Liberal Arts Is Old News

Originally published in The Education of a Graphic Designer, 2nd Edition, Steven Heller, editor; Allworth Press, New York, 2005

The debate over the importance of liberal arts within a graphic design curriculum may not be news—but it is time to listen. Each of three AIGA Design Education conferences in 2004 and 2005, included discussions urging the integration of liberal arts in design programs. And in Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel’s presentation, “Culture Is Not Always Popular,” at the AIGA National Design Conference in Vancouver in 2003, Helfand asked the burning question, “where does this come from—this notion that thinking and making are separate acts? That graphic design must be inherently anti-intellectual because it is a creative enterprise?”

Drenttel continued: “Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge. They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication—to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good—rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves.”

And Helfand concluded: “In most design schools, we discourage learning a second language because it requires too much time in the language lab and therefore away from the studio. Along the way, our young designers aren’t expected to really study science or math; history or anthropology; economics; music theory or literature. They’re not even really required to learn to write. How is this possible?”

Graphic design education has long been, in large part, concerned with form-making. But it must also embrace conceptual thinking, idea generation and the communicating of messages. Form is important: the basic principles of color theory and composition, typography, the use of imagery and the techniques of image-making, etc. must be taught. But, design must not be judged on form alone. What is the message to be conveyed? Was the audience considered in an appropriate way? Was proper research conducted regarding functionality, usability, the culture and context of the problem/solution paradigm? These questions provide the conceptual foundation upon which every graphic design problem must be considered.

Moreover, graphic designers must be taught to gather information on the subject matter at hand so that they end up knowing the proverbial, “a little bit about a lot of things.” They don’t necessarily need to become experts on the relevant subject matter, but they must be able to achieve at least a working knowledge. A strong foundation in the liberal arts will help utilize communication skills and strengthen these information gathering and research skills.

That design students must take courses that provide general knowledge cannot be disputed. Anthropology, economics, history, language, literature, marketing, math, sciences, and sociology, are viable and necessary. The challenge is to find ways to bring the content of the liberal arts coursework into the graphic design curriculum. In “Plain Talk about Learning and a Life–in Design,” Sharon Pogghenpohl discusses the process of bringing this material into the studio class: “In stronger undergraduate programs, these two worlds (art and science) become blended as students bring the content, methodology and philosophy of their world investigations into the design lab, yielding more ambitious and stronger investigations in design.”

Writing (as noted elsewhere in this book) should be an integral part of a graphic design curriculum, not just an add-on. Students should be required to write more, incorporating writing into the curriculum wherever possible: from project briefs and proposals to the text for a book, from headlines to taglines and catch phrases. Reinforce the notion that writing is an essential part of being a graphic designer (it’s not just the pictures). This can be accomplished right away in Typography One. In addition to teaching the formal qualities of letterforms, also encourage students to see the letterforms as words and that those words can have meaning. In an Identity course students should write a detailed position paper describing the kind of establishment or institution for which they will be creating an identity, thinking long and hard before they actually begin to “design” anything. Encourage this brainstorming, this conceptualization, and require students to do research on their projects even before they begin to design. Liberal arts should also be part of the Design Thesis or Capstone course (typically, at the senior-year).

The study of language and cultures other than ones own has never been more important. Not just for the greater global understanding and communicative knowledge that one acquires by studying a foreign culture and language, but also the rudimentary aspects of language usage. With the multiculturalism of the world today and in an age of global economies and information traveling so fast, this only makes more sense. A strong foundation in the liberal arts helps to foster this intellectual rigor, which will result in stronger thinkers.

With the advent of computers and their associated technologies, “anyone can be a designer.” As design educators, we see it all the time: the kid who had Photoshop in high school and so uses all of the filters and effects because they look cool. But there is no content, no meaning.

Today graphic design education is vastly different—yet remarkably the same—than twenty years ago. Computers and digital technologies have changed our practice in dramatic ways but the basic educational issues are the same. The increasing complexity of the graphic design industry, the specialties in digital, multimedia and web-based work that have developed more recently, and the increased number of graphic design programs all lead to a highly competitive field. Yet, the need for clear, creative, effective communication is still the same—if not in higher demand—as corporations and institutions attempt to rise above the din of our inundated world.

The importance of strategic thinking within our profession in the future was emphasized by Patrick Whitney of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in his presentation, “Designing as Strategy,” at the AIGA Gain Conference in New York in 2004 when he predicted that the growth areas within the graphic design profession would be in design planning and strategy. He suggested that, “designers need to shift their design thinking to apply not just to communication problems, but to helping policy makers plan new policy.”

Who knows what new invention or issues, or ways of practicing, will emerge in another ten, twenty or thirty years and how this will affect design? Whatever they are, students who are broadly educated, who understand the principles of how to address a communication problem effectively, and who are prepared to think strategically and with broad-based conceptual skills will be able to adapt to the changes that lie ahead. By embracing the liberal arts, design programs will train designers to become thinkers. And those thinkers will be the leaders of our profession in the future.


FutureHistory, AIGA Design Education Conference, Chicago, October 2004.

Helfand, Jessica and Drenttel, William, “Culture Is Not Always Popular,” AIGA National Design Conference, Vancouver, B.C., October 2003.

Poggenpohl, Sharon Helmer, “Plain Talk about Learning and a Life–in Design,” Voice: AIGA Journal of Design and Design Education, September 18, 2004.

Revolution: Philadelphia, AIGA Design Education Conference, Philadelphia, June 2005.

Schools of Thoughts 2, AIGA Design Education Conference, Los Angeles, March 2005.

Whitney, Patrick, presentation at Gain, AIGA Business Conference, New York, October 2004.