Teaching Graphic Design History

In October 2018, I chaired a SECAC session on teaching graphic design history. As a professor in both the graphic design studio and the design history classroom, I have a longstanding interest in developing design history coursework that actively engages studio students. When teaching survey courses, I seek learner-oriented assignments that offer opportunities for critical synthesis and facilitate connections between history and design practice. In my own teaching praxis, this has meant a move away from survey texts, lectures, term papers, and image-identification exams. Instead, my students engage with more frequent, lower-stakes writing activities; open-source reading, listening, and viewing assignments; project-based learning activities, including the creation of visual/designed outcomes; and sustained discussions within assigned learning communities. Rather than organizing my institution’s required survey course around a chronological narrative of graphic design, I now structure the course around a series of formal and conceptual topics (e.g. typography, information design, appropriation, stereotypes, universal design, design for good) and students blog about each of these topics through a semester-long critical lens selected from a list I provide (e.g. race, class, gender, dis/ability, sustainability). My students and I enjoy this approach, finding it both more stimulating and more effective for knowledge retention than a traditional lecture. But the approach has required a significant investment of time and intellectual energy on my part.

Throughout the process of redesigning my own graphic design history survey course, I’ve been inspired by the efforts of my peers within the design studio, design history, and art history communities. Pedagogy sessions at conferences are an exciting way to gather new ideas that will enrich my own teaching practice. I seek them out – as chair, participant, or session attendee – whenever possible. Thus, the SECAC session I chaired focused on individual case studies that described and contextualized active learning within the graphic design history classroom. The session’s four papers explored a range of learning activities and delivery modes. It offered attendees a wealth of practical information and frankly assessed the successes and failures of the presenters’ experimental assignments and evolving course designs. Here, I have edited (for unity and cohesion) the summative accounts provided by the session’s individual presenters. These accounts focus on descriptions of the presenters’ pedagogical strategies and the student outcomes that resulted.

Caroline Staples, who teaches at the University of Tennessee, presented a learning game she designed for her first-year course “The Idea of Design.” Open to any student and required for studio graphic design students prior to entering their sophomore year, the course introduces design thinking, professional resources and vocabulary, and artifacts from the history of design. The game format encourages students to have fun, to seek multiple perspectives instead of one right answer, and to explore through play the three main content areas of the course – concept generation and ideation; materials experimentation and manifestation; and composition or visualization. Caroline provides students with a set of questions, which they use to design and make Q-cards; questions include “What design example best combines visual styles from two different decades?” and “Which designer has been most influential?” Each student also develops a deck of answer cards, choosing examples from sources including ARTStor, Graphic Imperative, the AIGA Archives, and back-issues of Printmagazine.To develop their cards, students follow very simple instructions, which they find comforting. To play, a Q-card is turned up and two students present an “answer card” from their deck,  as well as a justification for their choice. A third student acts as judge to choose the best answer. During each “battle,” students in each group of three take turns in the role of judge. Once students play the game, the light bulb goes off, and they take ownership of their own exploration. As Cary explains, the game itself is not enough; the documentation of the reflection is an important piece. When students play, either in class or online, they track the game using a “battle mat” that records each player’s answer to the question on the Q-card and the judge’s decision regarding the most effective answer.

Caroline shared her students’ reflections on their experience of the game. These reveal that the assignment meets its goal of developing an understanding of the relationship between research and problem-solving. One student commented: “The game has trained me to think through my problems more like a designer. This isn’t homework, it’s training and molding, shaping really.”  Another said, “This game helped all of us to be able to discuss designs formally, which is important for all future art classes.” Finally, one student commented that “the designer research has exposed me to so many new designers and projects that I wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. The game has also taught me to really critically examine every design that I encounter. I ask a lot more questions now about concept, layout, and form that I did not ask before.” By letting go of the idea that students had to produce a specific answer, Caroline was able to focus on creating an interesting environment in which students could connect course material to their current frame of reference. Through their game play, students now make connections between the history of design and their other classes. Their process of exploration is not ending at the end of the class.

Richard Doubleday, who teaches at Louisiana State University, presented a co-authored paper describing his collaboration with Teresa Trevino, who teaches at University of the Incarnate Word. Their paper provided examples of course content and delivery methods intended to engage students as active learners in relationship to the history of graphic design. Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of material to be covered in a graphic design history survey course, Richard and Teresa decided to partially abandon the traditional lecture format and collaborate as teaching colleagues to reshape the course curriculum. They wanted to take a different approach to content delivery, and their desired result was a set of class activities that would provide a richer, more engaging experience for studio students.

Richard and Teresa started by placing less grading weight on exams and more on class activities. They assigned students to design teams as a forum for art direction, peer review on writing assignments, and discussion. The course structure sought to balance the traditional pattern of readings, lectures, written essays, and exams with active learning through visual presentations and design assignments. Writing projects included a summative analysis of material covered in the early portion of the semester; a 1,000 word essay on the dematerialization and cultural impact of design; and an essay comparing and connecting two designers or movements. Visual projects included a timeline of graphic design history, a collage informed by the design movements of Futurism and Dada, a 10-15 slide audio-visual presentation about a designer, and a visual essay (including three pages of student-authored text) about a “type genius.” These design activities cultivated design thinking, enabling students to synthesize their research, document and diagram a historical timeline, and develop their own content and communication methods. I particularly appreciated the examples of student work that Richard presented, as these transformed the assignments from the abstract into the concrete. His honest analysis of the difficulty of balancing the development of a cohesive historical overview (the traditional outcome of a survey course) with specific, project-based design activities was likewise very useful. In their own classrooms, Richard and Teresa continue to experiment with finding the ideal balance between readings/discussions/lectures and project-based learning activities.

