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Secret Origins: ISU Year One

2013 September 3

Recently, I’ve found my thoughts turning back toward school days (more than is usually the case). Labor Day has been creeping up, and is now past; noisy gaggles of schoolchildren flood the streets of Lakewood for half of every weekday afternoon once again; the Iowa State Cyclone football squad has resumed its annual campaign to reduce fans to tears… and, after several years, I’ve finally cracked the pages of the ISU sesquicentennial history book for which I designed the dust jacket; some comments on this interesting text will likely appear in a few weeks. Meanwhile, what better time to revisit one’s own years in the world of formal study?

In a previous episode of Secret Origins, we left our hero “…at last [on my] own, standing by the arches in Old Richardson Court. Eighteen years old, completely clueless, and on the threshold of a great adventure.”

So what happened then? (Other than indulging a need to go spend money at Mayhem Comics with as little further delay as possible?) Obviously, I’ve already written many many times of school days at dear auld ISU. But there’s probably still room for a post or two dedicated to the whole picture of graphic design education at the College of Design in the late 1990s. In fact I can actually fit in one post before even getting to that, in a sense, because I spent a whole year in college before I was able to begin “graphic design education,” in earnest.

This is not because I entered school majoring in “undecided,” either. In fact I kind of (okay, not even “kind of”) scoffed at people who entered college without a firm career goal in mind, or those who changed their mind midway through. Ah the arrogance of youth; I did progress enough toward open-mindedness by my last year or so to feel more understanding, even respectful, of those willing to explore further and daring enough to change their plans. As remains my perspective today.

Nonetheless, in the autumn of 1996 I wanted to be a graphic designer, and was committed to my plan, and obviously didn’t really change my mind a whole lot subsequently, either.* But I still had to wait a year.

This is because dear auld ISU’s graphic design program required (and so far as I know, still requires) students to complete a year of preparatory coursework before applying to be one of a fixed number of entrants. At the time of my freshman year, I believe around 120 students were signed up for the “pre graphic design” curriculum at the beginning of the year, around 60 actually completed the entire process to be formal applicants, and around 30 of us were finally selected for admission. A year or two later, the latter two of these numbers (possibly all three) were effectively doubled. (I was one of the last of the real elite, I guess.)

Honestly, my first year of college is difficult to remember because 1) it was a long time ago, 2) it was such a whirlwind and 3) various elements of my total four years tend to blur together. So I’m not 100% sure about every class I took. (There’s also the fact that I didn’t go to all of them. I had some sort of math course which I skipped entirely after the first week or so, except for tests; I finished with an “A,” but for the life of me I can’t remember any details of the curriculum except that it was “math” of some sort. Clearly, time well spent.)

But I can generally recall what school was like as a freshman, aspiring graphic design major at ISU, at least. I filled up some of my schedule with various “gen ed” courses, like math, English, I think I took a “communications” course, um… there was probably more than that but it eludes me so far; one of these days I should try to dig up a complete list of all the courses I took over those four years… anyway, aside from the flotsam of a typical Honors freshman with probably just about any major, or even none, I did have a kind of “core” design curriculum.

And I’m not sure exactly what thinking informed this core curriculum, or which other programs shared it, if any; within the larger College of Design, graphic design (or “ArtGR” per the course listings) was part of the Department of Art and Design along with, maybe, Interior Design and then various traditional Fine Arts like drawing, painting, printmaking, etc. The College of Design also encompassed architecture, and landscape architecture, and maybe other programs. I’m honestly not sure without looking; in recent years I believe that the College of Design has introduced more interdisciplinary experience to many of its programs, but back in the late 90s the only other programs I came in direct contact with were the traditional fine arts, and that simply because the graphic design program required a number of fine arts courses. This presumably to provide us with a broad visual arts background, rather than just a narrow focus on layout and typography or technical skills; I think this is probably a good approach, in theory.

In practice, it was a bit wanting. My freshman year “visual arts” core curriculum basically consisted of a “design studies” lecture course, two semesters of drawing class, and two semesters of a more general “art” class including painting, sculpture, collage, etc. This was reasonable enough, although I think assigning some photography work that first year would have been worthwhile (a photography course was required for graphic design, but I didn’t take mine until sophomore or maybe junior year).

As for the visual arts courses which were required, instead, eh, it’s tempting to say “they were what they were.” I think there was value in them, certainly. In a general sense, they did provide a kind of visual arts “foundation” before we began focusing on graphic design, and as noted I support that concept. And it was probably also worthwhile, generally, simply to establish some kind of common level of study among all the incoming design students, so that we were “all on the same page” in a sense. By the time I graduated high school, I already had a good level of proficiency with drawing, for example, but I’m sure some of my peers didn’t get the benefit of a wise and engaged art sensei like I had.

