Jessica Helfand | Essays

Method Designing: The Paradox of Modern Design Education

Over a century ago, Konstantin Stanislavsky revolutionized the modern theatre by introducing a new system of training, in which the actor would draw on his or her own emotions to achieve a true understanding of a character. "We protested against the old manner of acting and against theatricality, against artificial pathos and declamation," Stanislavksy wrote, and indeed, in an era framed by considerable social and civil unrest, the very notion that characters could be shown to have an interior life was itself remarkably revolutionary. Through the practice of what we have come to know, today, as "method" acting, an actor could explore, identify and ultimately reveal the degree to which a character could be a hugely complex human being with feelings, emotions and often conflicting desires.

To this day, method acting remains a highly regarded pedagogical model for training actors. But when did it become an appropriate system for educating designers?

Schools of thought are always hotbeds of ideological controversy: there are always exceptions to the rule, deviations from the principal learning curve. In creative education this a particularly thorny issue: How to teach discipline and promote invention? Arguably, designers who were trained to understand two-dimensional composition by crafting eight-by-eight inch plaka boards were more conscious of the former than the latter, while today's design students firmly occupy the opposite camp. And while each approach might be said to be imperfect, it is the contemporary conditions within which today's design students are expected to "make work" that gives me cause for concern.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was an actress before I became a graphic designer. I struggled with just how difficult it was to understand a role, to be another person — and while the skeptic in me had my doubts about method acting as a kind of religion, I recognized then (still do) that at its core, it was all about a kind of stripped-down emotional honesty. If you could achieve this honesty, your performance would resonate with a kind of pitch-perfect humanity and you had a far better chance of truly engaging your audience as a result.

Engaging the audience, of course, might be said to characterize the designer's goal as well. Perhaps this is why, having spent the better part of the last two weeks participating in year-end reviews at several design schools, I am at once hopeful and discouraged by what I am seeing — in particular, by a kind of self-aware, idiosyncratic abstraction that seems to lie at the core of the theoretical process. And while a good deal of the work I've seen is original, imaginative and in more than a few cases, magnificently daring, I find it oddly vexing that somewhere along the line, we have allowed our students to appropriate some part of method acting — the part that glorifies feeling and celebrates vanity; the part that amplifies personal memory and replays it as objective truth. It's extremely subjective and it's extremely seductive and more often than not, it's extremely misplaced as graphic design.

The good news is that in an effort to produce designers who can think for themselves, we ask our students to identify a method which becomes evident through the work that they produce. Such an emphasis on authorship is, by and large, a way to train young designers as thinkers — and not merely as service providers. (So far, so good.) At the same time, we encourage them to seek references beyond the obvious: the richness of their sources testifies to an ability to engage a larger universe, and their work benefits from locating itself along a trajectory they've chosen and defined for themselves.

The bad news is that as a consequence of seeking validation elsewhere, there is an unusual bias toward false identity: so the design student, after looking at so much art, believes that s/he is making art. The design student, after considering so deeply the intangible forces framing the interpretation of visual form, comes to believe that the very act of interpretation is itself the form. This is where the method backfires so paradoxically: in being true to ourselves, we distance ourselves from a more universal truth, the kind that designers, in making messages clear, are so naturally predisposed to understand.

In an age of staged, declarative theatre, Stanislavsky's came as a radical response to what was then a stilted performative norm. Yet the reason it has survived since its inception more than a century ago may have more to do with the rigors of form than the emotions of the performer: at the end of the day, there's still a tangible barometer of authenticity — and that's the script. (Hamlet can be many things, but in the end, he's still got to deliver his lines.) Perhaps this lies at the core of the problem: where's our script? When did we begin to allow, let alone forgive, let alone encourage work that is so rhetorical, so impervious to public engagement? The persistent evidence of impenetrable personal work in design schools across America is a serious epidemic, resulting in a kind of method designing that erroneously treats sentiment as substance, and why? It was, after all, Stanislavsky himself who cautioned: "Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art." Where did we go wrong?

The problem with method designing is not our students' problem: it is our problem. Let's teach our students to keep asking difficult questions, to keep solving harder problems, to keep inventing better worlds and yes, to be true to themselves. As emissaries of visual communication, our audiences deserve nothing less. To better understand ourselves as authors requires a certain amount of self-reflection, but when did the mirror of autobiography become our canvas, our public lens to the world? If such self-love leads to more honest communication, to more novel form-making, to more meaningful solutions, then so much the better. But for designers, such self-knowledge can not be a method. It is simply a motive.

Comments [54]


Eric Heiman


I applaud you on recognizing this matter for two reasons: (1) As an actor turned graphic designer myself, it's comforting to find another member of the club---I've felt like such an outsider; (2) I've been sourcing material on this issue since '04 after chatting with a friend, who writes and directs theatre. His complaint being that method acting is hard to direct. I learned after my BFA that method designing is just as hard on clients. In fact, you get nowhere fast because you're serving yourself---not the client.

I agree that self-knowledge can be a path for designers, but unfortunately some of us get carried away. (I know that I did.) We become too engaged with gazing at reflections in mirrors of our own making (Ilyin, 2005). Other paths exist for "building design" as one "build character." And the challenge lies in exciting students, without destroying their self-worth.

Jessica, you may be interested to know that at the end of his life, Stanislavsky loosened up his Method; telling actors to just "be charming".

Blind adherence is rarely a good thing, especially in pedagogies; and rarely a good method, especially in design.
m. kingsley

If we are to read the playwright as the client and the script as the content, the designer's role is not that of the actor, but of the director and production designers. The live performance is the design. Some productions seek to bring to life the words of the script as directly as possible; some directors seek to add/change meaning through the execution of production decisions not specified in the script. The latter is not an "autobiographical" approach, and certainly not necessarily "impervious to public engagement" so much as it is simply an approach born in the mind of one other than the playwright. The quality of the production does not lie in the approach, but in the execution.

But also in the script.

