The Faculty of Architecture at Sydney University was where the seeds of a love for design were planted but I didn’t know it right away. Spending 6 months analyzing the functions of a chair seemed hardly ‘design’ to me then. In fact, it was one of the most boring things I had ever done. I wanted to play with colour, line, type and texture – I wanted to create. But as I look back now, I see the wisdom of Dr. Mike Rosenman and Professor John Gero. How can one design something new without knowing why and how we’ve created what already exists?
A chair to me now is a fascinating object. The fact that for thousands of years humans have been trying to come to grips with the design problem of ‘the chair’ is mind-boggling. A chair in one context may not necessarily be as functional or as aesthetically pleasing as one in another. As far as I’m concerned the 3 years I spent learning about Architecture, Object Design, Multimedia, Information Systems and the human psychological response to everything was money and time well spent. It’s actually not long enough. I know now that a design education can hardly be confined to a finite time period – a good designer learns about design their whole lives. A good designer grows because of that.
With this firmly set in my head I was confident that I had finally discovered a small diamond of knowledge that I could keep with me in a velvet purse as I traversed the rocky path of my own design career. You can imagine my shock when I turned to an inside cover page of my wife’s latest Frankie magazine and find that a double-page spread is telling me “A world class design education needn’t take forever!” Apparently I could become “an immediately employable designer who has total confidence in my ability to take a brief, use the programs and meet the deadlines”. There was no chance I’d be left behind either because the college doing the advertising has “constantly evolving courses to keep in line with current common practices and design trends in the industry.”
Yes, it’s well written marketing material – you can jump on the conveyor belt, pay your $10 000 dollars, enter the big pretty box and come out the other side an accomplished, employable designer. Not only that, but Shillington College tells us if we want proof of their success, we simply need to look at the ‘high number of their graduates who attain high quality employment in the design industry – Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, Frost, Interbrand and BMF’ are just a few of the design ‘studios’ where Shillington graduates now work.
I was really disappointed. If I had only known about this before I could have saved 2 years of my life, $6000 and be employed by a company like Clemenger BBDO! However, the sheer shock of this article led me to read it again, more thoroughly this time. As I scanned the page, line by line, the message became a little clearer –
It probably sounds like I’m a disgruntled ex-university student who simply paid too much time and money to become a designer and if that’s your impression, then please pay for Shillington’s course and visit me in 2 years from now to tell me how well-rounded (and happy) a designer you are. I’d love to hear your success story.
After reading Shillington’s double page ad I couldn’t help but be reminded in some way of Michael Beirut’s essay, “Why Designers can’t think” on the difference between the Swiss and American approach to graphic design education. He discusses the Swiss approach to be one of theory before practice. You have to know why you would use Helvetica rather than Univers for a piece of design, you spend your time exploring Gestalt principles and completing simple exercises that have little or no ‘real-world’ reflection. The American approach on the other hand seems to be portfolio focused; the mentality where replicating current design trends to create assignments is the goal. Of course, the idea behind it is what you end up with is a portfolio whose author any studio would be glad to have as a team member – it shows you can ‘design’ right?
Are we witnessing Mr Beirut’s “Portfolio vs Process” internally here in Australia, between University and Private schools? And where does our TAFE system fit in the mix. Having gone through the process system I’m unsure how anyone can call themselves a graphic designer if they simply know the programs. What’s worse is that you can pay a yearly fee of a couple hundred dollars to Lynda.com and get a wider breadth of program tutorials at a fraction of the cost! Knowing how to use the technology doesn’t make you a designer – it makes you a Mac Operator. To me a designer knows the why, not just the how.
With all of this in mind, I find it disheartening to hear that private colleges who seem to favour the “portfolio” focus over the “process” are growing. They’re slowly moving in to each major city touting that theirs is the course that will make a student the next Ken Cato of the Australian design industry. What does it mean for the quality of Australian design if in 100 years from now the majority of our graphic designers are knowledgable only of the how and not the why? Or is the why something we’re supposed to learn throughout our careers? If big agencies are now happy to employ those who know the ‘how’, then who will be left with the know-how of the why to continue making meaninful, intelligent and successful graphic design in this country?