Teaching Philosophy

When I went up for promotion, they asked me to write out my teaching philosophy, I hadn’t done it since my last job interview, which was 20 some years ago! I think it’s good for students to know where I am coming from. Also, some shout outs to people who have had a great impact on me, my own professors, mentors, colleagues and friends.


I clearly remember the pivotal point of my career as a student, and a designer. I was a sophomore in typography class when Professor John Landis began to critique our work. He got to my 8x8 square of illustration board tacked to the bulletin board. A chain of lower case g forms were linked like a chain down the right hand side of my board. I held my breath, unsure of what he might say. I was pleased with my results, but after many critiques where the professor tore my designs to shreds, I knew that my opinion meant absolutely nothing. Professor Landis began, “This is just what I hoped you would do. Each g looks like a little gem, shining, gleaming on the page. Beautiful work, Karen.” Something in me changed as those words landed in my brain. 35 years later, I remember them clearly. I hear him saying them as if he were standing next to me. I feel the joy and power that they held. He made me feel like I was a designer, not just a struggling student, but someone with a valid, creative, thoughtful point of view that was worth paying attention to. In that moment, everything changed. I was encouraged.

Stay relevant

Another mentor taught me this: “Teach them what you know, Karen.” It was my first teaching job. I was a nervous wreck. I had been hired the day before (literally I got the call on Labor Day to start teaching the next day). I had never even been in front of a classroom. My department chair, Dr. Shirley Hughes, told me that I knew more than my students did about the topic, and as long as I taught them what I knew, they would learn, and it would be okay. She was right, of course, but what I have realized in the nearly thirty years since, is that in order for me to stay a step ahead of my students, I need to keep learning, creating and practicing. I always need to know more than they do. I continue to work in the field of design, learning the latest software and keeping my professional skills sharp, so that I stay ahead of the ever-changing trends, techniques and skills required to be a leader to my students.

Be passionate

I believe that it is not only my job to make a student learn, it is my job, as a professor, to make them fall in love with the subject matter so they will want to soak up all the knowledge I can give them, and then some. One of my favorite moments as a teacher (and it happens every year), is when one of my sophomore typography students comes in to class and says, “Professor Kresge, you ruined me.” I smile, because I know what is about to come next. “I was out to dinner at my favorite restaurant and all I could think about was how ugly the menu was.” I do really love graphic design, especially typography. I still get excited in class when I talk about hanging punctuation, kerning, lining figures, things normal people don’t even notice. I love to tell my students that this kind of attention to detail, understanding what makes type really beautiful, that is the kind of thing that will make them stand out. When they are seniors, and I see the polish and the level of excellence in their portfolio, I know it is because they love what they are doing and, like me, they revel in the details.

Teach them to think

I use a variety of methods to teach students to develop strong concepts that will communicate ideas visually to intended audiences. Any good designer will tell you that concepts are even more important than skills, theory, history, terminology, or method. For each project, I walk students through a carefully crafted process that begins with a project brief (I write these myself for sophomores, but require juniors and seniors to write them themselves) and is followed with thorough research and investigation, methodical brainstorming and ideation. “Wall crits,” where all of the students hang their work and everyone discusses it, are the traditional classroom technique for developing ideas. I do have a wall crit at least twice for each project, but I also use peer critiques where students comment on one-another’s work, either in writing or face to face. This is more in keeping with what goes on in most design studios and it teaches students to defend their ideas, as well as developing the inter-personal skills needed to contribute to building concepts in a professional setting. Finally, it is important to meet with students individually to work out concepts. This mirrors the situation that most young designers will be in working with a creative director who will guide their work from concept through finish.

Appreciate their point of view

It is important that students build a portfolio of work that they are invested in and feel ownership of. When it comes to concept, it is important for me to draw out their ideas, not project my ideas onto them. Then I encourage them to study, experiment, create, conceptualize, and produce work that is a reflection of their own vision. When they walk into an interview, they can open their portfolio and speak confidently about their work. When they are given their first professional project, they will know that they have proven their own capabilities and are able to do the work at hand.

Expect excellence

I set the bar high. I expect my students to produce work that is of the highest quality, and generally, they do. I learned this from my daughters’ Suzuki method violin teacher, Linda Fiore. I asked her once how Dr. Suzuki was able to teach these tiny children, as young as two or three years old, to play complex violin concertos with such accuracy and skill, when they couldn’t even read music. Was it their natural talent? She, herself, had studied under the great teacher and told me, “Dr. Suzuki told you what to do, he expected you to do it, and so, you did. If he told you to practice a certain phrase 1000 times before your next lesson, then you just did it!” She went on to explain that his students loved him so much, and had such deep respect for him, that they simply did what he asked. They knew the payoff of their hard work, because they had been to recitals where they had seen other students play who were at a wide variety of levels. I try to emulate Dr. Suzuki’s method in my own classes by showing many examples of work. I begin by showing professional examples of projects similar to the one I am introducing, a level that would be difficult, but not unattainable. Then, after I am sure the students have a solid concept and creative direction, I show outstanding work of students who have completed similar projects from years prior. I continue showing professional and student examples that showcase excellence until the final deadline, at which point the students should be able to ascertain the quality of their own work by measuring it against what they know I expect. For the most part, this works. There are always a few students who are not able to reach my expectations for the class, but if I don’t feel a student is capable, because of personal issues or disabilities, I work individually with them to set attainable goals. Occasionally, a student falls short, but for the most part, students reach or go beyond the confidence that I place in them.  

