Learning backwards

Published:  August 20, 2012
Wayne Thompson
Learning backwards

In 2005, when my son was seven years old, he drew a timeline of his life so far. Starting with the words ‘0–Born’, it progressed through 1–Make gaa-gaa noises, to 2–Crawl, 3–Talk, 4–Start pre-school, 5–Be lively, 6–Start school and finished with 7–Do great ‘ilerstrachions’. Age-appropriate phonetic spelling aside, I was impressed he already knew his career path. He had a built in assumption that he would just learn how to illustrate.

I am now a type designer and typography educator. And my overwhelming experience is that students just want to be taught. That may seem an anachronism but, in my experience, not all students are, actually, taught. They are talked at, and lectured to, and asked to read textbooks. Sometimes they even get shown how to do things. But how much doing do they actually do?

I have come across many a tertiary student disillusioned by the lack of hands-on education in university design courses. You do a project, hand it in and receive a mark some weeks later. Do you ever redo that project to correct your mistakes? Of course not, you’ve moved on to other assignments. Students aren’t given the chance to learn from their mistakes. Some students are actively dismissive of their expensive courses, alleging that assignments are dished out of a textbook and lecturers are inaccessible. Is the system broken? Perhaps, but how would I know?

See, nobody ever taught me. I’m old enough to have missed out on the benefit of a design education. There weren’t many design degrees back then, and none in my city. So I learned my typographic trade on the job, making hideous mistakes – often multiple times – before finally learning not to do them again. Like the time I was on work experience in a design studio, and was asked to mark-up the type for a fried chicken ad. I just chose a bunch of fonts that I liked… seven of them. The boss looked at my work and burst out laughing. “Hey, look at this guys,” he called to the other employees, “seven fonts in one ad!” There were howls of laughter, and I was deeply humiliated. “Don’t they teach you this shit at uni?,” he harrumphed.

No, they didn’t. But I sure learned from that experience. Later, when I became a type designer, I had no choice but to just work it out on my own. No courses, no community of peers, no mentors. Just mistakes as an educational tool. I’d have given my right arm for a mentor (although operating the mouse with my nose might have been difficult). Someone  to teach me the basics, show me the ropes. Someone to take an active role in my education, rather than just an employer.

In several of the agencies I have worked in, work experience was frowned upon. Students were considered unpaying passengers and the whole notion was treated with suspicion. But, when those bosses were starting out, somebody must have taught them. And I have yet to meet a student from whom I didn’t learn something in return. Education shouldn’t be profit-driven; it’s a service not a business. It should be considered a responsibility, an obligation to pass our wisdom downwards.

I’m not being critical of design schools, quite the opposite. Facing the continual erosion of budgets and the pressure to be profitable, is it any wonder the standard of education
might decline?

If I can digress into politics for a moment, I’m also a passionate believer that design teachers should also be active industry professionals. This is a constantly changing industry, how can you keep up with it if you’re not in it? This by extension leads to the conclusion that design teachers need to be part-time, so they have time to pursue their industry disciplines in the commercial world. The TAFE system allows this (for the moment), the university system less so.

What I am critical of is our collective industry attitude to students. We have an expectation that graduates will be work-ready. Graduates, not unreasonably, share this expectation. But they can’t learn effectively by listening and watching. They have to learn by doing. Practice. It’s as simple as that. No design school can compete with genuine, on-the-job experience.

I’m not going to claim our design schools need to engage with the industry. It’s the other way around. Design practitioners need to pull our collective heads out of our balance sheets and engage with students. We have a responsibility to do so. Just accept it. And who knows, maybe we’ll learn something?

9 Responses

  1. trish

    Great article!

  2. Really enjoyed this article and echo your thoughts. I have experienced this very issue first hand, as I changed industries later in life and re-educated at TAFE. thanks for writing :-)

  3. Sophie

    Being a first year design student it is a blessing to read your article. Whilst I commend my own university for its commitment and emphasis on design, design shouldn’t be taught in lectures. No wonder so many students have a lack of passion and drive, because we are constantly ‘listening and watching’, not learning the priceless knowledge of the industry. Thankyou Wayne, I am a strong believer in your words!

  4. Darcy

    Really good read!

  5. Diane

    2 years a fine art school, practising every day! a traineeship from 1982-84, learnt computer skills (when computers came onto the scene) whilst at home after my first was born… I have learnt from my mistakes right through, Graphic Design is a trade and apprenticeships should be the norm, then assignments and learning can go hand in hand with the cold hard reality of making money (for someone else on a deadline!), great article! I think that the businesses that are design schools just want to make a buck at any cost… our society is SO money driven.

  6. I fully agree Wayne and it would appear you are not alone. I chose against university and went for a design course that taught in a very industry mirrored way, set up by a graphic designer who found university graduates falling short of being able to actually produce work in business timeframes. I would highly recommend any others out there considering there options to check out Shillington College, and know that I have had such brilliant feedback from prospective employers, clients and peers about the work I produced there.
    Great article Wayne, thanks!

  7. jay

    fuck yeah. well considered and written.

  8. Stephanie

    Whoa! I have been expressing these exact same thoughts to my other graphic design students.
    The comparison that tafe/college is far more practical than uni is so true. I found with friends at tafe, that they do board presentations, mock-client works and work experience.

    My sister went to tafe for Fashion Design and I felt she did more graphic design/art related work than I have in the two years I’ve been at uni. While she was taking illustration classes which taught her how to draw, at uni, we were expected to know how to draw.

    I’m definitely considering going to College or maybe even tafe after I graduate uni.

    Great post, very insightful from an educators perspective.

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