Lucille Tenazas has had a front-row seat to the evolution of design education over the last 30 years. An AIGA medalist and the 2002 recipient of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, she is currently the Henry Wolf Professor in the School of Art, Media, and Technology at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She previously spent 20 years in the Bay area, where she operated her own studio and was the founding chair of the MFA program in design at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She has served as national president of AIGA, and received her MFA in design from Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Last summer, I spoke with Tenazas about her experiences in design education for the new book 1, 10, 100 Years of Form, Typography, and Interaction at Parsons, a history of the school’s Communication Design program. During our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about design as both a noun and a verb, the value of design education, and how teaching design has both stayed the same and changed over the course of her career.
The reason that I love the word design so much is that it is both a noun and a verb. Something I’ve found is that when students just start out in design, they think about it as the noun. They want to make something: the poster, the book, the app. But you’ve talked often about how teaching design is sort of like teaching a moving target; about how the field is changing so fast—the nouns are changing so fast. This makes me think it doesn’t always make sense to teach the noun, as in “here’s how you make apps” or “here’s how you bind a book.” What actually makes more sense is to teach the verb. I’m curious how you think about teaching design as a process over teaching a result?
When a student tells me, “Lucille, I have a thesis idea. I want to make a website.” I say, “No, that’s not a thesis idea.” A website is a platform, not an idea. A thesis idea is a subject that you would like to investigate further—it can be the weather, geography, traffic patterns—any topic that you’re interested in that you can explore in various ways. After exhaustive research, you can then decide what form best expresses that idea. Give me the essence of that idea, then we can talk about whether you want to do a book or a map or a website. Our smartphones are the most pervasive portals of communication we have, but how do we know what the next medium will be? Maybe there will be chips embedded in our wrists. But your brain will continue to operate as a designer. So as an educator, I ask myself, “What can I do to prepare students to think like that and ensure that they learn to be adaptable, to be observant, and to use the faculties that they have to engage with the process, and at the same time, be generous and hospitable to new forms?”
When I was a student—way ahead of you—there were no computers in the studios, but when I graduated from Cranbrook in 1982, I considered myself a designer. It’s now 2021. That’s 39 years! I have been away from school for 39 years and I am still a designer. The tools have evolved but my approach has stayed the same. The artifacts, the tools, the conditions will change based on the time, but what’s important is that one have the headspace, the tactics, the approach. I tell this to my students: It’s 2021, and if we add 40 years to that, we get to 2061. What will you be doing? I will be dead, but you’ll still be a designer! I’m proof that you can continually evolve as a designer and still be relevant, years after you have left school.
When I first started teaching, somebody older than me said that when they think about their job as an educator, they see it not necessarily to train students for that first job immediately after college, but for the one after that. That job is harder to get in some ways, because everything’s changing. And when I hear you talk about being a designer in 2061, it’s the same idea. How do you think about that long-term thinking with students who are often coming to New York, taking out loans, knowing that this is costing them money, and thinking “I better get a job after this”?
Yes, I believe in that approach and understand that attitude from the students. I think of parents who pay a lot of money for their children to be educated, and the first thing they want to know is the employability data. This is why college websites always list the companies their alumni work for, and it’s not easy to say, “don’t worry, your child has a degree in design!” But when you look at design with a capital ‘D,’ it is, as you say, both the verb and the noun; it is both process and artifact. I want to tell these parents, “your child is actually getting an education in understanding how the world works. They may end up making an artifact. That’s easiest because they’re educated in a discipline where that is a byproduct of the profession, but the bigger lesson is that they are eminently qualified to think through problems in a bigger context that maybe somebody with a business degree or a law degree will never have.”
But often it seems like the design education system is just following what the professional world is looking for. We’ll hear companies say, “we want app designers” or “we need people who can do X,” and then we’re like “OK! Let’s add this into our classes so students can do this!” In thinking about design more holistically, thinking about the process and the thinking and the approach, there’s actually some switch that could happen where the next generations of students could actually influence the industry instead of vice versa.
