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Interview By Anise V. Simpson
Photographs by Dottie Stover and Lisa Ventre, University of Cincinnati

Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 37, Issue 3, Fall 2012)

Q: What is your philosophy about design critiques?
My hypothesis about the reason for the critique process, not only in design, but the visual arts generally is that what we’re dealing with in design education is visual communication, a visual vocabulary, and we naturally communicate primarily through the written or verbal word.

So the design critique provides an opportunity for us to try to kind of bounce back and forth between what is seen and what is said to have visual examples to talk about in dealing with concepts concerning art and design. It’s not possible for someone in a visual discipline to learn about it exclusively by reading a book, or by hearing a lecture. Just like in music, it wouldn’t be possible for a potential musician to learn about sound without bouncing back and forth between what he or she is hearing, and what is said and observed and so forth. So, it’s an attempt to bridge that communication gap that exists. Giving assignments that allow students to visualize responses creates a vehicle for education by looking at, responding to, and trying to build this bridge between the verbal and the visual.

Q: So then what would you define the main objectives of critiques as being?
Well, it’s education of course. The objectives vary depending, to some extent, on the different levels that you’re dealing with in education. In the formative years of a design education, the critique is primary a vehicle for providing information. Students come in with the need for information just like students in any field. The critique provides an opportunity for the faculty member to introduce information based on what is seen. The fact that a student has committed to an assignment, and has done something, gives him a vested interest and an understanding that he/she wouldn’t have if they didn’t do a design. They have a context within which they can better understand, hopefully, what is said about design in relation to their piece and all of the other students’ work.

At the early levels, fairly basic assignments are given. It is important for the parameters of those assignments to be very specific. What an educator is trying to do consistently, I hope, is to give an assignment that provides just enough room for variation so that a number of considerations can be dealt with. Not so much room that there is too much variety in the responses and consequently little is gained.

It’s a matter of just kind of being on that fence where you give enough room for variables but not for confusion. If a majority of the students come back with designs that are way off base, then that means that the teacher has not specified clearly enough, hasn’t given clear enough parameters. If on the other hand, the majority of the responses are too similar, then the teacher essentially told the students what to do, and that also is problematic. So there has to be room for variables.

The educator uses this [critiquing] as a vehicle for information about form and concepts and content and so forth. It is common at the beginning stages for group critiques to be more favored because the lessons are basic and relatively universal. Students learn not only from what they’ve done, and what is said about what they’ve done, but is observed about what their classmates have done. Since the designs are very similar for a given assignment, I’ve told students to assume that every project up on the board for a group critique is their own so that they have a vested interest. The professor is likely using each design to talk about that thing that is best clarified in that particular piece. At the same time, there are any number of other things that could be dealt with in any one person’s project. Each designer’s solution is used to make observations that are relevant for the whole class but are most clearly evident in that particular piece.

Q: So during those beginning stages, those beginning years when they’re having those group critiques, how have you observed through your years of teaching, students actually gleaning the knowledge that they are supposed to in those whole classroom critiques?
One of the things that I have emphasized in a lot of different ways is the importance of process over product. Professors should deal with teaching the design process as apposed to targeting the results. While we emphasize design process in terms of project assignments, the same thing, I think, is true in terms of the teacher’s lesson sequencing.

The educator is involved in a process. So we’re not teaching a final concept. But we are leaning toward a final (or final considerations). The final critique on a project is not as meaningful—as the early critiques. It has to be a building process. And in fact, in those situations when a professor might give a project and only give one critique, I think that’s relatively shallow. However, there is certainly the opportunity for whatever is learned in that final critique to be applied, I suppose, to other projects. But the earlier series of critiques, leading up to a final are most important. It’s a process.

