Above: “School Days,” from Graphic Design: Now In Production. (Larger)
“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” —David Byrne
A few years ago, after being invited to serve as a critic for final reviews at an MFA graphic design program, I found myself riding home with two designers and an architecture critic. Each designer had an MFA from a different program, and the architecture critic was working on a PhD. I have a BA. All of us teach at the graduate level while working actively in the profession. After catching up a bit with one another, our discussion returned to the critique. “Why do the students talk about their personal lives so much in explaining their work?” the architecture critic asked. “What do their biographies have to do with it?” While it is certainly valid to question the place of personal histories in a professional context, to talk about ourselves and our stories, it nevertheless seems a persistent inclination among designers to so. We hardly know weʼre doing it — look, I’ve opened here with an anecdote drawn from my own life story.
Perhaps part of this is that there is no one else to write these stories for us. Whether overtly biographical or simply self-referential, design remains even today in the peculiar position of having its history and criticism written largely by and for its own practitioners. Since most of us are involved in making things, we write quite naturally of the hows and whys of making them in a collective effort to evaluate a design’s production. But what’s gone into our own production? How are designers produced?
There are, of course, many ways, many paths — possibly as many as there are designers. Designers can certainly produce themselves as self-taught designers, often through equal parts passion, necessity, and aesthetic brute force. Or designers can be produced by hands-on training through internships and on-the-job experiences. Or designers might arrive from other disciplines and professions. Here’s a cross-section drawn from Rob Roy Kelly’s account of the early days at Yale in the 1950s:
Most faculty members were well-schooled in art and design history, although several were educated in fields other than art or design. [Alvin] Eisenman, a Dartmouth graduate, studied typography with Paul Nash and had a book design and publishing background. [Lester] Beall had been educated in art history. [Alvin] Lustig did not have a formal education in art or design. [Leo] Lionni was educated as an economist in Italy and was a self-taught graphic designer. [Herbert] Matter studied painting at the Ecole des Beauxarts in Geneva and the Academie Moderne in Paris under Leger and Ozenfant. [Bradbury] Thompson was a graduate of Washburn College, a small liberal arts school in Kansas. He had been a cartographer during World War II. Paul Rand, largely self-taught, was influenced by European painters and designers. He attended night classes at Pratt Institute, took some courses at Parsons School of Design and studied with George Grosz at the Art Students League.
While there may be many routes into a life in design, recent years have found one path in particular on a steady rise: the graduate program. And as more designers return to school for graduate degrees in graphic design than ever before, they fuel a growing list of graduate graphic design programs. Beginning with just a few of these in the 1940s and ʼ50s, including the founding of the first MFA program at Yale in 1951, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) now lists approximately 300 accredited institutions as its members, the great majority of which offer both graduate and undergraduate degrees in design, and, while the AIGA and other design organizations don’t have precise numbers on record, there are published estimates of up to 2,000 graduate and undergraduate graphic design programs in the US alone. By any measure, the design school business is booming.
Consider the example of the School of Visual Arts in New York, which opened its Designer as Author (now Designer as Entrepreneur) MFA program in 1998. Since then, SVA has entered a period of rapid expansion, opening one new graduate program every two years, including programs in Branding, Design Criticism, Design for Social Innovation, Interaction Design, and Products of Design. (I have been fortunate to teach, lecture, or visit in several of these programs.) During the same period of time, designers Karel Martens and Wigger Bierma founded the influential Werkplaats Typografie (1998), Bruce Mau worked with Toronto’s George Brown College to create the Institute without Boundaries (2003), and IDEO’s David Kelley founded Stanford’s d.school (2005).
This growth is hardly unique to design. Other creative disciplines have experienced a similarly steady increase in new programs, particularly in graduate programs, along a similar timeline. One of the most significant, both in terms of expansion and in terms of cultural impact, has been creative writing, which, starting with a handful of programs in the 1940s, had increased this number to over 350 accredited instutions offering both graduate and undergraduate programs by 2004.
