Reimagining Design Education

Duke Greenhill is Chair of Graphic Design & Visual Experience and Advertising & Branding at SCAD.

Transformed Education and Transcendent Design in the Time of Corona

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures continue to disrupt life and business as designers know it. Design firm ideation and production meetings teeter across the imperfect grids of Zoom rooms, Google sheets and Miro board post-its. Experience and environmental designers wonder when there will again be crowds to design experiences and environments for. Studios, agencies and designers across the globe are facing business and interpersonal challenges as we all try to find rebirth in this new not-so-normal.

Yet unprecedented uncertainty arrived with unprecedented human generosity. Sudden constraints blossomed into sudden creativity. And, for those who had (or made) a plan and possessed the capacity to accept the unforeseen reality and adapt, necessity bore invention and  innovation, imagination and most importantly, inspiration.

Through relentless planning, an unapologetic demand for persistent excellence from university leadership, and student and extended family ingenuity and generosity — along with a little bit of luck — we have worked towards a positive outcome for SCAD.

Just before Hurricane Matthew ripped through Savannah and the whole Southeastern Coast in 2016, SCAD conceived and implemented a state-of-the-art evacuation process, and also an innovative and industry-leading approach to remote education. By the time Coronavirus reached Savannah, ninety-three percent of the Graphic Design curriculum was already evaluated and transformed into virtual learning. SCAD was prepared for the particular challenges that awaited with COVID 19 and ready to listen, learn, and create. 

 SCAD’s position was supercharged by the hard work of its faculty, staff and community. Industry leaders like design disruptor James Victore, Google design manager Mike Buzzard, New York Magazine design director Wendy Goodman, and author and former VP of product design at Facebook Julie Zhuo offered invaluable insight and goodwill through masterclasses, in-conversations, student critiques, and resource sharing.  

Inside the graphic design and advertising departments, my faculty and staff adopted the unwavering belief that our mission was not to make this virtual learning thing work; our mission was to make virtual learning innovative and engaging. 

From bringing major agency and studio recruiters virtually into the classrooms to speak candidly with the students about the job market and provide advice on how to land the ever more competitive jobs available, to assessing the humanity innately imbued in the global crisis and applying it to students’ work, we found, in many ways, our students produced their best work ever in terms of craftsmanship and visual literacy, and in terms of meaning and transcendency.

 Our first all-virtual quarter concluded mere days before the writing of this article, and that end was marked as usual with the graphic design department’s annual celebration of top work, Secession. As my faculty and I curated, viewed, and voted on the best work at the backend of our most unusual academic quarter, I was struck by the quality and intentional resonance as mentioned, and also by the way our students’ work mirrored COVID-driven trend shifts in professional design worldwide. It is the student work, its reflection of current transformations in global design aesthetic trends, and the clear connection between hardship and humanness, and constraint and creativity that I proudly share with you now.

Transformation #1 — Design for Humanness and Optimism:

Just as Giorgia Lupi at leading design firm Pentagram is doing with “Happy Data,” a datavis project on a mission to bring cheerful pandemic statistics to the masses, so did SCAD M.F.A. student, Minh Hoang from Hanoi, Vietnam, take an utterly novel approach to data visualization in his work, “The Bible,” which elegantly conveys the statistical realities of homophobia in his home country in a sobering but optimistic and hopeful way. Likewise, with deftly balanced humor and respect, B.F.A. student and GDUSA 2020 Student to Watch, Emily Ghizzoni, designed “Lady Business,” a playful survival kit of sorts for the most ubiquitous, albeit perhaps minor, of female sufferings.

Transformation #2 — Sustainability Continues to Gain Momentum:

The pandemic reminds us of mortality, of the fragility of our bodies and of the Earth. Just as sustainable collectives like the 1.5-years-young New Plastics Economy  and The Sustainable Packaging Coalition continue to gain moment and further support sustainable design projects, so to did M.A. student from Tanjin, China, Yuanzhou Li set sites on ecological and environmental concerns with the transparent (literally and figuratively) and powerfully paradoxical “Beautiful Pollution”.

Transformation #3 — Typography and Minimalism Take Place of Photography:

It’s impossible to imagine this transformation enjoying any kind of permanence once shooting crews can come together in photo studios again, but for now, intentional and restrained use of all-type (characterized by maxi-type and semi-transparency) and a complete re-embrace of minimalism (characterized by hyper-thin geometry) fill the temporary void left by photography. You can see the minimalism in the recent Vogue Italia April cover, the type-as-image, maxi- and semi-transparent -type tactic in Droga5’s recent Hennessy campaign, and you see it all in B.F.A. student, Suvane Dave’s “Nike Paper Promotion Book” and “Gretel Premium Book”.

*Enjoy all of the SCAD Secession finalists’s work here.