Flyer for the workshop Becoming Water: Simple Cuts Will Let You Build a Container by Masato Nakada (left) and poster for the Southland Institute (right). Image by Beatrice Sala.

This is the second installment in a series of articles that each focus on a summer school, residency, or alternate education model that seem particularly relevant to designers. The hope is that together, these articles will give a broader view of non-traditional schools and designers invested in continued learning. Last time, we looked at the summer school Ellipsis Open School in the south of Portugal; this time our focus is Southland Institute, the alternative school in Los Angeles “dedicated to exploring, identifying, and implementing meaningful, affordable, sustainable alternatives in design and art education in the United States.” 

Joe Potts believes that graphic design, itself, is the point of connection of things. That graphic design and typography teach us to take in the world with a more critical eye; and that the cultivation of that sensitivity, of reading and looking, of seeing, is under-taught and under-emphasized in existing design education. 

Potts has observed the way that traditional education has swollen under the strain of inflated costs and narrower focuses, and, as a response, in 2016 he founded Southland Institute as a supplement to traditional design programs (Potts also teaches at Otis College of Art and Design). Potts has since teamed up with Adam Feldmeth, recently named the program’s co-director, and visual artist and educator Carmen Amengual. Together, they work to incorporate the best elements of a graduate design experience: the rigorous discourse, the reading lists, and knowledge curation, and the camaraderie, and make them available to the greater community. All for a small fraction of the costs.

Who gets to attend and participate in which conversations is central to Southland Institute’s mission, and decisions are built with twin financial aims: affordability for students, and fair compensation for instructors. Toward those goals, there’s a continual interest in revealing infrastructure and increasing access, a focus on transparency, and an openness to adapting as needed. The upcoming open curriculum, for instance, has a sliding-scale payment structure ranging from $50 to $200, with no one turned away for lack of funds. The school year for those enrolled in the full program is $3,500, with the idea of offering “80% of the experience for 10% the cost.“

From 2016 on, Southland Institute has been slowly figuring out its shape as it curates public events, assembled courses, and builds up its online repositories. Potts describes the school’s structure as forming around “concentric arrangement of involvement, with a porousness between the layers;” the core being the two-year students, beyond that the public programming, and the outer ring the online resources. In the autumn of 2019, when Potts and I first talked, Southland Institute was scaling up into formality. It had launched its two-year program with its first core group of six participants: a mix of students with backgrounds ranging in music composition, graphics, photography, and publishing. Southland Institute’s main challenge, at that point, was finding and negotiating a stable, consistent, ADA-compliant space to house the classes and events.

This past year has, as for many, pulled the institute back to refocus on the core mission while reimagining the methods of getting there. Amid the pandemic, Southland Institute is reducing the focus of the two-year in-person track, and pivoting to more openness for the school to fit into peoples lives in whatever ways it can (following its pedagogies of Working with What’s (T)here, while Proposing What Isn’t). With the goals of making rigorous, thoughtful design conversations more broadly available, there’s a recently released open curriculum that anyone can sign up for. Potts is also exploring nixing the admission criteria entirely, in thinking about the active atmosphere that he’s witnessed in Community College classrooms (Potts previously taught at Los Angeles City College, and Southland Institute students are encouraged to supplement their studies with a pre-selected list of local Community College offerings). 

The iterative, flexible-to-change approach Potts takes to building Southland Institute mirrors the ways the students are encouraged to learn while inside. The curriculum is less about fixed outcomes, and more about an awareness and commitment to process. “You learn it by doing it, and by looking at it, and by talking about it,” says Potts, not promising any easy answers. “Education is a slower burn, ideas take time to develop.” The only way out is through.

“Education is a slower burn, ideas take time to develop.”

The delivery methods for the explorations might end up as an experimental typeface, a website, a printed piece, or a set of illustrations; always with a rich conceptual or experimental underpinning, and often collaborative. There’s an emphasis on publishing, or participating, in the greater design dialogue. Core students are also required to organize an exhibition, facilitate a workshop, and generate a publication for each year of residency. 

The process of learning leans heavily on conversations and interactions among enrolled participants and faculty, where people are encouraged to come in with their own point of view. “It’s not about delivery of information, not about the lecture, not about the expert,” says Potts. “We all have things to teach each other, and it’s an open exchange of conversation, analysis, and admiration.” The experience of learning becomes about who is in the room, their commitment in being there, and what happens when rich histories intermix. To guide those interactions, Potts has curated a promising mix of contemporary designers, including Maria Lisogorskaya (upcoming workshop), Silas Munro (reoccurring), and Nicole Killian (past workshops). The section titles, such as “Website as Community Garden,” are poetic and intriguing, proposing a different way to inspect the world. 

“We all have things to teach each other, and it’s an open exchange of conversation, analysis, and admiration.”

In one of the upcoming workshops, Mindy Seu and Laura Coombs set out to explore the asterisk, interrogating what it means to “give more.” In this view of typography, giving form to the shape is part of the same world as asking why the shape exists in the first place, what role it serves. Typography becomes the container for thought and ideas, a “formal, physical, and structural manifestation of language.” Learning is achieved by the angles through which interrogation happens, and the approach builds toward a wide and synapsed set of skills. This is where the focus narrows in again, and the reason why Southland Institute is so embedded in typography comes back into view. Form and function are treated as one, same as the way we experience them in the world, the same way you are now reading this. Large questions and small typographic details coalesce.