By Dr Neal Haslem
Communication Design has expanded significantly as a practice since I graduated from Art School with a Graphic Design major. From its late 20th Century life as Graphic Design – and prior to that Commercial Art – it has transformed into a discipline encompassing its earlier aspects of publishing, print design, branding and packaging and extended through to experiential graphic design, interaction and interface design, user-experience, service and systems design.
Following early traditions the education for this practice relies upon studio pedagogy; leveraging interpersonal support and critique in an emulation of industry studio environments to bring students to transformative experiences through which they understand the history of Communication Design, its contexts, and develop their own capacity to practice and contribute to the future of the field.
The global pandemic of COVID has challenged this pedagogy and discipline, as it has challenged our disciplines and ways of living, working and educating across all sectors, throughout the world. As educators we have been thrust into digital environments which act as prophylactic barriers to the embodied shared spaces of learning that studio pedagogy championed. Lecturers are exhausted, students are disengaging, and we continue to look for ways to maintain the best aspects of Communication Design education.
At the same time, COVID has forced barriers to come down. It has denied educators’ authoritarian positions and made them human again. We see directly into each other’s domestic spaces; we introduce our pets. Educational hierarchy is levelled as students and staff work hard together to maintain engagement and the interpersonal energy of the design studio. These conditions require us to be more relevant, more authentic, more transparent with our humanity and values. Students realise this too: it becomes all too clear that without activating authentic engagement their experience of education is in danger of diminishing in meaning. We have entered an era where the old truism of “you get out what you put in” has become very real.
Along with this, personal values – for both educators and students – have become clear and present. Sustainability and climate change are now critical issues of personal and collective import. Diversity, inclusion, indigenous sovereignty and gender equity rise in clear provocation to question traditionally assumed disciplinary knowledge systems.
The underlaying tenets of design practice become apparent as steeped in Western, colonialist power systems and techno-rationalist assumptions which are responsible for leading us into the current global crises. Suddenly different ways of being and practicing–ways of doing design and being a designer–are searched for and articulated.
This has been building for some time, at least since we passed through the mid-century “golden period” of assumed belief in the benefits of modernity and the shared aspiration towards a universalist best practice of design. COVID has, however, accelerated these changes; it has brought the issues and questions into stark relief and increased their urgency. It has challenged our assumptions on multiple fronts and simultaneously suggested ways forward. This challenges not only how we might go about the work of design education or how we might be design educators, but also challenges how we might be design students.
As the scope of Communication Design practice expanded, its ties to particular media or products loosened. While industry predominantly continues to celebrate “solutions” and “outcomes”, the practice itself now has renewed opportunity to mature towards an authentic, interpersonal, ontological practice of making futures together; context-dependent and without the unnecessary creative genius hyperbole. This is a possibility for a maturing of practice, both the practice of Communication Design as a particular design discipline, but also of Communication Design as an evolved practice per se; a way of practicing, living, knowing and having agency in the world, as demanded for by our 21st Century social and environmental issues.
A concurrent response to COVID’s destabilisation has been for the higher education institution to become reductive and highly instrumentalist in its preoccupations. Focussing on short term goals for guarantees of graduate jobs and the uncritical provision of industry’s forecasted needs. Financial uncertainty continues to lead to a discourse of scarcity, which, in turn, continues to provide an uncomplicated justification to embrace retrograde instrumentalist choices for which aspects of education to support.
In addition, it can be seen that unproblematised technology-driven solutions can take ascendance as anxiety leads us to accept off-the-shelf solutions to the complex challenges of building sustainable healthy ethical communities in a contemporary world.
We find ourselves with an amazing opportunity; to redesign design education – to redesign design – in this time of opportunity and crisis. The potential for the contribution of practice is immense. As a dematerialised, material practice Communication Design is uniquely situated to contribute to new conceptions of how we might practice in the future; to support the creation of new, diverse, shared futures together. There are also clear dangers; that we move back to an instrumentalist situating of practice, and practitioners, and deny complexity. This surely is stealing from our all possible futures. We remain on the cusp of the new, in dialogue, personally implicated and activated. It’s not a bad time to be a Communication Design educator or student.
Dr Neal Haslem is Associate Dean of the Communication Design discipline at RMIT School of Design. He is a communication designer, design educator and a practice-led researcher into communication design. He has a background in design studios and advertising agencies working across a wide range of projects including traditional graphic design, exhibition and interactive design. Neal’s research lies in the intersection of design practice, ‘community’ and the intersubjective action with which design reveals and actualises possible futures.