What makes a designer want to be a design teacher?
Erin Canoy, MFA thesis, "One Weave, One Dream"

Erin Canoy, MFA thesis, “One Weave, One Dream”

The Winterhouse Symposium on Design Education and Social Innovation is taking place August 18–20 in New Haven, Conn., with the Academy of Art University’s School of Graphic Design Graduate Director Phil Hamlett among the participants. In the spirit of that event, the insights in the following article by Graphic Design Chair Mary Scott seem especially relevant.

[Mary Scott] Most design teachers become teachers because they are practicing designers who’ve either been invited to teach or have sought out teaching as way of giving back to their profession. Having taught for more than 30 years, I think there is something about teaching that goes straight to your heart, bypassing a lot of other things along the way.

One of the benefits of teaching a long time is that you just might be teaching the offspring of designers that you taught once upon a time. It’s happened to me, and I relish it when it occurs. I even have had the experience of one of my students (now) teaching alongside of me.

The first day I taught at Art Center College of Design, in 1981, I was a little nervous. The closest I’d come to teaching anything were a few French tutoring gigs in college plus meeting time spent trying to help my clients understand what design and branding were all about—or least what I knew about it.

It has occurred to me that because I worked in a preschool during the summers as a teacher’s assistant throughout my teen years, I might have picked up a tip or two about teaching. Whether you are teaching 4-year-olds or 24-year-olds, some of the same techniques work.

With students, who are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge from a sage practitioner, there is a sense of wonder (one always hopes) about how to do this thing called design. I’ve always maintained the toughest courses to teach are the beginning ones. Those instructors who teach these earn a special place in heaven, as it is truly a labor of love. The patience required borders on sainthood.

I’ve asked some of my esteemed colleagues who teach with me at the Academy to share their thoughts on the subject.

Erin Canoy

Erin Canoy

Erin Canoy

Erin Canoy

Johnny Selman, MFA thesis, "BBC X 365"

Johnny Selman, MFA thesis, “BBC X 365”

PHIL HAMLETT, DIRECTOR OF GRADUATE STUDIES

What motivated you to begin teaching?
Lunch with Mary Scott.

When did you think you wanted to devote your full time efforts to being a teacher?
After I had lunch with Mary Scott. There is obviously some truth in that, but the more “serious” answer would be “when I found out a) it is extremely rewarding, and b) I am surprisingly well suited for it.”

What are the three most rewarding experiences you have had as a teacher?
1) Student success 2) student success 3) student success.

How do you measure success as a teacher and mentor?
When you see the light bulbs come on and know students are beginning to understand the potential for their chosen field. When students ask good questio

What has made you feel you are doing something good?
When students tell you—usually later on—that you had a positive influence in their development and their lives. When it’s obvious that you helped to completely change someone’s stars.

How has being the graduate studies director influenced the way you look at the design profession?
Now that I have to teach what makes design actually work, I know much more about it then when I was actually practicing it. Accordingly, I’m a big believer in the idea that everyone should spend at least some of their time teaching.

How do you feel your professional career has shaped how and what you teach your students?
I was never a natural. Pixie dust never dripped off my fingers. I had to work extra hard to keep up. Accordingly, I’m sympathetic to those who have to do likewise.

What are the most important traits you want to instill in your students?
Curiosity, tenacity, confidence…and to spend your life learning.

From the Grafik Intervention project, San Marcos, Tex.; students; Texas State University Communication Design; faculty: Rose Newton

From the Grafik Intervention project, San Marcos, Tex.; students; Texas State University Communication Design; faculty: Rose Newton

Grafik Intervention, San Marcos, Tex.

Grafik Intervention, San Marcos, Tex.

ANITRA NOTTINGHAM, ONLINE DIRECTOR

What motivated you to begin teaching?
This sounds bad, but it was mostly from having a really terrible design teacher in high school. I thought I could do better, and I didn’t want others to spend time on their work and get poor results because of poor teaching. Once I made it to being a decent design teacher, I could see what a difference it could make.

When did you think you wanted to devote your full-time efforts to being a teacher?
When I realized that as a designer I needed to think about myself as an athlete does: What would be my second act in design after being a young hotshot designer type? I could “own the team” (run my own business), “captain the team” (be a VP/creative director) or “coach the team” (be a teacher). The last one appealed to me most, so I quit my day job and eight weeks later became full-time faculty.

