I recently graduated ART CENTER COLLEGE OF DESIGN, a wonderful place in many regards that however needs some improvements very soon. Here is a “debrief” after five years there.
This document is structured around a series of concerns I’ve developed over my time in Product Design at ACCD but also outside. I will try to be as fair as possible in my judgments, and as clear as possible about my intentions in every example I give. However I reserve myself the right to also make biased statements (that I welcome critique on) for anything I feel has been handled unfairly.
I will say that above all, Product Design as a major creates relatively capable craftsmen when it comes to CAD modeling / rendering and fleshing out “strategies.”
But then… who says CAD is the (only?) way to go?
This may sound harsh and may not be the truth but it is meant to be an uncomfortable poke, a mini wake-up call, that may easily be shrugged off but the will also linger around the head of those who’ve read it.
From now on, most of this document will focus on the PRODUCT DESIGN PROGRAM and sometimes input from outside students I’ve picked up on.
The curriculum should be the action plan a program offers to its students. It’s its blueprint. The way it is structured implies a specific set of values but also may need to be flexible, handled play by play as a student’s or the industry’s path transforms.
I have to say I’ve always been supported in my efforts to experiment with the curriculum. I’ve taken classes in Product Design, Illustration, Environmental Design and Graphic Design and studied at two other campuses in Japan and in France.
In product design, we are given many chances to reach out, try new things which I am grateful for, but the problem for me was coming back “home” to product classes.
Before my last term at Art Center I had not taken a single product design class for 2 terms (instead I took two independent studies, three terms of internship and freelance and classes in other majors). I was excited to catch up on the content I had missed by not taking product studios (that I had waived out of) through those of my peers that had taken them. I was also excited to share with the faculty and students the different approaches I had learned.
None of that happened, the main dynamic was to do just enough to make the teacher happy. One of product design’s greatest plague, instilled since term 1.
I use this example because I honestly feel like I’ve missed nothing by skipping the second to last product term and would’ve learned more by simply concluding with an independent study in my last term.
Around 3rd or 4th term I was told “After fourth term you will find your voice.”
I think there is a lot of truth there, so much so that I feel like the program could end after fourth term and then offer students to:
–retake term 3 or 4 since they are strong classes (which would allow for a lot more crossover between returning students and new students, overlap skill sets)
– set up custom classes to students based on their interests
– take classes in other majors
– take on sponsor projects
I am not re-inventing the wheel here, I have seen a lot of students follow similar routes (in fourth term, an eighth term student was looking for an extra studio and took it with us) but the focus is on not having requisite studios past 4th term.
This would push students to think critically about their education.
One very striking problem about Product design and Environmental design alike is the lack of options, I was amazed to see that even second term graphic design studios offered four different teachers to study with. Aside from the amount of students in the program that forces other measures, it forces students to inform their choice in teachers early on in their ACCD career.
This becomes even more relevant when we accept more students into our studios than our capacity (~20) allows for. Students in their 2nd term last term, had 15 min to present AND be critiqued by the teacher…
The biggest challenge is the way our major relates to the industry. It seems that a lot of the drawbacks of our program come from being behind with regards to the industry. The phrase “industry-ready” is ambiguous and misleading. Yes, in many regards, product design at ACCD trains students to be “industry-ready” but probably for the year of their graduation. Once the twelfths month strikes they will be behind.
Why is that?
We follow the industry instead of influencing it. When faculty chants we create “leaders” it is yet again an ambiguous euphemism that actually means “trend-following ‘leaders’ for other followers…” On the other hand… that is indeed 90% of the industry…
Or at least it was perhaps a decade ago. Now the industry is more capricious, changing… Shouldn’t then “agents of change” feel like they are in their element?!
