Originally published Friday, September 7, 2007


some thoughts on the education of a graphic designer

Studies in Graphic Design
within a Two-year degree program

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I’ve often included in my discussion with students who aspire to graphic design, or what they may “think” graphic design encompasses, that the world (in this case Flint, Michigan) really doesn’t need 300 new graphic designers every year… 

It sounds like the exact opposite of what a program coordinator should be saying to supposedly enthusiastic young (and often older – in the Community College context) students who are seeking some kind of job training in a field that combines their artistic interests with their compulsion to spend far too long on computers playing video games or indulging in the 21st Century version of high school gossip in MySpace or FaceBook blogging or Instant Messaging and commentary.

So what is it that studies in graphic design has to offer the student who has made the first step towards higher education? Showing up!

The contemporary student in today’s educational system needs more than just job skills in the old-fashioned sense of the factory, rote-learned, task repetitive processed effort. For as soon as a job “skill” is learned, it is obsolete. And the process of teaching to a “test” of ones’ knowledge in a date-stamped technical skill does nothing to promote the problem-solving thinking processes required for success in today’s world.

And there-in lies the crux of the problem. Many in the “real” world of academic administration, traditional fine arts departments, and the k-12 learning system view studies in graphic design as simply the mastery of computer software. Of course that same “mastery” is quickly followed by obsolescence if the conceptual nature of how these special “tools” function is left out of the lesson plan.

And, in addition to the mastery of the tools and the concepts behind their function and use, there lies the problem-solving nature of design which crosses from the visual to cultural, from conceptual to perceptual to contextual. Research, historic, economic, sociological, psychological, literary, anthropological studies all play a role in the creative thinking processes implemented in the development of any effective design goals including visual communications.

So what should be the priority for study in a two-year program in graphic design? 

The AIGA/NASAD white paper on the subject of different degree studies in Graphic Design considers the two-year degree an inadequate degree for preparation for professional work in graphic design, and considers the degree to be focused almost entirely upon the development of technical (read “software”) skills development alone. The following is the AIGA/NASAD position on two-year graphic design education: 

“Two-Year Programs in Graphic Design

Purpose. Some institutions, including community colleges and technical schools, offer courses and curricula described as graphic design, commercial art, graphic arts, and visual communications in a two-year format. Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, and Associate of Fine Arts are typical titles. Effective programs prepare students for: 1) technical support positions in the field of graphic design and visual communications, and/or 2) transfer to a design program in a four-year institution. 

Technical support. No other aspect of design practice has experienced the level of growth and change found in technical support. The configuring and networking of technology for design studios, preparing electronic files for output in comprehensives, electronic pre-press, digital manipulation of photography, converting of files from one software program to another and from print-based to electronic formats, scripting and programming for web design, and designing of computer templates for a range of users are just some of the technical functions that did not exist 15 years ago. Mastering these skills, as well as the changes in software, can easily fill a two-year curriculum, especially if students must also understand the design context in which such work must be performed. Design studios, advertising agencies, and corporations search for individuals who have these skills and consistently report shortfalls in qualified applicants. In metropolitan design centers, new companies have formed to provide precisely these services to groups of clients on a contractual basis.

Individuals prepared in two-year programs to provide technical support services are not designers responsible for the invention of appropriate visual form and/or for strategic communications problem-solving. Students who enter two-year programs for the purpose of gaining technical competencies that support the design professions should not expect that their education also prepares them for design and design management level positions.

It is the position of the AIGA and NASAD that two years of study are insufficient to prepare an individual for entry into the field as a graphic designer or strategist, and that there is a limit to what students graduating from two-year programs can expect in employment opportunities in design. To advance in the field, broader competence in the common body of knowledge and skills is required.”

It is my position, however, based upon more than 20 years in the industry and more than ten years experience in the development, implementation, and continuous refinement of a two-year community college program, that not only can a two-year degree program be a highly effective preparation for transfer to the much sought-after four-year program. But that students who have undertaken the rigorous preparation developed in a well-balanced but focused AAS degree may also have a competitive advantage over their peers who pursue a BFA from the start at many comprehensive universities.

If Tom Friedman is correct in his assessment of the “flat world”, then technical skills alone will not guarantee anyone job security. But neither will conceptual thinking alone. Today, success may be defined by how one combines a variety of valuable skills including the ability to function on a personal basis, interpreting a potential challenge and explaining a variety of solutions along with their more industry-specific training. In other words, if you can see the bigger picture, dissect it into manageable small problems, and approach it with uniquely creative solutions, you may just be able to succeed in this business. And this requires being able to dance, not just with your keystrokes across the QWERTY keyboard of a laptop, or sing your way through the action script for a Flash animation, or be able to draw with the beauty and color saturated tones of a master. It requires you to understand and know when these skills may be needed and applied… and how to acquire them, whether from your own hand, or from your collaborators. Design, then, becomes a demonstration in creative teamwork and orchestration.

What, then, is the role of the two-year program in 21st Century graphic design?

The two-year program can have many roles in the preparation of future graphic designers. A well-designed Associates degree can provide entry-level skills for graphic designers by providing a balance of graphic design and technology skills building upon a foundation in the traditional studio practice in drawing, two-dimensional design principles, and color theory. Through the continuous weaving of relevant questions and exploration in this context, the two-year graphic design student will also gain insight into the greater role that graphic design may play in their community and commercial applications. Far from simply becoming the “technicians” of the industry, an out-dated attitude leftover from the days when roles where strictly separated between typesetters, paste-up artists, designers and art directors, today’s graphic designers must be able to step into a variety of roles as visual communicators that requires both sensitivity and skills in solving the design problem and the technical savvy for implementation of that solution. Many of the students who have graduated from our community college program have succeeded in developing portfolios that are stronger than many four-year programs. Yet I encourage all students to go on to four-year programs, especially those that will continue to challenge them creatively, in order to develop a more competitive edge in this very tight job market. Still, there are many students who graduate who cannot afford to jump directly into a four-year program. Most are very capable of serving the design needs of the community in jobs that may not be in glamorous Fortune 500 ad agencies or boutique design shops. But these graduates still succeed in raising the standards of expectation for clients and their employers beyond pure technical savvy as suggested by AIGA and NASAD.

While I concur with the important role of a comprehensive four-year professional degree program in this fast-evolving field of visual communications, as both educators and practitioners we have a responsibility for preparing the next generation of multimedia artists, designers, information architects (and all the other new titles arising from emerging media). However, it is also necessary to recognize the highly valuable role that a comprehensive two-year program can provide for students and returning professionals as they prepare to keep up in this fast-paced, highly competitive, and increasingly global environment. As the opportunities for entrepreneurship continues to expand in this flat world, the two-year graphic design program can provide the art/design/technical skills that can help launch the next generation of designers to adapt and move through the educational and career paths that are continually shifting through the mists of our vision for the future of graphic design.

~ Mara Jevera Fulmer

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