Health Policy and design
Congress of the Oppressed II

Graphic design: on and off the page

Yesterday, we held the 1st year student's graphic design reviews. As always, it is an interesting adventure in observation participation for me. What was most striking was the reaction to Hal Kugeler's assignment for one of the studio classes. Similar to Joerg Becker's assignment last semester, the focus was on shaping the designer's thinking as opposed to formal making skills. The assignment was for the students to come up with "objective" rubrics of what defines "Good Design" in order to create a design language for client's beyond "I like it." The students came up with 12 rubrics which they tested using visual examples of good or bad representations of that rubric. The rubrics ranged from authenticity, does it work, humility, clarity of intent, economy of means, moderation, to simplicity, etc. What was interesting is how some of the colleagues related to the assignment and the conflict between thinking about graphic design in relationship to what happens on a page versus its wider context.

When the rubrics related to "good design" in its wider context (authenticity, humility, does it work, etc.) some of the faculty members struggled with finding ways to critique the work beyond (1) not understanding the assignment, (2) disagreeing with the assignment, or  (3) disagreeing with the comparative visuals selected to indicate good and bad examples of the rubric. There was a sense of discomfort with the discussion of design outside of the confines of the page, expressed in the impatience to "get to the work." The implication was that the design thinking the students are doing is not an equal part of the work. This is especially disheartening within the confines of a academic institution.

I am concerned for the students because if the "new" emphasis in the US is on design thinking as well as making, then these types of more conceptual assignments are the way to engage with that thinking without the additional burden of making. This means the kind of critical facility that a professor brings to the critique of typographical choice on a poster, they should bring to conceptual intentionality and impact of these other assignments.

The one presentation of the assignment that they liked was one in which the student expressed her rubric in terms of questionings and explorations as opposed to providing visuals "answers." Again, while this made the presentation engaging; it does not achieve the objective of the assignment, which was to find an "objective" language to talk about good design to clients.

But I am happy that my students are having to think hard about these questions as a form of design research and philosophy.  Constructive critiques were to have the students select among good and okay designs instead of extremely good and horrible. This I think would help with developing a more nuanced sense of visual discernment that they need. Another would be to define rubrics that are within the page versus outside of the page. The last would be to find visuals that work across multiple (5-6) rubrics and see if they define "good design."  I would also recommend reading  Del Coates' Watches Tell More than Time (McGraw Hill 2002), where in talks about concinnity.

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