Political Corrections: Why Policing discourages Learning

A long time ago, I started out working as a "counter-girl" at a printer, then as a paste-up production artist at a printer, and then as a printer at a printer. It was only in my mid-twenties that I started working as a graphic designer. Graphic designers and printers exist in two separate social strata. Printers generally consider graphic designers a necessary evil;  Designers generally consider printers part of the machinery that gets their vision made. Printers talk about deadlines and picking and viscosity and rollers and union issues and food and beer and medical insurance and wearing-the-right-orthotics-for-standing and timecards. Designers talk about deadlines and InDesign and clients and food and cocktails and medical insurance and chiropractors and time sheets. There is difference. But there is overlap.

 I have always valued those years working on a factory floor. Printing taught me how to work hard physically, it allowed me to experience the reality of the class system in America, and to know what it feels like to have some supposedly upper-class person treat you badly because they think you are less than they are. I would never have experienced these things if I had followed a normal, upper middle class, go-straight-to-college trajectory. I am lucky to have had both experiences.

Now I teach about critical thinking in a private college that has-- as all colleges have-- its share of "politically correct" self-policing. It's hard for me to watch students tell other students that they can't say things, that their actions are inappropriate, that they should do this and not do that. Hard-liners of any kind reduce the free exchange of ideas. The policing of ideas in college is particularly difficult for me to deal with, since it is opposite to what "critical thinking" is, and it's emotionally hard on the students, many of whom come from rural farming communities and are not politically liberal. These students remind me of some of the printers I used to know.

Whenever the media picks up a story about someone fighting "political correctness," it seems to always turn out that that person is a racist, a bigot, an anti-feminist, a Nazi, or some other disgusting form of low-life. Painting all people who would like to see an end to knee-jerk notions of "appropriate thinking" and "appropriate verbiage" as racists and bigots and anti-feminists does not help any cause: it only promotes a sense that all people are either fascists or Nazis. It does nothing to help us bring the stand-off back to conversation. Not every liberal is a fascist, not every student radical, not every conservative a Nazi, not every answer to complex questions black or white.

Both political policing on the radical Left and an inculcated devaluing of education on the radical Right are doing much to destroy the free exchange of ideas upon which our society is based. College can provide open discussion and a valuing of personal beliefs, a safe place for airing one's nascent ideas and an introduction to the thinking of people not like ourselves. But it can only do its educative job if we promote a reduction of "policing," insist on an increase in respect for varying opinions--all opinions, not just opinions branded "correct" or populist-- and recognize that every one of us is trying to make sense of a tremendously complex world that we didn't expect, terrified of being leveled by nuclear holocaust, coping with radical shifts in the weather, and dealing with all the old and difficult moral and ethical questions that have always hounded humanity. There is difference. But there is overlap.

I Am Not a Cruise Director

There's a fashionable attitude in education right now that assumes that making things more interactive and more entertaining and more experiential for students results in a better education for that student. I think we'll live along into a time in which we will look back on this strategy and see its shortcomings clearly.

Surprise and novelty has a place in the studio, but not as a central dynamic. When you're  a student, you put yourself in a difficult place and battle through to the other side, you do something really hard that tests the limits of who you think you are. It is this kind of challenge that builds the self-esteem and resilience you need to survive life.

Currently, the teaching technique that includes the challenge of the very difficult is slighted by the kind of administrator who tells us that we've "evolved past" tests and deadlines. That administrator actually wants students comfy so they'll stay enrolled. But it is only through surviving appropriate challenges that you become really confident: only through challenging yourself do you begin to pat around the walls of your identity and find the shape of your own abilities-- only through challenge that you build the courage you will need to fill that shape out.

Although entertainment has a value in the classroom, the work of teachers is not the work of keeping students enrolled. I am not a cruise director. Dreaming up new ways to deliver content so that tech-drenched students "don’t get bored" is not my primary value, and cannot take more hours of my time than does the preparation of lectures, studio projects and seminar material.

Most important, relief from boredom is not what my students want. Though they may start out—as many do-- telling me that they hate to read, that history or criticism is too dry a subject for them, that instructors don’t understand who they are or appreciate their special personal needs,  I find that all of this goes away pretty fast when that student experiences triumph over a hard challenge in a safe place.  

