In anticipation of the 2016 AIGA Design Conference less than one month away (October 17-19 in Las Vegas; register by October 6), we’re getting an early dose of the kind of the design inspiration attendees can expect by hosting six conversations with 12 AIGA Design Conference speakers we just couldn’t wait any longer to meet.
AIGA Medalist Sean Adams and Norwegian designer and educator Rachel Troye have both had prolific careers in the design and branding industries, running their own successful studios in very different cultures and climates (Adams lives in Los Angeles). In spite of achieving international renown, both have shelved their studios indefinitely to take up the mantle of teaching, Adams at ArtCenter College of Design, and Troye at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, putting personal success to one side in service to the next generation of young creatives.
While united by all of the above, there are clear differences between their outlooks on education, attitudes towards their current crop of students, and more clearly the geopolitical landscape of their respective nations. What separates U.S. students from their Norwegian counterparts, how robust are the respective creative industries, and just what is the benefit of asking novice designers to make a poster that offends their whole class? Adams and Troye have those compelling answers and more.
Sean Adams: Grad students are fantastic—they’re smart, they’re diverse, and we have incredible applicants from all around the world—but the great thing about teaching the undergrad first-term class is that they’re just so fresh. They don’t know anything. They have all these preexisting notions about what design is and what they should be doing, but frankly, they’re all sheltered. They’re all sad, sheltered children, so it’s kind of great to smack them around a little bit and force them to face their own personal issues.
Rachel Troye: We don’t have a French attitude of pushing everybody down to a level of zero and then building them up. We try to get them to stretch towards what they believe design can be and do.
Adams: I don’t know what’s happened—if it’s a generation issue or whatever—but I’ve noticed in the last five years a lot of the students come in and they just seem so intellectually and culturally naive. You’re like, okay, push yourself, it’s time to really face the issues that you’re not comfortable with and to explore ideas you may not want to think about.
Troye: Yeah, I think there’s a tendency for a really different attitude of both expecting a lot more guidance and supervision, and needing clearer guidelines. I hear some of the older professors who have been here for a long time, and they think that by the time you’re on the master’s degree you should be really independent, and we see that our master’s students aren’t as independent as they used to be, and that they still require a lot of guidance.
They’re not out there always getting information. They’re expecting us to deliver a lot. It’s the whole attitude of the younger generation. In Norway we have a term called “the curling generation,” which is where the parents shuffle and prepare so that the kids can glide along on this prepared path that we’ve cleaned and smoothed out for them.
Adams: One of the last assignments we set in the first year is to make the most offensive poster you can—you’ve got to offend everyone in the room, you’ve got to make everyone in the room mad at you and think you’re the sickest, most disturbed person in the world. It’s harder than it sounds. You can do work that’s disgusting and you can do work that’s tragic, but that’s not offensive. It really forces them to look at their own values and understand their responsibility as a designer, that what they do has impact. The images that they make and the messages they create influence people.
Once you’ve done that the wrong way, it’s a lot easier to do it the right way. You realize that if you can do this heinous poster about the wonderfulness of dog fighting, then you can do something that actually is good. Once they’ve done that they really are aware of what their own cultural issues are and what they believe. They can move forward because they’ve sort of broken through the fear of criticism.
Troye: It’s important for us to lift the expectations of our students to what they can contribute. We don’t have a moral attitude, but we really believe in design that both delights and improves life. In that sense, we don’t focus so much on useless, beautiful objects. Aesthetics are very important to us, but in the context of making more useful and attractive products and services for people. We’re very people-focused, and that’s the culture we need to instill in them.
Adams: I think back to when I was in school, when you learned to just be a graphic designer. You learn typography, you learn how to deal with print, maybe a little motion—that was it. Now they have to learn motion, they have to learn interaction design, they have to learn coding, they have to learn typography, print, image making, and environmental work. It’s so much to jam in and I find we’re always rushing. We’re sort of like, “Okay, you’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to get you onto this.” There’s so much ground to cover in terms of media that they’re working with. The thing we have to end up focusing on more than anything is concept.
The work has to be smart and it has to have a strong concept. We always push this trans-media concept that whatever idea you have, it has to work across multiple platforms. You can’t just do a poster. How does this translate to a website? How does it translate emotion? If you had to make it interact in three-dimensional space what would it be? Students now can do these things like code interactive spatial environments. How do you do that? It’s like magic to my eyes. They’re digital negatives so they can get in there and do these amazing things.
If I had to go to school now, I’d flunk out.
Troye: We’ve coined the term “adaptive experts,” which means we aim to educate students who are agile enough to be able to adapt what they’ve learned to new situations. This means we have pretty ambitious goals for our own curriculum and our own education, and we’re constantly revising it. We did a big revision of our curriculum two or three years ago. We went from a master’s of industrial design to a master’s of design, because we come from a purebred industrial design background. About 12 or 13 years ago we started interaction design, and nine years ago with service design. Now systems oriented design has been growing off of this industrial design tree trunk.
With so many new fields, we teach a lot of collaboration and teamwork. We don’t believe in the solitary designer. I’m convinced that in the future any of the more interesting tasks that designers can get involved in will require you to work together, in both an interdisciplinary way as far as design disciplines go, but also together with engineers and business and change management.
To be able to implement any of the big changes that we want to have an impact on, you really need to collaborate.
Adams: That’s a great point. I think that idea of learning how to collaborate is tricky, to figure out how you build the right teams and put them in real working environments. Everyone’s required to take at least an internship where they’d get that experience, and by the end I think they tend to succeed. I do hear that graduating students usually wish they had more experience with collaboration.
For 20 years I had a firm, and when I hired people the ones that sank were the ones that just couldn’t work with anyone. They’d sit at their desk and they cried and they were upset that they couldn’t do their own thing. Well sorry! Or they’re the ones who are like, “Why am I not getting all the credit on this piece?” We all worked on it. Try to be a little generous here. Again, it’s the world, a world of teamwork.
Troye: Yeah, I think that’s important. Here we have a truly Norwegian social democratic spirit. We have a wonderful lack of hierarchy, which generally is a good thing. We have co-creative processes where you can almost collaborate with the prime minister, and there’s a notion of common respect and understanding. There are not really any prima donnas who distance themselves, and I think that really contributes to that collaborative spirit. I would say the most successful design companies are very open. There is a really flat structure, people truly collaborate, and nobody sits in a big office in the corner.
Adams: It’s the same with teaching in Southern California. You’ve got to teach. It’s not even a choice, this is what we do. We give back, we’re involved, and that’s really important. If we want the design industry in Southern California or California in general to succeed, you always have to be involved with it.
Troye: Exactly. It’s great to be able to facilitate better design education for the future, where students can really contribute. That’s enough of a kick. I’ve done enough of my own designing.