuals and as a society. If the adage is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, it is also worth mentioning that those thousand words can be delivered in an instant, across language barriers, and at a level that taps into our subconscious.
I believe in the potential for good through the power of design. As makers in a visual field, I show students that we have a responsibility to ensure that our work conveys messages appropriately. As individuals with a particular skill set, I show that we have the ability to go further by using our trade to make change and improve the world around us.
I show students how images have changed society; I give examples of design used for unity and for division or exclusion. I want them to recognize both the opportunity and the responsibility that lies at their fingertips.
Confidence develops within a student once they have the ability to ask questions, take risks, and to begin to form an identity or voice as a designer. The first step in building this sense of confidence comes from the field itself; students need to see the importance of design as evidenced by how design has had an affect in their lives and in their world. If they see the true power of design, then by merely declaring design as a major they adopt a sense of pride and purpose.
Next, my emphasis on the importance of asking questions also contributes to confidence because it becomes clear to students that true intelligence is not knowing everything, but knowing how to ask questions.
In class they are building confidence by learning the necessary skills and supporting those skills with the design process. We cover design history so students have a context and bank of examples that they can reference verbally or visually. We cover theories in design with over arching themes and theories that relate to individual facets like web design or user-centered design. Students have a groundwork that allows them to think critically, talk professionally, and feel a sense of ownership of design content. They also know that they can trust in the design process and that they have research and reasoning to back up their decisions.
I give my students challenging assignments that push them, and that require them to go beyond ______. I have a reputation for the rigor of my assignments, but I also take time at the end of assignments both in critique and in meeting to show them how far they’ve come and to appreciate the work that I can see in the finished product.
Lastly, I help my students build confidence by giving them opportunities to experience the real profession. Most of my upper level design studios have at least one component that bridges the gap between being a student and becoming a working professional. Teaching this way makes the blow of the real world softer and in the end, prepares them with the right amount of confidence to take on anything, even printers with their odd lexicon.
I work hard to make relationships with others outside of the university and to bring my students into those relationships. In my production for design course, we spend much time in studio discussing the many issues from paper, to printing, to color, and so on, but what really becomes important are the many visits from seasoned pro’s and trips to studios, paper mills, and printers that fosters their confidence. This way of educating and learning establishes self-assurance as the students realize that they have a network already fostered for them as they begin their profession.
Students need to be ready and confident as they leave the university, armed with their knowledge and their commitments to lifelong learning and the field of design. They must be prepared to be contributors in the world, and inspired to do good where ever they land. I want them to be ready to give back to others. When my students are out in the world making a positive impact, it reinforces my commitments to inspiring others and striving for more, and it reminds me that I must also continue to do good.