The biggest challenge isn’t how well a product graduate can identify and poach a trend for its blood. It’s how do they understand the socio-political fluctuations that influence those trends and what are the tools that embody them to then chose to follow it or challenge it. It’s who they are able to ask about issues going on in the world that they don’t understand. This can only happen with the faculty’s integration of current events into their everyday curriculum and the faculty’s on-going experimentations with the tools and practices they teach to students. The best example being sustainability.
The same problems the industry faces with implementing sustainable reforms are present in our curriculum: sustainability is taught as two classes, isolated from the other ones, but we get a pat on the back if, maybe, we might perhaps potentially feel like it could be an “added-value” to the customer… And then we slap some yarn on it and call it eco-something.
Those are the very trends that as a leading institution we must learn to challenge, improve, develop.
As a teaching institution we should not just PRODUCE money and professional individuals but also independent thinkers and culture in its broadest terms.
Studios are our main organs and teachers their blood. Poorly oxygenated blood makes for a low-performing organ.
We need teachers with a breath of fresh air. Teachers who haven’t come back to teach after just a couple of years “out there” in the industry. Also I think we should have a lot more teachers from other schools.
I focus on teachers because they are the class. When I spend four and a half hours twiddling my thumbs so a teacher can speak to me for 15 minutes, they better be “oxygenated.” But again a lot aren’t.
Oxygenation can happen in many ways (which many of which I believe are already in action):
– Being curious
– Being supportive
– Being adaptive (giving demos / class activities based on what they see as the students’ needs for that term)
– Admitting when they don’t know, giving place to doubt
– Doing or being able to do what they ask of their students
– Respecting their students
– Being excited for them to become those they will work with tomorrow
– Learning new tools, new methods
– Sharing personal challenges tied to the course’s content
The best experience I had with a teacher was during a designstorm with Cloud 9 when the client, an architect, decided he too wanted to do work while we (the students) were working on our projects. We’d then get to critique him, challenge him the same way he challenged us. The respect it built made me want to work even harder.
The worst experience was during my last midterm when a guest teacher dismissively retorted at a close friend and co-worker of mine: “Huh, I don’t know who you are but good point. Although I can probably design better than the wind.”
If I were to unpack a few things are happening:
1. The teacher is being unprofessional (out of insecurity? power struggle? habit?)
2. The teacher is trying shut down before constructively offering solutions (out of insecurity? power struggle? habit?)
3. The teacher critiqued by making it about themselves as opposed to a pre-defined target user… (thus being unprofessional)
This brings me to “guest speakers.” In my final class at ACCD, again, the main teacher was just as much of a guest speaker as the other ones, who weren’t really guest speakers the way they were originally intended: ACCD outsiders INVITED as GUESTS to give feedback. I find the concept of guest speakers exiting and have always appreciated when the speakers give a refreshing outlook on a body of work that I’ve stuck my head into for months. However I do not count another teacher from the same program to be as valuable of a guest crit as one from another program or an industry professional.
There is a great opportunity there that the product department has only dabbled with: having “outsiders” present in the classes. Those outsiders can be guest crits, speakers OR perhaps guest students that could come in for a term or two (with an ACCD scholarship?). I experienced the latter example while in Design for Sustainability 2.
That term, one of the students was a professional working in a pollution monitoring facility. Because of her presence we were able to see how projects are valued and presented in other industries, visit her workplace and labs but also get a deeper understanding of what “sustainability” means at an infrastructural scale (she worked at a state-level).
The main insight to take from here is that the program NEEDS to open up to be able to survive, not a whole lot, but just enough to let change happen on its own, without forcing it.
I will close this section with “grades.” Behind the grade lives the logic of the pay-check, the reward, the approval.
Which in turn invites the interest and character of the one giving it. Teachers often use grades as a form of petty manipulation, stick etc. That has to stop. I feel I am fair saying that because I am also willing to recognize that the very low grade I received at the end of Viscom 1 was very well deserved and that it had a direct impact on my work ethic the second term. But I was still young, in a development stage, and I trusted the teacher giving it to me.
