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Formal Design Education Is Necessary for Practicing Designers. Yay or Nay?

Ellen Shapiro

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Scott Stowell

It was the third Designer’s Debate Club event. The Parsons Tishman Auditorium on West 12th Street was packed last Wednesday with people eager to hear what well-known designers and design educators would have to say about the necessity of formal design education.

Co-sponsored by AIGA/NY and organized by Designer’s Debate Club founders Jon Troutman, lead product designer at design/technology incubator General Assembly, and Keenan Cummings, co-founder of travel startup Wander, the event was moderated by Scott Stowell, proprietor of Open and an instructor at Yale and SVA.

Structured like a formal debate, two teams of three panelists each argued the motion, “Formal Design Education Is Necessary for Practicing Designers.” In the spirit of serious interchange as well as good fun, the goal was to find out through audience votes, before and after the debate, which panel was the most persuasive and swayed more people from their original positions to their side.

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Yea: Miller, Bologna, Twemlow

At the ‘For’ team table, saying ‘Yea’ to the motion, were Alice Twemlow, co-founder of SVA’s D-Crit MFA program; Matteo Bologna, creative director and president of Mucca Design; and Pentagram partner Abbott Miller.

The ‘Against’ team members, saying ‘Nay’ to the motion, were Kate Proulx, designer at HUGE and an instructor of digital design at Parsons; Able Parris, associate design director at the Big Spaceship digital agency; and Peter Vidani, design director at Tumblr.

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Nay: Proulx, Vidani, Parris (standing to make his point)

The initial show of hands revealed that approximately 60 percent of the attendees were in favor of the motion, 40 percent against.

I raised my hand for Nay. Why? I’m the product of a liberal arts education—I was a design major at UCLA. And I’m a big believer in formal design education, having taught at Pratt, Parsons, School of Visual Arts, and Purchase College, SUNY. But I can’t agree with the word “necessary.” There are too many exceptions, too many self-taught, original, and game-changing David Carsons and Matteo Bolognas (though seated on the ‘For’ side, Bologna opened his studio in Milan straight out of an Italian high school for art study and learned by scrutinizing the work of his design idols in Type Directors annuals). Am I being too finicky saying I would re-write the motion: “Formal Design Education Is Desirable for Practicing Designers”— desirable, advantageous, important, useful, valuable, helpful—just about any word but “necessary.” Well, if it’s a formal debate, the task at hand is to debate the motion exactly as presented.

Each team had five minutes to make its case in an opening statement.

Twemlow eloquently compared formal design education to a full banquet, an experience rich in content, community and culture. Informal, do-it-yourself design education, she said, was like a cold buffet on flimsy paper plates, which “never satisfies.”

“Design education is broken,” countered Proulx, who made the case for learning via alternate means: online discourse, trial-and-error experimentation, on the job. She claimed, via her own experience, that design school faculty are unprepared to teach the technological skills needed today, and that design education mainly serves to get graduates into huge debt.

Then came the rebuttal/argument segment. To wit:

Bologna: “I didn’t go to design school but wish I had. Making a success of yourself is very tough without having someone to teach you how not to make mistakes.

Proulx: “I don’t look for degrees. I look for how well you express yourself, what’s in your portfolio.”

Miller: “I’m horrified at the debate itself. What you’re buying in design education is not an imprimatur to get a job. It is a face-to-face, collaborative experience in a real physical space.”

Parris: “It’s very rebellious not to go to school. You can create your own school on your own time: Twitter, TED talks, YouTube videos.”

Twemlow: “What you’re describing is lonely and sad.”

Vidani: “School costs way too much.”

Miller: “Not all schools and programs are expensive.

Parris: Buckminster Fuller didn’t go to architecture school, and look what he was able to create.

Proulx: “I teach today what I learned on my own as a teenager. Digital design teachers really don’t know what they’re doing and can’t teach for the real world.”

Bologna: “The real world is bullshit.”

Speaking against the motion from the floor

Two microphones were set up for audience members, who bravely lined up to make one-minute floor speeches as passionate as those of the panelists. For example:

“Even the renegades come from a design education tradition.”

“Design education is for an old system.”

“It’s five years behind, not up to current standards.”

“Design school is not about technology. It is about art and culture, form and structure.”

