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TEACHING THEORY IN GRAPHIC DESIGN PRACTICE
The central questions remain: What is the role of theory in the design curriculum?
And what do we mean by “theory”? I can only answer these questions, which have
been central to my own concerns, by relating specific examples in the formulation
of a new graduate program at North Carolina State University.
We began by acknowledging that the graphic design faculty shared at least
one common view: graphic design does not begin nor end in the objects it makes.
While hardly an epiphany, it is a sentiment that is broadly acknowledged yet undertheorized.
In order to more fully contextualize the practice of graphic design, it was
necessary to adopt and adapt a model of cultural production and consumption from
research done in cultural studies. This model recognizes that there are important
stages or moments in the life of designed artifacts, from their production through
their distribution and eventual consumption. It is important to note that this model
is dynamic and cyclical, meaning that any stage can and does influence other stages.
We began by moving outward from the designed product, looking at the
cognitive interaction between designed artifacts and those who use them—as
viewers, readers, audiences, receivers, browsers, or consumers. It was also necessary
to place the entire realm of design—designers, design artifacts, institutions, and
audiences—within a larger framework of society and culture, which ultimately
“authorizes” its making. Influence is reciprocal, so we examine how society and
culture shape graphic design as well as how graphic design shapes society and
culture. We also felt obliged to consider the impact of digital media on both graphic
design practice and society from a position that is critical of the kind of
technological determinism so rampant in the society and profession today. These
three areas of cognitive interaction, cultural reflexivity, and technological
innovation form a set of interrelated discourses about graphic design practice.
Various theories are introduced in topical seminars that cover these
frameworks or topics. For example, in addressing problems of cognitive interaction,
students are introduced to material from cognitive psychology, perceptual studies,
and learning theory; or when confronting the social and cultural implications of
graphic design, students are introduced to theories of representation drawn from
anthropology, ethnography, and sociology; or when assessing the influence of digital
technologies on practice and society, students study theories of other media forms
such as television, film, video, and literature in order to grapple with a convergence
of media in electronic environments.
Importantly, these seminars are connected to studio courses, which require
the synthesis of ideas in the form of design projects that address, confirm, or
challenge the ideas presented. The focus of such studios is the creative application
of theoretical ideas in design projects, which are constructed by the students in such
a way as to ask pertinent questions. Unlike the objectives of undergraduate
education, students are not asked to solve problems, but are encouraged to pose
questions. This represents a fundamental challenge to traditional forms of design
education, which exist to replicate the status quo through problem-solving projects
that confirm what we, the profession, already know. By contrast, problem-posing
education centralizes the student as an active agent in the formulation of projects
that question what we, as a profession, already know as well as things that we might
never had considered.
In a problem-posing education, students must be able to critically examine
their world and their role within it.5 This means that a critical disposition on the part
of the student and teacher is necessary to fully capture the radicalism of the
proposition. Critical thinking and making skills are crucial for success. Students must
be able to formulate questions that are not simply reducible to yes or no answers,
because this is the prevailing logic that must be overcome. Questions that cannot be
answered with a simple yes or no are, in fact, research questions. And if the practice
of graphic design is more than an unending series of solutions to never-ending
problems, then we might begin to understand graphic design as a researchable
activity, subject to both the limits of theory and the limitations of practice.