Tag Archives: NSCAD

Design Education Case Study: Make your classroom!

I’ve had three opportunities to ask a design class to reorganize the desks in a classroom to better facilitate design activity. Because design is the practice and study of the artificial world, everything that we do has a design element, even the mundane task of moving furniture around a classroom. I would even go so far as to say that this seemingly simple task is a comprehensive design exercise that includes solitary design work, teamwork, recursion, and complex communication and decision-making.

The first two exercises were at NSCAD with Interdisciplinary Design students in their second year, and then last month at Foshan University with a fourth-year class of Industrial Design students. None of these instances were premeditated. The results of this latest effort provide a few insights into the differences—and similarities—between the Chinese and Canadian groups.

Main building, at its most flattering time of day.

To place this day in context, I was offered the chance to conduct a 7-day design workshop with Prof. Jack Fan’s Industrial Design students. The first day (with Jack interpreting for the students whose English was poor), was an introduction to the project, which I will talk about in a later post. Each class was to take place from 9am to noon in a classroom on the 9th floor of the university’s “Main Building”. On that first day, the class sat at tables arranged in the traditional manner, with instructors facing the back of the room and the students facing the front.

9:00 – 9:40

Boys moving tables

On day two, Jack gave his regrets; as Assistant Dean for the Design School, he had meetings to attend. So he asked Phoebe Guo, an interior design instructor—and, like Jack, a graduate of RMIT—to act as language and cultural interpreter. When the students had assembled at 9am, I looked at them from the front of the class, and they looked up at me expectantly. “This doesn’t look right,” I thought to myself. I didn’t want them to be asking me what to do all the time. I wanted them to think for themselves. What kind of “famous foreign professor” would I be if I didn’t push the critical-thinking/democracy/teamwork thing on them? But seriously, I needed to break down the hierarchy because I was depending on them to develop their own ideas and solutions to the design challenge. I didn’t want them waiting for me to tell them what to do, so I thought, “Oh, what the heck”. So after giving fair warning to Phoebe, who seemed up for the challenge, I gave them an assignment:

As a group, collaborate to re-organize the desks and chairs in the classroom in any design except for the current arrangement with me at the front and you facing me. Your re-arrangement must facilitate review and discussion of design ideas, so there must be a way for the instructors and the class to walk around the room to look at sketches.
Watching the boys move tables

I didn’t specify a time limit for this assignment because I thought that they would be done in a half-hour or an hour, maximum. I based this estimate on the time required by NSCAD students in the previous two instances. The method they employed was for several of the boys to discuss, argue and move desks around. The girls, although interested, hung back. By 9:30, the scraping of the tables on the concrete floor was starting to get on my nerves* and they didn’t seem to be any closer to a solution.

9:40 – 11:00

Settling into groups

After a quick conference with Phoebe, we decided to give some additional structure to the assignment: I asked them to

  • form into three groups. Each group needed to have an equal number of men and women.
  • work in groups to develop a design proposal using proxies (small pieces of paper representing the tables that they could shift around noiselessly).
  • present their proposals to the class and then the class would vote on the best proposal.
Group work: note student hanging back at left

In Canada, this would not be a problem. They would pull out their toolboxes and sketchbooks and get to work. In Foshan, the students had notebooks and pens/pencils, but no scissors or knives—typically a class is a sit-down, get the dope from the teacher and then go off to the dorm to compete the assignment. But they improvised.

The Foshan students were also unfamiliar with teamwork. After watching them for a while, I placed each student into one of five categories:

  1. This group, working as individuals

    Gregarious males who took on group leadership positions. They guided the design process in each group.

  2. Outgoing women who actively participated—most of the women in this category had just returned from two weeks at RMIT.
  3. Males who hung back to observe. Otherwise known as social loafers.
  4. Females who sat passively and watched others in the group work.
  5. Males who had “checked out” and worked on their own.
Group work: active, passive, and checked out (yawning)

Phoebe remarked that a couple of the males in the 5th category complained about the assignment and could not understand the purpose of it. After about 30 minutes, I asked each group to show us their ideas. One drawback of the paper proxy method became apparent when the students showed me the seating plans in their designs. Most students failed to catch on that the classroom desks, because of a horizontal bar at knee level, were not designed for seating at the table ends. I asked them to consider this, but they seemed to think that this was not so much a problem for them. When they tested it out, they discovered that the table legs did interfere, but they felt that they would be able to adapt. This brings up an interesting question about their design judgement: would a group of design students from another country—Japan, for example—be as tolerant? And if not, what might this say about China’s prospects to become a world design powerhouse?

Group One’s design

Also, at this point, some of the group members began to move to other groups to look over the other designs and chat about the various aspects of the designs. When the group leaders wandered over to other groups, I thought a consensus might develop and a vote might not be necessary. But it was.

11:00 – 11:40

Each group presented their design and after much discussion, they decided to vote. Then the question was: how do we vote? About 15 minutes of back-and-forth, they decided to vote using the following rules:

  • Group Two’s design

    one vote per person

  • you may not vote for your own design
  • in the event of a tie, the design with the fewest votes will be dropped from the balloting

I don’t remember if it was a secret ballot, but I was quite impressed with their vote design; once they had decided on the rules, the rest was fast and easy. There was no tie, and the best design won.