A student is a person who seeks out difficult spots in order to figure out how to get out of those spots. Tests are hard spots. Writing is a hard spot. Showing up to do something you are not thrilled with doing is a hard spot. You are an educated person when you make the negotiation of hard spots a part of your identity. In order to do this, you need a safe place to test yourself, blunder along, bear failures and revel in success. A safe place. Not a terror-laden place or a fun-filled place. Without testing yourself, "education" is entertainment, and does nothing to found personal and intellectual growth.

In the same way that a mended hairline fracture strengthens bone, small, negotiable threats to your world view--or to your view of your own abilities--builds your confidence and resilience. Intellectual resilience is the edge that an educated person has in the world. It is the only lasting thing that school can give you. 

Apparel at Cornish?

Design at Cornish College of the Arts is launching its first apparel class this semester. We're starting to build toward an Apparel track, adding classes and studios semester by semester until we reach a concentration level in 2017. We'll need important approvals along the way, but here we are, taking our first toddling step toward designing a completely new kind of apparel education in the Northwest.

We'll be making things. But we'll also be looking closely at the wearable things people make to put on their bodies, and exploring why we put those things there. The classes will have a sociological, social change focus, exploring wearable design’s functions as protection, attraction, ornament and signifier of cultural status. Cornish Design is not about stoking the commodification machine, we are not interested in teaching people that a size 0 is better than a size 22, and we are not about newness for the sake of “selling schmatas.” Our goal is to fill the empty niche for an apparel education concentrated on the needs of the performance sportswear industry here in Seattle. We will stress designing for real bodies doing real things. 

Women and men performing Garba as part of Navaratri celebrations in Ahmedabad  photo: Hardik Jadeja

Apparel is not fashion, though fashion is apparel. What will be going on in room 411 will include aspects of the global history of what we wear as well as the craft of “soft architecture.” Students will learn to draw designs and to make samples, but ours is not a garment construction/sewing focus. We WELCOME cross-concentration/disciplinary projects— one planned pathway is tech interface apparel--so if you have ideas please bring them up!

This semester we’re starting off with one big practicum. That class will consist of three separate modules, and each five-week module will host an intensive workshop by an outside expert or hack-a-thon/wearable tech charette. We want to see where student interest lies, and work to satisfy those interests as well as push a few boundaries. If the people in the class want to make shoes instead of Arduino-activated apparel, we will make shoes. And vice-versa.

East African women wearing the traditional  kanga , a fabric wrap that often has thoughts or sentiments printed on the fabric. Wearing kangas with printed thoughts allows women to subvert cultural dicta preventing them from speaking frankly. Thank you, Ziddi Msangi, for your amazing work on the topic.

East African women wearing the traditional kanga, a fabric wrap that often has thoughts or sentiments printed on the fabric. Wearing kangas with printed thoughts allows women to subvert cultural dicta preventing them from speaking frankly. Thank you, Ziddi Msangi, for your amazing work on the topic.

Right now 411 is a classroom, not an open lab. It will be available to students (who have been checked-out on the equipment) during class periods. That’s because the equipment is expensive and delicate. I’m hoping we will be able to get a lab supervisor in coming months and will open the studio as a lab to all checked-out-on-equipment students. But right now it will be functioning as a classroom. 

If we can teach the basics of creating for the body in motion, if we can teach the societal effects of clothing, and if we can support students in their goals to make everything from t-shirts to tech interface, I’m betting apparel will add a great deal to the department, the college and the Seattle garment industry.


On Shooting Butterflies

Well, the final news is out, the fix is in, headlines tell us that three major universities agree: we’ve had it, the sixth great environmental catastrophe is upon us, species are going extinct in unprecedented numbers, and humankind may not last another hundred years. It’s a relief, I must say.

When they finally get a diagnosis proving there’s something really wrong with them, people often feel relieved, even if the diagnosis is terminal. It’s a relief to be believed. It’s a relief to know you didn’t make it up. It’s a relief to have a timeframe: you’ve got six months to live--you’d better get your taxes in. For me, it’s a relief to know the long race to save humanity is over. It’s a race I’ve been running all my life, and I’m ready to hang up my track shoes.

