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.
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.
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.
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.