When Innovation and Structure Collide in Design Education
Exploring the BFA and MFA Graphic Design programs at the California Institute of the Arts. “CalArts was born out of productively conflicting impulses (commercial vs. experimental) – a spirit of radicalism runs in our DNA.”
This article was originally published by AIGA Eye on Design.
It’s a week before graduation at the California Institute of the Arts, and I’ve just arrived at the End of the Year shows for the Graphic Design program. I completed my MFA in design at CalArts not too long ago, and it’s always a surprise to see how radically the themes for the shows vary from year to year. This time around, the undergrads are featuring every aspect of the graphic design process, not just the finished product. Titled Make Make Make, the BFAs present work in every stage of production: silkscreens burned with the silhouettes of posters, sketches, and mock-ups staggered in between polished type specimen books and packaging design projects.
In the adjoining gallery is the MFA show, a more conceptual experience that frames the students’ work around a speculative narrative that pits analog “craft punks” against technophiles known collectively as Ether Wæv. The show’s title, DUÆL, is actually an appropriate metaphor for the history of CalArts. When Walt Disney and his brother Roy facilitated the merger of the LA Conservatory of Music and the Chouinard Art Institute in 1961, they did so with the intention of creating a new art school with a dual purpose.
“CalArts was born out of productively conflicting impulses (commercial vs. experimental)—a spirit of radicalism runs in our DNA.”
One objective was to foster a creative workforce that would supply the motion picture industry with future talent. The other more utopian ideal was to build a “community of the arts” led by working artists that would encourage multidisciplinary collaboration. Anther Kiley, Co-Director of the Graphic Design program, says that although “CalArts was born out of productively conflicting impulses (commercial vs. experimental), a spirit of radicalism runs in our DNA.” Sheila de Bretteville, who originally ran the Design program, also founded the groundbreaking Women’s Design program in 1971, a year-long initiative which aimed to develop “a design subject matter appropriate to, and in keeping with, feminist identity.”
This facet of the school’s history was recently highlighted in Louise Sandhaus’ class, “Public Projects: Design School Archive.” In collaboration with CalArts archivist Kathy Carbone, the team digitized works created by former School of Design students from 1970-76. “We wanted to test an existing archive to see how it might align with established digital archives,” Sandhaus says. “In particular, the AIGA archive. Plus, with all the buzz from the recent Black Mountain College exhibition and the Hippie Modernism exhibition, it was the right moment for us to look at CalArts’ own experimental, utopian pedagogical past: the Design School.”
When asked to describe what it’s like to visit CalArts today, Sandhaus notes that “no matter what time of day or night—people often remark on the messy vitality. Because it’s small (approximately 1,500 students) you’re likely to stumble on a rehearsal, a performance, a conversation. And in both the halls and in the classroom, you’ll likely encounter other disciplines—ones that sometimes blossom into productive and evocative collaborations. But there are other avenues to collaborate via Critical Studies classes or through taking classes in other schools—like film and video, music, dance, and theater. CalArts is one of the few institutions where all the arts come together under the same roof.”
The graphic design program, once a separate department, has since merged with the School of Art, and is comprised of about 80 students, both undergrad and graduate. After de Bretteville, the program was run by April Greiman, and later co-directed by Jeff Keedy and AIGA Medalists Lorraine Wild and Ed Fella—all of whom are graduates of Cranbrook Academy of Art.
“Graphic design education was ripe for change in the mid-1980s,” Wild says of their move to CalArts.
“There were a set of new ideas flowing through the art, design, and architecture worlds that linked critical thinking to theories of language (like semiotics and post-structuralism) and this caused a lot of younger designers to become interested in new ways of thinking about how design actually communicated ideas.”
“In the ’70s I wouldn’t have been allowed in the program,” says Keedy. “By the mid-’80s when I came to CalArts, most design programs were still strongly entrenched in Bauhaus modernist dogma that still holds sway today. The disruption that the transition to digital technologies caused in the profession created an opening for new ways of thinking about design, and CalArts has always been receptive to new ways of thinking. Given its history, it makes sense that it would become a stronghold for postmodernism in design.”