Above left: The Aronoff Center for Design and Art is the work of iconoclastic architect, Peter Eisenman, who designed it to inspire and facilitate the careers of College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) students. Above right: DAAP students participate in a class critique.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about that process? That process that you have in your classrooms for the critiquing steps that the students go through in presenting their work?
In the formative stage, at the sophomore level, let’s say, what I’ve generally done is to identify a category. The course that I’ve dealt with primarily with the sophomores is ‘design aesthetics.’ It deals with the control and communication of visual form. How to put color, line, shape, point; develop the elements of form together. Also to verbally articulate the selection and the communication that occurs purely with form, which exercises their critical seeing and thinking skills.

What I’ve generally done is to, first of all, lecture on a category; such as color, or line, or what have you. Then I give an assignment that focuses on (and is pretty specified, very limited) on one of those categories that I’ve just lectured on. I’ll give that assignment with very strict particulars of what the format is and so forth so that everyone is on the same page and that there are responses to that assignment then several days later, there is an initial critique. And that, I have explained to the students, should be seen as a continuation of the lecture. There now are nuances that can only be understood when faced with visuals.

Then for the first time, they have committed to (and have experimented with) the principles I’ve introduced. And, they’ve taken a stab at some kind of a visual response to them. That provides us with imagery to look at and to digest those comments or points I’ve lectured on. Generally this is a group critique. Then I extend the project for several days and students are expected to re-work the project without changing their concept. I emphasize that students should take lecture notes, take notes during the critiques, make drawings, and so forth. We know that in doing so, there is a greater likelihood for most people of digesting the information if they commit it to notes, rather than just listening and assuming that it’s going to be remembered.

Q: So, have you seen that happening during the initial crits? And, how many years of experience have you had teaching?
Yes, students do generally take notes. I’ve taught for 45 years within the contexts of an art school, an independent art school, and primarily within a university.

Q: Have you conducted critiques in the same way in all these different environments?
I would say that with experience, my teaching has evolved, and hopefully improved. I started as most of us do, sort of emulating the experiences I had. But, when I started as a design educator (that was at a very early stage of the formation, or the evolution of graphic design as an independent educational entity) so, everyone was kind of experimenting a bit. And, in the education that I had (and was common at that time, 50 years ago) there was not a kind of methodical, structured, educational sequencing. That has become more and more inbred within our curriculum. I tend to deal with the educational curriculum in a more and more objective, rational, thoughtful way. So, it became increasingly structured.

I think there also has been a better opportunity for me to gauge the quality and the results in relation to what was offered. It’s not primarily spontaneous or intuitive. It’s important to realize that with a rational introduction, and thoughtful process, that doesn’t eliminate, or reduce the intuitionism that students bring or their individuality. It simply is a matter of providing the tools, understanding, knowledge base, experience, and the confidence, ultimately, that will allow students to employ their intuition and individuality, and really become inventive—once they have the tools. Musicians learn how to play an instrument before they can really perform or create something. You don’t know what the latent potential is of someone in any category until they have the tools, the knowledge base and the skills with which they can then express.

Q: So how do you facilitate this transition—from you as the educator, being the dominant force, during the whole-class critique—to having the students more engaged one-on-one?
I attempt to have [the transition] happen in as gradual way as possible. Beginning students are naturally uncertain, and confused about design and what they are going to encounter. They are likely to be intimidated by the situation. Most of our students were the stars in their high school art classes, and then suddenly they are with peers who are equal to that in their classes. It’s an adjusting period. So for any number of dynamic personal and social reasons (but also for educational reasons) it starts out as a relatively anonymous group situation then just gradually, in a natural way, it becomes more and more individualized. Individual attention is paid more and more to students. Just going through the year, the particular project sequence that I gave in the first quarter, it was all group critiques and lectures every week—and very specified assignments and so forth. Toward the end of that first quarter, there is an assignment that brings together each of the lesson components to some extent. At that stage, students are expected to participate in the discussions.

I even go so far as to use little tricks sometimes, to get students to talk about each other’s work. One of the things that I’ve done is to expect that someone else in the class start the critique. Someone presents their individual project, and someone else should start the critique so that they don’t rely on me to do it entirely. They don’t just sit back and wait. And, that is cumbersome sometimes, particularly for sophomores. They are not likely to spontaneously do that.

