Teaching Design as an Olympian Task: What Will the Next Four Years Bring?

As the winter games in Sochi wind down tonight in what will no doubt leave me with bittersweet emotions, several observations have been simmering in my mind. I only have a vague recollection of watching the Salt Lake games back in 2002, probably because I was in the throes of finishing my MFA coursework and was spending most waking hours in the Mac Lab instead of watching the luge or slalom competitions. Over the four year cycles that followed, I found myself doing my own sort of preparation and training as a design educator: in 2006 I taught in Charlotte, followed by a gig in the eastern end of the state in 2010, and, currently, in Georgia during Russia’s grand production of 2014. Thus, I can’t help but draw some comparisons between the Olympic spirit and the process of teaching graphic design, and how the two topics share many common elements and challenges.

The Opening Ceremonies

Hardly any fan of the Olympics would want to miss watching the parade of athletes from many nations as they march into the newly built venue, each sporting colorful outfits and snapping photos with their smart phones held aloft. Viewers who tuned in to the advent of the Sochi Games where treated to a visual feast of pageantry and slick production values, each section seeming to trump the previous one in its eye-popping graphics and technology.

As a new semester begins in higher education, there is similar pomp and circumstance as faculty from many disciplines wear our regalia and file into opening convocation alongside fresh-faced young students, many of whom are away from home for the first time. Sure, much of the ceremony is following a well-oiled “script”: the singing of the alma mater, a presidential address, even a “mace bearer” to head up the procession of participants who embrace the “life of the mind.”

Athletes in Training

Of course, the Olympic athletes spend countless hours and years of their young lives practicing their individual sport, and perfecting their routines, whether it’s in freestyle skiing, curling, or moguls. Their coaches are there every step of the journey, not to mention the support of families and friends who sacrifice much in hopes of claiming the gold.

Similarly, our students expend much energy in taking qualifying exams like the ACT and SAT, and work on polishing entrance essays in hopes of securing the best scholarships available. University administrators — everyone from admissions staff to deans to counselors to provosts — play crucial roles like the official judges and timekeepers in the winter games. Let’s not forget SACS, sort of the equivalent of the IOC, and their role in ensuring that each institution is following accreditation standards.

Facilitators: Coaches and Professors

In the past dozen years of teaching graphic design, I’m amazed at how nimble we faculty have had to be if we hope to equip the millennials with the skill sets they must possess to become creative professionals in the 21st century arena. For example, I have taught Adobe Photoshop versions 6,7,8 — followed by CS, CS-2, CS-3, CS-4, CS-5, and now CS-6. Switching to the Creative Cloud is only a matter of time. The same is true in teaching Illustrator [at least seven different “upgrades” of the software] and the complete migration from teaching page layout with QuarkXpress to InDesign. Factor in the swift changes in hardware that Apple has driven — from the old G4s to the retina-display, Intel quad-core processor iMacs that no longer contain a built-in disc drive — and it’s a wonder we design educators can ever feel like we’re ahead of the learning curve.

On a related note, just in the last six months of starting a new tenure-track position I have been responsible for outfitting a 16-station Mac Lab, converting from an LCD projector to a Sharp Aquos board for classroom instruction, installing old scanner drivers that will work with the newer Mac OS, and learning the basics of Blackboard for online supplements to each course. At times dealing with technology is a daunting task.

Student Olympians or “Rock Stars”?

In the course of teaching art students, there always seems to be the archetypes through the span of a 4-year degree. There are the Lindsey Vonns, talented students who get sidelined by injuries or by trying to take too many credit hours and dropping out. I can think of many freshmen like Bode Miller, who was dubbed the bad boy of Torino in 2006 but who redeemed himself this year with most fans when he was overcome with emotion after successfully clinching the medal following a series of personal trials. I could list more: young, tow-headed Shaun White who matured over his many snowboard competitions and demonstrated what it means to be a gracious loser in Sochi; the amazing Steven Holcomb of the USA bobsled team, who battled a devastating eye disease and ensuing depression to come back and claim a history-making medal. He made me think of the pride I feel on seeing a student walk across the platform to receive his or her diploma at graduation, knowing all the struggles that have come before. Or how about the crowd favorite of ice dancing, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, as they blissfully executed their graceful synergy to hushed onlookers? Such skating pairs reminded me of design duos like Seymour Schwast & Paula Scher or Rudy Van der Lans & Zuzanna Licko, whose creative collaborations seem to bring out the best in graphic design solutions.

Alumni “return to the classroom”

I thought of how often former Olympic medalists find the next stage of their careers by serving as commentators for the televised coverage. Veterans like Scott Hamilton and Apollo Ohno, both expressing such youthful exuberance when providing their expertise, are like hearing a former design student speak at a conference or post the news of a promotion on Linked-In. It’s always rewarding to hear of our students’ success stories, and humbling to consider that we each play a small role in preparing them to achieve their creative pursuits. There is even the rare occasion when one of your students makes it big, like Shaun White has with his own clothing line, rock band, and personal brand.

Four Years From Here?

Finally, after the grandiose display of medals and the closing ceremonies, one can feel a bit melancholy or at least unsure of the road ahead [not unlike the emotions after spring commencement in academia]. What new course would I like to develop for next semester? Can I carve out significant studio time in the summer for my own creative pursuits? Will my graphic novel finally be completed by the next time the Olympics rolls around?

A few years ago I must confess to experiencing some real disenchantment about where things seemed to be headed in the world of graphic design, and in culture at large. For example: here’s a journal musing from 2010:
“I can no longer enjoy quietly reading in Books-a-Million. Three patrons repeatedly answer their loud cell phones, forcing me listen to their banal conversations.” My curmudgeon-like tone continued with the declaration: “the printed page shrinks, while the Nook and Kindle and Droid and iPad gain ascendancy!”

While all these things are reality, I’m comforted in some recent developments. While I truly mourn news like Yeehaw Industries [one of the last shops that produced hand-printed posters] closing its doors, I’m encouraged to see hand-rendered type more prevalent in magazines and newspapers (see Jessica Hische and Oded Ezer, for example). Also, there are more music artists favoring vinyl releases — even in a Pandora and Spotify world. And I continue to observe innovative art direction in editorial design (e.g. — W magazine, the updated T magazine, PARADE, to name a few).

For the foreseeable future, then, let’s hope that passionate students and Olympians alike will do the hard work to realize their vision and make their disciplines shine brighter. May we equip them with the tools to produce award-winning solutions, and keep the torch of creativity burning.

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