In the 1990’s Graphic Design educators were faced with an almost overnight pedagogical dilemma: designing for the Internet. Up until that point Graphic Design educators were challenged by technology in so far as absorbing the rapid growth of operating systems, printing methods and design software and applying these methodologies to the classroom. The Internet poised a new challenge as it didn’t constitute the typically comfortable solution of printing out the final piece for an assignment, but instead each digital project had to be flexible and intuitive enough to support the various permutations of different users entering and exploring a site. Building upon this pedagogical challenge was the fact that Internet-based projects are viewed on a screen through HyperText Markup Language (HTML) via a series of browsers that needed different coding to work effectively for every version. Tasking the student to develop concepts for different page types through Adobe PhotoShop was simple in comparison to the real challenge: learning a new foreign language (HTML) and then teaching it in an comprehensible manner to the design students. (Typography on the screen was another matter all in itself.) However, the discipline persevered and designers capitalized greatly on their ability to design for technology and information. What emerged was an aesthetic for the information age, one that reflected the rapid changes and ephemeral qualities of the web in contrast to the aesthetic of the machine. It is an aesthetic that emphasized the immaterial rather than immovable objects and systems.
Today the Graphic Design educator still grapples with effectively integrating technology into the curriculum, but is now faced with a much more daunting challenge: creating a sustainable profession and world. As the world population expands (expected to grow by another 2.6 billion people by 2050) and consumption of natural resources balloons for the creation of new homes, the production of energy and the printing of the ephemera, One question becomes glaringly obvious: Where will the resources come from to maintain our current way of life? Victor Papanek writing as early as 1970 in Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change described:
“When people are persuaded, advertised, propagandized, and victimized into throwing away their cars every three years, their clothes twice yearly, their high fidelity sets every few years (the average American family was moving once every 56 months as I was writing this book), then we may consider most other things fully obsolete. Throwing away furniture, transportation, clothing, and appliances may soon lead us to feel marriages (and other personal relationships), are throw-away items as well and that on a global scale countries, and indeed entire subcontinents, are disposable like Kleenex.”
Essentially our current graphic design education model lacks a strategic foundation in effectively teaching its own history and an even more pitiful understanding of the materials and processes we use daily as they effect the environment. Young designers are graduating better prepared to be consumers, rather than citizens or even designers their practice adding to the creation of an unsustainable lifestyle that severely limits the viability of the profession going forward. Faced with resource and climate change issues, a rational business approach would be to greatly reduce the work we make, however the economic impact of this decision in our current Consumer Capitalist system would spell a disaster similar to that if we ignorantly continued on our current path. In an attempt to adapt to and embrace contemporary environmental and economic dilemmas, educators will need to research new methods to teach a more in-depth and deserving respect and understanding of the current and future materials of our profession. However, how do educators tackle such a overwhelming problem when it means possibly re-educating our faculty to achieve this goal? Could a solution lie in looking at the system in which graphic design is taught in university classrooms? This paper will argue that despite forty plus years of various iterations of Post-Modernist thought percolating throughout galleries and the halls of academia, the essential principals of Modernism are still being utilized as the core teaching model. The flaws in this methodology are more apparent as the methodology itself proves unsustainable for the present and disastrous for the future. The article will further explain how an increased appreciation of the design process and its history are central to how future design problems are understood and how sustainable solutions will be executed. It will lastly explore the necessity for a return to a reform-minded vision of design’s role in society and a deeper investigation of the designer as a mediator between production and consumption. The future of our design education will be one that empowers the designer to become proactive in educating and advocating for positive social changes that can sustain our craft within a new green economy. It will also feature a genuine consideration of ethics in its pedagogy, which will be essential to sustaining design’s influence over our cultural production of meaning. This paper describes a new movement necessary for all of our survival: Eco-Modernism.
Eric has presented at an earlier conference sponsored by the same organization (Common Ground). You can purchase his article “Ethics of a Designer in a Global Economy: A Class on Contemporary Design Issues” for $10 US.