During my recent talk at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, I mentioned my sense of wonder and liberation when I came to study there. “I am feeling the same”, a young German student told me after the lecture. Like me, she had come on a scholarship and had already experienced a few years of German design education. Like me, she was dreading to go back. So what is it that makes British design education for people like me so different, so appealing?
Ideas v/s Technique
“With us, it is all about ideas. We assume that students that want to realize their idea will learn the techniques they need by themselves”, I once overheard Alan Baines, former head of communication design at Central Saint Martins (CSM), explaining to a German counterpart. The latter replied: “Here it is the other way around. We believe that students need to learn technical possibilities and limitations first, before they can start designing”.
Even if that approach were not so time-consuming and uninspiring, one wonders: what techniques are essential for a 21st century graphic designer? Contemporary graphic design work ranges from letterpress to programming, from water colouring to 3D printing, so the idea of teaching all techniques first, is based on a very limited view of the profession. At Central Saint Martins, which is now part of the University of the Arts London, each new student is signed up for a Lynda account and has access to a computer lab and technical assistance. Precious time at college is reserved for discussing and developing ideas.
Free v/s Applied
Whereas in Britain people talk about “the arts”, most Germans still draw a clear line between “free” and “applied” art. While borders between these spheres seem fluid in Britain, you have to choose camp in Germany, where the existence of fine (free) artists is deemed essential for a democratic society. Applied artists on the other hand, even those that work in the cultural sector, are not widely seen as valid parts of the German cultural landscape.
Thus, graphic design is deemed best when it serves its purpose without making much fuss of itself. It is usually taught as a craft and a service to be provided, without any intrinsic merit. Idiosyncrasy, experiment and playfulness are reserved for fine artists. Of course there are fantastic German designers, but mainstream graphics are, as a result, rather dull in comparison to British output.
History v/s Nostalgia
Tradition is held high in both countries, but attitude to historic sources and tools differs widely. In the new CSM building at Kings Cross, old shop signs hang above the cafeteria, a road sign next to the toilets. This collection, the ‚central lettering record‘ which is overseen by eminent typographer, type historian and lecturer Phil Baines, lives comfortably within the contemporary college. The rich heritage of the college (once the pioneering Central School) reminds students that they enter a proud profession that works on changing the world for the better.
In Germany, the past often serves to remind contemporary students of their perceived lack of knowledge and sensibility–qualities that students of the past apparently widely possessed. As a student in Germany, I was made to set lead type in the old ways in order to understand the physicality of type. Fine–but does it really need six months to hammer down this message and feel the drag of being a typesetter in the 1920s?
In the new CSM letterpress studio, old printing techniques are alive. “This student is printing on oranges”, Helen Ingham, who is running this popular workshop, explains when I stare at a curious setup on the printing press. The room is brimming with experiments and ideas, because students use historic tools not only to understand the past but also to create the future.
Community v/s Hierarchy
In the bar of the new Central Saint Martins building in Kings Cross, students, tutors, administrative staff and visiting lecturers sit together and have a pint. Helped along by the egalitarian “you”, they talk about their day, their projects, things to see and do. There is a sense of shared creativity and joy that makes you want to get up and do things–now! As a student in Germany, I never talked that way to a teacher and I don´t think any of them missed my input.
Coming back to German colleges as a teacher–twenty years later–I still saw a lot of old style professors that talk down to students and do not care to listen to them. My students never really got used to calling me “Rose” and addressing me in the “Du” form. This time round, I also learnt that hierarchic barriers exist not only between students and educators, but also between permanent and visiting staff. Belonging to the latter, it was rare to have an exchange about our common work and sometimes even hard to be acknowledged in the hallway. What a missed opportunity.
Interpretation v/s Imitation
“What shall I read?” I asked my tutor Maziar Raein, when preparing my thesis on the relationship between poetry and film at CSM. “We don´t want to hear about what you have read, we want to know what YOU think”, he replied. The sense of empowerment that this answer gave me was game changing and has not left me since. But a word of warning to German design students: Do not attempt to do this at home, you will probably get not much credit for it.
Most writing about graphic design in Germany seems to be written either in scientific jargon or reduced to advice on using Photoshop or advancing your career. There is not much middle ground and thus very little entry points for students that look to reflect on their practice.
Carrot v/s Stick
Alan Baines puts it this way: “We have to put trust into our students, they are the ones that are carrying the college into the future“. Encouragement–to me the most magic of all British education tricks. To encourage is to say: “This is interesting, why don´t you push it farther”. To discourage is to say: ”This is not good enough, try again”. I remember a lengthy monologue of my German professor in front of the class detailing all the mistakes I had made in choosing the colour of endpapers for a book project. When he was finally finished I was left wondering: “If I can be so wrong about this detail, how can I even attempt to design a whole book?” Since then, I have learned that it wasn´t just me, but that most creative people produce better work when encouraged than humiliated. But these insights ask for a change in attitude, that doesn´t come easily to German academic circles. Maybe it would help to send educators instead of students to Britain with a scholarship? I am just afraid, they wouldn´t want to come back again.