Build on their passion.

July 25, 2010

Our backbone course is the 18 credit Design Problems, made up of half juniors and half seniors to encourage and enable mentoring. The concept is simple: each credit represents a substantial design project with extraordinary depth and breadth.

But it is the students creating their own unique problems is what makes this class extraordinary. The student’s select problems that inspire, arouse their curiosity and are passionate about. One thing I have learned is that students having ownership and authorship in their work, perform better. They are very proud of coming up with projects that are innovative and entrepreneurial.

We encourage the students to clearly define their problem, then execute their best possible solution(s) in a form reflecting the their particular interests. It might be a publication, a packaging project, an information design system, a retail design, an advertising campaign, a website design, an integrated branding system, an exhibit design, and so on. Each project is, in essence, a student’s own personal independent study. Instead of a student reporting to a faculty advisor once a week as done in traditional independent studies, we put them in the classroom. Lot’s of them.

This facilitates learning from each others process. The entire class will be completely involved with each of the student’s individual projects which completely involves them in all aspects of design through the process of weekly critiques. Classes are long and arduous with each student presenting their project(s) and the students and faculty critique of the work.

We want them to be complete designers first, then to see how the design process can manifest itself through diverse media. In their senior year we encourage the students to extend a couple of their favorite projects resulting in vast depth and breath of a single problem that couldn’t be accomplished in an average time slot in a semester. These completed class projects make up the majority of content of the student’s portfolios, which result in the class portfolios that are as different from each other as our Syracuse snowflakes. Most are renaissance portfolios, a little of everything. Others are specialist’s portfolios, focused on the students’ passion about an aspect of design that they feel they want to pursue.

What really makes them unique is that each student’s portfolio is an example of their personal interests and passions, it is a direct reflection of them. So when a potential employer responds very positively to a portfolio, they are responding directly to who the student is, not just a design solution to a project.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)


The content in our Design Strategies class is student driven by our juniors. On the first day of class, we ask the students to come up with their most important questions about design that they want answered. Anything goes, everything is fair game. We get hundreds. The class pick twelve. We assign 12 teams who will then research the problem, come up with answers and present them to the class each week. This class is about creativity and strategies for getting many answers to questions, very right-brained.

The following semester is very left-brained. The Design Project Management class is again run by the juniors and takes on the role of an actual design firm. The players are CEOs (us, the faculty), teams, managers, senior and junior designers, account execs, bookkeepers, secretaries, and, of course a real client. We have taken on design projects from small non-profits, like the Harriet Tubman House, a historical museum, to a branding project for the international financial giant, JPMorgan Chase. In this class, learning is under fire with live ammo. At the end, they present their proposals to the client. It’s a win-win situation: our class learn a lot in a short amount of time and the client get 20 + designers for 12 weeks solving their problems. In the summer we follow up with interns from the class implementing the class work for the client.

If you give the students the freedom to determine their own future, they will be responsible and do extraordinary things. If they know that they have the power, not us, to educate themselves, they will rise to the occasion.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

For all you typophiles, here’s a sign for your studio:


On our first day we take head-shots of the student’s and have them fill out a questionnaire about themselves. I read the questionnaires and memorize each name with a face. During the second class I usually stand at the front of the class looking directly at each one of them so they can read my lips as I say their name.

They are no longer anonymous, I know their name before they can remember mine. It is a lot of work for me but they immediately realize that if I do extra-ordinary work to learn all of their names in a week, I then expect them to work hard too. Simple gestures like this are very powerful. They never forget it, the program bond starts there.

The entire faculty must review your student’s work often, by that I mean the end of every semester. We even review our sophomores at mid-term. The review sheets rate them on design skills, conceptual skills and along with and more importantly, their attitude. This document is for the student’s eyes only, not to be sent home or to the department and furthermore, it’s not a grade. It is an instrument to show the student where they are successful and where their problem areas lie so that they can accurately address them.

Even more importantly, it also allows the entire faculty to instantly see:
How the individual student is doing in the major
How the class is doing as a whole.
How the faculty are doing.

