Making a Home For Graphic Design Education in the Liberal Arts

Published on: December 9th, 2016

Photograph by Aaris Sherin. Collage/edits by Diana Duque.

As a BFA graduate of Parsons and a practicing graphic designer, I find myself currently exploring the political, philosophical and critical thinking related to design now more than ever as I return to my alma mater for my master’s in Design Studies. Hoping to gain insight into the current realities of design educators, I decided to make the most of my renewed AIGA student membership privileges to attend the “Graphic Arts in the Liberal Arts” panel discussion on November 12, 2016. The discussion was moderated by Liz Deluna, associate professor of design at St. John’s University, and Mark Zurolo, associate professor of design at the University of Connecticut.  I was particularly intrigued to hear how far they would take their guests on the topic of teaching graphic arts in the liberal arts. The following is a condensed and edited summary of what I observed. For the full take, see AIGA’s blog post.

Formal graphic design education provides a never-ending topic of conversation. Educators find themselves adapting to serve diverse student communities whose interests reside in a growing number of design fields ranging from advertising to packaging design and animation to user experience and interface design. The challenges faced by graphic design programs residing in liberal arts schools were addressed openly by an experienced panel of educators who expressed their desire to establish a common platform of knowledge and understanding for their students by supporting the necessary skills and instilling the creative language required for students to succeed as design professionals in today’s job market.

Associate professor of graphic design at Rutgers University–Camden Allan Espiritu was the first to highlight the availability of cross-disciplinary exchanges. Rutgers art program allows students to choose Graphic Design as a focus. Within this academic structure, Espiritu pushes his students to look beyond the program’s curriculum for growth opportunities. This cross-disciplinary approach was encouraged by others like Jessica Wexler, assistant professor of graphic design at Purchase College, who added that “form making is not enough.” Laser cutting equipment and coding classes provide insights and strong foundations to further student design explorations at Boston University. In comparison, Wexler said Purchase College students are taught “craft as a means of learning how to learn—not as an end result,” whereas in the University of Connecticut, assistant professor of graphic design Kelly Walters teaches her Introduction to Web Design students to use the browser to create “form” as collage by using images, music, and text. Walter speaks from experience as a former liberal arts and art school student, which is why she perceived the liberal arts teaching model at a disadvantage because of what she says is a lack of immersion in art and creativity.

The dominating question became one asking, “How fluid should a curriculum be?”

All six of the panelists agreed that design thinking and critical thinking remain at the heart of the education conversation. Wexler left the audience with the following question: “How can graphic design provide agency for undergraduate students?” A timely question indeed, one that does not discriminate between art school and liberal arts models but gives pause to all graphic design educators alike.

—Diana Duque, MA Design Studies ’18

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