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Graphic Design Education
at State Universities

 


I have taught at independent schools of art, public and private universities. My experience also includes being a program consultant and serving on evaluation teams at a number of different educational institutions throughout the country. My view is that each type of institution has particular weaknesses and strengths in terms of educational organization, practices and goals. However, the focus here is on Graphic Design education at state universities .

Graphic Design Programs
There are significant operational variances between schools with corresponding differences in resources, personnel, and educational requirements. It is doubtful that there can ever be common standards for all Graphic Design programs. But at the least, there are minimal conditions, requirements and resources for professional education in graphic design.
There are four categories of institution offering educational programs in Graphic Design: independent, single purpose art schools; public or private universities and proprietary art schools. Art schools and universities are accredited institutions and award degrees; proprietary schools give certificates or limited accreditation. The largest enrollment in Graphic Design programs is at public universities, and mostly because of convenience, lower tuition rates and less demanding admission requirements.

Programs for each type of institution substantially differ. Art schools are prone to shape design education according to the marketplace. This is reflected by areas of study applicants request when they come to an art school and also how the design profession is defined. Rather than having a single program, art schools tend to divide design into several specializations. Design education is frequently splintered into Graphic Design, Advertising, Illustration, Computer Graphics, Photography and Video, and in some instances, it is aligned with Industrial Design. I believe art schools would do much better to concentrate their resources into a single broad program of design. By dividing the design program into specializations, more faculty are required, additional space is needed, and budgets are so apportioned that seldom are all programs adequately funded. My experience with a single program in design is that it can prepare students to go into a variety of jobs graphic design, advertising, illustration, type design, multimedia, computer graphics or other specialized fields.

With accreditation came academic requirements, and since the 1960's, art schools teach Art History and other academics in conjunction with studio courses. Design students are directed toward professional practice following graduation. Small liberal arts colleges make no attempt at professional education but keep programs general and open to all students who apply. A liberal arts emphasis also is characteristic of most state university programs. In addition to the design major, there are requirements for academic courses and humanities, a substantial involvement in Art History, and a variety of Fine Art studio courses. A major exception within university design programs are those institutions that were once trade oriented, or which absorbed an independent school of art. These university programs tend to be less liberal arts oriented and operate more like art schools, but they have a broader academic base.

Proprietary schools emphasize training and building a portfolio over education, and the period of time to complete the program is usually two years. Admittance is often governed more by an ability to pay tuition than by talent. The program of study is based on current professional practices with emphasis on preparation for employment. The majority of instructors are working professionals who teach part-time.

Community Colleges offer Graphic Design programs which are two years. Most do not attempt to educate but rather to train students much as the preparatory schools. Community Colleges should offer two types of program. One in training students for professional practice as they do now, and one that is preparatory to a university or art school education. This would entail a program stressing design history, theory and craft including hand and eye skills. The program could include technical courses on the computer, business writing classes and speech.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these institutional approaches to Graphic Design education. My contention is with institutions that mislead students. Most state universities create an impression that Graphic Design within the liberal arts context is sufficient for a professional career when often it is not. The justification for Graphic Design being taught within the liberal arts curriculum is expressed as being educationally more sound as opposed to professional education which is viewed as narrow and inappropriate for a university. There is no logical rationale for this opinion when Graphic Design as a professional program is compared to educational requirements for other professional programs such as Architecture, Engineering, Law or Medicine.

In 1969, McNeil Lowry, then Director of Humanities and Arts programs at the Ford Foundation, addressed the Graduate Deans of Art in New Orleans. To quote one of his most telling comments, he said, "I think to put it bluntly, the university has been having it both ways. It says on the one hand that its function is the liberal education of the individual, and exposure to the creative arts is merely one avenue to that end. It acts on the other hand as if it were training young people for vocations, and not merely the vocations of scholar or teacher of the arts but the vocation of artist (designer) per se." During the ensuing twenty-five years since McNeil Lowry made his insightful remarks, there has been little change in administrative attitudes toward the arts at most universities.

Students too often are victims of false impressions purported by state universities regarding the type of Graphic Design program being offered as well as the potential job opportunities for its graduates. Following graduation, students seek employment. Only then, when it is too late for most, do they discover what an inadequate preparation the institution provided. My experience has been that students enrolling in Graphic Design are seeking preparation for a career in design, and not as a liberal arts experience. It is not so much that graduates from liberal arts programs fail to find jobs as it is that they are seldom qualified for higher paying jobs with opportunities to advance their professional careers.

A high percentage of state university graduates work at the lower echelons of the profession which are seldom commensurate with a university degree. Because of low standards associated with most university liberal arts programs, weak students are frequently passed through the system and graduated. They might never find employment in Graphic Design which leads to anger and frustration. After all, they have a university degree with a major in Graphic Design. In the end, these students have been cheated by the university.

Because of difficulty finding acceptable and remunerative employment in professional practice, many graduates turn to teaching as an alternative. Financially, there is more to gain from teaching than the level of jobs they can obtain. The influx of poorly educated university graduates into teaching, as the better educated students find success in the profession, compounds an already serious problem in Graphic Design education.

 

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