Some thoughts on Plagiarism in Design

I think that there are many reasons for plagiarism. And surprisingly, most of them do not stem from malicious intentions.

  1. Fan-girl mentality. Especially in light of the popularity of Instagram and Pinterest, where design ideas are shared and “liked” by the billions, it is easy to see how a designer might reach superstar status and be copied by young, impressionable designers. Sort of like how every 12 year old boy got the Justin Bieber hair swoop down to a science, these youngsters see a big shot like Seb Lester and think, “I’m gonna set up my Go-pro and get a calligraphy pen and get famous.” Or they saw Dana Tanamachi’s chalk lettering and tried their own hand at it. It isn’t a direct copy, but the “artists” are trying their best to emulate Dana’s work. They really don’t mean any harm, but instead of developing their own style, they just practice and copy their “design crush.”
  2. Mistakes. Sometimes a design will stick in your head and stay there for a very long time until it rears up during a sketch session and you think it’s your own, when really it is something you saw in Graphis or even in your Historical Survey of Graphic Design class sophomore year. I have actually had this happen myself and was scared by how close I “copied” without ever referencing the original. Thank goodness I realized before it went to the client or worse, to print!
  3. Clients. They are guided by a client to copy and they are too green to realize they should say no. Sometimes a client brings in something that they like and ask the designer to create something similar. This is unfortunate, and we hope that the designer would know better, but sometimes a designer is hungry and caves in to their client who really doesn’t understand that there is anything wrong with copying someone else work. In general most people don’t really understand what we do, and they probably think we all just copy off each other and are happy doing it.
  4. Actions and tutorials. I love actions and tutorials, they teach you new skills and tools that you can apply to your own work. But sometimes a designer sees something that they love, they find the action or tutorial and just plug in their own information. It isn’t exactly plagiarism, but it isn’t exactly original thinking either.
  5. Fear. I have seen this happen with students, they are so afraid that their own work won’t measure up, that they just copy something that they think is fabulous, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly. They don’t mean any harm, and I think they see it as a way out of a difficult situation. In the end it would be impossible for this kind of plagiarism to be anything but eye candy: pretty to look at, but without substance. Also part of the “fear” problem is the designer who is afraid they’ll miss the deadline.
  6. Stupidity. They don’t realize that it isn’t okay to copy. Kids who grow up using a bootlegged copy of Photoshop, typefaces from questionable sources online and images downloaded from a Google search have never been taught that copying someone else’s designs is wrong. Someone has to teach them that just like stealing a candy bar from the 7-11, stealing an image from a photographer or a layout from a designer is wrong.
  7. Laziness. This is bordering on malicious and is really pretty sad. Rather than go through the work of developing a concept and choosing colors, typography, layout, etc that will communicate their concept, they just find something that is pretty and copy it.
  8. CHEATERS. No excuses here. These folks just see something they like and take it. Ever the optimist, I think this case is the exception.

In any case, it is wrong. As an educator, I feel like it is my responsibility to teach my students how to design responsibly. Research your client, your project, your audience. Create original concepts and build and develop them through sketches and thumbnails. Hire illustrators or photographers or create your own artwork from scratch (again developing and polishing your work in stages). It is this process that will always ensure original and unique solutions to design problems.

I must also teach my students the difference between inspiration and plagiarism. They can look at Dana Tanamachi’s work and be inspired to try chalk lettering, but they’ll put their own twist on it, working on a different surface, in a different style, or scale. I like to look at the process that a designer uses to imagine concepts and use that process to look at my own design problems from a fresh angle.

Plagiarism is not a new problem, and it certainly will continue to be an issue, especially with the easy access we have to so many examples of design. Sometimes it seems impossible to come up with a new idea, it seems EVERYTHING has been done before. Then it is best to step away from Pinterest and go take a walk… listen to music… look at a building, a painting, a sunset… talk to your friends… be inspired by things that are not design at all. Above all, we must remember that a designer’s primary role is to communicate. With that clear purpose, plagiarism just can’t occur.

And what to do when we are plagiarized? That’s tricky. If it the offense is clear and will cause you or your client hardship, then I think you should contact a lawyer. Often a cease and desist will do the trick. I have been told that plagiarism is actually a form of flattery, and that I should feel honored. Maybe this is true, but that is a bit like saying, “I love your bracelet, you look beautiful in it, so I am going to take it and it will be mine so I can look beautiful in it too… aren’t you flattered that I like your bracelet?” I think it feels like I have been burglarized whether it is my bracelet that is stolen or my design. If I don’t feel like the offense is worth contacting a lawyer, I might call out the thief myself and hope that they didn’t really know that they were doing something wrong. Maybe I can educate them… maybe not. A thief is a thief and I suppose their career can’t be in a very good place, and can’t possibly be moving in a positive direction if they can’t come up with original ideas. In the end, we can always pity the plagiarist and move our own work towards loftier goals.