This course is a bit of an experiment, which I suppose makes you experimental subjects (or guinea pigs, if you prefer). First, it’s an attempt to teach a studio design course online as opposed to a pure historical survey or appreciation-style course, though we’ll do some of that too. This method is entirely possible, of course (especially given the flexibility demonstrated over the past couple years), but presents some challenges as the actual practice of design is a hands-on and depends on feedback and iteration. More on how that will be handled in a bit.
Second, it combines several sub-disciplines of design into one — and in six weeks no less. Over the decade or so that I’ve taught design, I’ve had the privilege (or curse) to teach no fewer than a dozen different courses — lower-, mid-, and upper-level design studios, typography, photography, web design, design history, art appreciation, etc. The idea with this course is to take the key concepts from each of those and make one concise introduction to the practice as a whole. As a result, we’ll jump to a new topic each week, but the units are ordered to follow a timeline of developments in design and concepts will build on each other as we go along.
Finally, it is aimed at students who don’t necessarily have experience with design or a desire to practice it as a career (in fact, design majors or minors are actively discouraged from taking it). Instead we’ll look at how design is embedded in everyday life and connects with other disciplines. The simplest definition of the design process is “giving form to content”, and that content has to come from somewhere so design is always interacting with the outside world.
Because of these factors, the course is a bit of a paradox: it will be delivered online, but involve hands-on engagement; it will look at examples, but ask you to create rather than just analyze what others have made; it will work with a variety media, but attempt to follow a linear story; it will cover theoretical concepts, but teach practical skills.
A quick word about structure: each week will follow essentially the same pattern. There will be a written lecture of sorts, basically a letter from me to you that introduces the topic and key concepts, assigns any outside reading or viewing, and gives you an exercise that practices some basic skills. This exercise will be due early in the week along with any reading responses or questions that might come up. Then you’ll complete a larger project that asks you to demonstrate an understanding of that week’s content that’s due later in the week. Other students and I will provide feedback and you’ll have a chance to revise by the beginning of the following week. All of the smaller assignments (reading responses, exercises, peer feedback) together make up 40% of the grade, and projects constitute the remaining 60%.
I’ll try to be as simple and thorough as I can with examples and instructions, but please reach out at any time during the course with questions. For now, let’s begin.
When I was growing up there were a few commercials that seemed to play over and over, year after year, until they were etched into my mind (I’m happy to perform the entire script of a Sears Home Heating and Air Conditioning ad as a dramatic monologue if you need proof). I was mostly interested in sports, but like most kids I enjoyed drawing enough that one in particular always caught my attention: a promotion for an at-home art test that promised to have a panel of experts review your submission and determine if you had any special potential for a career in the arts (and direct a salesperson to show up at your door and try to convince you to take expensive correspondence courses). Here it is:
Since this class is essentially a correspondence course with a bit more technology, I’d like to begin by having you fill out the official Art Test and send it to me for review (I’ve modified it slightly using some keen font-matching ability). Please complete it before continuing on.
Exercise #1: Art Test
Print out the Art Test and complete it to the best of your ability (or simply write your responses on a blank sheet of paper). Take a picture of the results with your phone and upload to Canvas.
Grading the Art Test
I find this test to be an interesting artifact. The idea that one’s artistic potential could be measured by a simple test (much less one that fits on a threefold brochure) is pretty laughable and may bring up some important questions about their business model. I’m skeptical that there’s anything particularly special about the cartoon heads they ask you to copy, besides perhaps that they are just difficult enough to feel like a challenge but easy enough to avoid scaring away potential applicants.
On the other hand, there’s something charming about it. The way one draws is indeed unique and a personality test of sorts, similar to handwriting. Fear not, by the way, if your self-portrait won’t win any awards — drawing is a surprisingly small part of what most designers do so it won’t play a huge role over the next few weeks. And I like that they include some basic design questions, even if the idea that there’s one right answer is a bit misleading. Is movement inherently jumpy or smooth? Is unity when all of the items are the same size or when all of the items are connected?
