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Before studying graphic design in
school, I was a driven if somewhat spacey fine arts undergrad plagued by synesthesia.1
While my main course of study (in the late 1970s) was painting and printmaking, I
wrote poetry and stories and played music on the side. My entire education (as
perfectly described by Sir Herbert Read2 in his book Education Through Art) helped
segregate my various activities into neatly defined
One day, during my junior year of college, I decided to show one of my
painting teachers a stack of my secret, obsessively dense word-pictures. The
drawings combined handwritten words and onomatopoetic letterform clusters, with
abstract, doodle-like markings. I’d never shown these drawings to anyone before.
My teacher studied the pile, shook his head disapprovingly, wagged his finger in my
face, and said, “You’re a good student, Warren, but you’re barking up the wrong
tree here. Never combine words and images. They are two different languages. They
are not meant to work together.” I left his office feeling like I had been given a
mission in life. (Education works in all kinds of ways.)design
Years later I came to realize there was truth in my teacher’s admonition.
Picture making and the written word began splitting apart when the Phoenicians
and other civilizations throughout the world shifted from iconic to phonetic writing
systems. The invention of moveable type, though a great democratizing force,
helped mechanize the reproduction of stories further and further away from
storytelling’s pictorial (and oral) roots. While literature and visual art grew to
become distinct fields, most graphic designers, as well as practitioners of visual
literature, seek that (perhaps primordial) place where word and image still come
Starting from Zero: Teaching
Writing to Designers
In today’s globalized, digitalized, new-millennial, post-postmodern, information
age, the primacy of the icon is back with a vengeance, poetry is oral again,
music is bound to images, people are watching more than reading, and everything
from politics to personal identity is branded. For better and for worse, graphic
designers, via bits and atoms, deliver much of this cultural landscape. Hopefully we
are informed, conscious mediators. Very often, we are more than just mediators. We
are collaborators, sometimes even producers and authors of the things we design.
Many design educators have come to realize that this awesome responsibility—gift,
power, voice—requires an education that goes beyond a strictly visual training.
It’s hard to seriously consider “authorship” as a component within a graphic
design program that doesn’t offer at least one writing class. In addition to any
creative writing or journalism classes design students might take, I recommend
offering at least one writing class tailored specifically for design students, taught by
a practicing writer/graphic designer. Still a bit of an oddity, there are more and more
author/designers around who can teach writing through design—as an integrated