John McVey, instructor
meets Monday/Wednesday, 8:30-11:10am in H-207
Office Hours (ordinarily Thursdays, 12:30pm — 1:30pm, or by arrangement

course description
A studio/seminar investigation of the nature and practice of design as a story-telling and framing activity. Within this context, attention is devoted to episodes of design history, to the ways that history has been told, to the ways that any design tells stories about itself, and to design practice as a rhetorical activity. Participation involves research, development and presentation of ideas in seminar papers and in design exercises

Every design tells a story about design. And also tells others’ stories: clients’, users’, its social and economic context. Design is intentional. Design is about drawing — plans, diagrams, sketches. It is about limiting, designating, framing stories and information from particular perspectives, for particular needs. It is a discursive activity, conversational. More or less collaborative. It is a conversation (with a situation, clients, users and others whose lives will be impacted by a design). It is is a rhetorical practice (of persuasion). It relates to etiquette (putting the needs of others first). We will consider design from these and other perspectives.

We look back at some earlier periods/themes, including Renaissance emblems, ornament/decoration, and design as a rhetorical activity (rhetoric is the “art of persuasion;” this may involve some Plato and Aristotle), and the Bauhaus and modernist threads of design.

But we are going to start with framing design: what is it? what is entailed? We will be looking at aspects of design method, particularly in product and industrial design, where practice is somewhat more systematic than in visual arts-based graphic design. Here multiple iterations are requisite, after opportunities are identified; needs understood; products specified; concepts generated, selected and tested; and prototypes (physical or analytical) are created.

A key text will be Karl T. Ulrich’s Design : Creation of Artifacts in Society. The most ambitious exercise in the semester will be the identification of gaps or needs, the development and selection of design solutions, and the creation of proposals and analytical prototypes of a product or service.

objectives (partial list)
familiarity with

  1. historical tributaries of design, including
  2. emblematics, symbols; sprezzatura (technical facility, the “art that hides its art”)
  3. rhetoric : the art of persuasion, but also the management/direction of attention
  4. emergence of design as a discrete practice (in 19c), which relates to
  5. intersections and divergences of art and design, over time
  6. but also the other activities with which design is related, including manufacturing, architecture, information and proliferating forms and channels of communication, ornament, product design, user experience, scientific communication.
  7. craft issues, also diy / maker culture, and the relationship of professional and amateur design (thus, development of a profession, professional organizations like the AIGA, etc.)
  8. design education
  9. design’s autobiography in the form of design annuals (boring when new, fascinating after the age of 40!) and major design exhibitions over the years, including Mixing Messages (1996), Design Culture Now (2000), Design Life Now (2006), and Graphic Design : Now in Production (2011)
  10. design method (in product and industrial design; design as conversation, etc)
  11. ability to bring ideas/theory into practice, and vice versa

partial list

  1. David Buckley Borden and Aaron Ellison will be giving a lunchtime lecture on Wed., Feb. 7 about their collaboration at Harvard Forest around art and ecology and education. They will join us that same day, for a discussion and workshop. Details to follow.
  2. I expect that we will curate an exhibition on one of the Hardie walls, later in the semester.

Any one of the major graphic design histories that are now on the market. Each of us will bring into the conversation what that text has (or hasn’t) to say on a given topic. However, I think everyone should have a copy of Richard Hollis, Graphic Design : A Concise History (second edition, 2002). It is small and densely typeset, and the illustrations are small. But every designer/design referenced in the book, can be found easily enough, in multiple examples, via Google. There are also copies in the college and in the design seminar libraries.

Ulrich, Karl T. Design : Creation of Artifacts in Society. University of Pennsylvania, 2011.
I will distribute printed copies of this. It is also available entire at author’s website
We’ll be referencing another book by Ulrich, co-written with Steven D. Eppinger, Product Design and Development (fifth edition, 2012).
Alex Coles, ed. Design and Art. (Documents of Contemporary Art series; MIT, 2007). required.
Adrian Shaughnessy. Graphic Design : A User’s Manual. (Laurence King, 2009)
There will be other assigned readings as well, print and web. Keep abreast of the design blogosphere (Design Observer, GrainEdit, etc.); keep an eye on Eye and other design magazines.

The instructor maintains design-related bookmarks at pinboard.

There will be a number of studio/design exercises throughout the course of the semester. A glance at the archived course blogs for 2008-2010, 2015, 2016 (the last still being indexed) will give you a sense of the kinds of projects there have been, and might be again.

Two exercises will involve design methodology as presented in Ulrich and elsewhere. In the past, these have taken the form of (1) development of wallpaper and/or room treatment solutions, and (2) an “analytical prototype” of a design (or other) solution to a “gap” or “problem.” Some of this material is archived.

We will also be using the The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design — 500 double sided sheets, one side presenting a large visual of a selected instance of exemplary design, the second side presenting details.

criteria for credit
Physical and mental attendance required. Do and think about the readings; think about and do the exercises, writing. Participate, bring what you know (and don’t know, your questions) into the conversation. Do this and you’ll be all right.
Excessive absences, or silences, or latenesses, will affect your grade.
The discursive nature of the class means that it may not be as structured as some other studio classes. It’s structured around ideas and the conversation.

It is an absolute commitment of this instructor to make the class a good experience for everyone. If you anticipate that you have learning differences that could be a challenge, see or contact the College’s Writing Studio and/or its Disability Services Office, both on the second floor of 248 Cabot Street.

Colleen Michaels
Writing Studio Director

Meagan Grant
Disability Services Coordinator

details for both at academic-advising-and-support

If you anticipate that you have learning differences that could be a challenge, see Erin Kourafas (our disability coordinator), to figure out how to proceed. We’ll make it work.

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