![Sections from Art Test]
Despite the Art Test’s questionable methods and motives (or maybe because of them), I think it gets something right: that art shouldn’t be overly intimidating or only the activity of a certain set of people. Watching that commercial, I felt like creating art was special and challenging, but something I could participate in. Like for a lot of people, that feeling faded over time for me and had to be built back up with a new understanding of what it means to be an artist. Hopefully this course can help do the same for you. In the famous words of German artist Joseph Beuys, “Jeder Mensch ein Künstler (every man is an artist).” By this he doesn’t mean that every person needs to paint or choreograph dances, but that we all help create and sculpt the society we are a part of. If this sounds too soft, I should note that Beuys is also known for locking himself in a gallery with a coyote. Being an artist isn’t without risk.
A Brief History of Artistic Production
The hard divide between art and the rest of life isn’t a natural one. There have surely always been people with a greater attention to aesthetics or degree of technical skill, but the idea that certain objects should be set aside purely for contemplation or that how something looks is distinct from how it functions is a relatively modern one. This also isn’t to say that there was no effort to make things beautiful long ago — far from it — but that beauty was generally integrated with function. An Etruscan vase was both a decorated object and a practical vessel. Gothic cathedrals were spacious and ornate with the purpose of drawing eyes heavenward and connecting them to the divine.
![Vase & Cathedral]
The European Renaissance (c. 1400 C.E.) is generally credited with the beginning of a separation. Previously humble scribes or anonymous craftsmen, artists began to become known by name and sought after for high profile commissions from monarchies and the Church (though they still had large workshops of people helping them produce the work), culminating in the ultimate honor an artist can hope to achieve: having a crime-fighting cartoon turtle named after you centuries later.
![High Renaissance art]
This trend continued through the Reformation and Enlightenment (c. 1500-1800 C.E.) as individual reason came to be held as the primary source of truth and concepts were isolated into distinct categories for scientific observation. Patrons began to shift to wealthy merchants and landholders and official academies were developed, which privatized artistic production and presentation and furthered the split between art (high) and craft (low).
![Baroque – Enlightenment]
The ultimate break came with the Industrial Revolution (c. 1800-1900 C.E.) and development of mass production which divided design, production, and consumption of objects into distinct realms. As an example, 90% of shoe production occurred in home workshops and only 10% in factories at the beginning of the century in England, but those figures had completely flipped by the end of it. This left two main paths for someone pursuing a career as an artist: gain access to the academy and wealthy patron system and keep control of production, or embrace the new world of industry and the disconnection and lower standards that came with it. Art or Design.
Design as Art
People had all sorts of responses to this new dichotomy. To me, the most interesting ones are those who refused to accept it and looked for another path.
One approach was to reject the entire trajectory of modernization altogether and continue to toil along in relative obscurity without worrying about professional acceptance. We all know people who make things with a high degree of skill and attention to appearance and function — woodworkers and quilters are common examples. Sometimes this work goes on to be celebrated in the traditional art world where it’s referred to as Folk Art or Outsider Art.
![Folk art examples]
Others chose to challenge the system from inside one of the camps. Artists in London, Paris, Vienna and other major artistic centers created new forms that defied the accepted stylistic norms (some were even derided as mere “impressions” of paintings). The changes also applied to subject matter as artists turned to inward emotions and everyday experiences rather than the grand religious narratives, classical virtues, and status symbols that made up much of elite tastes through the previous centuries.
![Early modern examples]
Around the same time, designers like William Morris saw the terrible working conditions and poor craftsmanship that were prevalent in England and set up studios based on medieval guilds that kept design and production under one roof and strove for utmost quality. The unfortunate tradeoff was that while their goal was to produce items for the masses, the broader economics of the time meant that they were really only attainable for a select few.
![William Morris examples]
The most relevant group for our purposes are those who saw the potential of new technology and mass production but wanted to push against its alienating and race-to-the-bottom tendencies. The most well-known of these is a German school that operated in the years following World War I called the Bauhaus (literally “building house”). Formed from the merger between an art school and a trade school, the Bauhaus represented a modern approach to art instruction that would focus on foundational methods and materials rather than study and repetition of traditional masterpieces.
The devastation of World War I created a reaction against the traditional structures and alliances that had led to it, leading to a desire to remake European society along more rational and democratic lines. Because of this, the Bauhaus embraced connections to industry with the goal of spreading these new ideas and forms to the masses. If you’ve been reading words like “German”, “years following World War I”, and “rational and democratic” with some trepidation, you have good cause for concern. The school was under near constant pressure during its brief existence and was eventually forced to close as the Nazis rose to power. Many of its instructors fled to America and taught at prominent American design schools, however, so its methods and legacy live on.
