Why I Teach What I Teach
To answer the question, why I teach, I must return to why I design, why I art direct, why I write, and why I helped found this program. It’s a simple evolution.
I stumbled into graphic design while pursuing a job as a cartoonist and illustrator for an underground newspaper. I loved to draw, although not very well. My favorite pastime was drawing autobiographical cartoons in the manner of Jules Feiffer. At 16 years old my ambition was to get them published but every magazine I pestered turned me down. At the age of seventeen, I was given a job doing mechanicals at one of them when by chance the editor liked and published my cartoons.
Eventually, I realized my drawing skill was severely limited and I devoted myself to learning typography and page layout. This helped to push me up the ladder to art direction. After a few years, I was hired as art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page. There, I hired great illustrators (old vets and newcomers) to do work and conceive ideas that I felt incapable of doing myself, but felt rather comfortable critiquing their work. Understanding my limitations as an artist, I became obsessively interested in the history of caricature and illustration. I curated exhibits, wrote a few articles, and conducted oral history interviews. I liked the writing process, even though I had no real idea what I was doing. I also enjoyed the research—finding artifacts from the past that prefigured the present. I began to write about this history using graphic art as a lens through which I explored politics and society. I somehow parlayed—and to this day I am amazed that I did—these interests and skills into a job writing about graphic design, illustration, satirical art and popular culture. There were not many people doing what I was doing when I started doing it. Now it is an academic discipline.
I was asked to teach at SVA in the newly formed MFA Illustration as Visual Journalism department. I taught illustration history. I also began writing about it for Print, Graphis and even The New York Times (where I was an art director of the Book Review section for 30 years). Twenty years ago, I was asked to conceive an MFA Design program—the first in SVA’s history. It was called the MFA Design: Designer As Author. By “author” my cofounder, Lita Talarico, and I really meant “entrepreneur.” But at the same time there was movement and growth in design writing and research. I edited the AIGA Journal for eleven years and started writing books too. I believed there was a need for designers to write their own history and criticism, that writing was an essential skill. Legendary designer Massimo Vignelli said in a speech that, “Design will never be considered a real profession without a body of criticism.” I took that literally and instituted a critical column for Print magazine, wrote critically for other publications, and convinced SVA President, David Rhodes, that it would be a useful master’s program.
In 2010, together with design writer and critic Alice Twemlow, we founded MFA Design Criticism coined “D-Crit” and now MA Design Research, Writing, and Criticism. I requested a spot teaching a research and writing course devoted to telling stories about designed objects. The catch, however, was it would be the “No Google” course. Students were prohibited from doing their research using Google’s search engine. The students may have found it sadistic but without the help of Google they learned to dig into the weeds, go to the library, follow leads, and develop research methodologies. Guest writers, editors, collectors, curators, librarians, and others were invited to explain their own research procedures and by the end of the course, papers were written about a wide range of physical and virtual objects. It proved a very satisfying learning process for all of us and I have never lost my excitement when it comes time to read and hear what the students discover and how they turn their findings into engaging storytelling.
Why do I teach? I love to learn. In watching students address the challenges I present, I am also learning from each one of them—it’s a two-way street.