13 November 2006
Russell Bevers
Russell Bevers

Being a graphic designer today means that for most of us the design process itself is only part of what we do. Issues around computer technology, increasing demands for service from clients, local and global competition, integration of design practice, and business management all take up much of our time.

After several years of working in this commercially driven environment, some designers feel the need to improve their skills to meet all these challenges. This is because in many cases their initial design education never equipped them with the skills or knowledge to cope with issues outside the creative design process.

Other designers feel the need to improve their understanding of the nature of design...issues around design theory, the creative process works for the individual, topics on ethics and understanding communication design in other cultures... a range of knowledge that may not have been part of their design training or part of their gathered experience to date.

How do we meet the desire to expand horizons or increase skills?

Giving up work and going back to university is not an option for most. However, online learning or distance learning is.

If we look at 'e-learning' or 'online learning' in the broader context for a moment, we have to acknowledge that within the education context this form of teaching has had mixed results. This is generally due to a lack of understanding on the part of some educators as to how to deliver and engage students in a satisfying learning experience with predetermined outcomes. It's not good enough to put up lectures to be read and then ask students to respond to a few questions or write an essay.

The California Distance Learning Project 1997 study found that the type of people who were attracted to this style of study were...
- voluntarily seeking further education
- motivated, have higher expectations and are more self disciplined
- tend to be older that the average student
- tend to possess a more serious attitude toward their courses.

Many professional designers who have been working for several years fit this profile.

Many large companies and organisations now use online training as a replacement for the traditional forms of professional development. In fact, this form of training is now big business. This way of learning is driven by 'professional standard' requirements or skills that are mandatory within a certain profession.

Online study for professional designers fits into the post graduate area in universities and this is where online learning has been most effective. Why?

First of all, convenience. With most online courses students can study whenever they like, most courses seem to favour the use of the 'threaded discussion' format rather than the chat room. With students geographically spread out - logging on to a chat room at specific times is problematic. Working on set written individual or group projects also allows students to work at their own pace as long as they adhere to deadlines.

Secondly, the most successful online study emphasises 'student centred learning'. What this means is engaging the students in an interactive process with other students and the lecturer. The Master of Design at RMIT University Melbourne follows this precept in its online program.

This is an ideal way for professional designers to work at acquiring knowledge. A major part of the program can be given over to discussion groups on a range of topics within the scope of the subject. The lecturer acts as a facilitator and an equal member of the group. Discussions can be scheduled over a number of days to allow all participants to make contributions. Everyone can read everyone else's comments and respond, thus creating a 'conversation' or even a debate.

Another attribute is the ability to bring in experts or noteworthy designers who may have experience in a specific topic under discussion. They can give of their time very easily as they can be anywhere and join in from their own computer at any time over a preset period.

The lecturer generally builds subjects around lecture notes provided online. These notes can be arranged into discussion topics. Students then make contributions to that discussion on a special interactive space within the web site. Subjects can run for ten to twelve weeks.

Like any learning process, students need to be assessed. This is generally done by evaluating a student's contributions to the discussion. Another way is to evaluate written research studies or projects where groups of three or four respond to specific questions posed by the lecturer on a given topic.

For designers, thinking visually is central to their professional activities. Many projects can be designed to rely mainly on visual material. For example, projects can involve writing commentaries on visual material provided as part of the lecture notes, or uploading graphics to support written responses.

For online learning to be attractive to designers who lead busy professional lives, the process has to be simple and flexible. Above all, it has to provide enhanced knowledge and skills in an environment that is built on discussion and the stimulation of ideas. It must also encourage reflection and personal inquiry into areas of design not found in every day practice. This approach can help designers to expand their knowledge, communicate their ideas with more certainty and learn to think with more clarity.

For more information, contact:

Russell Bevers

About Russell Bevers
Russell began his own design practice in 1982, Russell Bevers Design, in Melbourne Australia, specialising in the fields of corporate design, entertainment and design education. In 1999, Russell assumed the role of Graphic Design Director for The Swish Croup. Russell joined RMIT University, Melbourne, in 2001 as Programme Co-ordinator of the Master of Design Programme 'on-line', School of Applied Communication. Russell Bevers is a Lifetime Friend of Icograda and was an Icograda Board Member from 1999 to 2001.