Group Three’s design

After one workshop with Chinese students in China, it’s difficult to make generalizations, but I can offer these impressions:

  1. The Chinese students took longer than Canadian students to complete the assignment. I think part of this is due to the general unfamiliarity with group work in Chinese education. Time was probably wasted because of this unfamiliarity and additionally because of resistance to the assignment. Not all of the Foshan students considered this a design problem, so there may have been some foot-dragging. Group work is not a big factor in my teaching, because I think that the best design work is done by individuals in a solitary environment. But there are situations where designers need to work in concert with others and the skills that are required in these situations are different and complementary from that of classical design education.
  2. Discussing the merits of each design

    I think that the brightest Foshan students understood the root of my desire in this assignment, which was to undermine in a very physical (and noisy way!) the system of hierarchy that cuts across all aspects of their education system. The rows of desks facing the front, the lectern facing the back of the room, the teacher telling the students what to do and how to do it: this is the Chinese model. I do not think that design is always taught this way at Foshan—especially with western-educated instructors like Jack Fan and Phoebe Guo—but I think that it is a default state of mind that is comfortable for both faculty and students. These attitudes are reinforced through the entire system: macro-educational aspects also mitigate against change. The design curriculum and individual course content is defined not by the school but by the government. As a result, to give an example, visual communication majors in China are not taught HTML, Javascript, app-making or any ‘back-end’ technologies. These very necessary aspects in graphic design education are only taught to computer science majors, and as a result, designers in China do their work in Photoshop and then “throw it over the wall” to developers. This used to be common design practice up until the 1970’s in the West, but the news hasn’t reached the top.

  3. You’ve made your bed, now sleep in it

    Group dynamics among the Foshan students was also different from my students in the west: in Canada, students have a refined sense of egalitarianism. If anyone takes on the role of group leader without first passing several stages of group interaction, they are usually slapped-down with the proverbial “Who do you think you are?” In contrast, Chinese students default to having a leader quickly emerge who is usually male and a top student scholastically. I’m not intimately familiar with the group dynamics during the design process at this stage, so I cannot go into detail, but my observation is that there’s much give-and-take in the group sessions, but that the group is ‘moderated’ by the leader.

The ‘nternational Exchange Center. My home for the week.

* My bête noir on this trip to China was the sound of chairs and desks scraping on concrete floors. During my stay at Foshan University, I was domiciled in the International Centre, which was (mostly) a men’s dorm. I was on the second floor of a four- or five-storey building. There was activity in the room above me, as was evidenced by the very loud and reverberant scraping of chairs, which would interrupt my sleep two or three times a night. This was (of course) not done on purpose, but it did make me question my understanding that electricity in the dorm rooms was turned off every night at 11pm. It may have been, but it was no guarantee that some students would be burning midnight oil for one reason or another.

“Taking Hostages” goes to press

“Taking Hostages: Exercises in Design Détournement” is now online. The 114-page book contains “design fiction” essays by 13 students from the NSCAD Master of Design class of 2012, edited by me, with a foreword.

Design Détournement

The concept of “détournement” comes from Guy Debord, a poet connected with the “Situationist Internationale” that was active in the 1950’s and ’60’s.

For the Situationist, détournement is “plagiarism, where both the source and the meaning of the original work was subverted to create a new work.” (Urban Dictionary) Subsequent forms of détournement have taken the form of “culture jamming”, where standardized commercial and promotional practices are subverted by campaigns such as Adbusters’ “Buy Nothing Day”. I would argue that these approaches are ultimately self-defeating because they are so easily re-integrated into a corporate agenda.

Culture jamming has been quite recently exercised, for example, in the “Hitler meme” of countless YouTube videos using the movie “Downfall”. In these works, a portion of the movie where Hitler rants emotionally about his Generals’ incompetence and perfidy (which is filmed with actors speaking German) is re-subtitled with text that might lead non-German speakers to believe that Hitler tirade is actually about a lost football match, or the use of the “Comic Sans” font in Nazi propaganda, or how to find a tub of ice cream in war-ravaged Berlin. This phenomena gained its counter-culture cred when the movie’s copyright holder exercised “YouTube takedown” actions, only to reverse them a few months later after an extensive internet brouhaha.

Another recent example of contemporary détournement is Limor Fried’s “TV-B-Gone”, which is a powerful infrared TV remote which allows the operator to switch off a television—or otherwise “jam” it—surreptitiously and anonymously from a distance, or her “Wave Bubble”, a (completely illegal to use) RF jammer that prevents cellphone use. These are just a few more current examples of détournement. Designers can and do make use of parody and—as Limor Fried calls it—“design noir”.

