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The Process of Teaching Process: Part 2 of 2

The Process of Teaching Process: Part 2 of 2

Christopher Simmons

In my last post I wrote about the importance of teaching design as a process, rather than an outcome. I touched on some of the core principles and considerations of my teaching process, including workload, assignment structure, and the importance of exploring new (i.e. unfamiliar) media.

4. First There Was the Word

Each of my assignments begins with writing. Designers are often criticized for being disinclined to write, both critically and creatively. I’ve never understood that aversion. As visual communicators it is critical that we be just as facile with verbal communication. I find that writing also helps establish a thoughtful thesis for a project which we can continue to refer to throughout the process. Writing is also a good way to encourage free thinking. When students go straight to their sketchbooks, they’re likely to draw things that they already know or think they can make, and they’ll usually draw them in a familiar way. There is some value in this (we call it style), but it shouldn’t be the first thing a person does to understand a problem. I have my students write to interpret a problem, then draw to interpret their writing. Tip: encourage different kinds of writing. For one assignment I give students a single word then ask them to write an essay, a poem and one additional piece exploring their relationship to that concept. We then pick just one of those written pieces to base their design on.


Interpretation of a quote “Man’s biological weakness is the condition of human culture” (Erich Fromm). Student: Ofri Afek

5. Encourage Randomness

I had a drawing instructor once who would peer over my shoulder while I worked. One day I was working on a still life, trying to refine the shadowing in the eye socket of a cow skull. My instructor studied my drawing, the way I was holding my charcoal, the movement on my hand. Then he went over to the still life, kicked it over and told me to keep drawing. Sometimes we get so hung up on perfecting the details that we forget the big picture. Sometimes we need to deal with variables we cannot control. Knocking over the still life prevented me from creating an exacting rendition of the object I was studying, but it kept me focused on my technique and materials. It also helped me become more spontaneous and adaptable. Tip: Find ways to encourage randomness in your assignments. Consider starting an assignment by picking topics from a hat. Have students swap essays so that they are designing for each other’s content. In a crit, ask them to identify the four most successful aspects of their work, then require them to change them. They’ll hate you now, but love you later.

6. Expose Them to Everything

I keep a resource website for my students. It has links to useful resources and blogs, assignment-specific information, a reading list, etc. On the front page I post a different link every day. It could be a New York Times (or Art Bistro) article, a Found image, a YouTube video, or a scholarship opportunity. I never ask them about any of the posts. There is no test. Sometimes students will bring up one of the references in class. Sometimes you’ll see its influence in their work. As creative people our inspiration and perspective comes from the sum of all experiences. I encourage students to bring in and discuss things they’ve read, seen or purchased, and I try to return the favor. You never know where the next great idea may come from. Tip: Show and Tell isn’t just for 3rd graders; set aside time for students to bring in and talk about the things that influence them, then help them translate and integrate those influences into their work.

Student work and teaching highlights from my Spring 2007 GD2 class at the California College of the Arts (CCA).

7. Make It Fun

It’s all well and good to teach subjects with reverence and seriousness, but learning is always more effective when it’s fun. If you enjoy working and learning, you’re more likely to produce good work. Some of the ways I try to keep things light and engaging include holding class outdoors, taking field trips, bringing in guest speakers, and creating games to kick off an assignment. For a recent project I held an auction where students could bid for the project topic they wanted. Rather than pick topics from a hat, sometimes I’ll wrap up each subject as a gift and then stage a white elephant style gift exchange. For a recent film project, we held a school-wide film festival, complete with an awards ceremony and statuettes. Tip: Don’t take things too seriously. Lighten up and have some fun. :)

The Process of Teaching Process: Part I

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