Professor Revisits Her Own Path to Art

As part of my academic research, I’ve been spending more time reading and thinking about how to make design education more accessible to more people. I’ve been forced to consider, consequently, how the curricula I’ve either inherited or adopted—curricula that is regarded as foundational in the design world—might actually be outdated when it comes to preparing students to meet the needs of the 21st century. Self-critique is never easy but there are times when confronting difficult questions is the only way forward. There is little comfort to be had when you begin questioning many of your own assumptions. In my case, I’ve come to realize that while my career path wasn’t clear or easy, I’ve failed to appreciate the extent to which middle-class privilege helped open doors. I’ve also failed to consider how my background compares (or contrasts) with others who have found their way to art and design, and the impact this could have on how I approach design education.

By the time I got to college, I was interested in genetic engineering, psychology and English. I also briefly flirted with the idea of architecture. One by one, however, I ruled out a variety of options. Architecture required transferring to another school, I didn’t want to deal with the ethical dimensions of genetic engineering, and given my personal experiences with mental health, I questioned whether or not I had the ability to approach the work with an appropriate level of emotional detachment.

But neither was I completely comfortable with the idea of an art major. I was intimidated by the upper-class students who were super cool without even trying. Exuding the confidence of an artist seemed to be a requirement, and though I knew that I had some creative ability, I wasn’t convinced I fit the mold. I was also surprised at how challenging my first college-level art class was. I didn’t expect it to be particularly easy, but putting work up for critique and learning how to utilize the language of design elements and principles to talk about compositions pushed me out of my comfort zone in ways I didn’t expect. Line, shape, form, texture, value; unity, balance, scale—these were foreign concepts to me. Moreover, I’d never had much of a thick skin and was sensitive about what other people had to say about my work.

Eventually, I declared a major in art. And I came to understand that being an artist is more of an internal thing than external one. Graduate school, too, was helpful in cementing design as a discipline where my job was to work my tail off while my instructors did their best to help me improve. There was a clinical aspect to what was expected from me that took away the fear of falling short. Education, in this case, did not reflect the classic success-versus-failure binary--it was about ensuring that I was prepared, that I learned how to think about design in professional and practical ways, and that I find employment.

I have no idea if my experience is typical or not. But I’m now increasingly curious to find out more about the backgrounds and experiences of current and former students. Of all of the options available to them, why did they choose art/design? In declaring a design major, is the education they’re getting adequately preparing them for the job market? Have they considered where they hope to be five or 10+ years after graduation? What new careers will a design education potentially prepare them for? And, perhaps most importantly, how do I bridge the gap between the experiences of my students and the young people who don’t even get close enough to design to see what kinds of opportunities it can provide long-term?

I have no hope of improving the design education I’m capable of imparting if I limit myself to what I already know. So, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone yet again with the expectation that I will emerge wiser yet more humble, with a better perspective on how to make contributions that are truly meaningful in my own work and in the classroom.