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On Enlightenment

Design has a lot of moving parts, and as such, so does design school. Tools, techniques, theories, methodologies, dialog, criticism, and a seemingly infinite amount of other elements need to be taught to students over their four years at school. These topics and methods, while complex in terms of the variation they represent, are relatively straightforward in terms of content. This is how typography works. This is how page layout works. This is how identity design works. I do not believe in “rules” of design, but there are certainly established concepts that we give to students to work with. We teach these topics to students as frameworks and structures—students try them out in their own way, and then bring the results back to the class for discussion on what happened when they worked with them.

What I have found as a design educator is that the real learning happens not because of what I tell the students, but because of what the students discover about themselves. There are these moments during design school—hopefully many, but at least a few—where a student suddenly makes a connection or understands an idea laterally instead of linearly. It is when a student creates a new context for a way of working, or a new methodology in their process, or a new relationship between form and content. These are the moments of enlightenment that as a teacher I try to encourage. I like to think of these as “holy shit!” moments, because when they happen to me, that is literally what I mutter to myself, usually with a goofy grin on my face.

Design is so big that it really is not possible to provide a comprehensive, complete education in 4 years—it takes a lifetime to even learn a small part of it. These moments of enlightenment are what make design education truly useful, because in these small moments a world opens up to a student. These insights and lateral connections propel students to spend time on their own to find out more, especially after a class or school ends. I tend to worry less about teaching the nuts and bolts of design as I feel these are things which are relatively straightforward (but still important) to learn. I spend more time considering how to teach in a way that encourages enlightening moments, because these are the lessons that are very difficult for a student to grab onto until they actually happen.

I do this in my teaching by often having students work with a given assignment from a point of opinion and authorship, rather than strictly reframing someone else’s content and agenda. This past semester my students were asked to develop their own relationship with design by creating a personal manifesto—what they think is and is not important in design. Another assignment tasked them with creating an argument on a topic of their choice. The framework of these projects are about systems, but most students made lateral leaps to things they may not have known they were interested in, beyond the basic content of the assignments. Discussions and critiques revolved not only around what they were making in terms of artifacts, but what they were making in terms of connections and relationships.

Design is less and less of a mystery, and more and more of a recognized element of life in 2015 and beyond. Our context as people is now one where design is a seamless and understood element of life. The computer is no longer a magic box, and we innately understand the idea of an “experience” as a designed event. The tools and content of design are readily available. That is why we need more “holy shit!” moments as students (and as teachers.) Learning to be an adequate designer is really quite straightforward and not that difficult. Furthering education with leaps of enlightenment is where the challenge lies to students and teachers—and this is also where design education becomes the most fun for both.

© Mitch Goldstein /