Archived on August 20, 2012. Visit for more information.
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Conference Review
Creating an Educated Designer and Educating the Educators by Jan Conradi

Summarizing a conference is not easy because if there is depth, breadth and flexibility carefully woven into the plan, then the conference is a different experience for nearly everyone who attends. That said, the weave of this gathering created a cloth of style and substance. There were great benefits to the conference attendees and thanks to AIGA's posting of papers on the conference website, the benefits can continue to expand.

In these days of tight budgets, educators receive little or no financial support from their institutions to attend a conference. It is a credit that AIGA is sensitive to this, keeping conference costs low enough to be within reach of most faculty. It is also a credit to the 330 people attending FutureHistory that they felt it was important to invest their own time and funding to come. What benefits came from this investment? Formally, often insightful presentations challenged educators at all levels to do a better job of teaching. Informally, the conversations and connections during breaks and over meals or drinks were perhaps even more valuable. Finally, a wrap-up session allowed diverse voices to be heard on issues that warrant time and attention, perhaps at upcoming AIGA education conferences. It was a good experience. You should have been there.

That said, from my perspective the keynote speakers provided the greatest inspiration. I urge them to add their papers to the general session ones posted on this website, because their words were substantive, often eloquent, and certainly deserving of additional time and thought. My quick notes are a poor substitute for their full texts.

Our task is to reinforce relevance. Rick Grefe, our AIGA president, gave introductory remarks stating that design's destiny is to influence culture and economies. He said we must earn respect through credible performance and valuable outcomes. He questioned whether educating designers to function professionally is enough and then answered his own question by saying not if we wish to have greater influence in the world. Grefe reiterated a pledge for AIGA to be more focused upon education over the next decade and I hope that will truly be the case.

We must separate the valuable and true from the worthless, stale and false. Noted professor and author Ken Hiebert wasted no time in challenging educators to claim the high road by focusing upon discernment as a programmatic goal. He then proceeded into a lucid and extensive pairing of contradictions that I have been pondering ever since, listing real world pressures and clarifying the educational responsibility to contradict each one. For me, this alone was worth the price of admission.

Deception. Posturing. Congestion. Banality. Literalism. Exploitation. Alienation. Hiebert deftly hobbled these and more, each with its positive counterpoint: Veracity, Substance, Clarity, Paradox, Abstraction, Accountability, Relatedness. This was meaningful but then for each pairing he added the "why", driving home the necessity of this focus, just as we challenge our students to answer the why of their design process. Hiebert claimed his ideas were a sixties credo, but there was nothing out of date or invalid for contemporary times. Had he ended with a manifesto to sign, my name would have certainly been on the list.

Understand. Participate. Enhance. Inform. It worked well that the next speaker, Marcia Lausen, director of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, proved the validity of Hiebert's comments through her involvement in the American electoral process. Working with colleagues and students, Lausen should be proud of substantive work that goes far beyond creating readable ballots for voters (not to belittle the importance of that.)

Lausen's group has carefully investigated the entire process of civic engagement in elections. They have used design to improve, clarify and thus encourage citizen participation in electoral process for Illinois and Oregon, among others. Their work has been quantifiably documented and has resulted in often dramatic gains in efficiency or understandability. This is a significant area for designers wishing to make a difference in the world. It is a targeted focus for AIGA. Visit for additional information.

John Maeda, author and professor at the MIT Media Laboratory, tackled age-old issues of academia, providing a little comic relief through his unique ability to question serious concerns. Lack of innovation. Minimal cooperation. Raging incompetence. Petty jealousy. Audience laughter masked genuine frustrations as many of us recognized our own situations in his plaintive cries, but in a sneaky way he challenged us to see and then rise above pettiness that impedes success.

For those who push for extensive cooperative efforts between academic units, Maeda wondered about the benefits compared to staying focused within unique areas of expertise. Do we really want one large group of averageness? he asked. And to those feeling persecuted for challenging the norm he advised, If you don't do anything good, no one will bother you. After this tongue--in-cheek tirade, Maeda showed some personal and student work that questioned the purposes of and needs for technology, challenging the legitimacy of current assumptions about technological innovation.