The rise and impact of creative writing programs in the postwar period is studied by UCLA English Professor Mark McGurl in his thoroughly illuminating book The Program Era (2009). McGurl takes my architecture colleague’s earlier question about personal histories quite seriously:
[The] category of “personal experience” has over the course of the twentieth century, and in the postwar period in particular, achieved a functional centrality in the postindustrial economies of the developed world. These economies in turn inhabit what Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and others have described as a “reflexive modernity.”
The reflexively modern society, unlike the conventionally modern society, looks forward to the new and backward to its modern past, a modernity whose impact has been total and whose influence reverberates in every sector of culture. Instead of the dismantling and overtly critical strategy employed by postmodernism, the reflexively modern society seeks to examine and correct itself in order to keep placing itself continually back on track. The result is a heightened sense of self-awareness and self-preservation leading all the way back to the individual. McGurl writes that the utility of reflexive modernity as a concept “leaps off the page, suggesting that literary practices might partake in a larger, multivalent social dynamic of self-observation,” which includes “the self-monitoring of individuals who understand themselves to be living, not lives simply, but life stories of which they are the protagonists.”
It is not simply the unexamined life here that is not worth living, but the unnarrated life — and far from a nostalgic examination, that narration is increasingly essential and increasingly likely to occur in real time. Far from narcissistic, McGurl writes, this instinct is decidedly self-preservational and potentially even an unwanted burden, like a kind of punishment:
[As] Beck puts it, modern people “are condemned to individualization.” To be subject to reflexive modernity is to feel a “compulsion for the manufacture, self-design, and self-staging” of a biography, and, indeed, for the obsessive “reading” of that biography even as it is being written. And in this project there are a host of agencies, including schools, waiting to help.
It would be quite natural to stop here and ask if graduate programs in graphic design and creative writing can really be compared. While the writing program has remained relatively consistent in its structure and steady in its evolution since its earliest days in the ʼ20s and ʼ30s at Bread Loaf in Middlebury, Vermont, and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, graphic design programs have changed and adapted to new currents in the profession.
The first schools embraced the Bauhaus’s original workshop structure (Josef Albers founded the Yale University School of Art and Mies Van Der Rohe directed the architecture program and designed the campus at the Illinois Institute of Technology), but the model was soon restructured to include a more programmatic and analytical approach drawn from architectural training. Other schools throughout the ʼ60s and ʼ70s (like CalArts, founded by Walt Disney in 1961) popularized design through the lens of applied art training. When Katherine McCoy was appointed co-chair of the graduate design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1971, she combined an interest in architectural theory with the more language-based techniques drawn from the writings about deconstruction and post-structuralism by Barthes, Derrida, and others. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s arrival at Yale in 1990 extended these ideas to include postmodern notions of identity and a public-minded social awareness, giving design the broadened sense of a humanistic discipline sited at a major research university. Jan Van Toorn’s arrival at the Jan van Eyck Academie in 1991 signaled a similar shift in Europe. The end of the ʼ90s found design education having come full-circle, from Dan Fern’s studio-practice–driven model at the Royal College of Art in London to the Werkplaats Typografie’s reintroduction of the workshop model in the Netherlands.
On this level, graphic design and creative writing programs might be considered distant cousins at best. Both are creative pursuits sharing certain structures, like critique and peer review, but many more of these structures remain distinct to each. What McGurl’s book offers to a designer reading it closely is not a set of examples to follow in explaining design education but rather a methodology to adapt for investigating it. What if we play the old “designer as author” metaphor in reverse, describing authorship not as an input or mode of creation, but as an output or model of practice: the designer as cultural influencer, identifiable persona, and creator of a distinctly voiced body of work. This, perhaps, is how an author’s training and a designer’s training are linked.
And this is how the “Program Era,” a term that McGurl adapts from literary critic Hugh Kenner’s earlier “Pound Era,” might resonate with designers today. “The rise and spread of the creative writing program over the course of the postwar period has transformed the conditions under which American literature is produced,” McGurl writes, adding:
It has fashioned a world where artists are systematically installed in the university as teachers, and where, having conceived a desire to become that mythical thing, a writer, a young person proceeds as a matter of course to request application materials. It has in other words converted the Pound Era into the Program Era.