When I was 13, in 1970, I sat huddled on a picnic blanket on a cold day on Stinson Beach listening to my chemist sister monologue about the scientific facts that proved humankind would be dead from pollution by 1985. We all needed to do everything we could to avoid the end. She, for one, had been recycling her aluminum foil and had saved a roll in the last year. I remember thinking at the time that cutting down on aluminum foil usage might not turn the tide. But, looking back, that was also the day that I realized I shouldn’t have children, because it would be a terrible thing to come to consciousness in a world that was on its way out.

For the rest of my life, humanity’s slow demise ran in the background of my mind, ran silent and anxious and unconscious no matter where I was or what I was doing. The fear that I was not doing enough to “save humanity” was always there, thwarting plans and curtailing dreams. This painful drip, this knowledge of ecological disaster, kept me focused on the terror of life rather than on its beauty, and I avoided many of the deepest experiences of living.

In order to save the world, I became a designer. If everyone just listened to me, perhaps humanity had a chance. In this ego-strength I followed in the footsteps of Morris and Gropius and Jacobs, but unlike them I did not have a positive manifesto for change. I had a fear of the future, not a plan for it. I became vocal. I became passionate-- that much over-used word that couples desire with heartbreak.  And, in the course of things, I became overwhelmed.

I teach “Design for Social Change” at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. We’re tiny. We have 800 students. We teach art and design and dance and theater and champion independent thinking. The main campus building is a repurposed seven story printing building. In the last year, Amazon has been building five tall, steel-and-glass office buildings in a ring around our small campus, dwarfing our old building and battering our days with pneumatics. When I go to lunch, I see hundreds of thirty year-old white males with Amazon lanyards who have been let out of their cubicles for their well-deserved and timed lunch breaks. South Lake Union, right below us on the hill, has been totally redone in the last few years, designed to look like a bunch of independent restaurants and stores, but in reality a mall, a habitat for software engineers, planned by a company called Vulcan.

We teach about art and self-expression and independent thinking, but we are ringed by corporate control. One afternoon I was walking from the college past a huge building site and things started to jumble in my mind. I froze in a flood of fear. I couldn’t walk forward and I couldn’t walk back. I felt that I was disintegrating. It had been 15 years since my last panic attack and I didn’t see the old routine coming.

Was it the height of the new construction looming over me? Was it too much work and coffee and not enough food? Or was it the sudden fear that nothing I had done or could do could change the relentless march of the material-consuming culture and that everything I had tried to do to help save humankind had been a ridiculous waste of time. Tall and smart and ego-driven as I was, I was tiny, and no match for tons of steel and glass and the corporate machine that created them. 

Fear is the best way to make bad decisions. During the Russian Revolution, as dirty and cruel a revolution as anything going on right now, it became fairly common for surrounded villagers to shoot their children rather than risk their torture at the hands of partisans. Are we shooting our children? Are we filling our students with a constant diet of facts about the end of the world, assuming dystopia awaits, leaving them no room for their human needs and deep desires? Does our insisting that they shoulder the burdens bequeathed to them by two hundred years of stupid human mess-ups do anything to make their lives better?  Or does this burden freeze them in panic, force them to take refuge in dreams of rusticity or in incoherent aesthetics? When Design teaches responsibility for overwhelming crises, it doesn’t create agency, it creates anxiety, and anxiety is fear.

So here's the thing. I'm not hanging up my track shoes just yet. I plan to do what I can still do. But of the things I can still do, perhaps the most important is being a witness. Butterflies are going extinct, but that doesn't mean we need to shoot them to put them out of their misery. Just because humanity is up against it doesn’t mean we can't witness for art and design and music-- for the good things that human life can make and be. Have kids or get married or put down roots or fight for equality or do what the heck you want to do with your life and your ability. But don't exhaust yourself. The odds are overwhelming: the diagnosis is terminal. We’re all going to die. So live.