Amanda Horton, who teaches graphic design history at University of Central Oklahoma, presented a critical analysis of why her “flipped” classroom flopped. Three weeks into a newly-flipped graphic design history course, the persistent problem of unprepared students and unread readings led her to revert to traditional lectures for the remainder of the semester. In a holistic analysis of why the approach failed, she determined that the tightly-tracked, rigorous studio program in which she teaches left little room to maneuver. With her students already stretched to their limits by a demanding (and successful) studio curriculum, her request for what they perceived as “more” was a difficult one. In her first attempt, it was ultimately unsuccessful. As Amanda pointed out in her presentation, a flipped model asks not necessarily for more work, but for doing things in a radically different order. Perception is important to students, though, and in the end moving content delivery entirely outside the allotted classroom time was an unsustainable goal for the course.

In response to both student perception and curricular changes, the following year Amanda implemented a revised plan. This included both a new course structure and new learning goals. Design projects, which were an integral part of the initial flipped model, were eliminated. In part, this was due to a roughly 50% increase in course enrollment, and in part it responded to the addition of non-studio majors to the classroom population. The classroom orientation shifted instead toward research and writing. Now the course takes a partially flipped approach. Students are assigned readings outside of class, but these are supplemented by a short lecture in class. Remaining class time is spent on discussion of the lecture and reading, as well as work sessions focusing on students’ research projects. During these work sessions, students practice research skills and methods that Amanda has introduced, and they peer-review the progress they have made on their scaffolded, semester-long research assignment. With the new emphasis on research and writing, students are encouraged to submit their projects for consideration to the National Council for Undergraduate Research (NCUR) conference. 60% of the students who submitted their work to NCUR in the first year of the new course approach were accepted, demonstrating the success of the revised approach. There is much to be learned from Amanda’s frank analysis of her initial, unsuccessful attempt to flip the design history classroom. I particularly appreciated her careful consideration of how and why students perceived the flipped classroom as one that asked “more” of them. Within her own praxis, Amanda continues exploring a hybrid, partially-flipped model – one that conveys to students their responsibility in completing readings and reviewing lectures outside of the classroom and coming to the physical classroom ready to work on research and writing projects.

Corey Dzenko, an art historian who teaches graphic design history in Monmouth University’s Department of Art and Design, presented the results of a quantitative and qualitative research study she conducted in her graphic design history course. MU requires BFA students in Graphic and Interactive Design to study their field’s history. As the campus’ sole full-time art historian, Corey teaches graphic design history every spring semester. This course carries a Writing Intensive (WT) designation, and MU students must take two WT classes within their department. Thus, studio art, photography, and animation students also complete graphic design history. Since joining MU in 2014, Corey has revised the art history curriculum, which includes changing graphic design history from a lower (200-level) to upper (300-level) course, setting it apart from foundational, required surveys. Pedagogically, she has sought to draw more explicit discursive connections between graphic design and interdisciplinary fields by incorporating additional readings and seminar-style discussions. She came to this practice in order to counter students’ prevalent, uncritical connection of graphic design with branding and ahistorical descriptions of graphic design projects found in canonical textbooks. With IRB approval, she conducted a three-year research project (2016-2018) to gauge the impact of these curricular changes on students’ understandings of graphic design, surveying students at the end of each spring term.

At the end of the data collection period, Corey found that the qualitative observations and comments she gathered were more significant for her as a professor than the minor changes noted in the quantitative data. The quantitative data was limited by class enrollment, the inability to edit survey language (which was imprecisely understood by students) after IRB approval, and other concerns. For instance, on a scale of 0-10, students ranked the interdisciplinarity of graphic design history as: 6.9 during Year 1, 6.2 during Year 2, and 7.125 during Year 3. This data shows minimal change and numbers that skewed lower during Year 2 because one student answered with a 0 (Figure 1).

In the survey, students were also asked to list the disciplines they associated with graphic design history. When replying to this open-ended question, they provided a more nuanced listing by Year 3, suggesting connections to social sciences rather than just to the visual and historical fields they listed in Year 1 (Figure 2).

While the slight changes in the collected data may not be statistically significant patterns, Corey described significant growth in her students. This was demonstrated in the length of their survey responses, which became longer and more detailed over time; in the nuance of fields they said contributed to the History of Graphic Design, which expanded and became more interdisciplinary over time; and in the overall classroom experience, which Corey observed as becoming more critically grounded and richer over time. I particularly appreciated Corey’s thick description of the qualitative results she observed within her quantitative research project. She offered a keen and encouraging analysis of how the shift toward a critical, discursive approach to graphic design history might not be reflected immediately or fully in quantitative data.

The session’s four presenters represented a range of course structures and student populations, ranging from first-year to upper-division students, graphic design studio BFAs to non-studio majors. What they held in common, though, was their commitment to engaging students deeply with the history of graphic design. Their experiments offered me – and other session attendees – specific tools and formats for facilitating interdisciplinarity, contextualization, critical discussion, and practical application to contemporary visual communication. I appreciate the presenters’ generosity not only in sharing their classroom assignments, but also in offering their honest evaluation of how these assignments both succeeded and failed.

[Editor’s note: The featured image is of Carolina de Bartolo’s Explorations in Typography.]

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