Think about communication purpose, not communication vehicles, councelled Sharon Poggenpohl, editor and publisher of Visible Language and professor at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology. Her address was titled A place at the table where decisions are made. She encouraged us to raise our profession to a new level of discipline by learning from the scientific community and following their lead on research, development and dissemination of information. Understanding design as the overlap between art and science is a positive step.

Michael Renner, chairman of the Visual Communication Department at the University of Design and Art in Basel, Switzerland, focused upon the "I" of design and showed examples of how interactive media students at Basel incorporated this thinking into their exercises and projects. Imagination. Identity. Information. Interaction. Investigation. Iconic criticism. Intervention. With these key words in mind, Basel students learn to balance their desires as individuals with the need for clarity in communication, ultimately becoming the authors of their own diploma projects.

Between these highlighted speakers, a wide selection of papers was presented. Twenty papers were juried from a pool of eighty proposals and were presented in concurrent sessions of five. The drawback of course was the inability to be more than one place at a time but since AIGA has posted the papers on this site, there is additional opportunity to appreciate their content and diversity. A series of discussion groups provided yet another venue for educational concerns and enrichment. Sources tell me the tenure review discussion was particularly lively, as the topic continues to impact all of us and often in surprising ways. Designers too often face the task of trying to clarify what we do for an audience that sometimes doesn't quite get it.

Personally, I find that one of the most enriching aspects of these conference gatherings is simply the opportunity to reacquaint with old friends and to meet new ones. A little griping, a little proud boasting, a lot of snippets of thoughts are exchanged along with piles of business cards. It is nice to be reminded that our problems and successes are not so unique. Being isolated can be a dangerous form of tunnel vision and that alone is reason to ante up for a few days of conference attendance.

It was encouraging to see many unfamiliar faces as a new generation of educators step into the scene with enthusiasm. I met several impressive young faculty members who show signs of becoming real leaders. While talking with them was great, it was just a bit disappointing that so few "senior" faculty attended. I remember the awe I had as a new teacher when given an opportunity to meet professors and authors I'd read about. Those meetings were inspiring. They helped shape my path and I would like to see that kind of relationship continue among design educators. When so many programs have only one or two design faculty, the chances to share, mentor and inspire often must come from outside one's home institution. Senior faculty take note: your attendance is important. You have information to share and there is always a fresh perspective to be gained.

Finally, closing remarks brought the main speakers together as a series of questions from the audience flitted through a wide range of topics. Issues ranged from looking critically at design, to the importance of ambiguity as a method of engaging the audience. There were thoughtful suggestions for activating students involvement in research, and heightening their awareness of the needs of varying audiences. Questions about how to deepen the level of discourse on pedagogy and curricular design were teamed with a desire to somehow celebrate and honor the best teachers. The eternal struggle of relations between the diverse range of schools and sorts of programs was of course an issue as well, with a declaration from the table that we must be careful not to make promises to our students that are beyond our ability to fulfill.

The whole event passed much too quickly. Much more could be written about enrichment and enjoyment in various activities and informal gatherings. But perhaps a proper ending note to these comments is a thank you to the Master of Ceremonies. Philip Burton, professor at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, served this role with grace and sincerity. His final statement was an eloquent summation of why we do what we do. In noting the list of conference attendees, Burton had forty five present and former students at the conference. Think of the impact he has made upon design education! Through years of dedication in teaching every one of us makes an impact, sometimes beyond what we ever believed possible. Make it your goal that your impact upon education is positive. Aim for excellence. And finally, thank those who have supported you along the way. My thanks and congratulations to the conference organizers.

See you at the next education conference.

Jan Conradi, Associate Professor of Graphic Design State University of New York at Fredonia


©2012 American Institute of Graphic Arts