20 December 2018

Should we train all students in graphic design?

This blog exists to help solve a problem: that academic conference posters are ugly. But I am under no illusions that this blog is going to fix the problem. So, what would move the dial the quality of conference posters?

When faced with this kind of question, I often see people say, “We should include this in our training for students!”

As an educator, I never want to be the person to say we shouldn’t train students. I’ve done it myself, often. I support this sentiment, but I’m wary of calls for “more training,” for two reasons.

First, suggestions for “more training” make me worry about mission creep. Over time, I’ve heard that students need more training in statistics. And in writing. And in ethics. And in grantsmanship. And in social media. And diversity issues. And in dealing with media. And in public outreach. And so on.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all worthy topics where I think training would be beneficial. But there is only so much we can realistically expect to make students competent in during their time in our programs. It’s hard enough to attain competence and eventual mastery in one discipline.

Second, graphic design is a professional skill that takes years of study and practice. “Training” research students in graphic design would probably end up being a few credit hours over a multi-year program, taught by a non-professional (e.g., a research scientist in the department who is smart enough not to use Comic Sans but never took a class in design) rather than a skilled graphic designer (e.g., someone from over in an art department who does this on a daily basis). (And I say that as someone who has been asked to do those kinds of classes and workshops. I mean, I’m that guy!) I worry that calling for training could trivialize the skills needed for excellent design and become a curricular box-checking exercise.

Instead of expecting academics to become one person bands, we should try to create more access and respect for experts in other fields and be willing to use them, credit them, and pay them.

Picture from randychiu on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


Mike Taylor said...

I don't quite agree with you here. I think training in any given field has a lot of value in its early stages, and then of course flattens out as expertise increases. Just as a single hour of diversity training can be enough to knock people off the rails of unexamined assumptions, so a single hour of graphic design can be enough to make people aware of basics like: leave enough whitespace, omit most boxes, align elements, and (of course) don't use Comic Sans. There's value in that. Of course, it's nothing like being a professional graphic designer. But that doesn't make it valueless.

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