Clatter of the Snow Queen

On the day after the Senior critiques finished up last month, a student hobbled into my office for her post mortem, wearing sweats and a tendonitis boot. This student, along with making work for her first Senior Degree Project critique, had overworked her body, preparing to dance the Snow Queen in a local company’s annual Nutcracker ballet. And so, the boot.

 Some dancers are not highly intellectual, being creatures of movement, but the Snow Queen is not that kind of dancer. She is bright, verbal and as interested in philosophy as she is in design. Planning to end her career as a performer at the end of this season—20 is getting up there for a dancer-- she had over-trained in a quest for perfection, and her ligaments hurt.  When she came to my office, she was tired, battling pain, and, in her polite way, angry.

That first Senior Degree Project critique is never easy. The groups of critics don’t know each other. The time allotted is always too short. The critics are a good mix for one student and nonsensical for another. The student must explain the beginning stages of a year-long project to strangers who know only what she has written about her goals for the project. The critics feel as though they must give the school its money’s worth, and so tend to “throw fish”-- give top-of-the-head solutions—or point out seeming deficiencies in form, form that the student has not yet begun to think through. When I was a critic, I did all these things.

 It is ever thus, and has been at every institution at which I have ever taught. We work to make critique better each time, but each time responds to different curricular changes, different departmental emphases, different provostial dicta. And so the days after that first Senior crit are hard, because the students have been knocked around, even at the most student-centered, kindly institution. The rubber has met the road. Rough hands have searched the pudding for its proof.

But back to the Snow Queen. She clomped in and sat down gingerly. We talked about the crit. It had been wide of the mark. It hadn’t helped her. And then she said something that echoed comments I had been getting from other students, but had not yet really heard. She said, “Why isn’t beauty enough? Why can’t I just make beautiful things? Why is everything I make not “edgy” enough, not “socially aware” enough, not “corporate” enough?”

A saturated solution, liquid in the test tube, will crystallize suddenly if you give the side of the tube a good flick with your fingernail. The Snow Queen’s comment jarred me: and saturated thoughts crystalized. 

When we teach design, we take people who are talented at making things and put them through a process of inculcation in how to make work that will succeed in the marketplace. That marketplace might be an NGO, a zine commune, or a UX manufactory, but we teach our students how to make work that will make money for someone. We take people who like to doodle, and we teach them how to doodle in an edgy way, in a stylish way, in a way that will convince people of that doodle’s up-to-the-minute hipsterness, and that such hipsterness deserves the spending of their dollars so they can own a piece of it. Design is integrally associated with selling things, and to pretend it isn’t is to live in la-la land.

When we teach design, we take these makers and these doodlers, and involve them in complicated codes about art and design and their places in the world. (“But designers are not artists!” you say, bowing to the contemporary notion that all people belong in boxes.) Forgive me if I expect you to be both artist and designer. Art is representation. Design is representation. Art is bought and sold. Design is bought and sold. Perhaps the truest artist is the artist who does not compete in the marketplace, never sells her work. We call that person an Outside Artist, and mark up the price when she's dead. But every other artist, making work to sell, is really a designer, because—even when not fully conscious of it-- she responds to the whims of the society, of the buyer, of the marketplace.

The Snow Queen’s question comes down to the role of beauty in art and design. Is there room for beauty? Any discussion of “beauty” seems terribly out of step, so 19th Century. Our ears are accustomed to the rapid gunfire of shocks and upsets that is our current experience of techno-drenched culture. Anything else seems unreal, seems inaccurate--seems wrong. The Futurists believed that war was the ultimate artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology. They valued war instead of beauty. And we follow suit like good little children. Why have we decided that we must throw ourselves into living out Marinetti’s vision? Walter Benjamin once said that championing this Futurist “realization” was the ultimate expression of the notion of “Art for Art’s Sake.” And he thought it profoundly stupid.

 Why do we feel that we must use our minds and talent to magnify disruption, horror, and violence in the name of “realism?” We collude to create a phantasmagoric internet mash-up that is far larger, immediate and far-reaching than the actual horrors going on right now on Earth.

