The two shifts graphic design educators need to make in order to be better teachers.


Early graphic design education centered around sparks of inspiration and raw talent, where students were expected emulate professors and rely on moments of unexpected inspiration. This has had many disadvantages. This loose and uncodified method makes standardization proliferation of such a pedagogy nearly impossible.  The traditional methods of craft and working with raw materials has recently been entirely replaced with widely available technology and digital media, and the divergence from the fine arts has left Graphic Design as an independent field. This instability and newness leaves space for  experts, educators, and practitioners to research and advocate for where they want to see graphic design education progress. They all advocate for change in the pedagogy, with good reason.


What’s missing in the graphic design pedagogy of 2017? As technology advances and educators scramble to hold on to the ‘classical’ and traditional methods of teaching, graphic design pedagogy is ultimately missing process learning and clarity.  Process learning  will directly affect classroom curriculums and clarity has the potential to impact the entire industry.


Graphic design as an independent field is still suffering the growing pains being an ever-evolving pedagogy. Even the purpose and definition of graphic design and graphic design education is ill-defined. Generally, it is a two piece practice; defining a problem and solving it using a design solution. Teaching process learning in the classroom, which is what educators should be doing, enables students to solve these problems most efficiently. The issue is, the recent shift from theory study to studio work and “learning-by-doing” approaches, where students solve design challenges on paper rather, has introduced new limitations to learning. The studio approach centers student focus around the final artefact or grade and de-emphasizes the design process. Students walk away from this type of lesson having learned one solution for one design challenge. This is not a method that encourages deep learning or application of knowledge. Progress of the pedagogy of graphic design hinges on addressing this misguided focus on the artefact and not  the process.


So where should educators start with process-focused teaching? Teaching process starts with using exercises that provoke thoughtful planning, critical thinking, and analysis. Aside from the current practice of transfer learning, which is using the takeaways from one challenge to apply to a new situation, reflective learning is a method that encourages students to see beyond the final product and to consider their own process of design. Building a reflective learning framework supports transfer learning and helps students build links between their work on projects and their overall design process. (See below)

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The design processes internalized and employed by students are relevant in the educational and professional field; this is important to note as employability after higher education is critical to students and educators. Some tangible things that educators can do to encourage process learning and development:

  • Assess the level of reflection done during the process of an assignment and not grade just the final product
  • Give constant feedback throughout the process
  • Pay attention to mistakes that the whole class is making and address them so there is an opportunity to correct them next time
  • Challenge the students to each come up with a unique solution
  • Encourage reflections between stages of a project and more importantly reflective comparisons between a student’s projects

Nested inside of process awareness and learning, are the sources of inspiration which inform design. Students and teachers expect design inspiration to come in the form of a “eureka” moment. This mindset takes process out of design education and enforces a dependence on inspirational luck rather than working to cultivate a process that will lead to those ideas. There are many alternative routes to gathering inspiration, all as a part of the student’s design process. There are many suggested methods to wean graphic design students off of the practice of copying examples. Research argues that there is a higher level of discovery to be attained through work with old media tools such as a letterpress and analog photography. The accompanying attributes can inspire a student who has been educated primarily in the digital pace. These include smell, weight, texture, and grain or materials. Craft and hand-assembling work, like process learning, enforces critical thinking, analysis, and process planning.  

Igniting inspiration in students can also be done by assigning unique challenges such as “Using the lyrics of a Japanese song as the source of inspiration to construct a composition method,”which enables students to relieve the pressure of having a “eureka moment” but rather helps them build a design process that leads to unique and creative breakthrough thinking (see below).

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The benefits of process learning as described are many;

  • It empowers the student with adaptability to different types of design challenges and assignments.
  • It leads students to think critically about how to approach new situations rather than simply transfer their abilities from similar challenges. It allows them to build a system that works for them and enables them to think and create independently.
  • It’s a form of much deeper learning, more valuable on an intellectual level and more applicable post graduation.
  • It is more rewarding long-term for students who wish to work in the industry and have the mental capacity to work a field as diverse and innovative as graphic design.

The second need in the pedagogy is clarity in the classroom and in the field. Relating also to process learning,  there is  rapid move from a ‘black box’ approach to design, where the process is obscure, vague, and secretive, to a ‘glass-box’ approach where students are taught to develop a clear process in order to enhance design efficiency and inspiration from new sources. Clarity is critical for communication between students and educators, between experts and education institutions, and among practitioners. A clear and cohesive language to eloquently and clearly communicate would open a world of discourse where there is currently confusion and miscommunication. It would enable teachers to very clearly articulate goals, feedback, and learning outcomes for future graphic designers. It would open up channels of communication between universities and their graphic design program faculty, and it will start to close the gaps that are found between graphic design education and graphic design practice in the industry, critical for the viable longevity of these new graphic design programs at universities.

Graphic design educators need to take the practical and crucial steps to keep bring the pedagogy to the 21st century. They must adapt the curriculums to process based learning and develop initiatives to clarify expectations, goals, and communications.



Citations, For more on this topic;

Alhajri, Salman. “Investigating Creativity in Graphic Design Education from Psychological Perspectives.” Journal of Arts and Humanities 6.01 (2017): 69-85. Proquest. Web. 18 May 17.
Ellmers, Grant. “Connecting learning from the graphic design project with thinking about approaches to design practice.” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education 16.1 (2017): 69-82. Proquest. Web. 13 May 17.
Fraher, Robert, and Barbara Martinson. “Process and Pedagogy in Undergraduate Graphic Design Education.” The Design Journal14.4 (2011): 390-412. Web. 31 May 2017.
Giloi, Susan, and Dina Zoe Belluigi. “Underlying knowledge-knower structures in graphic design: Contributing to establishing a cohesive language for use in graphic design education.” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education 16.1 (2017): 7-22. Proquest. Web. 14 May 17.
Giloi, Susan, and Pieter Du Toit. “Current Approaches to the Assessment of Graphic Design in a Higher Education Context.” International Journal of Art & Design Education32.2 (2013): 256-68. Web. 31 May 2017.
Ings, Welby. “Malleable Thought: The Role of Craft Thinking in Practice-Led Graphic Design.” International Journal of Art & Design Education34.2 (2015): 180-91. Web. 31 May 2017.
Jackson, Ian. “Gestalt-A Learning Theory for Graphic Design Education.” International Journal of Art & Design Education27.1 (2008): 63-69. Web. 31 May 2017.
Lu, Hui-Ping, Jun-Hong Chen, and Chang-Franw Lee. “Supporting Creative Responses in Design Education – The Development and Application of the Graphic Design Composition Method.” International Journal of Art & Design Education 35.1 (2016): 154-76. Proquest. Web. 16 May 17.
Sayin, Zulfukar. “Proposal for an Approach to Teaching The Issues of “Balance” and “Order” in Basic Design Education Classes of Graphic Design Departments with Reference to the “Big Bang” and the Formation of the Universe Processes.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 46 (2012): 4902-906. Web. 31 May 2017.
Vande Zande, Robin. “Teaching Design Education for Cultural, Pedagogical, and Economic Aims.” Studies in Art Education 51.3 (2010): 248-61. Jstor. Web. 20 May 16.