Jessica, you seem to be railing against design students' script choices. Or the liberty that students often take of writing their own scripts, thereby seeming to insulate the final 'production' from criticism. To charge oneself with the duties of director and playwright is an infinitely more difficult path, and one more prone to failure. It also makes the educator's job that much more difficult. But to discourage students from taking such a path out of hand is, I feel, selling students short by limiting the scope of their ambition and by barring them a rare opportunity afforded by the academic setting.
Ahrum Hong

Maybe the difference is between actors (who know that what they are doing works because it's somehow about them but mainly about somebody else) and movie stars (who are certain that everything is about them.)
Gunnar Swanson

No, Ahrum: I am railing against the system — and the fear (among educators) of reigning in students' ideas, not their work. And I don't think I'm alone here. What's an education for, anyway? While I am not advocating an abandonment of theory (far from it) I am concerned about the responsibility we, as educators, have to out students. And I think it's time we just say no to ambiguity, art-posturing and indulgence.
jessica helfand

Indulgence? The word confuses me here. Indulgence in what? Pursuing that which you have a passion to create, for the pleasure of indulging your desire to see this thing made real? Isn't that impulse to indulge oneself lie at the heart of all the best work ever made (both from students and professionals)? The goal of an education should be to refine the aim of the student's personal (yes, I said it) drive, not to inhibit it. Refine by teaching the ability to strip away artifice and ambiguity from the ideas and the forms (however one does that...)
Ahrum Hong

Pleasingly, I'm also seeing the exact opposite of the above too. But 'style-focused navel gazers' do probably outnumber those students looking at 'a bigger picture'.

As Virginia Postrel says: "Sensory appeals are everywhere, and they are intensifying, radically changing how Americans live and work". (The same goes for elsewhere too).

It's perhaps no wonder that many of todays students opt for strong 'sensory satisfaction' over other considerations when this is such a strong pervading sensibility within our culture(s).

And Gunnar hit the mark perfectly. Or it could be rock stars and musicians. (But his example is a better analogy).
Andrew Haig

Perhaps we're seeing a consequence of design's emergence. As the discipline moves from form-giving to strategic process, there's a point where, like a trapeze artist twisting in mid-air, design has to let go of text and grab onto process. Maybe art-posturing is the flimsy and youthful, but not entirely inappropriate, effect of that state of suspension.
Tim Wilson

In just under a week I'll be given a diploma with a BFA in graphic design from the Savannah College of Art and Design. During my education, I have been taught button pushing, grid systems, how to use programs, and all sorts of 'design elements' that I had taught myself through drawing for 15 years before I even attended college. Just in the past year have I been able to escape the mundane aspects of how to design and entered into the realm of why we design; something that I've thought about since beginning school, but a process that has not been embraced by the faculty until this, my senior year.

Your article is very interesting because while i disagree on principle, there is, and always will be, a part of design that must remain (in my eyes) boring. Stating that this 'method acting' can not occur autoamtically is limiting the future roads design can take; you're placing boundaries. If you don't put feeling in to what you design, how could one ever expect to get any sort of emotional reaction from the design? Perhaps that doesn't seem extraordinarily relevant, but an emotional response to an aesthetic presentation is one of the highest honors to be held in any sort of medium, regardless of what the critics might say.

I must say, however, that I'm a bit taken aback by your juxtaposition of design and art. The biggest difference between the two is that art is (generally) done for personal reasons while design is (generally) a client-based medium. But, in this digital age where broadband and pixels are so prolific, perhaps this divide is wearing thin. I, just this month, self-published a book. It's 160 pages, full color, includes writing and art and is fully and properly 'designed'. However, I'm hard pressed as to call it art, design, or some mesh thereof.

I wonder, especially in an age where we are self-publishing and distributing independent media moreso than ever (from clothing to lithographs to all of the above), incorporating all the elements of a conceptual/postmodern graphic design era into a self-produced medium as a possible reaction to the vapid advertising and mass consumerism we see on a daily basis, that perhaps graphic design as you know it, as the professional, is fading. It seems this article lends itself more to grasping on to the last strings of a more modern approach to standard design, while scared of what the future may bring if we (gasp!) would actually allow people to feel for what they do.

Maybe this is graphic design punk rock. Maybe all we're trying to say is that we want things to change, and we're going to try and change them, and you can try and stop us.
Colin Smith

While a client may hire a designer for their particular approach, that approach may be one of a particular aesthetic (say, designer as artist) while another approach may be one of procedure (Tim's "strategic process"). I think it's our duty to show students both sides of design becuase there will always be work for both ways of doing. I also believe we're responsible for helping students to understand the importance of knowing both and to know the difference between the two.

I teach in an environment that is not affiliated with "art" in any way other than the singular "Drawing & Composition" class (which I happen to be teaching right now). I'm not seeing as much "method designing" as Jessica is but I'm curious about it, that's for sure. An observation: most fresh-out-of-school designers I've met in my career applying for their first job are caught up in making things "look cool" and not necessarily concerned with the needs of the client.

I've been told that VSA partners in Chicago doesn't like to hire grads from art school design and viscomm departments, they prefer to hire students from larger university departments. This is supposedly because art school grads like to "experiment" too much but the university grads make work that corporate clients can digest. This leaves me wondering if the phenomenon Jessica is observing is particular to a certain setting.
Andrew Twigg

I trained as a software engineer before moving to graphic design, before either I used to airbrush pictures of girls for glossy magazines, before that I painted. The Software engineer in me craves the control form and practice of design, the painter wants to do it all differently and break free, the airbrusher wants to give the best representation possible of reality, the designer well I still havent figured that one out yet.

I see no reason the two "schools" cant sit comfortably side by side, the global curture is swinging towards honesty in information, why should design be different?

ive encountered fellow students who really have no interest in the more practical aspects of design, and actively ignore certian restrictions of the brief because it doesnt fit with thier personal vision. Instead of this being pointed out as a bad aspect, its largely ignored, not a factor in the final critique, even when the brief rule-bending is massive.
In cases like this I think its the role of the educator to point this out, make an issue of it and (most importantly) insist on some justification for it rather than just ignoring it.
Design should be about harnessing great creativity into an effective and practical solution, it seems that at some colleges (including mine) its swung too far into the creativity realm.

