“the union of what we think and making it real is design” – Tucker Viemeister
I have been lucky to fall for a discipline that allows me to be versatile and diversify. In my practice, graphic design engages my need to serve and help, and satisfies my philosophical curiosity for the social phenomenon. I take teaching with enthusiasm in hopes to nurture other “visual scientists” who will be able to perceive and be critical of culture and human behavior, and to apply their artistic skills in an, let us say, ergonomic way.
My teaching articulates theory and practice, and I encourage my students to feel the same curiosity and eagerness to learn, work, explore and achieve that motivates my work in the classroom. My goal as a professor is to reach that point in a class when I see students take pride of the work they produce, being a design project or an essay. I understand that the moment they hit that specific point they will appreciate their education and embrace it with passion.
While my main discipline is graphic design, during the last decade I have had the fortune of teaching undergraduate, master, and PhD students from different programs and backgrounds. This has given me a rich experience as an educator and as a professional, and it is a constant reminder of the different mindsets of the students and of the adjustments I need to make on the didactic tools in order to better serve each of these groups.
As a teacher of graphic design, I have experienced the uncertainty of the fresh, incoming student, to whom I have to reveal what the discipline is and the significance of professionalism, love for the craft, and the mastering of the solving-problem process. One of the recurring lessons throughout the curriculum is to help them understand the ever-evolving technology, as it is critical to stay relevant within the industry. Nevertheless, in the early classes I enforce the importance of craftsmanship and of leaving the computer aside. Enriching talent through the use of basic tools (e.g. pencil, xacto knife, paper) and working directly with their hands, encourage the students to take their time, think, and reconsider what they have done by embracing the “value of a mistake.” In subsequent classes, once they have been introduced to the use of the industry standard software, it is rewarding to see them enrich their digital projects with visual textures and materials, a token, I hope, of what they have learned in the early classes.
My primordial concern for our graphic design students is the understanding of concept. I enforce this consistently as concept is the binding glue between theory and practice; a way to go beyond literal representations and simplistic solutions. Student will hear from me, more than once, that “Simple and simplistic are not the same thing. Our work is to make complex things look simple.” As an approach to deal with concept I instruct them to tell visual stories. Even symbols, as minuscule as they might be, have powerful stories and meanings behind the design. To apply concept is to be a visual storyteller.
In addition to this, I attempt to instill the idea of “being consistently critical about their own culture,” in order to promote a critical assessment of everyday life and bring out the things that are hiding in plain view: signs, rules, structures, and messages. As it has been my experience that incoming students, rarely question the content provided by the mass media (television, the web, movies, games, etc), I remind them that, as social and artistic scientists, their duty is to deconstruct the messages they receive through those media in order to learn how to most efficiently construct their owns. I have observed that students are uncannily disconnected from history, and, as I am convinced that, without it, they would lack the referential tools to exercise their analytical capacity, I encourage conversations about historical paraphernalia and attempt to relate these objects to conversations where we discuss how these objects relate to their lifestyles. In all cases these conversations are relevant to the projects we develop in class as they suggest new ways of analyzing them.
Throughout the development of their projects, I introduce students to the unnerving critique process. This is a step in their education as designers that many do not know how to approach or perceive. Initially, I establish that in order to have a productive critique, one needs to aim at being fair, give positive feedback without being condescending or over-flattering, and avoid making aggressive or hurtful comments. A simple “it is cute” or “I like it” is never enough in my class. At the same time saying nothing is frowned upon, as each student needs to engage in the activity and give as much as they receiving during this process. Secondly, I teach students to take critique and understand that, beyond preferences and tastes, there is always room for improvement. Being receptive is as important as being able to talk about someone else’s work. The final step is to teach them the art of rebutting: acknowledging the value of the comments while upholding the integrity of their vision. Critique participation is an important component in evaluating students.
Lastly, in my practice and in the classroom, I impart social responsibility. I explain to students that their privileged skills should give graphic voice to organizations and initiatives in need. As visual creators and communicators, they can bring the public’s awareness to significant social issues. In my classes, it is common to have as a client an organization that requires the services of these “professionals in development.” In some cases, I ask the students about their own concerns and suggest to bring forward a cause that we could assist. Through these activities, our graphic design students have established a healthy relationship with local organizations that seek our help year-round and inform us about job opportunities for them.
Currently, most of my time as an instructor is invested in my graphic design students, but I have also had the opportunity to teach graduate students in our MFA Visual Studies program and PhD students. As a graduate professor, I explore the capacity of the students to process dense information and their reactions towards designated readings. I approach these classes as forums for discussion which is the staple of an active learning environment. My classes help them develop methodological and or theoretical tools or provide knowledge they will need for their theses or dissertations. I feel that my job at this level is to teach them the difference between theory and methodology, how to seek and organize research material, and finally, to reflect on their mental process as they elaborate their findings on paper. Finally, as I do with my design students, I encourage them to be proud of their work and to find opportunities to present their research in order to learn from their peers and experts in their field.
My work as a professor does not end when the class ends. I also offer my time as mentor for student’s individual projects, and make myself available for conversations and concerns. Through these extracurricular activities, I have learned of hidden enthusiasms not easily perceivable in class. In many cases, the quiet, introvert student, has potentials that I am able to acknowledge and support through the encouragement of individual projects. My door is always open to these types of ventures, and I try to be as engaged in their projects as they are. I take these projects seriously and sustain a strict plan through all the stages of the development up to the end.
I take pride in my students’ achievements and try to be a facilitator of their intellectual curiosity. Students perceive me as being strict (but fair), which I am, as I understand that graphic design is a very competitive field that requires much preparation. Unbeknownst to them, I allow my students to explore and re-invent the wheel as I understand that they are experiencing all the minutia of their professional aspirations for the first time. Every year, as new aspirants come to the program, I experience this process along with them all over again.