I think grades could be useful all the way up to fourth term as a guidance, but shouldn’t be part of the question past that point. Because of their nature they infantilize students and push them to please the teacher instead of doing meaningful work.
Instead of grades, I think faculty involved in a student’s education past fourth term should focus on setting precedents for respect and caring for others. This can mean bringing in food, sharing their work, inviting students to their home or on field trips. This would support and earlier and richer transition into the real world. They could also provide logistical help in getting student-initiated demos or workshops off the ground.
THE THINGS THAT CAN’T BE TAUGHT BUT CAN BE PRACTICED
Respect / Curiosity / Inventivity / Confidence / Sustainability / Passion / Emerging industry skills
Trade schools today are becoming expendable. Because of Youtube, Skillshare, General Assembly, Red Engine, a lot of the skills Art Center likes to charge for need to be re-evaluated, re-assessed for what they are really worth, what they really offer. ACCD likes to walk a fine line between calling itself an institution that values change, creates leaders… It rarely does… And one that creates careers.
“An Art Center education doesn’t come cheaply. It requires a high-deposit, high-return investment of resources, tapping reserves of creativity and cash. But Art Center students know these initial sacrifices will pay off down the road when they emerge with an education custom designed to equip them for creatively and financially fulfilling careers. Money magazine reinforced the College’s reputation for boosting its grads’ professional prospects this week when it ranked Art Center third on its list of 25 of the best college values.”
-Dotted Line, ACCD BLOG
It also puts ACCD in 117th place for “Best Colleges.”
I think this model (of using the promise of well-paying employment) will remain effective for a few years but will soon strip away as careers start to overlap more between creative technologists, designers, art directors, entrepreneurs. A lot of the most creative peers I have met at ACCD have decided to leave school to learn the exact skills they need for a tenth of the cost Art Center promised “knowledge” for.
Offering an early exit from the program after fourth term would I think make the product design program far more dynamic, by pushing students to experiment OR to realize that they wish to simply refine their traditional skills (which is very valuable too).
The cost of classes creates a weird snowball effect that gives teachers more power: as we (students) try to make the most out of our steep investment “minutes become money.” I’ve seen very sad posters around the campus telling students that if they skip class they will waste $XXX.XX dollars. At the same time, again, when I am alloted a 15 minute critique but have to wait four hours to get it… I think something needs to be rethought, and that skipping class may often be a very smart use of my time and money.
This is about putting less of a burden on the shoulders of the student so they are not as afraid to experiment during their time at ACCD. It took me 11 terms to figure it out, something I couldn’t have done without scholarship.
The other aspect of cost, far easier to improve, is the cost of deliverables: AN APPEARANCE MODEL SHOULD NOT COST $2000. This is an extreme case, mostly supported by the environmental design and transportation design programs but the money paid for tuition should allow for stipends, grants for final deliverables.
The problem here lays in how teachers approach their class, once again. No teacher in product design has ever tried to teach me tricks to make a model more affordable, to think about how to make a prototype more efficiently, cost is always ignored until it… happens. No, an additional $1000 to $2000 dollars shouldn’t have to be spent every term so it can be put in the Art Center gallery. Or at least, the programs showcasing student work in the gallery should offer compensation for the models that make it there. You are teaching your students to work for free otherwise.
We need to help students think critically about the cost of projects, tuition and things related to the school. This would benefit the students, their work (as they learn to better understand a value/supply/demand system) but also the industry they are going into as they would learn to make better use of resources.
My good friend Vina once asked Frido why his character varied so much between his Product 2 and his Creative Strategies class. His answer was along the lines of “a professional designer must be reliable.”
I completely agree with the statement, as broad as it may be. However, it implies that the type of playful work that comes out of a course like Creative Strategies, most of the time, isn’t deemed professional or at the very least does not seem to have market viability.