On the other hand, I don’t think that these foundation-level courses were tied in very well with the actual graphic design curriculum. Which isn’t surprising, as they were separate departments; if things have improved at all since, that’s indeed something to be commended. In the 1990s, though, you basically spent a year as a fine arts student, and then (if accepted) became a graphic design student, and there was simply very little direct carry-over from the former to the latter, at all. Some of the skills practiced in that first year were useful, certainly: drawing and sketching, composition, craft skills, familiarity with the concepts and significance of form, depth, negative space, etc. But the connections were largely implied, and in practice it was still like one year I was painting and sculpting, and the next I was engaged with typesetting and layout on a computer, with no transition.

That’s the way it was done, though, in any event; it did some good and probably did little harm, other than perhaps keeping graphic design students at college a semester or more than necessary. (Which, even at the costs of in-state tuition at a public university in the 1990s, is admittedly of some significance at least for the non-scholarshipped.) I think that at least some of the time could have been better spent on work of more direct relevance to graphic design, such as photography, or computer skills, or perhaps print production and how that works, but it wasn’t.

As for the actual, specific visual arts courses: again, they were adequate, I suppose. The drawing classes, as noted, were probably the least useful to me, at any rate in the long run since I never did veer off into drawing comic books. I did a lot of drawing in high school, in pursuit of advanced placement credit, and while I don’t think ISU ever recognized this work they probably should have, because I didn’t learn a whole lot that was new in their first- and second-level drawing courses. In fact, my most vivid memory from either semester of drawing was the moment in my fall drawing course, when I realized that I had a far-better grasp of perspective than my teacher. Indeed, I probably had a better grasp of perspective than hers back when I was in elementary school. (Drawing books: open one sometime, y’know?)

As for the more general “art class” studios, they may have been more useful but sure seemed silly at the time. The pair of goofy professors I had, during those two semesters, certainly did nothing to dissipate that impression. Good people, and engaged in the class, but I’m not sure that either could have been more stereotypically old, tenured, flaky, airy-fairy artsy-fartsy types had they tried. In any event, I don’t think my painting was ever particularly worth a damn, or that this mattered much, but I did make a cool sculpture or two, at least, and I can see this work as useful “cross-training” for a graphic designer. Rate these courses somewhere in the C+/B- range, I suppose.

Balsa-wood cube

Art… I don’t even remember. Probably spring 1997?

Then there was our Design Studies lecture course. This was certainly interesting, and possibly the most useful of the pre-ArtGR required courses in many ways. As I recall it was basically a kind of general survey of art and design, including both fine art and commercial design, from the Neoclassical movement to the present day. Mainly in a Western context.

This, as I say, was definitely interesting. I wouldn’t say it was a perfect course; few if any are. But it offered us a useful and relevant context, and some thoughtful suggestions for how to interpret this context. I would say that both are important and, thinking about it, probably about all that one can really ask from lecture-format teaching. Professor Tartakov provided both, in his design studies course, in my opinion. He was interested in, and energetic in discussing, the course material. He always had some sort of interpretive remark and, whether or not one agreed with all of them, they were usually memorable and thought-provoking. I particularly recall his observation about the paradox of mass-production: each of us sitting in that class probably had more, and more varied, shirts than a landed gentleman of the pre-industrial world, e.g. Thomas Jefferson, owned in his entire life.

On consideration, I have to give Design Studies 121 fairly high marks; I’ll go into this in further detail some other time, but I believe that familiarity with cultural context is very important to being a good designer, and of all the art/design history courses I took in four years, this one was probably the most effective at this.

That covers the “visual arts” foundation. Aside from this it was, as I’ve said, mostly general coursework (certainly not without value), but I was allowed and indeed required to take one actual “ArtGR” course as an aspiring Graphic Design major. This was ArtGR 177, which was a sort of one-semester introduction to “what is graphic design.” Which, honestly, is about all that I can remember about it.

This was a lecture-format class, although not a large lecture; there were only 100-some “formally declared” would-be graphic design students, and I know this class was presented at two different times, and so to two groups, possibly more. As I say, I just cannot recall much of anything about this class. I recall who taught it, and I believe that one of my friends from the drawing class took 177 at the same time I did, but that’s about it. I remember writing a report toward the end of the semester, on a couple of magazines, and I believe they were design magazines… but, generally, if I got anything out of this course it escapes me. There may have been something useful but, apparently, it wasn’t specifically memorable.

Those are the courses which constituted a first-year (pre) graphic design education at Iowa State University fifteen years ago. I did well in all of them, or at least got good grades (not suspecting until years later that there was any difference). But before I could be fully accepted into the graphic design “fold,” there was one more hurdle to jump. The portfolio presentation.

My portfolio presentation, May 1997

Yes, there were better presentations, but mine was no worse than average FWIW

What seems most interesting, to me, looking back on this last test of aspirant graphic design majors is how much we were really “on our own” with it. In one sense, I suppose, the whole thing was pretty structured: we had spent two semesters completing specific projects, and writing one or two specific reports, in a structured environment, and all we had to do was set them all out in a designated spot in the College of Design.

