08 November 2006
Linda Cooper Bowen
Linda Cooper Bowen

Graphic design is not only a calling, it's a business. And as the practice becomes increasingly complex -with more designers moving online to engage in interactive design, marketing, branding and strategic planning- design educators are struggling to define what a viable design education really is. Graduates are up on the latest technical developments and stylistic trends but often lack effective marketing, business management and communication skills which are vital for success in any profession.

School administrators have often told me that there isn't enough room within the requisite curriculum for business-oriented subjects at the undergraduate level and they doubt whether seniors are even ready to think about running their own offices. I disagree. If we consider how most sequestered full-time faculty don't run their own firms, it becomes obvious that the real challenge of getting and keeping their clients falls outside of their experience. If they don't function in the business world, how can they adequately prepare students for it?

Lana Rigsby, of Rigsby Design in Houston, has no doubts about her position on this issue. "I think working designers definitely should be teaching. Our business and the economy are changing so fast that any teacher who has not been practicing within the past five years is irrelevant. I also find that people getting a design education in 2000 do not necessarily want to work for someone else, but have a real entrepreneurial bent. Inspired by the e-commerce revolution, they are looking forward to inventing a product or launching a web idea, and for this you need to have business knowledge."

In 1999, in a conscientious series of briefing papers, the American Institute of Graphic Arts and National Association of Schools of Arts attempted to establish guidelines and standards for a fully qualified graphic design program. However well-intended their suggestions may be, implementing them has proven to be quite unrealistic. For instance, they voice strong objections to art schools staffed by working designers who teach part time. The truth is that with the exception of large state universities and a few well-endowed private colleges, art schools offer salaries that are pitifully inadequate. No qualified designer can be expected to pass up a better job for substandard wages.

Graduate design programs are now being offered which provide students with the option of an additional two years of study to focus on a range of highly specialized theses projects. This is a fairly new development and the curricula varies widely. Some, like Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design, are focused on corporate design management. The Yale School of Architecture and Design graduate program is highly intellectual and theoretical while the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan stresses the concerns of the marketplace.

There is a distinct ivory tower atmosphere at Yale, which is not unexpected considering its history and reputation. When I brought up the subject of professional practices, especially marketing, Sheila DeBretville, Professor and Director of the program told me that she doesn't believe students should be focused on the business of design. "When people are in school they don't think about making money," she says. "This is an investigative, reflective time -a period of formal, conceptual training- but students may take classes at the School of Management or anywhere else within the university." Richer and broader than most art programs with limited academic offerings, the highly selective Yale program no doubt produces graduates with valuable analytical and intellectual abilities, but an expensive Ivy League education is for an elite few and is not a realistic paradigm for design education in general. This kind of place is not appropriate for everyone and more instinctive, less intellectual individuals would probably be more comfortable in a less formal environment.

At the other end of the spectrum, the School of Visual Arts, located in the heart of New York City, offers a real world, market-driven education. Steve Heller, Director of "The Designer As Author" program, describes this as "an entrepreneurial course where students learn how to turn their ideas into viable products. As maker/manufacturer of a product, students must determine what and where the market is, create both marketing and financial plans as well as learn how to legally protect the intellectual product in the business world." SVA is about creation and taking ideas into the marketplace. "Our department simulates a design firm, not a lab or a school," says Heller. Only two years old, the program's approach is an exciting experiment that takes advantage of a big city with vast commercial, manufacturing and marketing resources.

Ideally, the best graduate or undergraduate design programs are a combination of both "town" and "gown" philosophies. In San Francisco, the Academy of Art College Graphic Design program, directed by Mary Scott, offers an inspiring model. Scott, who moved here from Los Angeles one year ago after a successful career as a partner of Maddocks & Company, believes AAC has the right balance. This is an intelligent, practical program designed to prepare students for a career in today's broader, multidimensional profession.

"Graphic design students need some sense of business practices. Computers have now made it possible for an individual designer to produce the entire project from start to finish; there is no separation between the thinking and the making. Designers should not limit themselves to one area of work. Tibor Kalman's M and Company served as an excellent example by stepping out of two-dimensional restrictions to create a series of marketable products. Design is a continuum. It is at the core of everything that makes human beings respond to ideas, images and objects."

Regardless of the level of education a design school graduate has, he or she, has to find work in this business. Talented, disciplined designers with technical skills plus the ability to create concepts, interact successfully with clients and manage team projects will be valued members of established offices, and for people with drive and an appetite for the market, times have never been better to set up shop.

Schools need good instructors and mentors with up-to-date experience in the realities of the design business, and working designers should teach rather than continue to carp about the shortcomings of job applicants. The education of young designers should no longer be entirely controlled by isolated "administrators" and "educators".

If the design profession is to mature beyond a medieval guild, professionals will have to be willing to share their knowledge and participate in the future.

About this article

The above article is reprinted from Graphis magazine 328, with permission.

About Graphis
For over fifty years GRAPHIS Magazine has been the authority on design and visual communication. A lavish showcase of excellent work from the world's foremost creative professionals, it is revered for its artistic presentation, exemplary production qualities, and insightful editorial content. Graphis magazine features an international collection of brilliant examples of graphic design, photography, advertising, architecture, product design, and related areas of creative endeavor.

About Linda Cooper Bowen
Linda Cooper Bowen worked for more than 15 years with a number of prominent graphic design firms in New York and Los Angeles before becoming a marketing consultant and writer. She is the author of The Graphic Designer's Guide to Creative Marketing: Finding and Keeping Your Best Clients (John Wiley & Sons). Bowen lectures and teaches a graduate course at Pratt Institute/Manhattan. She frequently writes about designers and professional practice issues and, in collaboration with her husband, photographer Sava Mitrovich, is currently working on The Wall Dog s Mark, a book about early outdoor wall advertising signs.