The Essays

The work in “Taking Hostages” are speculations which use as their foundations the work of others. They share a purpose to satirize, and not lecture, but their point is not to merely elicit laughter. Nor are they intended to be didactic or by frontal attack attempt to batter down the walls of our credulity. Each work seeks, with subtlety, to “express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.” (Debord, 1967). This book’s design projects and accompanying essays serve to demonstrate the range of speculative concepts that can be released in a single spasm: “Taking Hostages: Exercises in Design Détournement” includes, among others, Joseph Rau’s tree design which lampoons designers’ inability to leave well-enough alone, Hodgkinson and Cianci’s pop-up store for garbage, Martyn Anstice’s hand-crafted newspaper, and Kevin Dahi’s Syrian T-55 tanks, détourned into ambulances.

[issuu width=520 height=200 backgroundColor=%23222222 documentId=120416145645-246b694ac3154a9c9f2047ef66cdb293 name=takinghostages_nscad_mdes2012 username=fire5ign tag=canada unit=px v=2]

Design Students: Just One Word

404 Page not found graphicIn the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) takes young Ben (Dustin Hoffman) aside at his graduation party:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: ‘Plastics.’
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.

This short scene served to underscore the divide between the young and old generations of that age. The term ‘generation gap’ had just recently been coined. Today, advice is still given, and because of “The Graduate,” it bears much of the generational divide and paternalism that separates adviser and advisee. So it is with considerable unease that I offer my advice to students of design who are concerned about their future, post-graduation. Just one word: Web.

Old Guys Do Print

We know that the jobs for fresh graduates are in the digital realms, not in print. A couple of years ago NSCAD design grad and Halifax designer Jeff White posted an entry on his website called “How to Get a Job as a Designer:”

  • Don’t email all of the companies at one time.
  • Find out the names of the hiring person at each company you want to work at and address us individually. With the web, it’s really not hard, and shows some initiative on your part.
  • Don’t email us a big PDF of your work. Many of us receive a big chunk of our email on a handheld device, and downloading a 3MB PDF is a hassle, even over 3G.
  • There is next to no work for print designers in Halifax at this time. You’ll need (a lot of) web experience to really get in the door. I’d suggest spending the next few months honing your web design skills. Put together a killer portfolio online, find some non-profits looking for a designer, and go after them. We’re all looking for designers with fresh ideas who also understand how to code XHTML/CSS/Actionscript and everything else. Being a multi-talented designer will keep you employed.

Yet, for reasons I cannot fathom, the majority of students seem to be avoiding digital media. Real media is all the rage: the Craft Division can’t keep up with the demand for “book arts” courses. In design, print and product design are the stars of the show.

Design graduates who are qualified to do web design are reporting back to us that they have been successful landing web design work, and striking-out in their attempts to break into print and other design areas. The reason for this is simple: ‘old guys’ do the print stuff. They have years of experience and they’re unfamiliar with web design. So for students in design school, the key to their future success is one word: Web.

404 Course Not Found

Around the same time as his “How to Get a Job” posting, Jeff discussed “The State of Design Education in Nova Scotia.” I consider Jeff a very knowledgeable commentator—he’s taught two of our web design courses. In his post, he criticized design educators in general and NSCAD in particular for not paying enough attention to web design:

One thing a former student mentioned was the need for a more intensive studio-level course in web design. I couldn’t agree more. A dedicated course in web typography…is also absolutely essential…

…So what can we do? As industry members we have a responsibility to push our educational institutions to provide up-to-date and appropriate courses for students. We’re the ones who will reap the benefit. Just the other day I sat in the office of the president of a major local web developer who was crying for at least two web designers with front end coding (XHTML/CSS/Javascript) capabilities. I was able to think of only one person and he’s not even from our city. Industry groups like the GDC and ACIMA also need to get more involved in the students side of things, and the student side of ACIMA is something I’m going to be working towards next year. The GDC doesn’t seem to have much interest in the web at all, but if enough of us got involved, maybe we could change that.

NSCAD’s Bachelor of Design program has a web design course that is a requirement for graduation. It teaches students XHTML/CSS and how to create web standards-compliant websites. But Jeff has a point. Where are the other web design courses that provide more in-depth opportunities and experiences?

Intermediate Interactive Design

404 Page Not Found screen
404 page from myfamouswebsite.com

It’s no wonder that some people complain that NSCAD doesn’t educate its designers in web design: it seems as though only one, the Intro course, is ever taught. Intermediate Interactive Design is the follow-on course to the required introduction course, and we offer it every year. I teach the course when I can, and I love it. The course is an examination of the historical and theoretical foundations of interactive design and communication, with practical studio projects, such as learning how to install and develop websites using a popular open-source content management system, Joomla. We read and discuss some of the seminal articles in hypertext, user interface and information architecture theory and practice. Students have opportunities to learn new software and techniques, and to apply this knowledge to solving practical problems.

The course last ran in 2009 and may not run in 2011. But don’t blame NSCAD: the course was offered in 2010, and when only five students enrolled, it had to be cancelled.

The course is being offered again in Winter 2011 but only four students have enrolled. It risks cancellation for the second year in a row.

There is only so much that we, those of us from the older generation, can do to encourage young people to benefit from our mistakes and take advantage of our insights. When we do this too forcefully, we risk sounding paternalistic, or, even worse, irrelevant. Students know that they will leave university heavily in debt, and because they are paying for their education with much of their own hard-earned cash, they expect value for their money. And at the moment, students don’t seem to value web design.