Is graphic design taught the wrong way? We explore an alternative approach.
Every summer in the UK, thousands of graphic design students graduate and start looking for work. It’s a massively competitive market, so if a student wants to get the best job, they need to stand out from the crowd.
This need for graduates to excel is an exciting challenge for educators, and we are constantly trying to find the best way to help our students.
My most successful graduates have not always been the most technically accomplished. But they have been ambitious, capable of launching, eager to talk about their work, and with a design portfolio full of great ideas.
More creativity and less software
A sense of ironic fun permeates Alexis Facca’s portfolio
InDesign is useless if you don’t have a good understanding of grids, typography, and visual composition
While I understand that software skills are necessary, and the industry corroborates this, it is important for educators to prioritize ideas, a thorough understanding of design principles, and a good sense of how to conduct research.
If you understand design principles, it should be easy to troubleshoot a piece of software.
For example, InDesign CC is a fairly intuitive program, but it’s useless if you don’t have a good understanding of grid theory, typography, and visual composition. To gain knowledge of such principles, you don’t need software, just an inquisitive mind and some time to do some reading.
Additionally, the skills learned through this problem solving can also be applied to other creative tasks. Once you have a concept and know what you need to achieve, that is the time to choose the right tool; it could be software or something else.
The approach that too many students take when they begin their studies and transition through the graphic design career levels is to learn as much as possible about the associated software package. And while I wouldn’t discourage this, it has to be just one part of the focus of a course.
I ask students if they would rather spend three years learning something that could be completely revised in a month or worse, become superfluous (think the decrease in Flash usage). Or would you rather focus on ideas and insights that never date?
With software, you never know what changes are around the corner
I have worked with students who spent long periods of time working through tutorials to give typography a wood effect in Photoshop, and then give it realistic highlights and shadows to make it look “real”.
Instead, I’d propose to spend 20 minutes in a woodworking studio and 20 more in a photography studio. Not only is the photo focus faster, but it will stand out more in a portfolio and show a greater sense of adventure and better problem solving.
If your projects are limited by the possibilities of the software you are using, the results will never be groundbreaking. Too many portfolios seem like a series of technical exercises, and this lacks one thing the industry needs above anything else: great innovative thinkers full of ideas.
A seismic shift
So where does this idea come from that graphic design can be broken down into several easy-to-learn components? From the earliest years in education, students are sold on the notion of building blocks for success. If they can learn the correct answers, they will pass the test and proceed. However, in the design industry, there is no right answer, only the one you have the confidence to launch.
It’s a seismic shift for some students, but educators need to encourage their cohorts to embrace the answers they don’t know immediately, and then show them how to solve problems. But how does an educator teach students the skills necessary to thrive in design, such as adaptability, resilience, efficiency, and innovation?
Educators should encourage their cohorts to embrace the answers they don’t know immediately, and then show them how to solve problems
I would suggest that from the first year, students should present, present and be encouraged to talk about their work as much as possible. Educators must offer students the widest possible access to industry and live customers.
Real-world experience will help sharpen and focus students’ ambitions, and meeting a representative sector of the industry will help them find the roles they want to apply for later. Many students are unaware that graphic design employment goes beyond the person sitting at a Mac using Photoshop; they don’t know about copywriters, strategists, or account managers.
While I believe that graphic design courses should demonstrate the basics of every major software package (along with inductions to Fab Labs, photography, sound recording, among other things), students can only innovate and show real ambition when apply the skills they’ve learned to solve real-world problems.