Once dedicated to mastering basic skills of the craft, the school has become, in design’s Program Era, tied instead to the production of a professional, the creation of a designer as a whole self, an individual with a self-actualized practice in which student work, not client work, often forms the basis for an introduction and ongoing access to the design sphere. Compare this to Lorraine Wild’s description of the graduate school environment at Yale in 1982 that, she writes, functioned like a kind of boot camp where “correct typography” consisted of “using only one font with one weight change.” In this context, Wild wonders,
Could you be forgiven, perhaps, for beginning to suspect that what you were being taught was not actually modernism at all, but habit? Or bizarre fraternity rituals? The similarities to frat hazing were alarming; if you did what you were told you would be let “in.” […] If you asked questions, there were no sensible answers and you definitely risked rejection.
Today, students’ design work is less learning by rote than practice through self-examination. The resulting work, shared online and through institutions, events, talks, collaborations, extracurricular projects, and other generally pedagogical methods, becomes, in effect, an advertisement for its accompanying self, the designer whose interests and academic path of inquiry shaped it, framed it, and offered it into the context in which it now resides.
“For the modernist artist,” McGurl writes, “the reflexive production of the ‘modernist artist’ — i.e., the job description itself, is a large part of the job.” These reflexive professional efforts, he suggests, are not all that “radical” or even “deconstructive” but instead “perfectly routine,” part of a system of self-reference that extends past the making of literature and to the making and organizing of all things. McGurl describes this self-constitution of systems using a concept drawn from systems theory called “autopoesis.” Designers know these efforts, under slightly different circumstances, as so-called “self-initiated work,” which comprises a good portion of what’s done as an MFA student. And just as McGurl prepares a list of “signature genres of the Program Era” — which includes the campus novel, the portrait of the artist, the workshop story collection, the ethnic family saga, meta-genre fiction, and meta-slave narratives — we might attempt a designer’s list along the same lines, including the thesis book, the process poster, the experimental typeface, the urban map, the data visualization exercise, the group portrait photograph, the image archive, the slide talk, the meta-exhibition, and the project-as-class performance.
Above: “School Days,” from Graphic Design: Now In Production. (Larger)
Especially this last genre owes a debt to the recent “pedagogical turn” in art, which suggests that education is itself a form of art, a facilitator of artist development, and a method for activating art in the public sphere. Among the key projects in this movement is Manifesta 6, which announced the creation of an art school in Nicosia, Cypress in place of a typically temporary, “drop-on-a-city” exhibition. Artist Anton Vidokle notes in the catalogue Notes for an Art School,
The Bauhaus, in its brief period of activity, arguably accomplished what any number of Venice Biennials have not (and at a fraction of the cost) — a wide range of artistic practitioners coming together to redefine art, what it can and should be, and most importantly, to produce tangible results. All this in the face of Walter Gropius’s famous assertion that “art cannot be taught.” An art school, it would appear, does not teach art, but sets up the conditions necessary for creative production, and by extension the conditions for collaboration and social engagement.
Vidokle’s essay concludes with an “Incomplete Chronology of Experimental Art Schools” beginning with the École national supérieure des beaux-arts (1671) and continuing through the Bauhaus (1919), Black Mountain College (1933), Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture (1946), Nova Scotia College of Arts & Design (1966), Whitney ISP Program (1968), Beuys’s Free International University (1974), General Idea (1977), the Vera List Center for Art & Politics (1992), Mountain School of Art (2005), and beyond.
While Manifesta 6 did not come to be, it did serve as a catalyst for organizing many groups including Dexter Sinister, who “proposed to establish a print workshop as part of the [Manifesta] school, which would explore existing modes of art publishing and possibly suggest new ones.” In addition to the Bauhaus, Dexter Sinister looked to Toyotaʼs “just-in-time” production process as a model for their workshop. The spirit of this pragmatic academic/commercial workshop fit well with Manifestaʼs hybridized exhibition/academy format. Dexter Sinister, who designed Notes, also contributed the school’s iconic blazon, a slashed shield that Steve Rushton likens to a typographic slash marking the tenuous boundary between terms like love/hate, speech/writing, and, perhaps, art/school.
