My review of Feedback will follow links two AIGA articles written by Steven Heller and one by Ellen Lupton.
Too Many Grads or Too Few Competencies? The Design School Dilemma / September 8, 2005
What this Country Needs is a Good Five-Year Design Program / April 7, 2004
The Re-Skilling of the American Art Student / March 29, 2005
University of the Unimpressed / May 16, 2013 (design education in England)
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I was invited to participate as both a panelist and a reviewer at the AIGA / Philadelphia Feedback, a portfolio review for 2013.
I made a comment in the panel about not liking teachers (having been one for 3 decades). I cannot remember what I actually said, but it was something to that effect. That wasn’t exactly what I meant to say. I had just done a portfolio review a couple of weeks earlier (and also Feedback last year) and had felt very critical of teachers based on student solutions that must have been approved by the faculty, types of projects which just didn’t lend themselves to interesting portfolio-quality solutions, lack of educational opportunities being offered, lack of outside interactions, etc.
Clearly, there are lots of good teachers and I admire their knowledge base and the problems they have to deal with in regard to student work ethics, school administrations, the fact that logically most people probably have to teach more computer skills than design skills, etc.
I love a lot of teachers, what they do and what they accomplish. I really, really dislike that SOME people are in a position to teach, as I think they often do far too little to push a student to work at a level that is near their potential. They probably all feel like they are trying as best they can, but to me they clearly aren’t trying nearly enough. Teaching is a privilege.
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A couple of other thoughts. It is clear that some schools choose to not participate, probably with the sense that they can invite in their own reviewers and control the review better if they just do their own. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t argue against that. When I was the head of Visual Communications at the University of Delaware we always did a review in New York with our New York graduates. It was a nice way to get out of town, to get a review in the city where most of our students wanted to work, and to connect with our grads on a face-to-face basis. But we also always did at least the AIGA / Philadelphia review along with the Art Directors Club of New York (who didn’t do it this year for some reason). The reason we always wanted to do reviews that included other schools was to encourage our students to look at the portfolios of at least 4 or 5 students from other schools. You could always look at one portfolio and then ask that person who had the best portfolio from that school in their opinion (other than their own, of course). That usually got you to a good portfolio. So, now you could see something of who was good from some other place. What kinds of projects they were doing. What kind of look they had. Strength of typography, photography, printing, etc. I think students who live in an insulated word have a very narrow view of the what the competition looks like. From my nearly 35 years teaching at the University of Delaware, the names of the schools I’m talking about are going to go unnamed, but you know who I’m talking about, were always like this. I don’t get it. I wanted their students to see my students, because if they were better I wanted us to both know it and I wanted to know it to help me be better a better teacher. We both lose without the interaction. But then you can stick your head in the sand and always think and believe what you want, regardless of what reality is. The students and faculty from the schools that participated in the AIGA Feedback are to be commended. Now the schools that participated need to do whatever they can to produce better students than the ones that don’t. That will be the ultimate reward. I don’t understand how students don’t resolve this on their own by just taking their own initiative and doing something like Feedback.
It isn’t hard for me to imagine that the best reviews you might get over the whole night are the ones that happen between the reviews you signed up for.
Enough of that.
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Once again I talked with 10 or 11 students.
Clearly, 10 students out of 50 or so is only a narrow view of the participants, but the work I saw this year was far better than it was last year. I’m not sure why, but it was much better thought out, craft was nice, students were more articulate when answering my questions (and I always have a lot). It was nice. Now that I’ve been out of the classroom for 6 years it was good to see that design is alive and well.
. . . T H A N K Y O U S
I’m going to make this point just in case you haven’t read my review of last year’s Feedback. Every student who had the opportunity to visit with someone who had taken an evening away from their family, work, TV, reading or whatever they might have done otherwise on a Thursday night, should send a physical, non-digital thank you. And I mean that even if you want nothing to do with the print world and only ever see yourself making websites in the future. Send it with a stamp through the U.S. Mail. This has to be done within 10 days or just be unthankful.