"We protested against the old manner of acting and against theatricality, against artificial pathos and declamation,"

you get full points from your german jury today, jessica.

afterall your method acting quote could have come from the girls and guys who *invented* design almost a hundred years ago....:)

bauhaus is not considered the cradle of our modern culture because of their worshiping the square angle...
no. bauhaus was cutting the aesthetics discussions down to production processes, social environments, political contexts... and so on...

bottom line: design is invisible.
it is the process, not the surface that counts.

as a designer you cannot understand design by the looks.

sachlichkeit is not a style. it is an attitude.

ps. i love the method acting metaphor
pps. i hate the layout of this site here. i have got good eyes. but this here is impossible to read. let your form follow some function a little bit:)



read john thackara's "in the bubble"


did i understand you correctly, jessica?

bottom line: design is invisible.
it is the process, not the surface that counts.

Jens. Why should we undermine the client, content, audience, and shareholders by consuming ourselves with the process? In the boardroom, they don't care how you arrived at your conclusion. When the materials are hoisted in front of consumers, your sketches and references don't mean a damn.

That said, I feel that process motivates me somewhat. It's personal, and should not overshadow the work. And to paraphrase Gunnar, you must know the difference between making things somewhat about you and mainly about the client.

good point, tselentis. we are getting there.

"they don't care how you arrived at your conclusion" you say. very right.

i mean: YOU and THEY should care how both of you can set up the ideal way of interaction to involve and satisfy all stakeholder needs.

define a process, design a process that leads to design.

good to read, that "process motivates ...(you)... somewhat"

i think, in its essence, process IS about making things "somewhat about you and mainly about the client" and about the environment and whatever...

in the end, process is what gives both you and the client the security that you need. the client feeds his strategy, has his feedback loops and knows that everything follows a deliberating structure. and this structure provides your (the designer's) platform to dance, to create poetry, to create solutions that are built on the needs of all stakeholders involved. it also gives you the freedom to fail, fail again, and fail better...

integrating all aspects of the context of the future solution that you are working on is also a question of process - and it is the process that gives you the security and freedom to inhale all that - and to forget it all in order create...

this is, what i call design (is invisible).

... don't get me wrong. what i am saying here is by no means esoteric. it is very, very pragmatic.



Reasoning by analogy always makes me nervous. It masks difference by eliminating context.

Weaker students will always fail to make the distinction between work that is solely of personal interest and work that moderates the intents of communication and personal interest. I suppose that two years of solely personal work at Cranbrook seems outrageous to non-Cranbrook alumni, but the educational system there works quite well because the distinctions between internal personal and external client become foregrounded in the debate spectrum. I do recognize that a class size of seven culled from a very select applicant pool also contributes to what is possible at Cranbrook. But nothing makes something more of an issue of debate as when it is purposely denied. Perhaps this is why Cranbrook alumni don't have a problem making the transition from the academic to the professional realm, no matter how much the general profession misconstrues their adaptability.

The one guarantee that direct professional emphasis in the classroom provides is that those same weak students will be able to fulfill the most minimum necessities of their professional requirements: at least they will be able to typeset a brochure. This is, however, at the expense of the spirit of design. Those same strong students (one hopes) will ultimately supercede the strictures imposed in the educational studio, but at what cost?
David Cabianca

Wow, some of the best exchange I've read on a topic in a while... and as someone who has opinions that are black or white - I find myself agreeing with some of what everyone is saying - even you Eric H. :)

As a design student I found the personal investigation necessary, it was not an option. My graphic design class was the arena in which I had the opportunity to explore my identity. For the most part my teachers lacked a "certain" knowledge, had improper tools and were unable to take me to places that I wanted, so I fashioned my own "tools" and enlisted the help/wisdom of many outside school. This was continued and explored deeper in grad school. It's a beautiful feeling to filter a life through typography, narrative, form... and I believe that the work I did was both personal and didactic. I continue to this day to use design to tell a personal history - it has become part of my pedagogy and I teach/encourage it of my students.

We still live in a world where the telling of stories of folk like myself (African American) are rarely seen/heard in the context of design schools. As much as that work is personal, it is many times greeted with an appreciation; seen as a small peek/understanding into a different world - which might be different than Jessica's point - but I feel "personal" work that speaks to the singular, rather than through a person, connected to a peoples is different.
Steve Jones

Hhhm...., JH you've given me something to ponder about.

I've always been intrigued by the element of 'Truth' in graphic design. i mainly design book covers for a major publishing house in India, and in doing so i grapple with whether i should be true to the contents of the book or to myself. and if the book is mediocre should my design of the cover also be so? but my design integrity says i should not. does graphic design in any way question content?

any thoughts anyone?
chandan crasta

As far as the original post goes, I would agree that there are opposing corners in the form of experimentation and process in design education.

I really like the idea of the story. It seems to me that the issue at hand is whose story is being told? However, at the core there should always be a story.

Maybe we need to concentrate on the criteria used to define what a successful story/project consist of: why should a message be communicated, who is the target audience, and what is the form of the message/story? Maybe if we evaluate design work on based on this form of success, we could allow for more room in the education/profession and new forms of communication/stories.

Possibly it is then easier to see the difference between the practical use of tools+strategy and the experimental drive of new narratives.
Mike Campbell

Sorry, jumping in late - in response to original posting...
I too have visited a number of schools and have a similar sinking feeling about design education. I am not concerned about "the method". It is good practice to explore the inner realm in order to find an authentic human, conflicted, complex or irrational response to a design assignment. The trick (and this is hard for even the most seasoned artists/designers) is to give form to those ideas in a way that communicates/engages others. Many students today are NOT discouraged from packaging their honest, well- intentioned personal insights within impenetrable and ovelry-intellectul forms. The best method actors and designers use their insights to resonate with others. Students need to be shown how to do the same.

They need to know about the range of strategies out there to do just that. I don't see much understanding about the difference between sensory, emotional and intellectual appeals. I see students stuck in sensory strategies or at the other extreme overly-intellectual appeals with little exploration of emotion appeals which is what method acting is all about.
Am I wrong here?


