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Sporadic Notes On Design Education

– A Monster

In the heart of the downtown of a cosmopolitan and historic city, a large fluffy monster with irregular sleeping hours resides. It has no particular schedule, and the duration of each of its sleeping intervals remains unpredictable. But when the monster is awake, magical things happen! The body of the monster is covered with piñata-like fur, modular, light-weight strips of ideas and blooming aspirations.

The monster’s sleep pattern reflects how design operates in the region. During the past decade, interests have waxed and waned – and in consequence, events and activities related to visual communication tend to occur in a very designless manner, appearing and disappearing sporadically. At certain times, multiple projects are launched, while at other times nothing happens and it’s as if the discipline has no presence at all.

Those anxious vacant spaces between the intervals of the monster’s slumber hold the potential for new initiatives. They are spaces that could encourage the curious and ambitious occupants of these cities to overcome their fear of the unknown, their fear of failure.

– Sporadic

Lately the word ‘sporadic’ has been regularly on my mind. It infiltrates thoughts covering an array of topics that may not be relevant to one another, but which share a common context. The intense frequency of the word’s appearance reflects the current global situation we find ourselves in – a situation that we are unable to escape except temporarily, either by external distractions or by focusing on ourselves. The moment we feel that things are settling down, everything gets stirred up again. Nothing is working. Nothing. We live in a mist of senseless white noise.

– Graphic Design : Form- und Bildgestaltung : Création Graphique

I’ve always found ‘Graphic Design’ to be too cold a term to describe this branch of visual communication. It sounds dry and scientific, a bit outdated – it just doesn’t fit that well. It fails to describe the field accurately. The German equivalent, Form- und Bildgestaltung, by contrast, accurately reflects the elements that constitute the discipline: form and pictorial (visual) design. The French term, Création Graphique, expresses the act of creation. Both terms are more descriptive of the significance of the process in relation to the act of production.

As a field, graphic design involves transforming defined content into visual form for a specific goal, channeled via a chosen medium and limited by preset conditions. It’s like taking what you are given, and making some sort of sense out of it all. It’s making lemon sorbet out of the lemons life gives you. The methodology of the transformation depends on cultural context, medium of production, background of recipients, and the moment in time amongst other factors. The objective might be conveying a message; announcing an event; making a statement; guiding the recipient in a certain direction; or experimenting more freely with familiar ideas and unknown media to unravel something through a process.

– Movement

We need a nudge, a push, to break free from self-imposed limits and create a comfortable space for designers, students, educators and design enthusiasts to unreservedly come together, produce and share.

This could be a good chance to change things and start something new. It is difficult to interact with an aggressive context, and to build resilience in order not to be susceptible to such turbulence. But it’s absolutely necessary if we are to be able to move.

– Exploring the Unknown

Brand image, fashion trends, and their abundant presence on social media platforms suggest a certain way of living that is attractive to millennials. The subversive collaboration between Adidas Originals and Alexander Wang is one example. The collaboration is marked by an eclectic mix of influences. The designer took an element from the company’s past, the Trefoil logo reminiscent of the 70s, and changed how it is supposed to be seen by turning it upside down. By introducing error to familiar objects and being irreverent, the Adidas Originals celebrate a lifestyle that is ‘cool’ and ‘loose’. This connection between lifestyle culture and design is a significant drive behind the growing interest in studying graphic design. Even though the motivation behind this interest seems to be clear, some students walk into the classroom with the notion that graphic design is akin to animation, illustration or even interior design. I find this confused drive and interest still quite admirable. The field exerts a strong enough magnetic force to attract students even when they aren’t familiar with the subject. When students begin their studies without knowing exactly what it is they are studying, it allows them to work in a more open and less limited way. Misconceptions can become openings.

– Taking students for a walk

On a hot Cairene Monday morning, a teacher walks into a university classroom located in the deserts of Cairo’s urban outskirts, and finds students cooped together, bumping elbows, unsuccessfully attempting to work on long, meticulously set sheets of paper. They’re timidly drawing rectangles and circles using plastic templates, guided by prescribed pencil grids. The air in the classroom is still and dry and something needs to break. Control needs to be regained and lost. The teacher asks the students to bring materials for the next week’s class without revealing what they will be used for. They are told to bring black ink, the largest brushes they can find, and lots and lots of large-scale sheets of white paper.