Their last review is the week before graduation when the faculty take all their finished portfolios to the Syracuse University Townhouse in New York City. We invite over 2000 design professionals and Syracuse alumni to “review” the portfolios and leave feedback for our graduates. We then place that feedback directly into their portfolio on graduation weekend. They are off the bus running! Some are working by Monday, most within the month.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

Photo: Stephanie Hart

The entire faculty of a design program should be on the same page and work as a team. Therefore, all of the faculty must buy in to your program’s strategies and goals, this is the hard part but is well worth it in the long run. Any goals that are set must always put the students first, they are the end-user, so make them happy.

Team-teach all of your classes in your major. This allows every faculty member to have a clear holistic understanding of the program, rather than their own little part of it. You can work better as a team if you know what the what the left and right hands are doing. Put faculty where their strengths do the most good teamed up with another faculty with complementary strengths that create a unique powerful class environment that couldn’t be experienced by using a solo teacher.

Team-teaching reveals that there is not just one answer to a problem, that there exist many alternate perspectives and solutions. There are no right answers in design, only solutions that work better than others. Team-teaching is sometimes like tag-team-wrestling, enabling us keeping the content and energy at a very high level because we constantly hand off topics and play off one another’s comments. This enables us to cover much more content and our contrasting viewpoints and experiences make critiques stimulating.

We all agree to disagree, but are on the same page programmatically. You have to keep the ego in check where content is king. Our students see the faculty working as a team, it supports the team-building skills they will need when a team project appears, and we have lots of them. In fact, their first project in the major is a team project.

In that very first class in the major, we combine all our sections together in one huge class in the auditorium that is team-taught by the entire full-time faculty from the major. This reinforces that there is no individual ownership of a class, we all have ownership.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

Don’t teach, coach!

July 14, 2010

Photo: Glen Lewis

What I do is closer to coaching than teaching. My hero is Syracuse University Hall of Fame basketball coach, Jim Boeheim.

For over thirty years I’ve watched his “tough-love” style of coaching make winning teams. I appreciate the way he yanks a player out of the game immediately after a dumb move, gets right in their face and tells them what they should have done, a wonderful teaching moment. He is a master at getting the most out of all his players.

In practice coaches put their students in situations that closely resemble the actual competition. This gives them every opportunity to mess up and learn from their mistakes yet also encourages them to take risks. It can be a little messy and unpredictable but so is design.

Example: We don’t grade anything until the bitter end. This allows the student to redo a project that may have been trashed in a critique. They can redo a project as many times as they want. We will only grade the final revision, noting the student’s effort and progress to improve the quality of the project.  They must be very careful about time management, robbing Peter to pay Paul, because the new projects shout for attention too.

Learn by your mistakes and make better failures. We love to say and our apologies to Nike, “Just re-do it!”

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

Stop teaching design!

July 1, 2010

We shifted a lot of our emphasis from that “training” stuff, to creating class and studio environments that could better foster these intangibles. We didn’t give up our design content but tried to find ways that student’s would “discover” knowledge. Our students do their work entirely outside of the classroom, in classes are only presentations and critiques.

Today you can learn anything you need to know about Graphic Design without ever setting foot on a college campus. You can get it just about anywhere. Create opportunities for the students to ignite that desire and the passion to find it and learn it. Information is out there, on the web, in blogs, DIY videos, online courses, in books and magazines, free lectures and even, from the person sitting right next to you. The students who want to learn, will learn no matter what. The ones that don’t, have to be mentored by the good ones. They are in charge of getting their own knowledge. When you want to know something, and learn it yourself, it‘s forever.

Our majors need to know design history. Most programs “push” the content in a semester long, snooze session in a dark room with a lot of slides, which passively involve the students. We involve our students through project-based learning in order to have the students “pull’ the content.

We assign our sophomores to design a major exhibition on design history. The class breaks into teams, each team focusing on a major topic research all of the content with each student responsible for their own sub topic. They have to design the space, edit and proofread all the content, build a scale model and promote the exhibit. Then they have present it to the community and the university in an actual exhibit made up of their scale models and an accompanying publication containing all their research content. Here’s the payoff, the class experiences the big picture of design history while the individual teams and students become “experts” in their design history topics.

It is the faculty’s responsibility to help the students find their passion. Stop trying to “push” information by teaching them things they won’t retain, more importantly, we have to create the opportunities for them to succeed and insure that we instill those intangibles that will fuel that passion for a lifetime.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

(I will be away from the blog for a short while but will be back with more, I promise.)