As art’s “pedagogical turn” seeks to dissolve or at least refashion this last boundary, so too does McGurl undertake an effort to frame writing as a distributed, multifocal, and highly structured creative effort. With this, he completes the second of two substantive transformations of standard-issue Program Era criticisms. The first, as we have seen, is to dismiss the idea that program work is narcissistically self-involved and instead suggest that it is enlightenedly reflexive. McGurl’s second transformation is to dismiss the idea that program work is “generic,” “assembly-line” and basically unoriginal and instead suggest that it is deeply systematic.
But how can a creative discipline be systematically taught? The question is pervasive. Earlier, we saw Vidokle nod to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’s assertion that “art cannot be taught.” McGurl quotes the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s official history in the same vein: “Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught,” it states, “we continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but talent can be developed.” It’s a careful balancing act of populism and elitism, allowing for the popular notion of individual genius on one hand while underscoring Iowa’s legacy and prestige on the other. Neither Gropius nor Iowa doubts the possibility of the creative individual, but both seem at best anxious and at worst dismissive of a creative system. Creativity, especially in the last century, has been characterized as something that breaks from the pack; how, then, can it be broken down, spread out, and passed on?
To the extent that there are systems in place to teach writing and other forms of creativity, they are not the same systems that are in place throughout the rest of the university. At Iowa, for example, one participant recalls that her teachers “commented on what they liked or didn’t like about a particular story, offered isolated bits of advice about technique, but most of us got through two years of instruction without any formal discussions of theory or craft.” The description might apply to many design classes as well. And while there was much debate, especially in the early 1990s among a new generation of design educators, of the potential for adapting theoretical systems in the teaching of design, “slowly,” notes Andrew Blauvelt in his essay “Towards a Critical Autonomy,” “the debates subsided.”
“Graduate schools,” Blauvelt continues, “whether celebrated or scorned, were once seen as the source of ‘the problem’” of design’s reduction “to its commodity form — simply a choice of vehicles for delivering a message: ad, billboard, book, brochure, typeface, website, and so on. Implicit in this reductive understanding is the denial of graphic design as a social practice and with it the possibility of disciplinary autonomy.” Here a new question has emerged: not “can it be taught” but “to what end”?
Lorraine Wild asks a similar question, writing in 2004 that “for a time, some of the design schools were more responsible for creating a space where a little more perspective and independence about the practice and the ‘profession’ could occur than anywhere else. The formal investigations produced by students and teachers were produced against this context, which utilized, and was enabled by, a reading of critical theory, and had large targets.” But soon, she writes, these forms “were so alluring (and so specific to a younger audience) that, like every other formal expression of a cultural idea in our consumer-based society, they entered the life cycle of visual style; that is, they were marketed.” In Blauvelt’s formulation, the project of teaching design is tied to the project of teasing design apart from other disciplines; in Wild’s formulation, the project of teaching design is tied to the potential of the school’s position as a space outside the commercial aims that design typically must serve.
But school was changing too. As McGurl notes, the increasing commodification of everyday goods (including those design objects that Blauvelt and Wild describe) required the marketing of “the experience of being marketed to” as a reflexive thing unto itself. After a brief nod to Joseph Pine and James Gilmore’s late ʼ90s business classic The Experience Economy, McGurl quotes landscape architecture scholar Dean MacCannell’s book The Tourist from a decade earlier to help illuminate this shift in our cultural understanding of school. MacCannell, he writes, surveyed this new landscape of experiences and compared it to a “generalized tourism” in which “the value of things such as programs, trips, courses, reports, articles, shows, conferences, parades, opinions, events, sights, spectacles, scenes, and situations of modernity is not determined by the amount of labor required for their production. Their value is tied to the quality and quantity of the experience they promise.”
What may have first looked like a shift away from the idea of including theory in the classroom was instead a shift toward the classroom as a lived experience in which people, places, and real-world projects come together in a pragmatic whole — an idea that was advanced by Werkplaats Typografie with its arrival in the late ’90s. In its prospectus founders Karel Martens and Wigger Bierma describe the idea of “Workshop as Meeting Place”:
For typographic designers who are just starting to practice — in this case, the participants of the Typography Workshop — it is vitally important that they become familiar with the standpoints and considerations of other typographic designers. The best way to do this is literally to enter into a conversation with them. Moreover, it is important that participants are offered the opportunity to present themselves to future colleagues.