On the other hand, as I recall basically everything else was left up to us. We were assigned a given section of wall in one of the hallways, aaaand that was it. We may or may not have had some discretion over what we included or left out, but how we presented it was entirely for us to figure out. Where to place things, how to attach them; what if any backdrops, furnishings or other elements to include. We had sculptures, after all, so just pinning things to the wall was not a complete answer.

I recall getting really “crafty” the last few days before the deadline, and constructing a whole big shelf out of extra-thick foamcore and T-pins (which, amazingly, somehow even worked). I recall schlepping things all the way across campus from my dorm to the College of Design, the last night before the faculty reviews began, and feeling very excited about the whole effort. No other details come back, though.

In any event, obviously my work and presentation thereof were considered adequate, since I was accepted into graphic design (by letter, some weeks after I’d returned home for the summer, I think). I may as well mention one final note, though, which raises a question of just how and why I was admitted to the graphic design program. I well-remember hearing other aspirants discussing a rumor, the last week or so of spring semester, that there was some sort of GPA threshold above which applicants were automatically admitted, regardless of how their art projects and portfolio presentation compared with someone else’s.

This caught my attention because, as I suspected than and would still assume now, I would have qualified for such an “end-run” if anyone would have. I don’t think I got less than an “A-” in any course until my Junior year, so my GPA was probably somewhere in the uppermost-few percentile of aspiring graphic designers at the end of freshman year.

Did this allow me to “skip the line,” and if so was it unfair (as those students I heard discussing the matter seemed convinced)? I don’t know. I tend to think this rumored “secret admission criteria” was exaggerated, at the least; even with a perfect 4.0 I doubt that anyone was truly an “automatic bid.” Had one blown off the portfolio presentation entirely, for example, I think that might have sunk one’s candidacy, GPA be damned. As for the actual quality of the work, we were graded on more than that in our courses, certainly, but at the same time I don’t think anyone could have produced really poor drawings, etc., and still gotten high grades. Therefore the notion of being able to get into graphic design via high grades, in spite of poor-quality work, just doesn’t seem a realistic presence.

Under the circumstances, again, I was admitted and looking back I feel entirely confident in saying that I did deserve it at the time and did go on to prove worthy of it afterward, as well. That, though, is something to take back up at another time.

* Sort of. Initially, I technically wanted to complete a graphic design degree; for at least a year or two this intention coexisted with the dubious expectation that I would then proceed to make a living illustrating comic books. Gradually and, largely without my ever explicitly noticing, this latter idea quietly sank beneath the weight of its own impracticality.

2 Responses
  1. September 9, 2013

    One thing that struck me about the design program at University of Cincinnati was that there was no portfolio review AT ALL. Lending credence to the GPA theory, I took zero art classes in my high school; just one uncredited drawing class at LCCC. I just submitted a normal run-of-the-mill application with the major field of study box ticked for “graphic design” and that was it.

    Somewhat different than your experience, too, our foundation classes for Freshman year were taken by pretty much all the design majors: graphic, fashion, industrial, etc. But even so, the coursework seemed to bear more relevance on our majors. We did have a drawing class, but the other classes were things like color theory, form theory, etc. No painting or sculpture or anything that might really overlap with a fine arts major. In fact, I believe even the basic drawing class was closed to everyone but design students. I also think they even had some introductory, super-basic level classes tailored to each major — I recall a quarter-long course on typography where we just learned the basics of what a serif was and such.

    (Amusing side anecdote. The professor was explaining serifs and how they were used on each individual letterform. He went through the alphabet, grouping letters together by visual similarity of the serifs. He finished and offered to take any questions. One girl, who we soon learned to be the resident wow-she’s-totally-in-her-own-little-world-isn’t-she member of our cohort, piped up and asked in all sincerity, “What about the serifs on the ‘O’?”)

    Interestingly, though, I knew a few people who did not get in to that design program at the outset, but were still admitted to the university with a “if you complete these other requirements, we’ll see about admitting you to the program next year” caveat. I seem to recall that they were given subsequent portfolio reviews in order to gain entrance to the program, but I never heard of anyone actually being accepted as a design major that way.

  2. Matt permalink
    September 9, 2013

    Awesome, love the notes for comparison!

    I have always been a little proud of the fact (particularly with the seeming flood of candidates into graphic design the past 15 years or so, and the growing number of colleges more than happy to sell them a degree) that ISU exercised some selectivity in graphic design admissions. On the other hand, it sounds like your introductory coursework was significantly better. I think I would have given an arm for a color theory class.

    Really, as much as I learned at ISU, in some ways it seems like the graphic design program was really little more than “here’s a practice project, see what you’ll come up with and we’ll supply criticism; repeat.” (Thus my belief that well of course I could teach a graphic design class.) I’m certainly glad I had a good internship, at least.

    I do have some loose impression that things have changed a bit, in the intervening 13 years, and I would certainly hope so. (The lack of online media work in the curriculum was unfortunate but not shocking in 1998; in 2013 the same lack would verge on criminal fraud.) Of course, considering how many of the same professors are still there, I have my doubts about how far reforms have extended… 🙂

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