Today's Guardian (in the UK) has an article about the Michael Jackson trial by literary critic Terry Eagleton. He says:

"Like Jackson's cosmetic surgeons, postmodernism believes in the infinite plasticity of the material world. Reality, like Jackson's over-chiselled nose, is just meaningless matter for you to carve as you choose. Just as Jackson has bleached his skin, so postmodernism bleaches the world of inherent meaning. This means that there is nothing to stop you creating whatever you fancy; but for the same reason your creations are bound to be drained of value. For what is the point of imposing your will on a meaningless reality? The individual is now a self-fashioning creature, whose supreme achievement is to treat himself as a work of art." (My italics.)

I quote this as a reminder that there is nothing new about the problem -- or more neutrally, development -- that Jessica notes in her post. The method actor metaphor, with its superficial novelty, may not even be particularly helpful here without an acknowledgement that this is not in origin a design problem. ("Where did we go wrong?" asks Jessica, seemingly of design education.) Rather, it's a general tendency in our culture, and graphic design education, as you would expect, is merely, in this case, a symptom of this larger condition. This tendency towards the inward-looking individual has received a huge amount of cultural analysis in recent decades, negative and positive, from Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism (1979) to Thomas De Zengotita's Mediated, discussed by Momus in a recent post and recommended in Design Observer's own booklist. If we really want to engage with the issue Jessica highlights, let alone develop strategies to deal with it, then we need to connect the discussion to these broader kinds of social analysis.
Rick Poynor

It's obviously a problem if students are making work that's impenetrable (personal or not). To me the real question has always been how to make the work even more engaging and the answer has usually been found in "the personal" (to a greater or lesser degree as Jessica describes it.) Like others in this thread have stated, I'm also not sure that "method acting" is really a fair comparison in the context of design. That said I would like to make a defense for "personal work."

For starters, it would be safe to assume that personal work (usually) demonstrates that a designer has some personal stake in their work. This is not to say that a re-design of a Citibank logo can't demonstrate a level of personal commitment: you would hope that it would. But by exploring their own ideas, the hope is that they will eventually understand how they can inject themselves into the job at hand—no matter what the job might be. After all, a smart person can quickly acquire the tools to fulfill more specific professional design requirements on the job. And although a student's body of work might not be fully functional upon graduation, it sometimes is the seed that can continue to grow after and perhaps even sustain them in years to come. I would encourage anyone (young or old) to be exercising their passions, even if this means having to do personal work "on the side"; this spirit has kept me sane throughout the darkest days of my career. And last but not least, you hope that at the very least, that the student has got something out of their system. This notion of authorship isn't for everyone, and there's absolutely no shame in being a so-called service provider. I don't think we need to start teaching poetry in design school, but I also don't think we need to be so disciplined that we discourage students from being expressive—there must be some happy medium?

I probably haven't been teaching long enough to know, but I imagine there's always been--and as long as students are taught and willing to experiment—always will be a certain amount of dysfunctional student design (personal or not). I also wonder if a good design student really expects that hermetic work will get them where they immediately want to be (usually a job). I have seen students make two portfolios: one that is filled with personal work, and another one that will (hopefully) get them the job. Perhaps the real results of these student's personal experiments are not immediately obvious—that's a little frightening, but also exciting.

I think the key is not to discourage "personal" work, but to arm students with all the right tools and to encourage more engaging work, by using the appropriate personal means.
Peter Buchanan-Smith

when did the mirror of autobiography become our canvas, our public lens to the world? If such self-love leads to more honest communication, to more novel form-making, to more meaningful solutions, then so much the better.

I used to assign autobiographical projects to short circuit the process and get students into the making phase faster and with the least need to double back. No need to spend time learning about a subject; no chance that otherwise worthwhile work will be marred by evidence of basic misunderstanding of the subject; they know all about themselves, right?

In retrospect, it shouldn't have surprised me that displays of insight about themselves as subjects were every bit (maybe more) rare than such displays about anything else. Looking back, I think self-as-subject created more problems than it solved. (But at least they always spelled their names right.)

It's an interesting challenge for educators: How do you provide a script and demand that it be respected while still reminding everyone that the greatest actors and directors fulfill the writer's vision but also show something that the writer barely understood.
Gunnar Swanson

I think it's interesting to note that the particular pedagogical wrinkle Jessica notes here has been made all the more wrinkled with the addition of the Design Thesis to the graduate curriculum. Depending on who's framing it, the Thesis is many things, from a research investigation to a personal contribution, a visual communicade about visual communication or a hermetic investigation of the creative self. The merits of these different strategies depend a great deal on who you're talking to, but the increase in the number of strategies available to designers is, I think, a positive development. As our culture becomes more accustomed to seeing these strategies, they will become more able to read them, and we will all benefit. Formal innovation is an enticing mission for the greatest praticioners of any medium, from cinema to cooking. Designers should not refrain from it simply because they are accustomed to a marginal cultural position or tradition dictates as such. Our visual culture is more universal and holistic than ever before. The more our designers can learn about this culture from other disciplines, the greater they will be at practicing their own.
Rob Giampietro

To respond to Colin's earlier post, framed through Rick's recent one—Whether it be design or art or blogs or memoirs or business or drama/film—the labels really don't matter anymore—to think we've reached such a high/low point of narcissism now to think that ANYTHING we create, if it comes from a personal place, justifies its existence is a scary societal place to be. If I come across one more boring personal blog about nothing, written in a pedestrian, grammatically challenged voice, I may spontaneously combust in aggravation. ("Physician, heal thyself," somebody just screamed from the audience...)

Colin, go ahead, create! I'm not stopping you. But my question to you is why should I care? This is not to be antagonistic, but rather truy sincere. WHY SHOULD I CARE? Maybe if more creatives ASKED this question MORE often, we'd be be blessed with work that doesn't overly indulge the bellybutton lint view of its creator, but instead speaks to us, changes us, involves us, binds us to each other more. OF COURSE work should be personal in some capacity—why else would we do this creative work—but to think this is the only criteria to enshrine it in the various pantheons of glory is saddening.

