In a world where the image is becoming the prime means of communication the subject of Illustration is growing in popularity and the role of the Illustrator becoming increasingly critical. This years graduating cohort from BA Illustration at Camberwell College of Arts describe all the ambition and energy that is required to meet the challenges that an image heavy world presents. In that spirit of enquiry and broad engagement a number of burning questions on what their subject is, and what it can be, have been put to Adrian Shaughnessy, celebrated educator, author and designer and Darryl Clifton, Design Programme Director at Camberwell College of Arts.
What is the role and place of education in a society that values training and explicit skill over more implicit personal development and transformation?
AS: Depends what sort of education you are talking about. If someone wants to become a doctor, they must study medicine – and related sciences – with a view to becoming an expert. Same with engineers, dentists and computer scientists. The problem arises when we talk about a general education. In my view, the role of education is to teach people how to learn. The reason for this is that few of us will end up doing the same job for our entire lives, and many of us will be required to retrain at some point in the future. With this in mind, I can see a move to a sort of ‘perpetual university’ model. In the future we may still go to university, but for shorter periods with a view to continuing our education at later stages.
DC: It’s reasonable to suggest that ‘learning’ is a form of personal, intellectual and behavioural transformation and that the processes of education deliver situations, experiences and stimuli that are enabling. I would wholeheartedly agree with Adrian that developing the capacity to continue learning, adapting and transforming – in short to cultivate intelligence – is something that all educators should aim for through those processes. The practical implications of not being able to do that are challenging for the reasons stated above.
I would also add that, in my view, education is a qualitative humanistic experience generating ‘possibility’ in the mind of the individual. All of this means that it is very difficult to ‘standardize’ the experience. Educators talk about ‘differentiation’, which is an attempt to try to acknowledge and support the different ways of learning that people have. This supports a highly individualized approach to teaching and learning.
Training and learning explicit skills (related to technologies, craft, process etc.) allows us to see what has been learnt and what a person can do, it is quantifiable. Quantifiable things are very appealing to policy makers because you can say very clearly that such and such a person can now do a thing and we can measure what they have achieved. But we need to be aware not to discount more profound experiences that relate to personal development, things which are deeply embedded in the individual that allow for continued, intelligent transformation.
It is also worth bearing in mind that this can take time, it’s a process of maturation – most students in the UK begin their HE studies between the ages of 19 – 21, physically mature but intellectually relatively young and inexperienced – ideas, behaviour, self awareness, perceptions etc. all change dramatically during that three year period.
This may seem wishy washy, but anyone who has been involved in this process alongside students will know that the amount of time given is probably necessary – cramming in curricula to shorter periods of time is mechanically possible but the depth of learning and personal transformation will be affected – a mass production model cannot be applied to this very human, differentiated experience without the net result being radically altered and potentially diminished.
Adrian’s ‘perpetual university’ could manifest itself in different ways then – as a physical space that people go to and also within the individual, utilizing the ‘skills’ acquired through a more substantial experience.
AS: Graphic Design and Illustration students get the best of both worlds. These subjects can be approached as an “explicit” demonstrable skill that can be measured and evaluated. For example, if I design the graphics for hair care packaging and the product sells poorly, then my design has “failed” by commercial standards. Many designers and illustrators – the majority perhaps – are happy with this “explicit” market driven model of professional practice, and at various times (mainly in the 1980s and early 90s) design schools attempted to produces students fit only for a role in the commercial world.
But design and illustration can also be approached as “implicit personal” skills. Today, a design education tends to resemble an education in the humanities. It seeks to give students a wider view of the world than the old one with its solely professional world focus. Design students today are developing a range of skills and insights that will equip them to enter other professions and work environments that were previously closed to them.
Of course, this will take time: a design degree carries no weight outside the design world. But that will change as the students who emerge from a “new” design education go on to perform in non-traditional areas. It may well be that the sort of agile minds produced by good art and design schools are better equipped to deal with the new fluid, ever-changing world of work, than those who come from more rigid “explicit” forms of education.
DC: We have to acknowledge the nature of this educational experience, which has, at its core, a belief in the productive relationship between practical application, theoretical study and the synthesis of the two into a holistic ‘practice’. All Art and Design education is founded on a sense of vocational application; that the experiences you have and the practical skills that you cultivate will directly inform and constitute your professional practice.
It is worth acknowledging the conflict between this mono-dimensional approach to Art and Design education, that it produces ‘skilled’ individuals who operate within a narrow bandwidth of professions, and the reality that we face in the current job market – to my mind this constitutes an opportunity – a design challenge.
So the cultivation of ‘agile minds’ has to be a priority, this can only ever be achieved through a combination of the practical, theoretical and contextual experiences that good Art and Design educational experiences offer. Adrian has described the approach within Art and design education now as something that resembles ‘an education in the humanities’, this is something to be welcomed, we need to capitalize on the capacity that creative institutions have to innovate and see the kind of thinking that is encouraged in creative institutions applied across a whole range of new territories.
New models for education have to be proposed and tested, relationships with external partners, i.e. potential employers, made meaningful and reciprocal and, critically, an understanding of the currency that they hold in the social, cultural and commercial arenas made clear in the minds of young Illustration and Design professionals.
In light of the current socio-economic climate what are the implications for Arts education – is it worthwhile?
AS: Yes, it’s worthwhile, for the reasons given above. But the prospects are not good. Our political masters don’t see the value in art and design courses. This seems badly shortsighted. In a sophisticated, media driven world where communication has replaced industry as the primary cultural activity, art and design skills seem pretty central.
