“The students and I have our fireside chats here,” says AIGA Medalist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville as she switches on an electric fireplace in her office at the Yale School of Art, where she directs the school’s graduate program in graphic design. The fake fire is so lifelike I can almost hear it crackling. “It’s not exactly my aesthetic,” she says, propping her feet up against the plastic coal. “But everyone who sees it smiles. Anything that makes everyone smile is a good thing, so I kept it.”

Even before Levrant de Bretteville showed me around her department, it was already clear to me that Yale design graduates have a strong sense of self; whenever I come across a particularly conceptual, glitch-heavy portfolio online, I’m never surprised to discover it’s designed by a Yale graduate. And after exploring the department more thoroughly, it’s easy to see how that experimental, risk-taking sensibility is a direct result of Levrant de Bretteville’s own belief in self-expression.

You can feel it in the inviting atmosphere of a classroom where bespectacled typography professor Tobias Frere-Jones sits huddled with three students around a new font family. You can see it in the Risograph room where someone is relentlessly printing reels of anti-Trump posters; and in the impressive attic atelier, where students have set up personalized studios that weave throughout the space like a ramshackle back alley in Blade Runner. At Yale School of Art, there’s certainly a commitment to carving out a room of one’s own to each student.

As the department director since 1990 and the School of Art’s first tenured woman, Levrant de Bretteville’s contribution to design pedagogy cannot be celebrated enough: her teaching, not just at Yale but during her time at CalArts, Otis, and when co-founding the radical Women’s Building in L.A., has shaped design education. With her strong emphasis on feminism, equality, personal experience, and challenging the status quo, Levrant de Bretteville pushes design teaching away from stringent Modernist tendencies and towards a place that consistently promotes inclusivity, experimentation, and difference.

In some ways, she’s set up a department that’s like its own micro-utopian commune built around her pedagogical beliefs. There’s a downstairs space that acts as an eccentric town hall (two yellow swings hang down in the middle from thick steel chains), and nearby are bustling areas of production—the Riso room and a collection of old presses. “Students don’t have to use this stuff though,” says Levrant de Bretteville with a dismissive gesture towards a woodblock printer. As a champion of mass production, she’d rather students use Risograph than these old relics, favoring faster, cheaper methods over what many consider elitist and precious.

Upstairs in the students’ private work dens, desks are sealed off into their own zones with plastic sheets; others are small, incongruous gardens overflowing with plants and cacti. An unlikely indoor anarchist civilization has emerged: behind one desk a girl works in front of a rack of neon clothes, and nearby another student has set up a helpful bookstall in front of his studio. Titles for sale include Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Metahaven’s design student must-have, Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance, and a dog-eared copy of Hito Steryel’s The Wretched of the Screen.

Forming a canopy over this unconventional study center, there’s a sheet of glass that Levrant de Bretteville asked architect Deborah Berke (now dean at the Yale School of Architecture) to implement when expanding the School of Art in 1994. This environment is obviously a long way from the dusty, collegiate neo-Gothicism of the rest of Yale. It embodies the visionary aesthetic of Levrant de Bretteville, becoming a visible manifesto for her very personal approach to design and learning, one shared by the rest of the faculty and staff. On my visit this includes Frere-Jones, and senior designer at Frere-Jones Type Nina Stoessinger, who teaches letterform design with Matthew Carter. Also nearby is Barbara Glauber of Heavy Meta, who teaches the central course in the school’s “Preliminary Year.”

The idiosyncratic, open space makes sense for a contemporary program that rejects traditional hierarchies. Levrant de Bretteville tells me that current students vote along with the faculty for new student; they hold up numbers from zero to four as the faculty reviews portfolios on a projected screen. “We tally the student votes and the faculty votes, and we make a note of who the top 35 are in each vote. Usually they’re very much alike, but then sometimes there’s maybe four or five that are different.” Current students inevitably have a strong point of view about who gets to join them in their educational wonderland, and after much deliberation, this then gets whittled down to the select 18 who are admitted.

“What we’re trying to create is a situation where we help a person find out what’s unique about them in their work. Your stamp is on any work that you do. So as long as someone doesn’t try to control you, you’re going to do something that’ll reflect yourself,” says Levrant de Bretteville. “When we’re looking at prospective students, we think about who can see what this education will provide them and go for it 100%, and who is too fearful or stuck in their ways.” To complete the two-year program, de Bretteville is adamant that no student can simultaneously pursue client work. “If they do, it messes up what they’re doing here. We’re trying to work freely without a client’s desire. I am not a client. We don’t give assignments, we give prompts.”

One of these prompts might be cryptic (pick a site, pick a place), or a prompt might be more specific, but with some room for manoeuvre (pick out five experiences, maybe sound, speed, type, language, and light). “Say a student then decides to focus on light; that might bring them to shadows. We want them to then think about their own perspective on light and shadow, to research what people have done before them on the topic and then locate their own perspective.”

It’s important that the faculty carefully guides the students, and never dictates. Sometimes a student may feel uncomfortable, like they’re getting only green lights and never red ones; that they’re staring out to a terrifyingly “open eternal green.” It’s a known fact that there’s safety in the confines of a brief, but here this confine is eradicated.

Students are also required to take a class at another department in Yale to open their minds even further and find new, unexpected influences beyond design. Levrant de Bretteville believes that less boundaries prepares a student for what’s to come, which could be anything, and that learning to navigate the unknown is a powerful thing (although she’s been known to give an occasional, helpful “tint of a yellow light.”) This openness is a significant challenge; some students close down, but they later learn that it’s okay to be afraid. Over the course of the two years a new kind of confidence—one grounded in the self—begins to build.

Faced with the unknown, a student develops the kind of armor that helps them in the “real world” outside Yale. “What they learn is not to be control freaks like a lot of designers can be,” says Levrant de Bretteville. “They learn to take a chance and handle uncertainty, to let go of control. Now we have a government that’s creating a situation where we’re in real uncharted territory. I think our students are going to be in a good place to be resilient and flexible, to have the necessary skills so that they can navigate whatever’s happening. It gives them a kind of strength.”

With its cheery yellow swing, ping-pong lunch table, and wild studio space, this department is a playground, yes, but there’s discipline as well. With freedom to play comes a disorientating but inspiring sense that the imagination can wander in any direction. The openness of the space leads to a better, practical understanding of the limits of design, and how to deal with them, even extend them.

Levrant de Bretteville is a serious, enthusiastic, and encouraging guide through the creative mysteries and pressures of design; even to me as a visitor passing through she’s very generous, and after she’s switched off her desk-side fireplace to mark the formal end of our conversation, she gives me a warm hug. I’m reluctant to leave this design haven, but when I do I realize how much our interview has discreetly deepened my own understanding of design and its emotional as well as functional importance.

Photography by Nicholas Prakas