Creating a better educated student

October 24, 2009
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In the past, graphic design students focused mostly on how their projects looked, which was also the element a potential employer assessed.

“It used to be that (employers) were really looking for your level of artistic-ness and craft, that graphic design seemed to be a lot more about how something looked and was laid out,” said Angie Dow, program chair and assistant professor of graphic design at Kendall College of Art & Design.

But now, employers are looking for something more than good looks.

“Your message and meaning has really become more prevalent than just making something look really nice. It used to be called ‘graphic arts’ and now it’s really more about design. ‘Design’ is the key word because design is a user-centered practice,” she said.

“I think that (employers) are really looking for people who understand the user, understand people. It’s become really user-centered in all forms of design.”

As a natural progression, the change in what employers are looking for has caused a change in what design students are being taught.

“I think that changes education, because the general education classes they take become so much more important in understanding people. If they take psychology classes and anthropology classes … they start to understand how to talk to people better — who they are, what they want and what they think,” said Dow.

“We’re being a lot more thoughtful about the kinds of classes we want our students to take while they’re here.”

AIGA, the professional association for design, has found that employers are looking for a new kind of designer, and has been working with Adobe to define what that designer looks like. The results of the research have been compacted into a pamphlet titled, “Defining the Designers of 2015.”

During AIGA Executive Director Ric Grefé’s recent visit to West Michigan, he spoke about the skill sets a designer should have. While design schools are generally good at teaching students how to solve problems and use the creative process on a physical level, he said students also need to think in terms of business strategies and systems.

Alison Larabel, education chair for the West Michigan chapter of AIGA, said that the ideas presented in AIGA’s Designer 2015 model are good, but it would be difficult to teach them all in a four-year degree.

“The reality is that the scope of what’s in there, of the competencies of the 2015 initiative that AIGA and Adobe developed as far as what the future of design holds … that’s a lot,” she said. “We can introduce our students to a touch of it, but a lot of those competencies that are spelled out in that brochure are skills that they will acquire over several years of their professional life.”

Still, Larabel, who is also an assistant professor at Ferris State University, said that despite the breadth of knowledge AIGA suggests for design students, area programs are finding ways to enhance the learning experience.

“There are some aspects that we are all looking at developing into our programs, developing the scale and complexity of the design problems — particularly in the junior and senior year — that we introduce the students to, to get them thinking on a systems level,” Larabel said.

“We have a long history of an established way of creating design students, and I think that we’re all looking at how we can adjust our programs to incorporate this broader design thinking philosophy.”

Dow said she thinks the concepts of Designer 2015 will bring changes in how schools educate design students.

“We need to think about how our classrooms work, and how our faculty works together and how different majors work together,” said Dow.

“Academia is just as guilty as any other business about not being innovative, and always doing the same thing the same way.”

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