In my experience, some people—some students—come to school “trailing clouds of glory.” They have somehow, through living, perhaps, picked up the notion that it would be fulfilling to make beautiful things. Things that please the eye. Things that go together. Things that make wholeness, that make happiness, that are aesthetically enjoyable. We spend four years trying to pound this desire to make beauty out of them. Our own schooling—a schooling in the postmodern-- gets in the way of our allowing such a search to continue. We try to break it up. Make them see the light. Open their eyes. Break the pattern. Push the boundary. For beauty to us is not "true." Truth, we believe, is ugly. Truth is the fighting in Syria. Truth is the corporate reorg. We want our students to have their eyes wide open, nimbly encountering the incoming missiles of contemporary culture with alacrity and fortitude. That's what we think teaching design is about. We are wrong.

We are wrong when we teach people to abandon a search for beauty in favor of a trendy edginess, in favor of do-gooder trumpeting, in favor of the stale avant-garde bursting of the bourgeois balloon. Bursting balloons was all very well in its day. But today, all balloons have been burst. Our world is not in need of more breaking apart, but of more putting together. The challenge these days is not one of pushing against the hard and fast rules of a striated culture-- opening up and revealing-- but of of finding ways to create enclosure, resolution and unity.  Beauty depends on harmony, and harmony depends on relationship. Design, at its finest, makes relationship. Why are we still invested in to old model of trying to teach our students--as another student has said-- to break things instead of make things?

The Snow Queen hobbles in retreat, the clack of her boot echoes in the hall.  In our time, the value of beauty--perfect or imperfect-- has suffered grave injury. In trying to play by the rules and avoid anything smacking of sentiment, of emotion, (those hallmarks of Marinetti's much-detested "feminine,") we've allowed the modernist agenda, and its partner, postmodern irony, to wipe out much of what can be considered the best in humankind. We do not have to continue doing so. 

The avant-garde is tired. Postmodernism is long over. Students do not need to be schooled in the edgy, socially aware, or corporate. They are more edgy and socially aware than their teachers can ever be. Corporate whomps on the head come with experience, we don't need to approximate them. If students want to learn craft in order to make beautiful things according to their own lights, we must help them make beauty. We must nurture that instinct, rather than destroy it.


The Pleasure of Semiotics

When he was young and worrying about the continued existence of humankind and his part in that continuation, my father had a hard time sleeping. His job did not allow for his being groggy in the morning, so sleeping pills weren’t an option, and he wasn’t the kind to take pills anyway. Somehow, he struck on a simple solution to insomnia, and for years after-- long after “the Sovs” had become history-- an old, beat up Latin grammar book always lay on his bedside table.

            During the hot part of the Cold War, and for years and years afterward, my father studied Latin in the middle of the night. As the rest of us slept, he declined nouns. As the night wore on, he conjugated verbs. He did not talk about Latin in the daytime,  nor did he regale us with details. Latin was his private comfort: He studied it for the studying’s sake. The highly regular nature of a dead language relaxed him because it was so completely different from the complexities of real human interaction with which he was involved.

            Years ago now, I read Charles Peirce’s “Theory of Signs,” for the first time, and though it does not lie upon my bedside table, it serves a similar purpose in my life. Semiotics is a branch of the study of logic. It’s a speculation on the ways the universe makes meaning. Peirce’s belief that meaning can be charted and graphed is a wonderfully calming belief. It’s an antidote to the fear that life is essentially meaninglessness-- a fear that living in our mechanized, human-centric world can induce.

There's no great book about semiotics for normal people. There are a number of interesting books that are difficult, and there are a number filled with arcane talk and difficult notions made harder by the free use of academic-speak. A few books about semiotics have been written for designers. These mold semiotics into a simple, streamlined way to deconstruct and reconstruct the making of communication design. But these books fall flat to me, because they bend semiotics into being a tool. They use it in a way it was never intended to be used. The study of semiotics was not conceived not a method for design production. The Euclidean beauty of Peirce's logic is lost in these texts, rather in the same way that the beauty of mathematics is obscured for me by the pounding headache that is algebra.  