The prospectus goes on to describe the idea of carrying out real-world assignments alongside individual research as participants inhabit a fully-equipped studio where other participants, advisers, and outside experts are all available to discuss and develop creative work.
And though its prospectus doesn’t exactly describe a classic master/apprentice system, the Werkplaats’s outside experts do seem to function in a similar way. McGurl notes a similar dynamic in the creative writing classroom, where the relationship between student and teacher is more of a creative “apprenticeship” and knowledge is delivered informally via practice rather than systematically via syllabus. Perhaps, like the teaching of writing the teaching, the teaching of design at the graduate level has this kind of informal system at its root.
McGurl extends this idea further still, past the classroom and into the writing itself:
Creative writing issues an invitation to student-consumers to develop an intensely personal relation to literary value, one that for the most part bypasses the accumulation of traditional cultural capital (that is, a relatively rarefied knowledge of great authors and their works) in favor of a more immediate identification with the charisma of authorship. […] Part of the value of of the modern literary text, quite apart from the “relatability” of its characters, is the act of authorship that it records, offering readers a mediated experience of expressive selfhood as such.
Rather than separate the teaching of writing from the autopoetic act, the experience economy bundles them together. “Is such a thing [as systematic creativity] possible?” McGurl finally asks. “Or is it, rather, perfectly normal?” Isnʼt declaring a passion for a creative persuit and making time for it in our busy lives, selecting to be in a group of similarly passionate people led by a mentor who has been successful at that effort, improving our work through discussion and debate, and developing a sense of ourselves and our role in the wider field of cultural production — isnʼt that a system? Isnʼt it one that allows us to grow and be more creative? Isnʼt it one that asks us to teach and learn, lead and follow, remain who we are and be changed by our surroundings? Donʼt our deepest lived experiences change us? And isnʼt school one of them?
Setting aside the anxieties that naturally surround discussions of systematic creativity in this way is just one of McGurl’s many useful insights into the world of creative training and how we might reflect differently about it — to reevaluate (and here I’ll crib a favorite author) What We Talk about When We Talk about Education. The key question is not, as McGurl so lucidly observes, “Programs: pro or con?” Instead, he suggests, we need studies that seriously examine the influence of these programs on literary production and interpretation in the postwar period. What, he asks, are the social factors that gave rise to these programs? How, in their sheer magnitude, have these programs reorganized creative production in our time? And how might we seek a new and more nuanced awareness of the creative products they produce?
Above: “School Days,” from Graphic Design: Now In Production. (Larger)
Perhaps around the bright sun of design we have, during the last few years of our own Program Era, added more planets, more moons and comets, more elliptical orbits, more complexity, and more interconnectedness to our disciplinary universe as it expands ever-outward. This idea ran through part of a RISD MFA syllabus that I wrote several years ago called “Graphic Design & Critical Thinking,” which, if I can indulge in a second autobiographical moment, I will quote here:
Designers are asked to have a tremendous number of technical and analytical skills at our disposal to communicate information that is unfamiliar to us. Borrowing from Alice Twemlowʼs book What Is Graphic Design For?, a few of the forms that designers regularly use include: typefaces, motion graphics, music and sounds, games, signage and wayfinding systems, posters, magazines and periodicals, books, information graphics, interactive systems, identity systems, advertising, writing, software programs, and more. All of these forms require very different skills, different critical tools for understanding them, and different expectations from audiences in terms of which forms suit certain kinds of content best.
Rather than seeing design as a single paradigm practiced in a uniform way by canonical figures, this “universal” model of design — McGurl would note the similarity to “university” — sees a multiple, shifting set of polarities with highly influential individuals and institutions acting as centers of gravity. The task for emerging designers is to first enter an orbit and then, if they wish, increase their gravitational pull over time. A wider variety of schools and programs naturally help to foster this exercise in self-definition. As more types of people described as “designers” arrive, however, skillsets can grow more distinct and distant from one another.