In the second vote, more hands went up for ‘For.’ “The Yays have it!”

Well, the auditorium was filled with students. It’s encouraging that they’re committed to what they’re doing. I stuck to my ‘Nay’ vote. The three panelists on the ‘Against’ side—their work, what they’ve accomplished professionally—are living proof that a formal design education is not necessary. But, again, that doesn’t mean it’s not advantageous, important, useful, valuable, desirable.

Maybe the question really being debated was, Can you be a successful designer without a formal design education? Yes. Some rare and talented people, including Parris and Vidani, have done it. There will always be renegade geniuses. But just because they and Buckminster Fuller and David Carson and Matteo Bologna were able to succeed brilliantly without a formal education, that doesn’t mean that design school doors should be closed to everybody else. It did sound like the ‘Against’ side might be eager to shut down the schools and departments, and perhaps deprive those who aren’t independent learners of the opportunity. And to be honest, if the need to go to work and earn money weren’t an issue, if tuition fees had been magically paid, how many self-taught designers would have jumped at the chance to spend time in classes with great teachers and immerse themselves in art and culture, form and structure?

Upon further consideration: Both sides won. I’ve been a member of the AIGA since 1987, and this was one of the best events I’ve ever attended: the best organized and most relevant. Bravo! To both sides, to attendees, and to organizers Troutman and Cummings.

Afterwards, Jon Troutman filled me in on the Designer’s Debate Club: “We wanted to start an event series that was different than the typical panel or ‘designer at podium with slideshow’ type of thing,” he explained. “And it’s actually quite fun to throw manners to the wind and flat-out argue. This format is meant to be open and honest and somewhat raw about which things are working, or not working, in our industry. Also, debates are a hell of a lot of fun.”

The topic of the first debate, held at General Assembly, was “All Web Designers Must Learn to Code.” Recalls Troutman, “The response was so overwhelming that tickets for the second session were claimed within 36 hours of announcing it; more than 100 people were on the wait-list.” Panelists at the second session, which took place at the Etsy Holiday Shop in SoHo, argued, “Lean Startup Methods Prevent Designers from Solving Big-Picture Design Problems.” I’m not sure I totally understand the statement, but I’ll maintain that most clients’ design budgets, startups or not, are too lean.

Designer’s Debate Club plans to hold monthly debates, and invites all designers to suggest topics by tweeting @DesignDebaters.

Since design is often compared to writing, my parting thought is a quote from The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner, a college textbook:

“Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become second nature. Ordinarily this means university education, with courses in the writing of fiction, and poetry as well. Some important writers have said the opposite—for instance, Ernest Hemingway … who recommended just writing, writing, writing. But, it may help to remember that he went away for free tutorials to two of the finest teachers then living …”

And the debate goes on. Long live Designer’s Debate Club. Especially since all proceeds from the $10 admission tickets are going to support Inspire/Make Workshops, free classes for high school students who want to learn how to design and develop for digital media.

Continue your design education with HOW Design University, an online education program for busy creative professionals.

Categories: Design School, Education, Ellen Shapiro, Events, Featured
Tags: AIGA/NY, Designer’s Debate Club, Parsons The new School of Design

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Graphic Design as Political Practice: A Conversation With Metahaven [Part 1]

Published on February 14th, 2013

From: http://hyperallergic.com/

Written by: Kyle Chayka

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Installation view of “Metahaven: Islands in the Cloud” at MoMA PS1 (Photo: Matthew Septimus)

Metahaven is an Amsterdam-based design studio made up of its two members and founders, Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden. Yet to describe them simply as a design studio seems misleading. The pair uses graphic design, identity branding, and product development as weapons, harnessing the power of the image in the internet age to design concepts that both signal label and propel political and social change.

Following their fascination with strange political gambits, obscure corners of the internet, and the power of the cloud, Kruk and van der Velden have written essays for e-flux, rebranded the micronation of Sealand, and created salable products for Wikileaks as the organization was just hitting the global scene. On the occasion of their current exhibition at MoMA PS1, I sat down with Metahaven to discuss their history as a studio, the process of working with Julian Assange, and the aesthetics of the dot-com boom. The second part of the interview will be published tomorrow.

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Metahaven infographic from “Captives of the Cloud” (Image via e-flux.com)
Kyle Chayka: How did Metahaven first get started?

