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Am I a teacher of individuals aspiring to excel in design, make beautiful, hip work,
and live a nice comfortable life? Am I a teacher who should help students discover
a path to a life’s work filled with meaning, exploration, and purpose? Am I a teacher
in the service of training designers to create a better world? Or am I a teacher in the
service of training a highly competent and employable workforce?
Before teaching graphic design, it’s helpful, every decade or so, to question
the parameters of the field. It’s generally understood by now that graphic design has
expanded beyond 2d and 3d design to include 4d (motion and interactive) design,
that the modernist/Swiss palette is too limited, that a decent design education needs
to include the study of theory, and that design history has a cultural, technological,
and political context. But the parameters that define graphic design activity are still
constrained by an (arbitrary) economic premise that presumes graphic designers to
be skilled hired hands.
EXPANDING THE PARAMETERS OF GRAPHIC DESIGN PRACTICE
Consider equivalent professional art practices, such as filmmaking or music
composition. Like graphic design, these fields encompass a wide range of activities,
sometimes within the lifetime of one practitioner. A filmmaker can make
commercials, political ads, public service spots, Hollywood blockbusters,
documentaries, independent, experimental, narrative, and nonnarrative films. Sometimes
a producer or an organization hires the filmmaker. Sometimes filmmakers
come up with an idea for a film or screenplay themselves. Sometimes they work with
a screenwriter. The process is always collaborative.
Music composers are commissioned to compose corporate jingles, scores for
commercials, TV shows, movies, and Broadway musicals, as well as the indie and
nonprofit versions of the same kind of work. Then there’s a wide range of composerinitiated
work, including most pop music. Often lyrics are written by the
composer/songwriter. Sometimes the composer/songwriter collaborates with a
lyricist. Composers of opera sometimes write their own librettos; sometimes they
collaborate with librettists. A lot of music is composed from within specific
traditions—classical, jazz, folk, religious, etc. Experimental and avant-garde
composers are not only originators of content and form, they often invent their own
instruments/technologies, systems of notation, and means of presentation. The work
of these experimentalist composers, while generally not lucrative (to put it mildly),
often expands the music vocabulary and processes of pop and commercial genres.
A wider view of the graphic design field (harkening back to its origins), could
be expanded beyond client-generated work, to include many entrepreneurial, selfinitiated,
and collaborative endeavors, such as political/activist graphics; the writing
and design of manifestos, theory, and visual literature (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction);
artists’ books; experimental writing/typography/type design; public art projects; and
independent publishing, broadcasting, new media, and new product ventures.
Collaborations between graphic designers working with (not necessarily for)
architects, writers, scientists, historians, philosophers, linguists, theater artists, urban
planners, computer programmers, engineers, and other cultural workers contribute to
local, national, and global culture through original projects and research.
At a time when the interplay of visual signs, icons, words, and images—
design—is playing a vitally important role in shaping culture and affecting the
future of the planet, who should be entrusted with the tools, responsibility, power,
voice that design now enjoys? Stylists? Functionaries? Technicians? Truth-tellers?
Poets? Activists? Inventors? Visionaries? Change agents? Renaissance persons?