One of the effects of this broadening has been that design has, in recent years, become noticeably less like a trade and more like a humanistic discipline than ever before. As part of this shift, designer and professor Gunnar Swanson authored a call in 1994 to reconsider “Graphic Design as a Liberal Art.” He writes,
We must begin to believe our own rhetoric and see design as an integrative field that bridges many subjects that deal with communication, expression, interaction, and cognition. Design should be about meaning and how meaning can be created. Design should be about the relationship of form and communication. It is one of the fields where science and literature meet. It can shine a light on hidden corners of sociology and history. Designʼs position as conduit for and shaper of popular values can be a path between anthropology and political science. Art and education can both benefit through the perspective of a field that is about expression and the mass dissemination of information. Designers, design educators, and design students are in a more important and interesting field than we seem to recognize.
In Swanson’s formulation, design as a discipline acts as a kind of guide between disciplines, adopting and adapting specific theoretical concerns of each and passing them through the lenses of form, communication, and distribution. To this process Blauvelt adds the important quality of reflexivity:
Graphic design must be seen as a discipline capable of generating meaning out of its own intrinsic resources without reliance on commissions, functions, or specific materials or means. Such actions should demonstrate self-awareness and reflexivity; a capacity to manipulate the system of graphic design.
If humanistic disciplines bridge the analytic, critical, and speculative impulses in understanding ourselves and our world, then design is increasingly engaged in all three of these impulses. It always has been analytic, attempting to understand and solve problems in both the commercial and cultural spheres. But, with the support of academic institutions like schools and museums, design has explored a critical role as well. “Critical design” is a term associated with a growing set of designers, including the RCA’s Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. (Dunne is the head of the Design Interactions department; Raby is on the faculty as well.) “Speculative design,” another alternative practice model and cousin to critical design, has sprung up with methods allowing designers to unpack new scenarios of technology, citizenship, communication, and power. Metahaven, who teach, lecture, and publish widely, are frequently cited as touchstones for speculative design and practice.
The subdiscipline of “design research” has been launched as well. In his preface to one of the first collections on the topic, UCLA’s Peter Lunenfeld begins by stipulating that “the territory is vast” but cites Rem Koolhaas as one possible model for design practice in three ways: “first, to understand the context of any building project he might wish to undertake; second, to develop the building’s program itself; and third, in a reflexive way, as a selling tool for the research and the building themselves.” Research, in this model, is not only an analytic method but also a cultural product unto itself.
And there’s “design thinking,” a kind of re-envisioning of problem-solving itself, less didactic and more open-ended, less specifically about problems and solutions and more of a method for observation and analysis, particularly within larger corporations and institutions. Its name is a curious mash-up of forming things and formulating ideas, which are both separated (“designing” and “thinking”) and intertwined (“design thinking”). It may, in the minds of many, be more easily associated with a set of advocates than a set of concepts, as Helen Walters wrote in early 2011 for Fast Company:
I joined [BusinessWeek] back in 2006, which was a time when design thinking was really beginning to take hold as a concept. My old boss, Bruce Nussbaum, emerged as its eloquent champion while the likes of Roger Martin from Rotman, IDEOʼs Tim Brown, my new boss Larry Keeley and even the odd executive (A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble comes to mind) were widely quoted espousing its virtues.
Other than Walters and Nussbaum, who are journalists, each of these figures is associated with a postgraduate educational institution: Martin became Dean at Rotman School of Business in 1998 (before that Lafley was his client at Monitor, a consulting group), Brown at Stanford’s d.school, and Keeley at Chicago’s IIT. Walters’s article continues:
Still, in the years that have followed, something of a problem emerged. […] When we stopped and looked, it seemed like executives had issues rolling out design thinking more widely throughout the firm. And much of this stemmed from the fact that there was no consensus on a definition of design thinking, let alone agreement as to whoʼs responsible for it, who actually executes it, or how it might be implemented at scale.
With its collection of faculty-advocates, its self-evolving set of methods, its position as a primarily theoretical rather than practical structure, and, above all, its assertion that — unlike the more action-oriented, collective “doers” of business cultures past — this process defined by a more contemplative, individual “thinker,” “design thinking” is in every way more the kind of movement that emerges from a school than the kind that emerges from a typical boardroom.