I'd like to see creative work (and discussion of that work) that is less concerned with the personal psyche of the artist, and even its surface aesthetics (another discussion, another time, another place), and more a discussion about the activities, the action, the conversation—hell, why not— THE LOVE, that it FACILITATES. Isn't the effect, not the cause, really what makes the stuff we create meaningful?
Eric Heiman


I think you should care because you can.

I think, personally, we live in a troubled society whose narrow-minded view of global community creates this narcissism you speak of. I think that we, as visual communicators of all kinds, have the power to change the world if we so desire. I think that we should take our beliefs and put them out there.

I do not believe that everything created should be out there - in fact, I'm quite the opposite. I think anything that doesn't have a point should probably never exist. And by point, I mean furthering the intellectual standards and raising the bar in the world we live in.

We live in such a stagnant society; too often we're concerned with meeting client needs and making sure costs are met that we allow for unintelligent design, and consequently we remain in a state of mass advertising and people that really don't care about much else. So, this is why I think you should care; because if we don't care about what we (and others) create, then certainly no one else will. The cycle of ignorance and arrogance will play itself out, leaving the rich to get richer, the creative to become more drained and the design to become more superficial.

If we keep designing to the standards of the highest bid, then ultimately we are cheating the potential intelligence capacity that the human race has, we do nothing but contribute to a nation bent on shopping itself into a media blitz and lead petty, meaningless lives.

Maybe I am too much of an idealist, I know design doesn't play that big of a role in the grander scheme of things; but it does play a role. And, as designers, we must take responsibility for our part and hope others will do the same. I, for one, read most of the comments on threads like this and cannot understand how people can be so dispassionate; it's so discouraging to me. How can you do something and not believe in it? I always feel fake creating because I'm told. It's why I had such a hard time in classes that 'taught' Photoshop and Illustrator; it was busy work, design that was unnecessary and not pertinent.

Imagine if we all just took all the excess out of America. What if we designed a society that promoted intellectual achievement and visual discourse instead of purchases and fake breasts? What if we held ourselves, and everyone around us, to a higher standard? What if, dare I say it, we actually gave a damn about what we do with our lives and how it impacts the world we live in?

What then?
Colin Smith

i think what keeps students in line is a set of requirements and teacherse not being afraid to say it like it is.

there's a conflict amongst teachers --- how do you teach students to be free? how do you teach them to be themselves? its the paradox of pedagogy, its something you cant really do. the best thing teachers can do is offer their leadership and wisdom to students, and not let students get away with things.

i for one am not for personal narrative in design work. though i think it can be a starting point. its just too hard to criticize on a graphic or a design level. but you can never change the fact that the way one does things, ones style, or approach, is completely unique because each individual is unique. to educate is to draw out, and educators should draw out what is unique in students. and i would think that this is the point of design education, to develop your 'method', your 'way', your approach that you can use in every situation.

the question of accesibility is a subjective one. graduate level work, or personal work, shouldnt be held up to one set of critics' sense of accesibility. work is bad, or its good... i can like, i can dislike, there isnt much of a conversation there. if the work can speak for itself, then it works, i think thats what counts. if it doesnt, the student should be called on their bullshit, and that's the critic's responsibility. critics hearts shouldnt sink, their voices should get louder and more articulate of whats wrong. thats their job.

maybe students should cry more. maybe posters should be ripped off the walls and crumpled up and thrown away more. ive definitely had my share of paralyzed moments because of what critics have said. but in the end my critics' harshness i think made me stronger and more aware of what i was doing well and what i was doing wrong.

just my two cents.

This is a most interesting post, in that it brings up so many issues that they can barely be described.

I myself chafed under a graduate education in graphic design that felt overdefined and oversimplified, and when I became a design educator, that early experience shaped my own approach to the field. Much of my work (and that of so many of my talented colleagues) was based on opening up the definition of what constituted graphic design as visual, cultural, and social practice beyond the particulars of that moment's trade practices.

So here we are years later. There are so many design departments, and so many more designers who have gone to school, practicing every which way. The old hierarchy of a group of east coast male stars of design has more or less collapsed. Designers work across media in ways that could only be imagined twenty years ago. A literature and theory of design has grown a bit, but not really in proportion to the growth of the profession.

Can it really be that in 2005 the primary reason for pursuing a graduate degree continues to be the pursuit of freedom? And is that all that really constitutes advanced study in the field of graphic design? I don't question the need for students to forge a deeply personal connection to their work, and the nature of those bodies of work is worthy of serious consideration and constant debate. But that doesn't mean that every project a student undertakes while in grad school is of equal value. (I blew off the greater part of a semester at Cranbrook in an abombinably bad—but really cool looking—band, which did many things for me but did not make any significant "contributions to the field").

Rob Giampietro states above: "Depending on who's framing it, the Thesis is many things, from a research investigation to a personal contribution, a visual communicade about visual communication or a hermetic investigation of the creative self." While I might agree with him that that wide a range of work is a positive development in the outside world, I really wonder if it's an adequate definition for advanced study of graphic design. Or, and this is an important point, if a graduate program that accepts all those points in the spectrum described can be said to have a coherent notion of what constitutes advanced study, or a contribution to the development of design, or a reason for being.

As I write this very late at night I wonder if the questions I raise here, which are essentially about the legitimacy of graduate graphic design degrees as they are granted by many schools now are the result of (a) an inevitable, somewhat stultifying internalization of set of values that reflect standard academic practice, or (b) an exhaustion with the art model for the training of designers, or (c) an impatience with ongoing lack of focus on the practice of design as a communicative medium, presuming an audience, with a history, a theory, a body of visual development, technologies, and many, many other aspects worthy of serious study.

Or maybe Rick Poynor is right, at the moment we are trapped in a larger condition of meaninglessness: so then let a thousand artistic mfa flowers bloom. And cancel those curriculum meetings (if they are occuring, at all).