Sometimes you have a pretty talkative student—who might dominate—who might do that. Usually they’re still a bit intimidated and uncertain. So, what I’ve done, for instance, is to have one student give a presentation. Then I say, ‘whoever was last critiqued, who’s ever project was last discussed, should start off the critique on this next project.” That then causes other students to feel more comfortable and start to talk.

Something else I’ve done, is to spin a bottle, or spin a pencil or something. Whoever it points to becomes the lead-off critic. So there are things like that, that I try to do with the sophomores, later on in the year, to get them to feel more and more comfortable talking about design because they’re going to learn from doing so.

One of the things I emphasize when giving an assignment is that they shouldn’t try to do a solution, but they should engage in an investigative process. Because every little variation that they try (if they’re thinking at the same time, and looking at it, and making decisions) they’re learning from that. They’re learning as much from that investigative process, as they do from a lecture. And, again, the critique is another stage in the learning process. And they learn from what is said, what is seen, what is said about other people’s work.

And, then I emphasize that they should get back to the project as quickly as possible after crits because if they wait a week to adjust, they’re going to be in a different frame of mind. I emphasize that they’re more likely to understand and to recall and to—again I’m using the term ‘digest’—what was attempted to be communicated in the critique if they deal with it quickly. And, they’ll be able to do it much more quickly rather than waiting several days and then trying to put themselves back in that time.

Gateway to the University of Cincinnati at the northwest corner of campus. Crosley Tower is in the background.

Q: Ok, so you were talking about the process before; of first lecture, assignment, then the initial crit. What comes after that?
One or two more critiques. But the thing that I’m proudest of, I guess, in terms of my engagement in this curriculum here, was my emphasis on a systematic building process which was really rare in graphic design education. A systematic building process that starts with—at the most logical stage—foundation experiences. And builds one-step at a time. With each project, there needs to be some sense of closure for an individual assignment. But each project is also another step in the overall process.

Considerations for project one continue to be very much a part of project two and on and so forth. Along with new expectations at each stage, I also realized that the lessons that were attempted for project one, for some students, weren’t really understood until they were dealt with within project three. One of the reasons for my encouraging students to be able to go back on their own and redo projects is because of that. Because something may not have been understood from the early stage until project three and I encourage students then to go back and use that understanding to refine and adjust project one. This helps to cement their comprehension. So, consequently, it didn’t make sense to give grades for each individual assignment, but rather a grade at the end because it’s all a collective whole. And, if a student at the end of the quarter was able to reconsider and eventually comprehend the particulars of each of the individual projects that were given through the quarter, and could visualize that understanding in redoing the work, then that was the objective. You’d like for every student to understand as early as possible, and
some students do, but not all.

One of the things that I did, kind of naturally I guess that probably bugged students during critiques and lectures, since I know that is very difficult to make this translation from the visual to the verbal, when there was point to be made that I felt was really critical, and I knew that if I just said it once in a particular way, some students would get it, (…) I tried to articulate that point in two or three different ways to give every body a better chance of comprehending.

If a student heard it and understood it the first time, that probably annoyed them to hear it repeated a couple times. But it’s always a matter of percentages, and I think you gauge the success of a course, on the basis of what percentage of students comprehended the primary lessons involved. Of course you’re shooting for 100%. But, because of the peculiarity of dealing with the visual language through the verbal language, you’re lucky if probably you get 80 or 90 percent of the students.

We have had a unique quarter-end portfolio review process. My experiences as a student and as an early teacher, were that a review process at the end of the semester or quarter was common. But usually, it was a matter of a few faculty being together and a student coming in with their work, and the faculty critique that work. I realized that was kind of arbitrary and almost and seemed like a punitive process. Students were afraid to come in. There were three faculty members there. They thought they were going to get beaten down. And, sometimes they were depending on who was most talkative at that particular time. You don’t want a critique or an end of the quarter, or and end of the semester, review to be seen as a punitive thing, or as really critical. It is a little bit unfortunate that the words “critical” and “critique” are familiar with each other because I don’t see the critique as being a critical process, but rather an educational opportunity.