One of those influenced by this legacy was an Italian artist named Bruno Munari. He wrote a series of articles on art and design for a Milan newspaper that were eventually collected and published as a book titled “Design as Art.” The title essay begins with a bold proclamation:
Today it has become necessary to demolish the myth of the ‘star’ artist who only produces masterpieces for a small group of ultra-intelligent people. It must be understood that as long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only interest a very few people. Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher’s shop (if he knows how to do it). The artist must cast off the last rags of romanticism and become active as a man among men, well up in present-day techniques, materials, and working methods. Without losing his innate aesthetic sense he must be able to respond with humility and competence to the demands his neighbors may make of him.
The next line I want to highlight:
The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing.
Read the rest of the essay along with the one immediately following it titled “What is a designer?” and respond to the discussion questions before moving on.
Reading #1: Bruno Munari, “Design as Art”
How do designers think?
At its best, design can use the tools of art to create experiences that make people’s lives better and more delightful. The idea behind calling this course Design Thinking is that it will outline they process that designers use to approach problems in addition to the techniques that they use to translate that process into a final product. This process can then be applied to other disciplines outside of design (and hopefully the production techniques will prove useful as well). I should note that Design Thinking has become somewhat of a formal discipline in its own right, championed by organizations such as IDEO.
We won’t be following their exact method (nor is there one exact method), but there are some general principles that are useful to pull out. Design Thinking emphasizes a human-centered approach, collaboration, and iteration. These may all seem a little obvious (what organization would try to create something that ignored humans?), but when trying to solve problems it can be easy to lose sight of who you’re designing for, make top-down assumptions, or assume that what worked one time will always work. We’ll get into some of the potential pitfalls of Design Thinking later on. IDEO breaks down the phases of problem solving like this: Inspiration > Ideation > Implementation. For our first project, we’ll focus on the Inspiration piece.
I’ve come to think that the primary skill that a designer can have is attentiveness. To truly empathize with a client with a message to convey or the person who will ultimately engage with what you produce means suspending judgment and being open to what you might discover. In an age of great distraction, attention is both a valuable commodity and something that has to be cultivated. In the words of the French philosopher Simone Weil:
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity … taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
Project #1: Taking a Line for a Walk
Paul Klee, an artist and one of the instructors at the Bauhaus, described drawing as “taking a line for a walk.” We’re going to take this literally. This assignment has a few steps, but should be fairly straightforward.
- Draw a line that connects back to its starting point.
- Place this line over a map of your neighborhood to create a walking route that begins and ends where you live.
- Walk the route as closely as possible, completing the prompts below.
Another Bauhaus instructor named Josef Albers went on to teach at a small experimental school in North Carolina called Black Mountain College. There he would have students collect found objects to use in basic design compositions. On your walk, collect objects with interesting formal qualities and create a collage that makes their shapes work together well when you get home. Take a picture and upload to Canvas.
Art critic John Berger had an ongoing correspondence with filmmaker John Christie where they wrote each other about significant colors they had seen recently. These letters were collected into a book called “I Send You This Cadmium Red” which was then somewhat bizarrely set to music and turned into an album. (https://open.spotify.com/album/2lAyVZmHsnAW30H1MNsegy) Take a picture of a color that stands out on your walk and write me a paragraph on why you noticed it and what associations you have with it. Upload the picture and description to Canvas.
Take pictures of any unique text that you encounter on your walk. Choose one and describe the characteristics of the typeface and why you think the designer chose it for that usage. Upload the picture and description to Canvas.
Look for something that there are multiples of and take pictures of each one, framing them as similarly as possible. Upload all of the pictures to Canvas.
Listen carefully to the sounds you hear on your walk. Record any interesting ones with the voice recorder app on your phone and choose one to serve as the soundtrack of your walk. Upload to Canvas.
These exercises are similar to ones that students would have completed at the Bauhaus in what was known as the Preliminary or Basic Course. The goal was to prime students’ attentiveness to formal elements before moving on to workshops in specific disciplines.
This is where we’ll head too, with some updates to account for changes in technology and media over the past 100 years.