. . . W H A T D O Y O U W A N T T O B E
Last year I complained that far too many students couldn’t answer my first question, “What do you want to be?” Clearly they had that answer this year and quickly. I have to admit it was a bit surprising how many students want to do print (not web). There is great print being done, but it seemed odd that there was so little digital work in the portfolios. Honestly, designing the opening page of a website isn’t much, if any different, from designing a great spread in an annual report. I cannot imagine not having at least one website in your portfolio. Design the opening page, then two visually different pages you would link to from that opening page, and then two more visually different pages that would link from those pages. Done. You risk leaving a hole in your options of creative capabilities. Then produce a print piece that goes along with it so you can show you understand the kinds of issues a company has to go through in today’s world of visually communicating with its target audience. I don’t think it is critical that you be able to code it, although I’m sure others would disagree. I don’t actually remember seeing a good digital design (might just be my memory), but that just doesn’t feel good.
. . . C O N C E P T ! B R A N D I N G !
I’m sure every school teaches what they believe concept and branding are. Honestly, in looking at the portfolios I’m not sure I think anyone is doing it very well at all. I think too often when a project had a good concept, the student didn’t know it because it would show up once and then not again in the project. I think my years teaching advertising design at the University of Delaware gave me a good idea of what concept and strategy was. I think the word ‘branding’ was a bad choice in that it kind of brings to mind branding cattle to say, “This is my cow.” Just putting a logo on it or having continuity to the layout isn’t what branding is. I think this is a serious fault in much graphic design education today.
One of the best people I’ve ever seen explain what ‘BRAND’ is was Marty Neumeier who was the publisher of a great design magazine a number of years ago called Critique. You can see one of his presentations from back in 2010 here, which I think does a pretty reasonable job explaining it. Just for the record I have no stake in Marty’s world and have only passingly met him once in my life. Find a core idea and then build your design around it. It seems like so many projects are just ‘arranging’ things. Design is about ’smart’ more than ‘taste’ to me. There is a tendency to “write out what you want me to know.” It is like the piece was written by a marketing person (nothing against them, but marketing isn’t a creative strategy. It is just saying what you want people to know and that just isn’t enough to ‘grab onto’ people in today’s competitive marketplace.
Doing a good job of branding is to have me figure it out without you saying it.
When I used to teach every student needed an xRay, which was what I called the strategy statement, before anything else could happen. I kind of wish a school would invite me up to speak which would make me break out those files and rethink them.
. . . P O R T F O L I O P A G E S
Another rather negative bit from the review is how nicely students could design a brochure or poster, but how poorly they design a page in their portfolio to show that brochure or poster. Rectangular photos that make the work look like something from some grandmother’s photo album (nothing against grandmothers, but they usually don’t know much about designing a portfolio). At least for us at Lead Graffiti, we make THINGS. We want them to look like THINGS. We go to a lot of trouble to photograph them and to make them look like THINGS.
I suspect some of this comes from programs that don’t have a strong photographic experience. I would find a way to change that. Students need to see the need for photography and then do something about getting it. Photography is just too useful of a tool to not dive into it deeper than most all of the students did.
This is a photo of a book from one of our letterpress workshops.
The result is a THING? And that photo looks so much nicer on a page than a rectangle with that image in it. The rectangle says “this is a flat, dimensionless (well it does have 2) object.”
It might be that when a student is doing their own portfolio page they are too embarrassed or humble to do it well. Kind of like the problem of needing to brag on yourself. Most people write their résumés very amateurishly because they cannot openly talk about themselves in a positive way.
So, imagine a designer you love. Let’s just say it is Stefan Sagmeister. Assume that he knows you and likes you as a designer and a person and wants you to get that great first job you want. Design the page for you that Stefan would design for you. I promise it will likely be better than whatever it is that you are doing. If you reviewed with me you’ll know the school I’m talking about, but many of the pages just looked the same from one project to the next and one portfolio to the next. It looks like the school is trying to promote the school and not you. YOU are the focus of your portfolio.