Vinca Kruk: We started to collaborate on the Sealand Identity Project, which was to conceive a national identity for the Principality of Sealand, which is a self-proclaimed nation on a former war platform near the coast of the UK. We didn’t stop working on that project, but wanted to keep going with it. That’s what our practice emerged out of. Quite naturally, it wasn’t a formal decision.

Daniel van der Velden: I agree.

KC: How did you first hear about Sealand or start thinking about it?

DV: Towards the end of the dot-com boom at the time I was co-designing a magazine called Archis, which is now called Volume, an architecture journal, and we had a special issue about islands. Sealand emerged in an editorial meeting as an example and then actually the idea came about to think about an identity for this kind of really weird place that no one can actually visit, that’s only accessible through the internet.

Sealand was trying to have its own dot-com business model at the time. So it was really a combination of this idea of sovereignty, self-proclaimed nationhood, in combination with this flawed entrepreneurial dream of starting an offshore business onboard Sealand. I think we were both interested in working on a lyrical aspect of visual identity, something that had to do a lot with heraldry, opulence — something not so minimal. Sealand was a really good launch platform for that. We also had an interest in theory, so it was also a great projection screen for all kinds of theoretical notions of identity and state.

VK: Explorations of theory, nationhood, and statehood, the combination of anarchy and monarchy, and all the contradictions that you find in Sealand as a kind of self-proclaimed state. There’s a strange, almost totalitarian thinking behind it, but it is so lo-fi. People hanging out with beer on a platform like “playing state” in their backyard.

DV: It’s interesting because Roy Bates, the founder of Sealand, recently passed away. The whole idea of Sealand was basically a gift to his wife. So it was his wife Joan, and he was obviously very much in love with her. He gave her this title “princess.” Which is a super-poetic and at the same time totally meaningless title. She doesn’t get any special perks from that other than some sort of fame. It’s interesting that it was done in a pre-internet age so obviously he wouldn’t have done it for, like, followers.

It was an inherently genuine act. That’s what’s great about Sealand.

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Installation view of “Metahaven: Islands in the Cloud” at MoMA PS1 (Photo: Matthew Septimus)

KC: Can you describe what kind of identity you made for Sealand? How did it evolve visually and what was the end product?

VK: What we found interesting about Sealand that it had all the very traditional objects of statehood, like stamps and passports, to prove that Sealand was very legitimate and real. There were also fake Sealand passports circulating. We were interested in creating coins of stamps that wouldn’t really materialize, but would exist virtually. An endless flow of heraldic images that keep going and keep adding to them.

DV: There are the old fixed icons like coins and stamps, but they are charged with stuff that’s actually really unstable, like everything that you find through Google Images. Everything you find about Sealand through Google would be legit to use in the identity for that reason.

So, for example, the landlord of the murderer of Gianni Versace had a fake Sealand passport. So that’s a little chain of events, and because of that link we could use the Versace iconography in the brand. If you Google “Sealand” now, you also get results for “Seal and Heidi Klum,” because Google has changed its algorithms accordingly. So you get lots of images of Seal and Heidi Klum together. Had that had been around at the time, we would have certainly used that.

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“Jewelbox” of Sealand branding (Image via wired.com)
KC: What’s the current state of Sealand?

VK: There was a fire on Sealand a few years ago, so it’s in a bad shape.

DV: People also know that their idea of turning Sealand into a data haven is not working. The P2P file sharing platform,the Pirate Bay, tried to buy Sealand a couple of years back because it still is this kind of internet anarchy symbol. But it’s not working, and I think we predicted that in our essay ‘The Network Ruin.”

KC: Totally, the ruins of the failed utopia are a visual archetype. Through Metahaven, you’re taking on projects that are niche but remain very relevant. How did you develop and run the studio practice.

DV: We are interested in ideas and concepts that require not just visualization but also research. I think that when we decided to we wanted to collaborate further on these things we also were struggling with how to set up a studio. I gave up another practice that I had at the time, which had many clients, in order to completely focus on Metahaven, so we started form scratch — we had nothing. We also had to find clients to sustain this practice. You can’t run your practice on something like Sealand alone. So the first few years were spent on getting that model together, of having commissioned work, combined with longer and shorter term research projects.