Semiotics has informed my daytime thinking, made my ideas about communication clearer. It has taught me tricks, like being able to model systems of communication in my head. But I study it for the sheer pleasure of studying it, and not just so that I can tell people why the symbols and signs in their ads seem to be working or not. There's math for engineering and math for math's sake. Same with semiotics.


On Throwing Fish

When I first started teaching design history, it occurred to me that in order to reward students for finding me in factual error, I could give them a treat of some sort. I figured this would keep me from making incorrect statements and keep them paying attention, for I have noticed that all students are hungry and all people like treats.

I started with candy bars and packs of Oreos, but it turned out that many students weren't all that fond of chocolate. So we settled on little packs of Swedish fish, and we tooled through a number of semesters with this reward system in place before Nikki Juen-- a friend and fellow teacher-- heard me mention the Swedish Fish thing and burst into laughter at the notion of a professor throwing fish to students, as to seals at a zoo. Swedish or no, she thought this a real knee-slapper.

I worried. I asked my students. Did they feel seal-like? Did they feel put-upon, degraded or disrespected by my Swedish Fish throwing? They rolled their eyes. "Keep the fish coming," said a tough guy with tats and a piercing. So I did.

But last week the throwing of fish took on a bigger meaning, as I listened to Yoon Soo Lee talk about methods of critique at the Spring Residency of the VCFA MFA program.

"Teaching," she said, "is not art directing." "Telling students how to "make it better" does not teach them anything but how to please you."  It doesn't teach them how to please themselves, or how to convince a client that their ideas are right for the task at hand.

"Sometimes, if they're really stuck, I'll throw them a fish," she said, "I'll give them a solution. But generally I find it more valuable for them to think for themselves." 

I felt gratified by Yoon Soo's view, because for some time now I have been asking students not to "solve"-- not to give the person whose work is being critiqued an "answer," but to ask questions about the decisions that person has made, and allow that person to explain it.

I believe that students who learn to invent their own work and to convince others about the value of their solutions may have a messier time of it in class, may not create smoothly art-directed pieces that all look like the instructor made them, but will have the satisfaction of truly creating their own work, and will build the confidence they will need to explain their ideas to a client.

There's the throwing of fish and the throwing of fish. Feeling supported by Yoon Soo's lecture, I'll stick to tossing the Swedish kind.


And Contempt for Woman

I'm in the enviable position of being one of the last professors Graphic Design students see at Cornish College of the Arts. I get to spend time with them as they work to create their degree projects: the capstone design and book and film and motion and sound exhibition they make that proves that they have gotten their minds and skills into the sort of functioning order capable of pulling off something big.

I run this class as a series of individual meetings: sort of like sixteen independent studies. Of the sixteen students I have this semester, fifteen are women. This is not an anomaly. Far more women than men are now graphic designers.

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John Maeda at odds with RISD faculty

When John Maeda was voted in as president of RISD four years ago, I was elated. Here was a man who stood at the intersection of art and technology, bright, a graphic designer, originally from Seattle-- the whole thing sounded to be just the thing that I thought RISD needed.

But it hasn't been good. On March 2nd, the faculty of Rhode Island School of Design overwhelmingly voted no confidence in Maeda's ability to lead the school as president. In information sent out with the no confidence vote, the faculty states:

"Among the numerous specific events that gradually alienated the faculty who voted no confidence, the following stand out. The first was the removal of the then Provost Jay Coogan and the imposition of then Dean Jessie Shefrin in his place. Under prior presidents, provosts were selected after formal consultation with the faculty and sometimes after national searches.

In 2008 the President spurned established RISD practice and simply thrust his provost on the faculty. In the ensuing months and years an excessive number of long-term, highly experienced and competent administrators and staff were eliminated. Some turnover is inevitable with changes at the top, but the scale and manner of these forced removals were staggering.

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The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism

In addition to being a place for me to put long articles originally published in foreign languages (how much of that did you actually get through?) I see that this blog is also functioning as a Home for Wayward Book Reviews-- this one of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, a book by Nicholas Fox Weber. When the design magazine for which I originally wrote this had an editorial shake-up, I wasn't paying attention and forgot to send the darned thing in. However, it occurs to me that this piece will find as many readers here as it would have in the printed magazine for which I wrote it. Thank you, Google Analytics, for that bit of comforting knowledge.