Grafik Intervention, Bryan, Tex.; students: Texas A&M University, Communication Department of Visualization; faculty: Donna Hajash

Grafik Intervention, Bryan, Tex.; students: Texas A&M University, Communication Department of Visualization; faculty: Donna Hajash

What at are the three most rewarding experiences you have had as a teacher?
When any online student graduates, it’s a good day for me. But the first time an online-only student walked past me at commencement was easily one of the best moments in this job. Until then, my work felt a bit invisible, to be honest.

There are a couple of students I have emotionally coached through the thesis process more closely than others. The day those students presented their finals successfully was very special to me; I felt we had been to war together.

Then there are little things. One lesson I remember clearly is when I gave out stickers to those able to answer typographic questions correctly, and the students turned into excited kids right before my eyes. I think everyone learned just a little bit better that day.

How do you measure success as a teacher and mentor?
If my students walk out of my class with a piece they can be proud of—and if they can set a decent rag, and put proper spacing around headings—I am happy.

What has made you feel you are doing something good?
When one of my students gets the job he or she wants, whatever that might be.

How has being the online studies program director influenced the way you look at the design profession?
Profoundly. I see the whole picture instead of a slice you see when you teach one class. So, I am very aware of the responsibility we all carry to make every class count, because every class adds up to student success.

Grafik Intervention, Big Rapids, Mich.; students: Ferris State University Graphic Design; faculty: William Culpepper

Grafik Intervention, Big Rapids, Mich.; students: Ferris State University Graphic Design; faculty: William Culpepper

How do you feel your professional career has shaped how and what you teach your students?
My career could easily have been different. It was recession times, too, when I graduated, and it required a lot of persistence and luck to get a job as a young designer then, no matter how good you were. This experience taught me to find the best in every design job, no matter how crappy it might seem. If you don’t have many choices, then you must find opportunities in the most unpromising places. It was the creative solutions I made for non-glamorous, no-budget projects that got me the next (much better) job. I hope I bring this to the classroom: the expectation that every job, no matter how small and seemingly unimportant, is worthy of your best effort and could potentially be the one that convinces someone to hire you.

What are the most important traits you want to instill in your students?
A hatred of prime marks, compressed or stretched type, and bad rag. Being a masters student myself made me realize that teachers need to be reminded that being a student is hard. It’s “identity work” that exposes us, makes us anxious, and for mature students this can be particularly tough. We should all occasionally make ourselves students again to remind ourselves that we must deal compassionately with our own students, and to remember how praise is just as important as criticism.

Above and below: Astra Sodarsono, MFA, "Sergio Leone Film Festival"

Above and below: Astra Sodarsono, MFA, “Sergio Leone Film Festival”

sodarsono 2

HUNTER WIMMER, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR

What motivated you to begin teaching?
I can’t think of a solitary thing that motivated me as much as a triangulation of the things I enjoy doing, the things I seem to be fairly good at. There always seems to be a person who pulls you into teaching, and for me it was Nigel French—then director of the fledgling design program at UCBerkeley Extension. I was taking a photo class with Judy Dater, and he got word that I was the design director at Banana Republic by day. Nigel invited me in to lecture for one of his classes about branding. Fast forward five years and I discovered—even when working at an amazing multidisciplinary studio—that I found myself looking forward to teaching 5–9 more than the next 9–5 day.

When did you think you wanted to devote your full-time effort to being a teacher?
In 2006 I knew I wanted to begin to look for “the next thing” and shared my thoughts and plans with my friend and colleague Phil Hamlett, as he had already pulled me into adjunct teaching at the Academy. I mentioned I loved what I was doing in the evenings more than what I was doing by day, and he mentioned the possibility of opening a position at the Academy for a full-time instructor. It seemed like serendipity. Why not spend the day doing what you love?

Darshita Mistry, MFA, "James Foley Film Festival"

Darshita Mistry, MFA, “James Foley Film Festival”

What are the three most rewarding experiences you have had as a teacher?
Seeing students fulfill their dreams of doing what they love as a career. As an open-enrollment institution, we aren’t always in class with students who have experience in design, but all have a passion. That passion can turn into a project, then into a portfolio and then into a job.

How do you measure success as a teacher and mentor?
We succeed when our students succeed. We have a rigorous program, but generally within a few months of graduation—often within a few days—the vast majority of our graduates find themselves working in the field. In a profession as competitive as design, this is my best yardstick for success. So far, we have a good track record.

