“Art is like masturbation. It is selfish and introverted and done for you and you alone. Design is like sex. There is someone else involved, their needs are just as important as your own, and if everything goes right, both parties are happy in the end.” –Colin Wright
I had a conversation with a friend not too long ago about the nature of contemporary design education. My friend is a designer and illustrator and also teaches design to undergraduate college students. He mentioned that he had noticed a trend in recent years that students these days were more delicate and sensitive and less motivated by criticism and competition. I’ve heard things like this form other educators as well, i.e., that students needed too much coddling and can’t take criticism. Being a designer, and working at a university myself, all this peaked my interest and got me thinking.
Having never taught any sort of art or design class, I began to think about how I would approach such a task if ever presented with the opportunity. As usual, upon reflection, what I realized is that, for me, it’s hard to dive into anything without first knowing what I’m diving into. That is to say, I’m a big picture person. It took me a while to understand this but I now know that I need a road map in front of me if I’m ever going to get anywhere. Forget trying to explain details to me unless you first explain what these details are being used for. I need to look at the blueprint, and understand what we’re making, before I can begin to understand the details about how the parts work and fit together.
So, being that I’m big picture person, it seems obvious that I personally would begin any design class I would ever teach by sharing my design philosophy.
What is Design?
Design is usually understood to be an “applied art,” and this is how I was taught to—and still do—think about it. Design is not exactly the same as art, although it certainly can be art. Actually, it’s probably best to think of these things in terms of a spectrum, because art and design can and do frequently overlap, but for our purposes here I am thinking of design and art as two separate, distinct human activities.
To be succinct, although there are quite a few differences between art and design that could be discussed, for me there two big ones which clearly stand out:
Art is generally thought of as a personal activity
Design is a collective activity
Art is usually about asking theoretical questions
Design is usually about trying to come up with practical solutions to a problem
The two distinctions above may seem obvious to some, but I think they are endlessly important and carry great implications for the way one thinks about and teaches design.
Design is Communal
One of the first things I would disabuse students of is the notion that what they are creating as designers is their personal, inner, subjective artistic expression.
Now don’t get me wrong, any great thing created by humans—if it is indeed great—has a piece of the creator’s “blood, sweat, and tears” baked in. That is to say, I would in no way suggest that my students take no pride in their work. I would, however, encourage them to view what they are doing as not some isolated, individualistic, cut-throat competition, but as a collective activity that is done for the greater good. As designer Colin Wright humorously puts it:
“Art is like masturbation. It is selfish and introverted and done for you and you alone. Design is like sex. There is someone else involved, their needs are just as important as your own, and if everything goes right, both parties are happy in the end.”
Obviously, one does not learn everything they need to know in college, but I wish I would have learned this about design early on. My design program was great but it was, like most art art/design programs I assume, more or less traditionally structured in terms of hierarchy and competition: the professor is omniscient and omnipotent, and the students should be motivated to compete against each other in order to learn and improve.
In a sense, schools and instructors cannot be faulted for wanting to prepare their students for what is to come in the ‘red in tooth and claw’ competitive, kill or be killed capitalistic environment in which we live and work, and to be fair, competition is not all together a bad thing. It can be a great motivator and play a role in people accomplishing great things. My competitiveness was indeed nurtured in college to great success. I worked hard to have the best looking design on the critique board each class. But, looking back now I can see that this competitive impulse of mine unfortunately morphed into over-confidence, and even arrogance, on plenty of occasions. Specifically, I recall being a young designer fresh out of college, dealing with “clients,” copywriters, and project managers for the first time, feeling frustrated and indignant towards them, consistently thinking, ‘these people have no idea what they’re talking about! Who are they to give me design advice anyway? I’m the designer, right?’
I would argue that without first acquiring an understanding of design as being an egalitarian, communal activity, one where listening, sensitivity, humility, and compromise are desperately required, it is very hard to navigate any design field, let alone be successful in it.
Design is Practical
One of the best ways to understand this distinction is that, unlike art—which may or may not exist for any particular reason except to inspire wonder and awe—design always exists to fill a need. It is always purposeful and intentional.
An alternate name for designers that I like is “visual planners.” I think this more accurately descries the job of a designer. Again, the main reason designers create things is not necessarily to inspire admiration (if that does happen that’s a great bonus, though!), but to make people’s lives better in ways they may not necessarily see or appreciate, but without which they would be lost.
A good example of this would be to perhaps think of the art lovers crowded around a Picasso painting at the Met. One could imagine the scene: lots of people clamoring to catch a glimpse of the canvas, phones in hand, photos being snapped expeditiously. I’d bet most of them wouldn’t be paying attention to their phone apps, though, but the designer who created them plays a very important role in allowing them to share their experience with their friends.
Again, design could best be understood as an “applied art,” and since design is an applied art, it has rules and structure. Additionally, designers aren’t generally interested in asking or posing unanswerable questions for the world to ponder, they want to nail down a system to solve a very specific, localized problem. Sure, designers ask questions, but the questions a designer asks are less open-ended, theoretical questions, and more practical in nature, such as those a physician or a detective might ask.
My Goal for Design Education
If the trend that my friend spoke about—that students these days are more delicate and sensitive and less motivated by criticism and competition—is true, I do not see this as being a bad thing, but a very hopeful thing.
I think students being less motivated by competition and criticism fits perfectly well with my design philosophy briefly described above. My hypothetical class would not be run like a game show, where students are contestants attempting to win a prize for having the best work. No. My hypothetical class would function like an enterprise that all of the students are a part of. Perhaps going against popular norms, I would not foster competition in my hypothetical classroom. I would instead suggest that life should be more about cooperation than competition, remembering what Saundra Wolfe says, “that more often than not competition wastes energy to no useful end while cooperation harnesses the energy of many individuals for the benefit of the group as a whole.”
Additionally, my hypothetical students would learn the important difference between critiquing and criticizing, and they would learn which tool to use when, and why. The best students, in my eyes, would be the ones who could best help their fellow students improve, knowing that this ultimately helps everyone else. They would also realize their work is not just theirs, that others needs are just as important as their own.
However, I must say that if nothing else is gleaned in my hypothetical classroom, I would be very happy if my hypothetical students walk away with the understanding that design is indeed a communal profession, devoted to working with people to improve the lives of people.
Design above comes from this book, which I’ve never read but looks pretty great.