To my students, the “real world” sits just beyond the classroom. It is a space in flux, moving and changing much more quickly than academia. In education, there is a creative tension between an established body of knowledge and the real world; this tension can help fuel teaching.
For the past two years, I have taught a series of literary publishing courses where students produce a regional literary arts magazine called Scribendi. Throughout the year, Scribendi students begin to master the skills necessary for small press production, including graphic design, desktop publishing software, arts and literature assessment, copyediting, and small business management and marketing.
Most of the students who enroll in Scribendi are English majors who are thinking about applying to law school. Even though they are “digital natives,” their skills are not as technologically robust as most adults believe. While many more of the students are entering the class with previous experience using Word’s track changes functions, about half of the students are still just as intimidated by Excel as they are by InDesign. In addition to being nervous about becoming proficient enough at InDesign to create a successful flyer, brochure, or magazine layout, many of these students are terrified of being judged on their creative or artisitic ability. They are, after all, mostly English majors.
To reassure students that they could learn graphic design, and to begin introducing the graphic design component, one of my first lessons discusses the difference between art and design. The students are expected to have come to class already having read certain chapters in Denise Bosler’s Mastering Type and are ready for a design discussion. In the past, I have drawn a Venn diagram on the board with the headings “Design” and “Art” to discuss the differences and similarities of the two. Then we look at some gig posters, book jackets, and advertisements to practice talking about design, and finally, we critique the previous year’s issue of the magazine.
The morning of that lesson last fall, while walking to campus, I ran across a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. Typically flyers in my neighborhood advertise pets lost and found, couches for sale, or upcoming gigs by the Vassar Bastards or Let ‘Em Grow, but this one was different. Across the top of the paper it read, “Hello? ” below which was a photo of Lionel Richie, then the words “Is it me you’re looking for?” At the bottom were tear-tabs, where one typically might pull off a phone number or e-mail address of a student looking for a roommate. These tabs had other lyrics to Richie’s song “Hello.” Someone had already plucked off one “I love you.”
The flyer was crafted and mysterious. Lionel looked straight ahead, making eye contact with his audience of passersby. Even though I recognized the headshot as a cropped photo from his album cover, his expression appeared vulnerable. I scanned the lyrics: I can see it in your eyes…I can see it in your smile…You’re all I’ve ever wanted…’cause I wonder where you are…Are you somewhere feeling lonely?…For I haven’t got a clue. I wondered what on Earth this flyer was trying to express. Perhaps someone was re-creating feelings of alienation, or, I guess, lovesickness to make us reflect on our own emotional states. It could be a secret message intended for one person’s full understanding. The music video for this song—if you remember it—is disturbing to a modern audience. In it, a high school teacher lusts after a blind girl. Perhaps the flyer, too, was trying to suggest some illicit university affair with a striking power imbalance. Or, perhaps it just was, just was there.
I knew instantly: the flyer was perfect to start my discussion. I grabbed it and took it to class with me. I scrapped the Venn diagram concept that I was going to use that day, and tacked Lionel onto the corkboard. I told my students that I’d found it in my neighborhood. Then I asked, “What is this? Is this graphic design or art?”
They looked at the flyer; they looked to me; they looked at the flyer. Hello? Lionel’s eyes entreated them. Is it me you’re looking for? Finally, taking her odds, one student ventured a guess, “Art?”
“Why do you think its art?” I asked. It was the second week of our course, and the students were still shy. When she glanced down and fiddled with pen, giving me the universal student body language code for “I’m afraid of being wrong in public,” I continued, “Or, put another way, why wouldn’t it be graphic design?”
Rephrasing the question allowed another way to think about it by comparing and contrasting the two fields. And so, we were able to begin deconstructing the flyer. On one hand, it looked like a good example of graphic design. It was a form we recognized and associated with design—a flyer, complete with tear-tabs as if selling us something. But what was it selling? Lionel Richie music from 1983? Probably not. Its message was vague, as if it existed for its own sake. And you cannot have design for its own sake, but you can have art for art’s sake.
That is, while art can simply “be,” design cannot. Design must communicate something. While art may cause reflection or inspiration, design should cause someone to act—purchase royalty-free art, submit work to Scribendi, quit texting and driving. An artist may start by suffering from stage fright in front of a blank canvas, but a designer starts with his or her message, then creates a work to communicate it.
Whereas individuals might interpret a message in a good piece of art in many ways—is Lionel giving you bedroom eyes or is he about to cry, or could this flyer be a comment about power dynamics in the classroom or the various types of predation to which disable people are subjected—everyone must walk away with the same message from a clear design. You don’t want one person to walk away wanting to buy a new Nintendo Mario game and another person, a pair of new overalls. For example, on the intersection of Yale and Lomas Boulevards in Albuquerque, there was an ENDWI billboard that I thought was clever until my passenger turned to me and asked, “What does on-dwee mean, anyway?”
The fact was, none of us knew what Lionel meant. While we decided that the flyer was art, we also decided the flyer was something each student could make fairly easily. The design obeyed a grid. It used Helvetica, which is a clean, legible, if common typeface. There was a hierarchy of information. Hello? was large enough to catch someone’s attention from a few feet away as they passed on the sidewalk. Phrasing the header and sub-headers as questions drew the audience close enough to scrutinize the tear-off lyrics. The photographic art contributed to its theme.
The lesson helped provide entrance to introduce students to the difference between art and design, encouraged them that they could design a successful flyer even if they feared that they weren’t “artistic,” and modeled the application of classroom concepts to objects found in the “real world.”
That connection between classroom instruction and the world beyond the whiteboard is one of the types of creativity that professors must possess and that students must practice. It is a kind of creativity that allows one to adapt an established body of knowledge to a context that shifts and changes quickly. Exercising the ability to improvise helps prepare students for life’s real world challenges by connecting understanding to experience.
This flyer may have been some quick meme that came and went without much fanfare, but Lionel stayed with us on the corkboard all semester, and one by one, his lyrics were plucked and taken home. I hadn’t known it at the time, but it was Lionel I was looking for.