The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism

It took one determined trumpet to fell the walls of Jericho, but it has taken 90 years for scholars and curators to begin to grapple with and dismantle the Gropian curtain wall that created and defends our perceptions of the Bauhaus.

Recent shows at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity) and at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin (Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model) included many more aspects of the work done at this most influential of design schools than have any previous exhibitions. The great tussle between the Bauhaus’s Expressionists and its Constructivists is more fully exposed than ever before.

Similarly, a current crop of books and monographs (Gunta Stolzl: Bauhaus Master; Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft and Design; Bauhaus Conflicts, 1919-2009: Controversies and Counterparts, to name some) seem uninterested in shoring up the heroic quality of their subjects, and very interested in looking deeply into their subjects' humanity. This is a refreshing change.

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Design Education, Cutie and the Deck Shoes

This article was published by 2+3D, a Polish design magazine. I agreed with the editor that I would put it up here after the issue had been out for a while. It was published in Polish, so there's probably not too much overlap in readership here. I do recommend subscribing to the magazine. The images alone are an amazingly valuable thing: you can sort of dope out the gist of the text.

Cutie and the Deck Shoes

Right after Christmas, at the time a fresh new crop of bright sweaters, scarves and hats suddenly appears on the commute ferry from my island, I spied an ordinarily somber acquaintance wearing a particularly festive pair of deck shoes. As I looked closer at her feet, I noticed that along with magenta flowers and acid green lines of varying widths, a large photo of a bulldog smiled up at me from both shoes.
“Shoes!” I said, thinking that by saying “Shoes!” I was neither saying, “I like your shoes!” which would have been an utter lie, nor “Where did you get the tossed salads that are on your feet?” which probably would not have gone down well either. I commute every day with the same people: I must be careful.
“Aren’t they great!” she beamed up at me. “I designed them myself, on Zazzle!” Her habitual dour expression vanished. She was so happy. Curling her toes up, she pointed down.
“That’s Cutie, my dog.”

A sharp pain stabbed at my stomach: A referred pain from 20 years of paying the student loans that financed my design education.
“Your dog!” I said, brightly. “Well, there he is! Hey, I’ve got to get coffee--” and with that I lurched toward the galley and toward the safety of the coffee line.

Standing in line in front of the huge coffee urns, I bowed my head and thought sad thoughts about Cutie and the deck shoes. "It’s the end of design," I thought. "It is the end of aesthetics, of educated decisions, of culture. The Vandals have scaled the wall and they’re wearing bulldogs on their toes."

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Goodbye to the Art Ball

Since the inception of design, the myth of the black-clad, chain-smoking, heavy drinking, overworked designer has been the Romantic ideal. Where I went to school, these slumped, hung-over, chain-smoking designers perched on studio stools all over the design building. We called them Art Balls. Gender didn't factor in. Sometimes a studio looked like it had been taken over by these black blobs with four metal legs.

Designers-- graphic, game, motion, apparel, architectural, or interior-- have amazingly sensitive antennae that pick up the smallest social indications about what they should act like, what they should emulate and how they want to be perceived. In response, they become semiotic semaphores, signaling their hipster-ness, their nonconformism, their sensitivity or, alternatively, their conservative modernism, their neo-modernism or their eclecticism through their clothing and their actions.

Is it a left-over pose from the myth of the Romantic Hero-- the wild-eyed painter swashing away at his "Liberty Leading the People?" Is it a feint at the garb of shamanism? At dividing oneself from the "average" person in order to retain mystic connection to powers greater than Self? Is it a hangover from the avant-garde of 100 years ago, a monk-like resistance to the luxury and lures of the comfortable bourgeoisie? Or is it the stance of the basement guitar hero who knows, deep inside, that no girls will ever scream for him?

