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Those Who Can, Teach.
1000 words of advice for design teachers.

By Allan Chochinov


Two years ago, I wrote an article titled "Everything You Ever Needed to Know You Learned in...: 1000 Words of Advice for Design Students." Truth be told, tweaking the paragraphs to get the word count to total exactly 1000 took many more hours than writing the damn piece in the first place, but it was short and sweet, and I meant it. So in an attempt to put a flipside on that coin, here I present 1000 words of advice for design teachers. And given the propensity for teachers to go on and on, keeping that number to 1000 words—whatever else you may think of them—might earn me a couple minutes of your time reading them. Or you could just count 'em. I did.

Treat the undergrads like they're grown-ups (which they are); show them crazy respect, and ask their opinions all the time. Tell your graduate students to stop talking and start building; tell them not to come to class next week if they don't bring in 12 sketches. And then thank your lucky stars when they arrive with 3.

Don't start your class with your lesson.
There is only one way to start a design class: Ask your students what they did the past week, what they read, what design shows they attended. Communicate that design learning is not confined within class (or campus) walls, and give them license to go out and learn all the things we don't possibly have enough semesters to teach. I go so far as to say "You can bring in less homework next week if you just go see something." And some of them take me up on it. (Precious few, sadly.)

Place insane demands. Then double them.
If you ask students for 2 models, they'll bring in 2 models. If you ask for 6 models, you'll get 6 models. The more work that comes in, the higher the chances that some it will be good, and that a tiny bit of it will be great. So ask for 12 models.

Assign at least 3 books for each course you teach.
And a bunch of blogs, and magazines. But...

Don't test them on that reading.
Don't make them do a book report. Hell, you don't even have to talk about the books in class. Send the message that reading is a natural, wonderful part of becoming a designer; that that's just what designers do. Also, not testing them will evidence something else: that you trust them. You assign a book, you expect them to read it; you're not wasting their time, and they're not children.

Talk to undergrads like they're grads; talk to grads like they're undergrads.
This is the best trick I've learned in 11 years of teaching. Undergraduates have youth, fearlessness, and great tolerance for being pushed around. What they don't have is people talking to them like they matter. They are used to being talked to like children by people of authority (high school didn't help), and will be stunned when you address them like real designers who have ideas of worth.

Graduate students have wisdom, life experience, and a desire to actually be in school. But graduate students also are old enough to know that ideas have consequences, and as a result they run, basically, on fear. They have refrains like "I didn't think that idea would be any good, so I didn't mock it up," or "I wasn't sure what to build, so I read these books."

Treat the undergrads like they're grown-ups (which they are); show them crazy respect, and ask their opinions all the time. Tell your graduate students to stop talking and start building; tell them not to come to class next week if they don't bring in 12 sketches. And then thank your lucky stars when they arrive with 3.

Teach them to write thank you notes.
Designers need other people—for research, collaboration, support, everything. But people skills are hard to teach. This one's easy. Thank you notes are the right way to do business (or pleasure), and will help inject some civility back into this world.

You don't teach a class.
You teach a group of individuals. Whether it's a lecture or studio or seminar or fieldtrip, you must never forget that you are teaching unique students who happen to show up at the same time and at the same place.

Watch their faces.
Teachers have their fingers on two sets of dials: One set for each of the students (see above); another—the Masters—for the class as a whole. You've gotta be attenuating one while monitoring reverberations through the other. A class is a dynamic system changing minute-to-minute, depending on time of day, empty stomachs, the sun outside. And the VU meters for this system? Your students' faces. Read them and you'll know how you're doing. (Tip: Stop talking long enough to do that.)

Be clear about your grading scheme.
There are those who grade for excellence and those who grade for effort. For some teachers, "'A work' is 'A work'...I don't care if they spent 40 minutes or 40 hours;" that in the real world, results are what get judged, and that "you're not doing them any favors" by giving them any other grade than one which reflects their finished product. I grade for effort. I believe that if they kill themselves over the length of a semester, they will come up with excellence. And they'll learn more. Both of these grading schemes are defendable, but you should tell your students which one you use. And then use it.

Know when to quit, or to start anew.
If you start to "watch yourself teach" during a class, it's either time to hang it up or to change courses. The most dangerous design teachers are the ones who think they've seen it all, who pigeonhole students before seeing their work, and don't think they can be surprised any longer. No joke here; if this is you, time's up.

Meet with your students half-way through the semester.
Critical: Have one-on-one sessions with each student (particularly if you teach a lecture class), asking them questions like, "Is this class delivering what you thought?" Or "Are there things we could change that would personally give you more value?" Sure, you can also help them understand their strengths and weaknesses (that's what they're expecting). But it's not disingenuous to ask what their experience is of your class; it's considerate.

And here's why:

It's their class, not yours.
You are there because your students are paying you to be, and your job is to serve them. You don't have to like the idea that they are "consumers of education," but they are; you work for them, not the other way around. Teach 'em a few things, and help them learn how to get the rest. Create an environment of excitement and wonder about the power of design, then get out of the way. And if, by chance, you yourself receive one of those thank you notes, well, that's pretty swell.

They grade for excellence and effort, you know.


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Allan Chochinov is a partner at Core77. He teaches one day week at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.