I beg to differ, we, as a program, must stop to assume professionalism equates with dry seriousness. The best example of another highly demanding craft to look at would be theater, it takes improvisation, games and activities to professionally interpret a Shakespearian play, one might also point out that only a person willing to play, with a desire for play, could have come up with as many puns and expressions for the world to use centuries later as Shakespeare has.
Play is worth it. Play may not fit in the gallery, but that’s the gallery’s problem. Play is worth it. And above all play can be rigorous.
In Paris, at l’ENSCI, all the studios took a one week break after midterms to work on a totally unrelated projects that would be showcased in a giant student-organized party at the end of the week. Food for thought.
This reminds me that one of the favorite phrases in our program is “How do you have time for this?!” Time needs to be given, granted by the staff, for students to take on personal initiatives, organizes events, parties where they apply their creativity. Designing for the campus, with DIY club, has been a very enriching experience for me for instance.
GIVE STUDENTS TIME. I’ve been told there was too much that needed to be taught for us to lighten the load. Again I disagree, what the program rarely manages to acknowledge is personal motivation. Cramming so much content into the curriculum kills motivation. Student burnout is a real thing. I think a lot of the skills taught in product are beneficial but could also be taught as intensive 3 week workshops for example.
THE TEACHERS I HAVE TO THANK
Teachers at ACCD often rise to the level of celebrities within our little ecosystem. That is why I would like to end this written critique by dropping a few names of unsung heroes of mine. Names without whom my experience here would’ve been close to worthless.
Seth Kaufman (FINE ARTS + GRAPHICS)
I took a course called Forming Forms with Seth. He was a great teacher because before any critique he asked the student: “What did you try to do here? Did you explore the concept? The craftsmanship?” He would then adapt his crit to the student’s intention while still pointing out anything he felt might be off in either of the aspects of the work.
He also loved to tell stories. Real ones, not sale pitches (as stories are mistaken in the product major), but stories, with people, story arcs that often starred him in his earlier years. In his class I both learned very specific skills: welding, plywood-making but also met various artists and industrials who made a living from forming forms.
I took his class right before leaving to Japan and one of his many “modest” sayings stuck with me: “When I learn a new craft, I master it and then I fuck with it.” My Tama trip couldn’t have been as fruitful without having met him.
Jane McFadden (FINE ARTS)
I first took Jane’s History of Performance Art class, before taking Modernism and then doing an independent study with her. Jane always knew what she was talking about. Or not. “Right?!” She would ask. She probably had an idea of where she was headed but always let it guided us with questions. She taught art history as a series of forces, hues, flowing on top and about one another as opposed to a series of chronological facts.
The last comment she left me with was “Have you thought about economy of scale?” Nothing else. It made no sense at first, until a sense built itself around it, I could explain what but it would take a whole other essay. I admire Jane for her vast knowledge and her ability to share it with such meticulous constraint.
Michael Kontopoulos (GRAPHICS)
Michael teaches ID3, an interface design class built around the open-source software “Processing.” He started his first day of class with “What tools do you guys use?” A lot of us answered Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, to which he replied, “Do you realize all of those are made by the same company? Adobe?” This is the kind of awareness and critical thinking about techniques, tools, values of the world we live in any teacher in any field should foster. Since then I’ve worked with Michael professionally, TA-ed for him and done an independent study with him as well.
My life as it seems to be becoming could not have been as great without Art Center and the staff I met there, but there is still a lot of room from improvement.
I’ve come to realize from my experience in student government and speaking to department chairs that majors at Art Center are very separate (sadly), number-crunching machines (how else to explain the increase in students every term?) that respond to a “greater calling” which is to make money and buy real estate. A faculty I met three years ago told me the best way to gain clairvoyance towards an enterprise is to see what it produces.
And that’s always been my main problem with Art Center: it is a good trade school trying to be a lot more, without the willingness to experiment enough with what that might mean.
I therefore challenge the Product Design department to live up to their promise, the mission statement on their website:
“You emerge from our program […] having developed the tools to visualize the future and the skills to become a creative leader.”