I totally believe that personal experience can and most probably will influence the outcome of your work, and there´s nothing wrong with that. It´s even more welcoming when this personal "touch" is what gets the user´s attention/understanding/empathy. But I think the line should be drawn when the work is so self-related that it´s confusing to anyone else. I´m not sure I being clear... Basically design should avoid the path art has taken... As much as one may appreciate contemporary art, we have to admit most people just don´t get it... and design cannot afford not to be understood, otherwise, what´s the point?

There is, in design, a certain degree of self indulgence which, I think, cannot be avoided, for no amount of objective assessement or research or critique etc. can counter the effects of all the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of minute personal decisions made in the process of realization.

That said, I think design educators must more effectively explain this conflict of interest. Young designers are too often encouraged to explore their own ideas and opinions at the expense of their audience and/or client, and that tendency is better suited to artists.

Designer should not create content, only meaning.

i sense a lot of negativity in this thread regarding the state of graduate graphic design programs. quite a turn from jessica's post last year on the 'annals of academia'.

i think kevin's final statement is interesting, that graphic designers should create meaning, but not content. that is one thing discussed at yale, that students spend too much time trying to find the content for work that the treatment of content (the graphic design part) is pushed off to the end. i think its necessary for students to develop strategies to create content that is quick, and can develop alongside design strategies. with google, developing content for work is much easier, and search engines can be another tool that designers use for work. jop von bennekom's magazine, RE-, is a good example of work that uses a tool to create content for graphic design work.

so my point is, i think the same strategies you use to develop design work can also be used to develop content. the above example, RE-, is a more current one, but COLORS is also another, more well-known example.

regarding the 'portfolio' thing, i think if youve done a graduate degree, and you make portfolios that clearly divides professional and personal work, i think youve kind of wasted your money. the key is to finding employers who have the ability to translate the work you do in school to work in the 'real world'.

also, regarding art and design: i think the art world can and has served as an inspiration to designers. by knowing a lot about art, as well as design, cinema, literature, etc., you become more visually sophisticated, which in turn will produce better design work. i think the tone of the 'fear of art' in this thread is fairly conservative. different kinds of work are appropriate for different kinds of clients. the clients needs should be kept in mind of course, but there are many cases in which client work becomes a fusion between the opportunity the client presents and the way that the designer inserts his or her own interests into those opportunities. in the end, i think good work goes through less because of visual quality or appearance and moreso through good and convincing salesmanship.

Colin, I'm with you completely, and I don't think your are being too idealistic whatsoever. Isn't it scary that intellectual inquiry like this is the exception not the rule? With a lot of personal work (and mine is no exception to this scrutiny) I really WANT to care, I want to connect to it, but more times than not, I can't find a reason to. Whether it be "Tarnation", "Everything is Illuminated", Roy Lichtenstein, or many of the undergrad and grad thesis projects I see every year as a design professor--these creative endeavors seem less about connecting to people and simply about the self-conscious, narcissistic indulgences of their makers. There will always be a fine line between indulgence and transcendence and I concede that we should run the risk of crossing that line rather than not getting anywhere near it. But I fear so many don't even realize that this (albeit, blurry) line even exists. If it's personal, then it must be good. Period. Almost like, "If I write the poster headline in my own handwriting, it suddenly is more personal and has more design merit," to cite a more mundane design classroom conceit analogy.

I very much appreciate Lorraine's thoughts and candor (as a long-time educator) about graduate study. As an outsider, but avid observer of graduate design work (I have two bachelors degrees, but did a thesis for each; teach in an undergraduate department, but participate peripherally in the graduate arm; and I do not possess a graduate degree), I have asked myself similar questions about the value and purpose of the endeavor, as well as the values that are taught. I can't deny that teaching design (I dare say for all design educators) involves a degree of wish fulfillment on what design practice can be, a way to encourage students to go beyond the limits we are not (yet) courageous enough to explore ourselves. But how much wish-fulfillment is too much and doing a disservice to the students, the design practice, the world?

Eric Heiman


there is actually a nice presentation that goes with the 2003 classic THE BRAND GAP.

yes, it is also about processes.
and, as it reads in the header "it is free of charge for educational purposes" - so i might just aswell offer it here.

if anybody needs a copy, feel free to send a mail to the address posted and i'll send you the file.

"Designer should not create content, only meaning."

it's easy to create something that has meaning,
but i think we want to create something that is meaningful.
and that is not so easy.

i was recently told about the sva grad project that was acquired by target's pharmacy dept, and it got me thinking about how in society there are no "graphic design" research labs working on real problems or trying to re-envision the future like how xerox apple hp ibm etc has engineers/scientists huddled away in some dark laboratory working on things that are not yet. so industry has to tap our mfa level grad students for ideas or how it takes borderline disasters to happen like the 2001 bush-gore election debacle for graphic designers to input their problem solving skills to real problems. (anyone care to graphically construct why we don't/shouldn't have a better national health plan and the problems of the current system, before the whole thing caves?)

and this loops back into how graphic design departments (esp the art schools versus the state ones) are hermetic in how they do not collaborate on projects with outside forces. it's all internal, resulting in students to coming up with their own content resulting in them going introspective versus going to someone who can truly supply the meaningful content they seek.

i'm not sure if IIT and carnegie melon's grad depts fit into this conversation. is "user-centered" design a bad word. i'm not sure what kind of projects we are talking about. because by next season such and such corporate entity will have that "new" trinket and will need another design, another designer another look to spread whatever supposed "new" message they have.

i wonder how often the content we design is truly new/different/improved in its substance and thus justly in need of a new/different/improved design.

otherwise it's the same as it ever was.
water dissolving...and water removing
there is water at the bottom of the ocean
carry the water at the bottom of the ocean
remove the water at the bottom of the ocean.
and the world goes on.
and you still don't a degree to be a graphic designer.

To be a good designer is to see and think simultaneously. The imagination, the minds eye, and guts to take a chance and think beyond what is possible are essential in design today. Commuinication is the veneer and communication is what makes design distinguished from other disciplines.