Embracing and living the Art Ball life of chain-smoking, energy-drinks and alcohol may be a pleasant way to form an identity at 19, but if you're living that way at thirty you're going to have all the mental freshness of a Goodwill sofa. By 40 you'll be enjoying a Thorazine highball daily between managing hacking cough-spasms and auto-dialing your ex, begging for permission to see the kids. Rock stars don't need to come up with new ideas all the time. Like restaurant chefs, they perfect perhaps 40 standard recipes and spend their lives repeating them to different audiences. Not so the designer. Every pancake is a new pancake; every song a new song, sung once.

So here's an idea. Design could start to value the idea of the happy, balanced designer. I know. It sounds so wrong. The entire structure of design is against happiness and balance in its practitioners. What would we talk about if we didn't talk about how tired we were, how overworked, how busy, how stressed? Imagine knowing a designer that wasn't hurting himself in some way. Such a designer would turn the whole mythology of design on its head. Which needs to happen. Because, let's face it, if a designer does not understand what it takes to sustain Self and spirit, do you really want his taking on designing sustainable things? For sustainable things, at this point, are really the only interesting design things.

Sustainable design must start with teaching designers to sustain their own lives, their heart. It's time we say goodbye to the Art Ball.

More on the Place at the Table

I so appreciate the continuing comments on "Why No Place at the Table," which was mentioned by DesignObserver recently. Many of the comments I've received put the blame for American designers' being functionally illiterate squarely on the shoulders of the public school system.Two things come to my mind here.

First, I went to public school in California--Terra Linda High School: a big, sprawling place that, at the time I was there, enrolled more than 2000 students. I am sure that plenty of people came out of that school functionally illiterate. But if they took writing with Patrick Skinner, they came out writing well, no matter how poorly they had written when they came to his class. It takes one motivating teacher and one semester of weekly writing assignments to train a person to write well.

I'm not saying that that person will be "a writer," but she will know where to put a comma, when it is "it's" and when it is "its," and all the rules of writing that my students do not know. Like drawing, writing is a skill, and anyone can learn the basics.

Second, because a person did not learn to write in high school does not mean he is doomed to drag himself through his life as a designer not knowing how to argue on paper, nor does it mean that he wants to do so. As I said, learning to write takes one semester. Of all the students I have encountered, not one has told me that writing is unimportant. I have never had a student tell me that she is not interested in learning to write well. I have never had a student tell me writing is valueless. Most students look sheepish when they turn in their papers. They feel inadequate to the task. But they are not uninterested. In fact, they look a bit desperate for help.

Perhaps I run into especially motivated students. Or maybe they fear me and feign interest. ( I can hope.) But I think we do students a disservice when we assume that they do not want to write. I think we need to teach them. We need to expect it of them-- and of ourselves.

Why No Place at the Table

I 've been in design my whole life. During this admittedly lengthening period, I've listened to many designers spend much energy fighting to be recognized, fighting to be heard by the people who make things happen in corporations, in NGOs, in government.

For years I have heard stirring arguments about how designers need "a place at the table" around which important systemic decisions are made. And still that place at the table is not an assured place. Why are designers still not really a part of things? Why are they not an assumed voice in high-level decision-making? Even today, when innovation and sustainability and green are the newest corporate cliches, it is rare to see a designer in the boardroom.

"And why is this?" I asked myself, walking back from teaching tonight. The answer came to me, borne on feathered wings, somewhere between Nordstrom's and the ferry.

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Douglass Scott: teacher sublime

When I was an undergrad, I had a professor ( Sr. Nicholas Maltman O.P., PhD.) who started each day by studying archaic Italian for a full hour. My uncle Nicholas Boratynski, held as the family genius, used to start his day at the office by solving a fresh mathematical problem posed to him by his colleagues.

Now I have found what I would do had I their perspicacity and mental drive. I would start each day first thing with a lecture by Douglass Scott. Hard to pull off, since he lives in Boston and I in Seattle. But worth it should one have the opportunity. Blows the carbon right out of the engine. All those gorgeous examples of type and image and color and texture, his deep knowledge and great love of his subject-- by each lecture's end you're ready to tear out the door and attack your own work.

In a design world so often dominated by "personalities," by people who can be harsh or patronizing about student efforts, Scott's dynamic yet even-keel approach makes a place where students can open up and absorb and create without risking life and limb. Of greater value hath no teacher.