And it is the kind of movement that’s funded like a school as well, complete with the grants, fellowships, prizes, and an expanding base of institutional support. As programs grow, many designers may also rely on teaching to support their practices, and many grad students may look to teaching as a way to remain engaged in the more reflexive practice of design that they currently study. “Like most writers these days, I support myself by preaching what I practice,” jokes John Barth in his 1966 novel Giles Goat-Boy; or, The Revised New Syllabus (which appears nearby Chip Kidd’s The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters from 2001 on Wikipedia’s illuminating list of “the school and university in literature”).
But before we settle too comfortably into this system of increased support, there are those who take a more cautionary tone. As historian an theorist Thierry de Duve notes Art Schools,
Art schools have not always existed, and nothing says that they must always exist. Their proliferation is perhaps a trompe l’oeil, masking the fact that the transmission of art today from artist to artist is very far from occurring directly in schools.
In de Duve’s version of events, the growth of art schools is not a steady trend but an illusory and temporary event. This is the “school experience” as goldrush, like a kind of speculative bubble about to burst — with dozens of ad-hoc schools, for-profit trade academies, and educational ventures jockeying for a piece of the student loan industry pie. There is now more education-related debt than credit card debt in the U.S.
And there may be overeducation, too. While there has never been a more important goal than universal access to a college education, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics nonetheless reports that 17 million Americans with college degrees do jobs that do not require them. In the sciences, the number of PhDs given has grown by nearly 40% during every year since 1998, reaching 34,000 doctorates in 2008. In her essay “The PhD problem” science writer Kate Shaw cautions that “the workforce cannot absorb all these highly trained graduates,” most of whom “are fully funded through research assistantships, teaching opportunities, and fellowships. With so many graduates these days taking jobs they are overqualified for, some educators and economists believe this money is simply being wasted.” These developments suggest that education may need to adopt a more streamlined attitude in the years to come.
During an interview in Eye magazine from 1997, Paul Elliman noted that
It almost doesnʼt matter that itʼs graphic design Iʼm teaching. There must be equivalents in all academic areas of people who teach through a sense of passion. […] The World Wide Web — an environment where, for better or worse, connection is everything — suggests, among other things, new possibilities for design and its education.
This space allows both practice and reflexivity. For the “school,” both as extension to the old model and in the transition to a new one, the Internet will offer a more continuous dialogue with practicing designers, and with other specialized areas, in ways that could counter some of the problems and complexities found in the institutional teaching of design.
To tweak Gropius’s assertion once more, the question here is not “can it be taught” but rather “can it be taught in school”? Because just as art is a frame for a certain kind of aesthetic practice, school is a frame for a certain kind of pedagogical practice. And just as there are types of aesthetics that are not called art or are coming to be known as art, so too are there types of pedagogy that are not called school or are coming to be known as school.
Anton Vidokle notes in his essay that his research into the Manifesta 6 school project unearthed “an amazing range of schools in the past 100 years” that suggest an ever-changing field. “Art education is not in stasis,” he writes. “It is being constantly rethought, restructured, and reinvented.” De Duve calls the extracurricular teaching and learning of artistic practice “transmission” and suggests, along with its deprofessionalization, that it be made available to everyone, not just art students. As Raymond Williams’s Keywords project teaches us time and again, what we call things now may be different than what we call them in the future.
But whatever we call design school next, our design schools now have undoubtedly produced the design culture we share today, and perhaps this is exactly the point. As more designers go to school, go back to school, and return again to teach in school; as there are more postgrad “lifelong learning” environments like conferences and meetups; as there is more discussion and debate online, in after-work lectures and weekend book fairs and degree shows; as designers seek to make themselves better, learn more, and define a life in design as an unfolding lived experience — as all this happens, then the culture of design becomes increasingly more like the culture of school. As we look back on this period in the years to come, these may be design’s school days indeed.
This piece was commissioned by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton for the catalogue of Graphic Design: Now In Production in 2011.