I realized with this situation that was common in design education, where an individual student would face a few faculty, and the faculty would exercise their muscle. And, the student would be so scared that they wouldn’t hear anything that was being said. Another negative about that approach, incidentally, was that sometimes one faculty member would be very talkative and the other faculty would feel as though, “Well, they’ve used up the time.” Or “They’ve said everything I would say, so I won’t say anything.” If a student understands something when it’s said one way, but not another way, that can be carried over into faculty also. So, one faculty member says something and the same concept is verbalized in another way by another faculty member, that can be helpful. We tried different approaches. And, what we came to, for lower division courses at least, was a review process where we had each student put up all of their finished work from all the classes. Each student was assigned a wall. And the faculty played a kind of “musical chairs” like process where each started with a different student, and spent 10 minutes and then moved on to another student. So, we dealt with 12 students within a two-hour period. It meant that it was a one-on-one situation. So, it was less intimidating. It meant that faculty could talk about whatever made most sense, or seemed most appropriate to them in that context.

Sometimes, a faculty member would primarily deal additionally with the work done in their class because they felt that was necessary or appropriate. Sometimes a faculty member might talk about the interrelationships between classes. Sometimes a faculty member might talk about the work in other classes primarily because they feel as though they had enough time on their own projects. It also gave faculty a chance to deal with personal issues—if there was a difficulty in motivation or whatever—without every body being involved, without it being so intimidating because it was a big group.

So, we started this one-on-one process and the rotating walls, because then we felt as though there was a better chance for the student to gain something from it. It’s another critique essentially, another lesson, step. We did this with the lower division students because they were still dealing with fairly fundamental projects, and were coming back the next quarter, they could carry the lessons over into the next quarter.

We realized, that for upper division students, that didn’t work so well because they were going off and working in a coop/internship position, and they had been working on complex quarter-long assignments. And, if they heard a critique at the end of having been enmeshed in this project for a long period of time, they felt bad about not hearing those comments earlier where it could be meaningful and could be applied to their project. So what we did with upper division students, instead, was to institute a midterm review. It involved all of the faculty collectively with the students, students put up their work in advance, and our comments were seen as interim educational input so that the students could then fold the sum of those into a continuation of the projects. And so, we have this two-step kind of process—very individual, one-on-one, end-of-quarter reviews for the sophomores and our early-juniors. And, with the late-juniors and seniors, a mid term review where it was a more mature and professional discussion concerning the work in process. We acted more like coaches rather than teachers at that stage.

Q: And what do you feel are some issues that prevent students from getting the most that they can out of the critique experience?
It’s a very uncommon experience for them to start with. They’re not used to that approach to education and it’s not uncommon for students, coming in as freshmen or sophomores right out of high school, to see it as a criticism of themselves, or a criticism of their work per say rather than an educational experience. It can take a while to get over that hump for students to begin to understand, that the objective is the war, not the battle. The objective is for them to learn in the process and to graduate with knowledge and confidence.

Just as they encountered in early literature or journalism classes, or music classes, that making mistakes and finding and making adjustments, and learning over a period of time, is necessary. The same thing applies to design. It’s not a matter of a student coming in and just doing something correctly and having that be so creative that it’s going to be displayed on the refrigerator. They’re past that stage. And because of the mystique, I think of art and design, visual art and design more so than the other categories, there’s a tendency for people coming into school to think that it’s all about God-given creativity. They’ve been told before by their parents, teachers, and others that they’re gifted. [they think] they should just be able to do what they’re capable of and be creative. It takes a while for them to understand, that we’re not trying to teach creativity and that they shouldn’t try to be creative. What they’re learning in design classes, are the tools, skills, and the knowledge. [We’re] providing the knowledge base, so that their creativity can be realized.

Also they shouldn’t try to be creative, but they should try to understand, do the best work possible, and their creativity can then be realized. A music student learns how to play an instrument first and probably practices over a long period of time with many coaches before she is able to contribute to society with something that is truly creative.

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