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
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?