What has made you feel you are doing something good?
Every now and again, I’ll get a call or an e-mail from a student that reads something like this: “Remember that project I rolled my eyes at when I was in school? I’m at work today, and I found myself doing that very thing, and now my boss thinks I’m a genius.” Those always make me smile a little.

How has being the associate director influenced the way you look at the design profession?
The main thing being on the directorial side of things has illuminated for me is that design can be applied in so many ways. Presently in my day job, designing curriculum occupies a good portion of the day. Folks ask me if I “miss designing things.” My response? I design every day—it’s just not with the same parts and pieces. Course outlines and project descriptions have taken the place of pixels and fonts. At the end of the day, it’s all design.

How do you feel your professional career has shaped how and what you teach your students?
When I was in school, all of my instructors were teachers first and designers second. The adjunct-model we have at the Academy, “today’s professionals teaching tomorrow’s,” is a good one. While not everyone fits into the mold of a teacher, those that are, and those that also have real-world stories to share…well, they make the best instructors, and we’re lucky to have these sorts of folks teach in our program. I’d like to count myself among them.

What are the most important traits you want to instill in your students?
Integrity and curiosity. The most important lessons in design—those that shape the best designers—are not keyboard shortcuts, but the lessons that focus on the broader picture: how to approach solving problems, how to work with people to do so. With a base of curiosity and integrity, you can uncover and follow though on some amazing insights.

David Gottwald, MFA

David Gottwald, MFA

JEREMY STOUT: ASSOCIATE ONLINE DIRECTOR

What motivated you to begin teaching?
I began teaching when my friend Tom Sieu told me how much fun he had doing it.

When did you think you wanted to devote your full-time effort to being a teacher?
After teaching for a number of years part-time, I found myself at a crossroads. A position I had occupied at a local design firm seemed to be at an end. It just so happened I was offered a position to become a full-time teacher at the same time I was looking for the next step in my career.

What are the three most rewarding experiences you have had as a teacher?
All three of my most rewarding experiences have come from students who surpassed both my expectations of them and their expectations of themselves. The most rewarding experiences come from seeing students “get it” and begin to fully realize their potential in design. I have had the opportunity to be an integral part of students winning prestigious awards, creating meaningful design, and raising their level of design to extraordinary heights.

How do you feel your professional career has shaped how and what you teach your students?
By the student outcomes. If each of my students improves formally and conceptually, I feel successful. Sometimes that success is hard to see for others who are not working with the students directly. For example, when a student with little or no design background who struggles to understand basic principles of design shows amazing progress by learning a basic skill like typesetting. Other times, success is measured when a student turns a corner in conceptual ability and begins to come up with meaningful and unique solutions.

What has made you feel you are doing something good?
I never think of what I do as “good.” It is hard work, and it takes the ability to look at each student and what each needs to achieve. I mainly think of it as rewarding, which I guess is kind of selfish. It is the student that must put in the time and effort to be good.

How has being the online program associate director influenced the way you look at the design profession?
It has made me see that a well-trained and well-positioned student is a person who is highly sought after. Designers coming into the profession with skill and a brain will be successful if they try.

How do you feel your professional career has shaped how and what you teach your students?
I would say that some experience in the professional world of design is integral to teaching the subject. It is an applied and commercial art form. When you can speak from experience to your students, it gives them a clear idea of what will be expected of them in the real world.

What are the most important traits you want to instill in your students?
Think different, work hard, explore.

AFTERWORD, BY MARY SCOTT

Thanks guys, you’ve said it all beautifully, and I am proud to serve with all of you.

All the reasons I teach are expressed so eloquently in an award I received at Art Center College of Design in 1986. It reads, “Great Teacher Certificate: To Honor and Thank Mary Scott. With the perspective of eight terms, the summer 1986 graduating students in Graphics/Packaging Design award this certificate of recognition and appreciation to you for having made an extraordinary contribution to our education. You have dealt with us as instructor, mentor and friend, generously sharing information, experience, energy and concern. Great teachers are what make a school great. You can take pride in what you’ve given to Art Center and us.”

This article by Mary Scott first appeared at RockPaperInk.com, a site for designers sponsored by Rockport Publishers.

Posted: Sunday, August 18th, 2013
Filed under: About the School, Faculty News
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