The following Monday, the teacher walks in and hears the shuffling of paper, and the sound of unsettled students clumsily stumbling around. Like firemen in fire stations, the students are asked to set up their workspaces and prepare their material in a way that allows them to reach their tools and work in a fast and practical manner as soon as the stopwatch counter starts. The teacher then gives them a keyword, which they have to describe visually in 20 sketches, on 20 sheets of paper, and in 20 minutes. 20/20/20!

The proposed topic is ‘rain’; water droplets that pour down in a myriad of strengths, weights and speeds. Mist, drizzles, showers. The students begin working. Some focus on depicting slow and soft movements, while others use aggressive and loud strokes, thuds of ink hitting paper. Ink stained sheets wildly cover the floor of the classroom as students flip through pages and think of new outcomes as fast as they can while waiting for the work to dry. Twenty minutes later, the alarm goes off, signaling the end of the exercise. Both the teacher and the students start hopping around the classroom, moving between the sheets laid on the floor wherever they find an empty place to put their foot down. They chat about the similarities and differences of the various outcomes. There is a cloud of murmurs, in which can be detected new keywords that describe the experience and the experiments.

– Abstraction and the Process

Abstraction is crucial when it comes to finding the fitting context. Using abstraction in assignments as a pedagogical element helps us discover appropriate ways to communicate without leaning on presumed cultural, social and political gestures and connotations. Instead, it helps unravel the usual ways we use signs to represent ideas, so as to find new methods that better suit contemporary experiences – experiences we may be struggling to digest and understand due to the vast global unsettling that is taking place. Abstraction is used to simplify concepts in order to work without inhibitions. We strip elements down to their basic shapes and forms, rid them of color, and start the journey to find new relationships between those shapes and the space around them.

Although they are opposites, non-material abstraction and the material-driven process move in parallel. By depending on process as a tool for discovery, we are able to come up with an advanced verbal and visual vocabulary to channel contemporary situations. Processes, sometimes dictated by the mediums they are functioning within, are ways of communicating with abstract topics to discover possible relationships between form, topic and material or medium.

– Wolfgang Weingart

Wolfgang Weingart takes pleasure seriously. Weingart took the simplest of ideas through the most wondrous of journeys to come up with radically new solutions, inventing his own visual language that transcended the limitations of ‘Swiss design’ while working within the relatively modest confines of a typeshop at the Schule für Gestaltung in Basel. He made many influential discoveries through the spontaneity of his self-defined processes, and by modifying the tools of the typeshop. The exercise of ‘The Letter M’ is a good example of this curious endeavor. Weingart tinkered with the upper case ‘M’ in both flat and three-dimensional forms. He mixed sizes, thicknesses, positions, angles, perspectives and materials, looking for visual relationships by testing different compositional positions and overlaps of shapes, and coming up with a range of expressive, dynamic and diverse variations on a single character. Thin – Bold – Soft – Aggressive – Rational – Irrational – Legible – Illegible – Organic – Architectural. His process-based and experimental methodology remains appreciated to this day.

– Screen Time (Or How Not to Be A Dictator)

The expectations we build on class assignments set within a given timeframe are rarely met. We expect the current generation to have the same perception of time as we do, which may be an irrational expectation. Constantly online and surrounded by screens, millennials are used to interruptions. Perhaps the generation in question manages to be productive, and remains unaffected by the pings of incoming emails and texts from their friends and family. Maybe the expectations need to change, and we can find a way to use those interruptions productively – this is something that I have not yet cracked. How can we use the interruptions to mark time? How can we use contemporary conditions to rethink our educational methodology?

Bayn Journal commissioned this essay for their first issue, “The beginnings of dialogue,” in 2018, working with Bassem Yousri to translate it into Arabic.

This text has been slightly modified in format to better fit online publishing.

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