Personally, I also think that too many of the pages fell into what I call the “jigsaw puzzle syndrome.” The pieces are lying on a flat table and they can never get on top of any other piece. Here is another photograph we use in our online portfolio showing certificates. If they never touch I can get maybe 1/2 as many in the photograph. Those are also real shadows and not something created in Photoshop.
I thought the scale of pieces shown in the portfolios were strangely too small. I said so many times that something should be twice as large. Not 10% larger. 100% larger. And sometimes even more.
It also seemed that there was often a small, 10 or 12 point text sentence in the corner explaining the project. I think you would be a lot better trying to find 2 words and then doing them in 60 point time at the top in some light color so as to not overpower that connected to the project. Not big and black but big and light. Don’t compete with your project, but help me, the reader, understand right up front what we are talking about. Send me a jpg of your project and I’ll send you two words back.
. . . B U S I N E S S C A R D S
I walked out with about 20 business cards, 10 student and 10 professional. EVERY student business card but one was visually more boring then the most boring of the professional cards. Where did that come from? And it would also be nice to see someone put their email address in something more than 8 or 10 point type.
. . . 3 - M I N U T E P R O J E C T
In my part of the panel discussion I complained about student pieces that I would think I could design in 3 minutes. Maybe that scared off a lot of students from signing up with me that had those in their projects in their portfolios. Good. But I didn’t see very many of those this year.
. . . P R O J E C T O R D E R
This may just be that my opinion is different from your opinion, and that is OK, if you are being very thoughtful and deliberate with the organization of your portfolio.
The piece that best says what you want to be should be first. The second best piece should be the last piece in your portfolio to leave them with a good impression. Your third best piece should be second and all of your others should be 4th to next to last with some thought to pacing. This year as well as last, I almost always disagreed with what was first. You need that killer piece first that makes the reviewer say, “I need to hire this person.” And then as much as possible, you need to not let them change their mind.
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Feel free to share these statements with anyone you like, especially faculty you like and students who will be graduating next year. Most of the things that really matter in a portfolio have to be pretty well done 2 months before portfolio reviews start. It is just hard to avoid getting caught up in it “I just need to get this thing done.”
I would love to talk to schools, but not in May when they are graduating. October or March of the junior year would be a lot better. I would love to do a formal presentation and then spend the rest of the day talking to students who don’t want to go away.
. . . F O R A I G A
Do Feedback sooner. I would say the middle of April or change the name to “hiring.” The point of feedback is to be able to give it and then have the people have the time to do something about it. May 9 is just too late to expect the critiques to lead to any meaningful change. I would be willing to bet not one student did anything I talked about because they just want to get a job.
Also, I would like to have a record of what I did. I would like to have a list of who the students I talked to listed with their names and what school they came from. I want both of those pieces of information. Just make a signup sheet, have the students sign up (did they do that online or the day of Feedback) with their name and school, and then give me that sheet.
I understand the scheduling problem, but I think 15 minutes is just too short. You’ve got to make it at least 20.
I really had a good time. I wish the letterpress workshops I offered had been given out sooner so maybe I could have had the opportunity to talk to the winners a bit.
Make sure the students have a place to sit between their reviews and do something to encourage the students to look at each others’ books.
Here is another thing that I always loved about my students at Delaware that lead me to believe we were doing some things right. We would go to a portfolio review sponsored by maybe the Philadelphia Art Directors Club. By the end of it the students had figured out who was good and hard at the critiques. When the last review was finished UD students would surround them. They would always get another 2 or 3 reviews out of them. And the other students would be crowded around watching even if it wasn’t their portfolio being reviewed. The Art Directors Club of New York use to really encourage other students to sit and watch the review before theirs. That way they could listen and not be the target of any criticism. I really liked that.
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There are probably typos and awkward wording. I’ll keep working on this for another week or so. This is actually round 4 of reworking this which I did on May 15.