This reminds me of the time when I was developing the graduate design program at CCA [California College of the Arts] in 1999. I was in the process of preparing the prospectus for the program and had, at that point in my career, been through a leadership experience as the national president of the AIGA from 1996–98, had taught for several years since 1985, and had been practicing as a designer for almost 15 years. I believed that through this new program, I could create the pedagogical pathways for these three experiences to come together. I wanted to incorporate writing, leadership, and design into one curriculum. So I included a mandatory writing class because as designers, we are often the recipients of existing text written by someone else, but if designers are trained to write, we could be the authors of our own text. A designer could both write and design it.
The second pillar was leadership. I often ask myself, “Will it ever come to pass in my lifetime that the CEO of a major Fortune 500 company was someone who has an MFA in design?” That became my goal. Most CEOs and top-level managers have either a law degree or an MBA, and I wanted design to pave the way for those C-suite positions! Teaching design can give people a holistic understanding of complex problems. My thinking is that if you have enough of these people in high-powered decision-making positions and you find out they have a design background, we begin to change how design is perceived and understood.
I often ask myself, “Will it ever come to pass in my lifetime that the CEO of a major Fortune 500 company was someone who has an MFA in design?” That became my goal.
So to answer your question, educators who are developing design curriculums should anticipate the cultural, political, and social landscape that they are preparing their students to enter. We shouldn’t wait for the industry to tell us what they are looking for. When people ask me what it is that designers can do, I say it’s the development of synthetic thinking. It is the mindset that takes the best of all the things one knows and finds out how they can adapt it to the situation at hand. I want students who can engage with the world, who are literate in different areas, and not just in design. “See more, think more,” espouses the art critic and author Jed Perl.
One thing I appreciate about the Parsons curriculum is that in addition to this synthetic thinking, it also retains an emphasis on craft. I think often those two get disconnected. Between the thinking and the craft, one of them always takes priority where it’s either “let’s just make stuff that looks good so you have a good portfolio for seeking a job” but then there’s no thought behind it. Or it’s “let’s be really thoughtful, let’s do all this research,” and then by the time it gets to the actual artifact it’s a letdown. How do you make sure that those two are always in sync?
I often show my students examples of design practitioners and their body of work, and ask them what qualities make their work stand out. The best designers are the ones who balance quality of thought with the quality of craft. You can be a smart thinker but then you also have to pay attention to the quality of the work because in the end, the work needs to stand on its own.
I say to them: “There are hundreds of thousands of you who will graduate from this discipline every year. How will you stand out? Will your work just be like everybody else’s? Or are you telling a visual story that will trigger something so that when somebody sees it, they would have to pause and try to decipher something, not out of confusion, but out of interest? It might not make everyone stop, but when someone does, it means you’ve found your match. They will see the potential in what you have done and will want to know more about you. Those are the people you want to give time to.”
The field of design has just gotten bigger and bigger. There are all sorts of things that students are designing now that didn’t exist when I was in school, and certainly didn’t exist when you were. What do you see as next? Looking back over your history and looking forward to the next 40 years, what stands out as the next big changes in the field?
We’ve come full circle, because when you asked me about design as the moving target, this is it. Books were around in the 17th century, but the way we read and the way we address reading systems will change. Why is there still an attempt to mimic the physicality of “turning the page”? The forms may change but we still think about the actions of the body that allow for this to happen. In short, our humanity will transcend any technological advances made.
Over the years, many words have been affixed to design—we have design thinking or service design or experiential design or whatever is trendy at the time. We add these adjectives to legitimize our profession but the word “design” stays; it is the common denominator. Design has become the locus that ties all these other areas of study. Here at The New School, of which Parsons is a part of, we have a program on Design and the Future of Publishing and a newly developed area of study in Anthropology and Design. Whatever is next, design will be there. It’s evergreen, regardless of how it’ll be defined. So my sense is that there are the things that change and the things that remain the same, and the important thing is for the things that remain the same to continually evolve. That’s the core, I think, of how we practice design.
This interview is an edited excerpt from 1, 10, 100 Years of Form, Typography, and Interaction at Parsons, now available from Oro Editions.