VK: I think working on Sealand as a topic was very important because there were so many themes in there that we have continued working on since, in different projects. We started to write much more, we organized conferences. We started working issues like the use of totalitarian architecture in Europe, and how such buildings were re-appropriated as symbols in capitalism. Still architecture, and identity were things we were working on.

KC: It’s interesting that on one hand, there is the commercial need to survive and take on projects and clients, but you also have a split between client work and research projects. How do you guys feel about Metahaven as kind of a business entity?

VK: We don’t really separate it — it’s not like we work on a commission for a client and the next day we do a research project. It very much overlaps, and also the way we talk with clients about commissions is very much how we talk in the studio about how to continue a research project.

DV: I think the notion of proactivity is really important, the notion that you can initiate stuff yourself. It can actually be a project that involves a client. There is the old notion of “pro-bono” work, which is the supposedly ethical counterpart to commercial practice, but in our case you could say that we dedicate a certain amount of research and resources to a potential client or partner that we feel could benefit from that.

That’s how we approached WikiLeaks, for example. Just before their global notoriety, so they were actually still approachable at that time.

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Installation view of “Metahaven: Islands in the Cloud” at MoMA PS1 featuring Wikileaks scarves (Photo: Matthew Septimus)

KC: Wikileaks blew up pretty quickly in terms of global notoriety. Do you mean working on topics that have more real-world impact?

DV: Nobody could have foreseen what happened to WikiLeaks, and the events that unfolded. Of course, it’s impossible for an identity to keep track of all this, so that’s also why we had to change the central question of the project, moving into something that was much more about products, merchandising — because what they needed most was money. Then of course we solved that in a completely non-straightforward way. We did stuff that obviously was very different form what they had in mind originally.

KC: What kind of things did Wikileaks have in mind for themselves?

DV: The sort of stuff you see in their official merchandising store.

KC: Instead, you made some more upscale items for them, like a Chanel-style scarf. What’s the story behind that?

DV: The notion of the scarf talks about opacity and transparency, which is exactly what they are about.

VK: Something that’s kind of glamorous, and you could wear it both as a luxury item, but also use it to cover your face.

DV: There’s also the cheapness of glamour. There is something about WikiLeaks that echoes cheap, fake imports—like a revolt of the means of production over the brand image. That’s why we had that Louis Vuitton play with the “WL” logo in one of the earlier scarves. WikiLeaks is about a notion of democratic access to value. This is something that we wanted to bring out a little bit.

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A Wikileaks scarf by Metahaven, featuring their logo (Image courtesy Metahaven, photo Meinke Klein)

KC: How difficult was it to actually communicate with Wikileaks, given their secrecy? Did you have any contact with Julian Assange himself?

VK: It basically started with us sending them an email in mid-2010 saying, “Hey, we would like to work on your identity, would you be up for it?” We got a reply back two hours later. The email said, “Great, we have a shortage of such things.” The e-mail was signed with “JA.” So that was enough for us to get started because they opened up the possibility to do something.

Then they started releasing the cables, and communication became very difficult. It took some time to get back touch with them, which eventually happened. We met with them and showed what we had done.

DV: Then, in that meeting, what we had been doing was sort of brushed aside, which was completely predictable. Some of the stuff we did which was brushed aside is in the show.

KC: Which parts?

DV: The identity part basically. Then we decided that pursuing tee shirts and mugs was really the way to go. We had a dialogue over the specific designs later on that was very productive.

VK: What we really understood during that meeting was that they have a problem surviving financially because of a blockade by MasterCard, VISA and PayPal. Selling merchandising is an important way for WikiLeaks to raise money, so basically that was the only thing they felt they needed designed.

DV: There’s a lot of criticism about this. They seem so focused on money sometimes that you feel it’s actually not benefiting the people who care for Wikileaks. These are not necessarily people who have lots of money. So if you force someone to support an organization by buying a mug you’re basically molding that person into a consumer role.

We found that the leaks are to WikiLeaks what tour dates are to a band, so basically our t-shirts present different important leaks, one per t-shirt.

Part two of Hyperallergic’s interview with Metahaven was published on Friday, February 15, 2013, “Graphic Design as Political Practice: A Conversation with Metahaven [Part 2].”

Metahaven: Islands in the Cloud runs at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City) through April 1.

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