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The Process of Teaching Process: Part 1 of 2

The Process of Teaching Process: Part 1 of 2

Assignment: create an “optimistic shirt” Solution: A shirt with a silver lining and the Monty Python lyrics to “Always look on the bright side of life.” Project Duration: 24 hrs. Designer: Oona Lyons

Christopher Simmons

Every year, as August rolls around, I start to turn my attention to the coming school year. I teach sophomore-level graphic design. Having successfully navigated the first semester of their design education — focusing on fundamentals and craft — in level two we focus on process. The course is designed to help students understand design as a method of action rather than a produced object (a logo is not a design, it is the result of design). Because we focus on the process of creation, students are encouraged to experiment with various methods for participating in that process. In so doing they learn to apply, with ever greater efficiency and effectiveness, their abilities as a designer. Research, writing, original conceptualization and experimentation are integral components of each assignment.

I try to design my syllabus and my assignments to place the emphasis on how we create rather than what we create (acknowledging that as an applied art, design must also produce). Over the years I’ve experimented with several methods for encouraging this, and I’ve never taught the exact same syllabus twice. As I prepare the assignments for the coming semester, I thought I’d share with you some of the things I am considering.


Assignment: create an “optimistic shirt” Solution: A shirt with a silver lining and the Monty Python lyrics to “Always look on the bright side of life.” Project Duration: 24 hrs. Designer: Oona Lyons

1. There is no such thing as too much work.

I’m not one of these sadistic teachers who piles on work just to intimidate and demoralize students. There is no point in that. What I have learned, though, is that students have a greater capacity for work than they realize. Three semesters ago I gave seven assignments. None of the students complained, but my department chair suggested that perhaps that was one too many. The following semester I cut the assignments back to five. Several students mentioned in their evaluations that they wish they had more time on their assignments. Last semester I assigned just three projects. A comparable number of students were dissatisfied with the “heavy” workload. Looking back, the semesters when the workload was heaviest produced the most successful results. Tip: consider doubling, not halving, the number of assignments you give. Some assignments might last three weeks, others can span just one day. You might be surprised at the results.

2. Keep them in the dark

One of the reasons I change my syllabus every semester is that I don’t want my students to know what’s coming. Different students excel and struggle with different types of assignments. Some deftly handle abstraction and can create amazing and meaningful logos. Others intuitively understand scale or pacing and have no struggle with poster or book assignments. Most students know their strengths and play to them. To help ensure they fully engage in all stages of the design process I begin most assignments with a research question. Then we explore the implications of their research, and distill it into a meaningful story. All this before they know if it will be used to create a zine, or poster or film. Keeping the assignment medium-agnostic at first helps ensure that students explore fully and freely, rather than trying to second guess how they will utilize their research. Tip: Don’t hand out assignment sheets until after the project is completed. Reveal some of the parameters, but make students ask relevant questions to fill in the gaps. I’ts good practice for the real world — no client has ever handed me a 1-page description of everything I need to do.

Assignment: create a 1-minute film about the idea of “secrets.” Solution: Speaks for itself. Project Duration: 3 weeks. Designer: Shaun Durkan

3. Work in unfamiliar media

The surest way to guarantee authentic and original results is to do something you’ve never done before. One of the ways I try to encourage this is by giving students the opportunity to explore media and disciplines that stray outside of traditional “graphic design.” A “logo” might be six by six feet and created from found objects. I might give the class 24 hours to transform a $3 object from the hardware store into an object of cultural commentary. Often I have them create a film. If you’ve never worked at scale, or with plastic, or with a camera or non-linear editing program, you have to invent your own relationship to these tools and media. Some of the most stunning, beautiful and meaningful work has come from students who had no idea what they were doing, but managed to find their own way of expressing themselves through the media. Tip: Just because you don’t know anything about a subject doesn’t mean you can’t teach it. For film projects I bring in guest instructors to help students with specific technical questions and curators from local film festivals to help critique and comment on the work.

These are a few of the issues, ideas and tactics I’m considering as I retool my syllabus for September. In part two of this feature we’ll look at some others, and share more examples of exceptional student work.

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