The word communication is debated in todays academic environments. It is not just a method of distilling information from a problem solving perspective or mind-set.. This top down perspective and methodology is the one-two-three approach to design. When we reach positions of graduate school-especially after years of practice, years of solving problems, and years of thinking about how we work questions arise. How else can I approach form making and concept creation? The idea of creating a methodology-much like our Bauhaus forefathers-is the resposibility of all academic practitioners in the field of design-sharing their imagination, their minds eye, and their way of seeing.

By opening the gates of discussion and practice to the word "authorship" is that not an excuse for designers to "create" their subjective visual sensitivities to form? If academic instittions only refer to artists outside the design discipline instead of "designers" for reference and influence is that not opening the door for designers to practice art? My question lies within the institutions creating the reputations, educations, and influences of todays designers NOT to the designers that are merely reflecting the environments that those instituations have created.

Thank You.
Lucinda Blackletter

"I do not BELIEVE in a SYSTEM nor METHOD

Without a SYSTEM or METHOD

What's there to TEACH".


jessica, would you please break down your meaning of AMBIGUITY. it is a term that seems to be coming up a lot lately. i am hearing it used in relationship to design with both a positive and negative connotation. by dictionary definition it means: unclearness by virtue of having more than one meaning.

? can we honestly say that any design communicates one meaning for all.
? in this day and age.
? or is that what we would like to think.
susie nielsen

Susie: Ambiguity is tricky, but I would posit that there's a curious tension between making something that affects people and something that merely amplifies uncertainty. Put simply: design is not now, nor has it ever been a quantifiable science, and the notion that human perceptions differ is, I think, self-evident. That said, I am waiting for some nutty and ambitious design student to actually try and probe the quantifiable — literally, revealing how people respond to our work — by using this ingenious little bit of technology. (Pegie Stark and Mario Garcia actually attempted this fifteen years ago with their Eye-Trac research.) This sort of thing does take the fun out of design, doesn't it? Still, it's interesting to imagine its uses with regard to design research.

I suspect the design versus art debate will be ongoing, both in and outside of the classroom. And I'm not advocating a return to the sterile objectivity of the Swiss straitjacket, either. I once told a student that I'd never seen a website that made me cry: this, I felt then and still believe, was tacit evidence of the web's failure to truly engage us at a kind of gut level. There is a fundamentally central role for emotion in design thinking and making: WHERE it is engaged and HOW it is enacted in the work remains unclear.

Perhaps this is the ambiguity that is most worrisome.

Jessica Helfand


Please allow me to aide you in assiting Susie and Piggy Back on your explanation of the word AMBIGUITY. As it relate to Design in Development and Process.


The first use of the word AMBIGUITY I encountered was from my Design Father SAUL BASS in a 1950s article.

SAUL BASS stated:

"My intent with graphic work is to always find a visual phrase which is more than it a first seems or in some way different than it first seems".

"Ambiguity and metaphor are often central to my work, and certainly central to most of the filmmakers and designers I admire".

"My prediclection for indirection is as much practicle as it is to the aesthetic. Things that are what they appear to be make their point and soon grow tiresome. The ambiguous is intrinsically more interesting, more challenging, more involving more mysterious and more potent. It forces re-examination, adds tension, gives it life. And because there is more to be discovered, has greater longevity".

"Degree of ambiguity can be very significant. And it varies both in terms of how appropriate it is for certain kinds of communication., and how necessary it is for others. Of course under some circumstances you find yourself skirting the edge of obscurantism. And conversely a timid use of metaphor put you in risk of boredom. I suppose there's nothing worse than boredom".


I do find comfort in the notion that the one consistent area of discussion which seems to draw the greatest amount of debate on Design Observer is graphic design education. Does this signal that times they are a changin'? or is this merely a symptom of a general dissatisfaction among students, educators and professionals (for respectively different reasons)?

I prefer to think that a certain amount of ennui that has been in place the last ten years or so is starting to give way to a greater involvement in pushing the profession towards greater disciplinary questioning—a change that is being lead by educators and students.
David Cabianca

Perhaps the response to education issues reflects the fact that design is created in schools, not simply taught, as we educators restrict the highly personal, the arbitrary and the inaccessible on one hand, and the overly-common vernacular on the other.

As Jessica says, design is not quantifiable, not measurable; we could find out what the audience thinks about one design, but it wouldn't restrict or discipline design practice at all, because the visual is not a language, and doesn't allow the past to impose its syntax on the present.

This is where Rick's quote from Terry Eagleton is so interesting: the celebration of variety and endlessly malleable form is a broad social condition. How many of us (under 65, say) are willing to assert, in a classroom or anywhere else, that 'this' is what design is, and 'that' is simply personal self-pleasuring? Capitalism and marketing love graphic design because it is abstract and largely uncodified. It generates endless variety, and endless attention -- as for example, all the attention attracted by Michael Jackson's vestigial nasal appendage.
Brian Donnelly

Is it possible that graduate students are discovering a way to evolve graphic design into a true form of fine art? Are they finding a way to redirect the problem-solving nature of design into a new form of expression- unique because of a programmatic nature that balances the audience, climate, message and medium? I say yes.

The problem with the work being generated in grad schools isn't that it's too personal or ambiguous, it's just that as in any artistic endeavor, there is a relatively high rate of failure. But as my Freshman design teacher said, "a failure is worth more than a a lot of mediocre successes."

Nancy Skolos

It's very disturbing to me how everyone thinks of the client. In one of my writings I talk about this, I'm just going to paraphrase now... but here goes:

I use a Dell computer (sorry, not a Mac fan) and I rely on it to not explode. I paid Dell $3000 and they gave me everything I need, and for three years no major incidents have occured. I didn't know (at the time) how to build a computer, so I paid someone else to do it. They gave me a product, and through the test of time it has stood up to the money I gave them.

Now, my question is this: why doesn't design work this way? We're all so bent on meeting the needs of the clients, when really, the clients should give us a brief description of what they want, and then we deliver. The fact that designers are not trusted as reputable business contractors is ridculous, especially in a culture that thrives so much on visual communication as a necessity to thrive.

