Teaching Graphic Design & Advertising in the Connected Age

ADC Member Prof. Robin Landa on the ever evolving face of design education

It’s Education Month here at ADC, a time to highlight learning within our industries. The ADC community includes countless students, teachers, mentors, and even those who simply teach themselves. We’ve heard from a number of them who wanted to share their stories.

In this feature, we hear from Robin Landa, author and Distinguished Professor at Robert Busch School of Design, Kean University. Robin shares what is happening in her classroom to address the ever changing technologies available to creatives.

Rapid technological changes have altered the nature of work, human behavior, and what creatives need to be able to do.

Employers want to hire nimble thinkers: people who are not only content experts but who also are agile in adapting to new technology and new directions in their fields. Employers and clients call upon creative professionals to quickly conceive and execute grand ideas and to react nimbly to rapid changes in industries, technology and business sectors. Generating viable ideas in the connected age presents new challenges for all creative professionals.

Creatives need to be empathetic, interdisciplinary thinkers working across media. They must fully understand what each specific media channel can do and how each channel can be utilized to deliver an engaging brand experience, contributing an integral element of the brand narrative. Many art directors, copywriters, and creative directors face the new challenge of creating relevant original content for brands, causes and organizations. Unique content must give people a story to tell, one that engages them enough to share it.

To face these new challenges, I teach my students to cultivate their creative thinking and prepare their imaginations, and become design experts with additional knowledge gained by keen interest in a broad range of subjects.

My students learn to view design, branding or advertising problems by thinking of it as content creation rather than artifact creation. I ask them to address any assignment with the frame: This is the very first graphic design or advertising solution; there are no exemplars, no models. To do this, they must have an open mindset — they must set aside the closed conventions of what design or advertising is supposed to be. They strive to make a brand social and create original content that people will find engaging, relevant or beneficial. I teach my students to ask: Is the idea flexible? Is it entertaining? Is it informative? Does it have value? Is it true? Is it true for others? Will it positively impact society? Does the idea inspire content that people will share? How will the idea manifest and function for the capabilities of specific channels and platforms?

“My students learn to view design, branding or advertising problems by thinking of it as content creation rather than artifact creation.”

The motto of this mind-set is:
Entertain; inform; be useful; do good.

To achieve this, my students prepare with extensive studies in the liberal arts, science, math, art history, and design criticism. In all of our BFA degree design programs in the Robert Busch School of Design at Kean University, we require students to study the above-mentioned as well as choose electives outside of their design major. By doing this we encourage T-shaped thinking. A T-shaped creative is a content expert with additional knowledge in a broad range of subjects. The vertical bar of the T represents expertise and skills in one’s field of study and practice; the horizontal bar of the T represents knowledge in areas other than one’s own, interest in other disciplines and subject matter, depth and breadth in one’s thinking as well as the capacity to collaborate across fields with other experts.

Learning to deconstruct images for meaning becomes a critical skill in my design and advertising courses where I draw upon my students’ knowledge base with a method I learned from Bob Mitchell and Seymon Ostilly, when I took their co-taught advertising course at the School of Visual Arts. (Back then Bob was an advertising creative director; now he is a novelist.) In that class, Bob utilized a form of problem finding by asking us to work backwards. Rather than assigning the creation of an ad for a specific brand, Bob would say something like: Create an outlandish image and then use it to jumpstart an ad idea for an appropriate brand.

For my pedagogical purposes, I modified his method using a discovery-led paradigm (that draws upon a fine art creative process) coupled with a design directive (a visualization technique, topic, a story starter, or a prompt to incite action) resulting in a design education process that prepares students to think critically, creatively (putting a unique spin on existing ideas and things) and imaginatively (inventing original ideas, tools and content). After students generate content, objects or images, they deconstruct what they’ve shaped. They analyze the subject matter, style and suitability. This analysis itself is highly instructive—deconstructing images to understand them, analyzing style for meaning, and determining if the original content is appropriate for a brand or organization, on-brand (in sync with the core brand narrative) or off-brand (not in sync with the core brand narrative). These problem-finding exercises prepare students’ minds to be nimble, enhancing their thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Problem solving is the prevailing paradigm across design disciplines. In practice, though, this paradigm often inhibits us from behaving like many fine artists who create until a discovery or a direction emerges. Only once a discovery emerges do fine artists use that journey to generate and crystalize a creative problem to solve. Artist Henry Moore said, “I sometimes begin drawing with no preconceived problem to solve, with only a desire to use pencil on paper and only to make lines, tones and styles with no conscious aim … But as my mind takes in what is so produced a point arrives where some idea becomes conscious and crystallizes, and then control and ordering begin to take place.”

“Problem solving is the prevailing paradigm across design disciplines. In practice, though, this paradigm often inhibits us from behaving like many fine artists who create until a discovery or a direction emerges.”

Playfulness is essential on my students’ journeys. When I interviewed Dr. Peter Gray, Research Professor, Psychology, Boston College, for my next book, Nimble: Thinking Creatively in the Digital Age, he said, “Many research studies have shown that people think more creatively and produce more creative products when they are in a playful mood than when they are in more serious mood. Highly creative people regularly refer to their activities as play. Einstein, for example, referred to his accomplishments in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatory play.’ He developed his theory of relativity in part by imagining himself chasing a sunbeam and catching up to it. Geniuses seem to be those people who retain into adulthood the childlike capacity for play.”

In order to be ready to create in a connected world, I add this preparatory practice to my students’ design education to help free them from conventions and to teach them to create playfully and imaginatively. Whether to serve commerce and brands or to serve human rights and the social good, preparatory critical and creative thinking is essential and should be robust.