John Caserta
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Philosophy of Teaching Design

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Design evolves at the speed of technological invention. With each twist and turn in how design is made, we get to make new types of work. This is a boon for the design professor. Institutes of higher learning are rare forums in which to try what is new to gain insight on what we already know. We do not need to choose between experimenting with new inventions and honoring tradition. As a teacher, I teach history and tradition through engaging with the design problems of the present.

The tools we use have always shaped the work. One could argue our disciplines formed around a certain expertise and commitment to certain tools. The communities and forms that developed from those tools become distinct and worth educating others in. Graphic Design is concerned with messaging, and its core tools for centuries have been typography and printing. The designer is there in the middle to form the message. I have been working with the Web (embedded in this is the computer and the network and the browser) with the belief that it changes greatly how we make design, but not why we make design.

When I was hired, then Graphic Design Department Head Nancy Skolos asked me to teach students how to program websites. In thinking of an approach, I looked to the printing experiments of Dieter Roth, Paul Elliman and Karel Martens. What I valued in those artists was the presence of a loose more playful way of making systematic form. Their content derived from observation and collection, creating plates based on their found environment. A desire to bring their process forward led to a series of browser-based drawing assignments that reinforced traditions in impression-based printing. The humanist values of close looking and play (and all that it leads to) can be taught in many ways; so why not teach it using the tools of today.

I graduated college in 1995, having witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web. Every five years the web (and the Internet more generally) evolves at Moore’s Law. The only way to learn a medium that changes at this rate is to tinker with it. Former Xerox Parc Chief Scientist John Seely Brown has written quite a bit on learning in a world of constant change. He writes, “you are constantly constructing new information on the fly by experimenting with things.” This approach is not so different than the cross-disciplinary pedagogy of the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College.

“Our central consistent effort is to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, to invite the student to the realization that the way of handling facts and himself amid the facts is more important than the facts themselves. For facts change…” —Black Mountain College Prospectus

I have used the classroom to teach what I want to learn, not just what I already know. In 2014, I taught a course called HTML Output, where the students and I explored the Web browser as a general purpose design tool. Learning alongside of students is exhilarating, if not humbling. By teaching what I do not know, I am able to model the process in which I teach myself.

This fall, I have given sophomores and first-year graduate students an assignment to design flags to be flown on the Providence River, sited on public property outside the Design Center. I plan to make a website of the results and share them with the city (and the public). The city is open to flying the flags as an act of civic pride. The assignment is an opportunity to pursue some of my own ideas on public space and symbolism alongside the students. The students also need to design and write with an external audience in mind — one that speaks to the public audience.

Designers must learn to become comfortable with the anxiety of the unknown. Rather than circumvent this anxiety by overprescribing a strict process, a good course of study should help to break down assignments into an essential question with a set of constraints held together by learning objectives. When questions are well formed and given proper context, students will develop meaningful responses. Students should form their own pathways, design processes, and end works alongside each other. Their solutions should vary from each other. This difference should be celebrated and discussed by the class.

I am accustomed to five hour studio courses that run once-a-week. Over ten years, I’ve settled upon the following ways to make use of each class:

Discussion: Talk about the work made for class. This can happen in writing (simultaneously in a Google Doc or Skype or as a solo act), in small groups, individually with instructor or TA, or with the whole class. I try to avoid group critiques as they keep most students idle. Students should be a part of the discussion; the teacher need not comment on everyone’s work, but it’s best if everyone has an opportunity to give and receive feedback.

Show and Tell: Show off new influences. Bring in something that expands the student’s understanding. Inspire them. Ideally the material relates to the course or the unit, but maybe it’s a new book or project that just came out. I make ample use of guests and resources from the College and city.

Activity: Students should do something in every class. They should be active by playing with a new tool, using a resource on or off campus, getting the homework started, etc. Anything that gets the class making work is a good thing.

Amidst a society seemingly moving and innovating at light speed, what interests me are the elements of the human condition that somehow remain the same. While it is necessary to embrace new technologies in order to continue evolving — as a society and within our field — I see these constant shifts as opportunities to reframe longstanding universal lessons of effective pedagogy and art making: the value of careful observation, iteration, and critique; the need for human contact; and dialog between both peers and generations. The forms that result from these principles are what keep me engaged as a maker and a teacher.


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About

John Caserta is a designer and educator based in Providence, R.I. He is an Associate Professor in the Graphic Design Department at Rhode Island School of Design. He is founder and co-director of The Design Office, a workspace for designers. This site is updated regularly and outputs to a book with Bindery. Get in touch via email.