This is why I think this whole educational rebellion is starting. That and sites like this. I find it odd that observing design, writing about it, and thinking about it creates such an amazing case of anti-design; because when articles like this appear, it totally defeats the purpose (in my mind) of this site.

Design is not taken seriously, nor are designers. Designers are failed artists, the sellouts who couldn't make it in the art world, the middle men and women of corporate America's need for an identity. It's disgusting, and it's partially the fault of designers.

This is the divide; it is coming strong and fast and it is going to change the world as we know it. Especially in such a heated political environment, especially in a world not content on the way it is being run, especially with all the access to sub-mainstream news and international news... more people are reading, caring, learning, and trying out this whole 'intellectual' outfit. Granted, there's still the red states out there, but more and more people are becoming active. I see design at it's biggest point of potential in decades; we can take back the streets, we can participate, we can evolve this new renaissance/enlightenment. We can break the laws, we can paint the streets, we can become active. Maybe, sure, you lose the six figure salary, but if money is so important to you than you've missed the point.

Designers create culture. I've seen that posted on this site and in Rick's writings all the time. We do, and we don't even do it actively. We create culture for other people. Imagine what we could do if we - gasp - actually thought and did it for ourselves. Imagine if we bent the rules both of design and 'proper methods of communication' and spread thought-provoking yet intelligent and non-destructive design.

Man, that would raise the terror alert by a few colors. Sounds exciting. I'm moving to New York later this month (just graduated yesterday) and I'm excited at the endless possibilities of artistic and purposeful creations and explorations. See you on the streets.
Colin Smith

Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point. So why has everyone written a novel. Why use 5 words when 1 will do? We are communicaters for goodness sakes.

Teach students to think more. Agree.

I agree with Colin above me on some points. But only weak willed designers pander to clients needs. Give a client what they NEED, and educate them as to why. Have confidence in your abilities the power we have and go out there and MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
lee newham

What if a client is selling something unnecessary to begin with? Do you endorse the product, and create an amazing design campaign that will, one day, do nothing more than add to the growing amount of waste the population has to offer?
Colin Smith

Glad to see this has not devolved into a form/content loop.

I've heard my fill about the self-absorbed student. It is not the teaching faculty's charge to 'out' a narcissistic pixel masseur. It is their responsibility to preempt such nonsense by:

- introducing a healthy content and purpose gradient (humanities, sciences, etc.—educational, entertaining, persuasive, etc. )

- supporting the use and exploration of a healthy formal and structural gradient (treatment, devices, voice, etc.—narrative, database, temporal, spatial, hybrids, ...)

- engage their refined communication skills to teach, encourage, and excite

- Get over it being about the students wayward insolence (in any flavor)

It is an asset and a pleasure to teach in a university setting—even on a campus with a science focus. All the better by me. Where better to employ seductive, tear-jerking visualization and explore new applications for the language.

Share Anamorphosis by the Brothers Quay with your students and talk about the intersection of obsession, craft, and appropriate meaning-making.
Tony Brock

Sometimes it's really hard to stomach what I read on this site. All the 'designers' here seem so caught up in what they do that they can't even realize that the entire profession revolves around superficiality. Designers cater to the needs of making crap look good. Information designers just need to organize data so it's properly communicative. Other than that, it's just a bunch of snobby hipsters trying to make themselves sound important by rehashing old ideas becaus they can't think of anything new for themselves.

Maybe all you need is a real purpose, I don't know, but most of this banter is disgusting. I never used to comment on the stuff I read on this website for fear someone would visit my website and realize I was just a 'student'; well, guess what, students generally have better ideas than professionals because we don't have to cater to the same rules established designers do.

It's quite disturbing to watch the idealists crumble before the mighty hand of capitalism and 'necessity', when really design itself is unnecessary. Good design is not communication, it's convienence (in a modern setting). It's making the user be able to discern information in less time so they can have more time to spend money and watch television. We design a rushed world, we design a shallow and trend filled society that needs seasonal upgrades to their closets, cars, and computers. It's our fault and you not only endorse this but even embrace it.

And I can see it now; everyone reading this and thinking how naive I must be. Sure, I probably am, but at least I'm not wasting my time trying to figure out how to make people adopt to more of a conformist attitude.
Colin Smith

In response to Colins post, good design is communication. It communicates information to an increasingly busy audience in an engaging and exciting way. Which is basically what you were saying...but the word communication HAS to be in there somewhere.

And we shouldn't be making crap look good (although it does happen) . Designing for what you know is a bad product is hard to do. Believe in what you are selling and the job is so much easier. Anyway, the best design and advertsing in the world will only make a bad product fail faster.

Students are important for the future of design and we as design professionals can learn from the fresh approach we sometimes see from students. You never stop learning.
lee newham

I really like your irreverent attitude Colin ;) and truly wish to see that kind of spirit and diveregent passion in my own students...

I agree to a point with your assersions. The world is a complex place however. I do sympathise with what I think is your sense that this debate may not really be where the more urgent issues lie in design education and practice.

There is meaningful work to be done as a graphic designer. As an educator, for me the focus of such activity is not in the area of establishing the value of content and meaning or personal work verses client needs etc., but in the fostering of more awareness in students of the critical nature of emergent paradigms where the role of the designer is not as "creator", but that of facilitator of process and meaning within the larger context of multi-disciplinary work.

The world we live in is complex, and design problems are ever more complex...Where the designer has been likely to work on problems that are/were relatively easy to frame, more and more, we will be faced with problems that are beyond the scope of the traditional graphic design role...What might this mean within the context of this debate?
Ian McArthur

Colin, the role of the designer has changed throughout history...and it will change again in the near future. The sentiments you express are not exclusive. As an educator is would be foolish to think that social responsibility and design shouldn't appear on our menu.

The time of the 'design hero' is over so I've read, and good riddance. We have a responsibility towards our students in that we need to teach them to work collaboratively, reflectively and equip them with skills that enable them to adapt. As Ian reflected: 'the paradigm of designer is not as "creator", but that of facilitator of process and meaning within the larger context of multi-disciplinary work'
Sharon Zoepke

Jobs | June 18