Education: BFA Curriculum Review

Client: Visual Communications Design Association

Project: Curriculum Review

In Brief: This pedagogical review of Cal State Long Beach’s 2-year BFA graphic design program examined the strengths and growth opportunities for individual projects, classes and the curriculum as a whole. It catalogs current and suggested reading materials, class activities and educational philosophies that might be implemented in future classes.


What I learned in—and out of—school:

Time and time again I have overheard the casual dismissal of a formal education in design. When looking for work, creative directors, creative managers and H.R. departments proclaim that it is not a school, subject studied or level of degree that determines a candidate’s worthiness. Certificates, we tell ourselves—excluding awards of course—do not measure creativity. Even many professors can be guilty of offhandedly downplaying measurable value in the education process—apart from portfolio building and networking. That seems to be the generally understood consensus: it is all about the work—namely the portfolio.

The catch is, school isn’t necessary to develop a portfolio. On this point, the big wigs are right about design education. In the field, there are creatives who had little to no formal training in design or advertising: former lawyers, accountants, athletes, and more. Still, they have respectable portfolios. They managed, through personal exploration, what others supposedly spent years in school to accomplish. Some might say that these anomalies are simply manifestations of a natural design genius—a talent destined to emerge by sheer creative force. Does that make those of us who have focused on design from the beginning the ultimate chumps? Are degreed designers at a disadvantage to those whose technical skills rival our own, but whose breadth of experience is wider and more diverse than our focused pursuits? Would our time have been better spent pursuing other experiences?

If, as our own professors say, all that matter are portfolios, it would follow that there is in fact little value in a formal design education. Professional skills are available through countless other avenues. If we need to network, we start meeting groups and expand our social network. Trade periodicals, in online or printed form, show us all the trendy and cool new styles and techniques. Mechanical skill is just a matter of playing around on paper and the computer. All of these can be experienced and learned outside of academia. Therefore, there is something more to the education process than portfolios.

What must—and does—distinguish a formal design education is comprehension. To study design doesn’t shut a student off from life and other non-design experiences. Quite the opposite, education should heighten a student’s awareness of the world around them and explore how design plays a role in shaping the culture and experience of that environment. A true design education is the opposite of building a portfolio. In the guided study of design, a book is an ancillary product of greater understanding and appreciation of the role that design has played, and continues to play, in how our society functions. For those who are only tying to develop a book, understanding is merely a possible side effect of assembly.

Trained designers are trained thinkers, experts in the language of the visual, and thus wield a power that goes beyond ornamentation. An educated designer is more that a cipher of style; he is both a craftsman and an artist—a communicator. Designers are by nature intellectually curious and because of that we do ourselves wrong by denying the value of education in favor of vocation. The idea of the great designer-as-savant in this context is a depressing and counter productive myth. Its moral ends up being that the ordinary person cannot rival the gifted in performance, nor can they hope to understand the larger themes of craft. It makes design a language for a privileged few—the exact opposite of design’s intent. Design is the voice of the people, and in skilled and learned hands, this voice is magnified and clarified into something powerful and true. It doesn’t talk down to its audience or placate them, rather, like any great art it inspires. Education is not only valuable to designers for what it teaches us, it is a necessary tool for us to teach others. Design is communication after all.

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