DC: Potentially disastrous and it is almost inevitably there will be casualties – provincial University courses are likely to take a dip in applications and enrolment, courses will close and, I’m sure some colleges will also go under. Government policy on the back of the Browne report is prioritizing the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and willfully neglecting the Arts and Humanities by withdrawing all funding to support this activity within Universities. We need to live with this and think creatively, lead on the changes that have to happen.
It would be good to explore what is meant by the capacity to think creatively. Ken Robinson has given a definition of creativity that goes something like this: that creativity is the ability to develop “original ideas that have value”. It is arguable that creative thought is not the sole preserve of Art and Design education, however creative institutions do make the development of those skills a focus.
It could also be said that the bias in creative institutions has been towards the ‘original thought’ bit of that definition and less about ‘value’. This is the nub of the challenge for the development of Art and Design education in my view. How do we measure value? Values shift, we know this – things that are considered useful, important, positively progressive now will not in 20 years time. One way to put a measuring stick against value could be to consider the application of these ideas and their impact on the world.
There is a suggestion that Design’s (and therefore Illustration’s) position has to move from being at the ‘selling’ end of a commercial process, in other words to be an integral part of the thinking about how to develop the processes (for the benefit of society as a whole) of commerce and production to better fit a changing world. This suggests that Design practice is potentially less visible, less tangible as product and more a commodity of thought and ideas.
So in response to the question is it worthwhile then yes, absolutely, I would even go as far as saying that it is critical – not just in terms of a current socio – economic context but for the future planning of all systems of existence. The relevance and importance of traditional skills and processes.
AS: Traditional skills and processes will always be required, and for many people are ends in themselves. Society will always need skilled people, but the danger of placing too much emphasis on learning specific skills is that they have a habit of becoming redundant. In my view, as previously mentioned, the focus should be on learning how to learn, and acquiring the sort of mind that doesn’t switch off in early middle age. Since we all now live longer, if people can retain a lifetime commitment to learning, then a more fulfilling life can be envisaged. This is not to say that there is no merit in spending a lifetime perfecting a single skill – sculpture, writing, painting – of course, there is. But for most of us, this is not an option, so we must learn to be flexible, fast-thinking individuals, able to cope with seismic cultural changes.
DC: One way to think about the purpose of skill and process is as an enabler, in other words as a vehicle for expression, ideas and opinion. The efficacy of those processes in a contemporary context could be measured against their ability to aid the communication of content. For me it is problematic when the use of a particular process becomes a nostalgic affectation, that said I am critically aware of the sheer joy in production and the real satisfaction felt when physically producing something through, say, the process of lithography.
So I would argue that for Illustrators and Visual Communicators at large the relevance and importance of process and manual skills are in their transcendental capacity. By that I mean that Visual Communicators need to access their ‘voice’, and engagement with / practice of a particular process or skill can be the catalyst for bringing that voice ‘out’ of the practitioner. The responsible and intelligent use of that voice is then down to the individual.
Picking up on Adrian’s point about the skill of learning I would add that retaining an inquisitive approach to materials, processes and the potential of media is vital to the life of a creative person. The desire to find appropriate and engaging ways to reach your audience is inextricably linked to an interest in skill and process; and subsequently the balance between the internal and external ‘voice’ needs to be tempered by an objective approach to relevant means of expression. The importance of Illustration ‘in its own right’ rather than integrated with Graphic Design.
AS: Illustration is like all the other arts – it is engaged in a quest to find its place in the changing wider world. Looking at recent degree shows at some of the better universities, it is clear the divisions between illustration and graphic design are becoming blurred. But there is also plenty of striking illustrative work that stands on its own.
There is a lot to be gained by the merging of Design and Illustration – but it should not be a forced marriage. We live in a visual world; the image is more powerful than the written word. We live in a world where people would rather look at images than read text. Photography and film have rushed in to cater for this need, while Illustration seems to have held back. But the ‘made image’ or the illustrated image still retains enormous power to both inform and fire the imagination.
One thing’s for sure – Illustrators are having to become more entrepreneurial than ever before. Editorial opportunities are drying up and as communication moves online, the role of the illustrator becomes harder to define. Therefore, illustrators must be more resourceful to survive; they must investigate selling their work direct to the public online and at events; they must investigate self-publishing and collaborative publishing models. And if this means adding design skills (such as web design, video editing, typography) to the list of skills needed by illustrators, then practitioners are going to have to acquire them.
DC: There are a couple of things to my mind that are worth considering here. I am wary of becoming too territorial about Illustration – this way of thinking has lead to the almost incessant bleating philistine clients by Illustrators. I am also conscious of the friction that exists commercially between Illustrators and Art Directors (traditionally a role assumed by senior Graphic Designers). I would agree with Adrian that the divisions between the two disciplines are blurred, sometimes. But sometimes the divisions are very clear.
I would argue that the trick would be to acknowledge the symbiosis that ought to be achieved between the thinking and making of both disciplines. There is a third way. I would also argue for disciplinarity, particularly in the context of education; drilling deeply in to a subject, giving time for the development of idiomatic practices that add something to the mix of Design practice enables for a much richer collaborative experience.
The question suggests a kind of insularity that personally I would guard against. One thing that is really important for Illustrators to cultivate is confidence, my experiences of teaching Illustrators is that they are often incredibly gifted thinkers and do-ers, however there is often a failure to acknowledge the potential application for both work and thought processes – so whilst I would completely agree with Adrian’s entrepreneurial ‘call to arms’ I would also like to add that Illustrators brains are rare and beautiful things that can add value to the existing social, cultural and commercial systems.
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See work from this years BA Illustration show – www.ovoshow.co.uk
Find out more about BA Illustration at Camberwell.