Despite changes to the program over time, Keedy notes that one fundamental idea that has remained constant since the beginning of CalArts is that “the school is founded on the premise of artists teaching artists, which in the graphic design school means that from day one, students ARE graphic designers. There is no undergraduate foundation year like at many other schools; it’s full immersion in the métier. The studio culture is an important component of this model; classes move together as a body through the program, as a studio. And then there is the intense and twice-weekly critique…”
Those twice-weekly critiques, coupled with electives and extracurricular projects or initiatives, mean the design students rarely leave their studios. Since they are given 24-hour access to all facilities, each designer’s cubicle becomes a home away from home. Wacom tablets share desk space with rice cookers and coffee makers; books on design theory and typography compete for shelf space with cans of LaCroix and personal bric-a-brac.
A variety of well-behaved studio dogs, and even a cat named Phoebe, wait patiently beneath several desks while their owners tile posters or trim spreads late into the night. If students are ever stuck on a project, they’re just a cubicle away from their classmates for an informal critique, or they can visit Ed Fella who keeps open office hours in one of the MFA studios. Though he’s retired from teaching, Fella remains a creative resource and mentor to the students, and is always up for a friendly chat.
Dameon Waggoner, a current MFA1, loves the fact that students can have these informal conversations about design and process with living legends like Fella. “I went to university for my undergrad,” Waggoner says, “and it was much more of a hierarchic goal system there with professors vs. students. Here I feel like I can really access people, talk to them, and really get down to what matters.”
Anther Kiley says the small size of the program “allows for close faculty mentorship of students. All the GD faculty know all of the students, and there’s a sense of real care and responsibility for each student’s trajectory.”
Classes aren’t structured around a traditional grading system either. Students instead receive evaluations categorized by High Pass, Pass, or the dreaded Low Pass. “There’s an academic rigor here that is maybe unparalleled at other design schools,” says Waggoner. “For example, everyone’s required to take Design Theory, and I think that’s such an important part of figuring out who you are as a designer. What you’re doing, what you’re making, why you’re making it, what is interesting to you, knowing what’s come before, knowing and trying to understand how you can contribute to the future of the field. I love that this place is so academically rigorous but still has a freedom to really explore creatively, visually, and conceptually.”
For all the time spent working in the classroom or studio, there are still moments in the day for downtime, where students can take a nap under a tree or join in instructor Gail Swanlund’s “un-studio” class that, in addition to image-making projects, takes hiking field trips to the many nature trails just a few miles from campus. “There’s something unique but utterly day-to-day of everyone in proximity,” she says of life at CalArts. “The line between indoors and outdoors is slight, and with one step outside you realize the studios are surrounded by literally purple mountains, glittery sunshine, clacking crows, the expanses of over-watered, sodden lawns, and at night coyotes yipping nearby.”
Faculty member Colin Frazer says they are “dead set on building unstructured time into the curriculum. The notion that one should have time to ‘waste’—to ponder, to converse, to read, to let the mind wander—is truly becoming radical in a world defined by productivity, wealth creation, and efficiency. CalArts is not a place to come if you want someone to tell you what to do.”
Because the program is so small, Anther Kiley and Co-Director Scott Zukowski are able to keep the structure of the curriculum flexible, as they adapt to a changing landscape in higher education. “The challenge that all graphic design programs have been facing,” Kiley says, “is that the tools and media of design are expanding and changing so rapidly. The boundaries of the field are so amorphous and contested, that it’s less and less possible to cover all the bases. In addition, at the MFA level, the conventional two- or three-year residency model of graduate education (with its accompanying price tag) is being challenged by various alternative models.”
“‘At CalArts, the monkeys run the zoo.’”
This might include “taking our grad students on the road for a semester of roaming residencies, launching an off-site lecture series, facilitating students in initiating experimental studio practices in lieu of a traditional thesis—all of this is very possible here! As a program we’ve always positioned ourselves in provocative tension with mainstream design pedagogy; I don’t think there’s ever been a sense of obligation to represent the field of graphic design in some sort of comprehensive way. Our focus has always been on rigorously informed formal experimentation, and I see that as continuing to be our hallmark.”
So where do CalArts graduates end up landing jobs once they enter the profession? “Our alumni are geographically and professionally all over the map,” Keedy says. “The undergraduates usually work in the commercial or corporate world, and the grads typically go into cultural or institutional practices. But they are just as likely to pursue an entrepreneurial venture or a combination of different roles over a varied career trajectory.” While there may not be a typical post-CalArts career path, Keedy says that “foremost among the skills we teach is the ability to teach yourself to evolve.”
Keedy recalls his former colleague Louis Danziger’s description of the spirited ethos of the school and student body. “We will always remember Lou for saying, ‘at CalArts, the monkeys run the zoo.’”
Photography by Yoshihiro Makino