Graphic Design at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia

I recently attended a wonderful event at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It is the fourtieth anniversary of their Graphic Design Department. and what a long and extraordinary history it has been! The Department and the University held a day long symposium "Looking Back/Looking Forward" which combined a retrospective examination of the significant role that the department played in the development of the discipline in the United States as well as a panel of diverse speakers who speculated about the future of graphic design and design in general. Here is an excerpt of what I said:

"Context. This overused word has devolved into a diluted shadow of its original meaning. It would seem nonsensical to suggest that context is unimportant, but there is far greater subtlety both as to meaning and use than is often the case in the way that the term is applied.

For me, context is not just about history, memory or nation. It is as Michel Serres, the great French philosopher has suggested, about many different folds, like a long piece of paper folded into an accordion shape, connecting beginning to middle, and the end to any part of the paper, pleats that connect even if the parts seemingly do not, unfolding as it were, linking moments in time in unpredictable ways, making history far less linear and joining often disparate moments together.

Serres discusses the use of the term contemporary to highlight the interconnectedness of different temporal periods. “What things are contemporary? Consider a late-model car. It is a disparate aggregate of scientific and technical solutions dating from different periods. One can date it component by component: this part was invented at the turn of the century, another ten years ago, and Carnot’s cycle is almost 200 years old. Not to mention that the wheel dates to Neolithic times. The ensemble is only contemporary by assemblage, by design…��? (Page45 in Conversations on Science, Culture and Time)

By design…history is constructed by discourses, the artifacts we create, and human actions and vision. None of these can be understood with any depth unless they are seen through the various links that exist among them, through the ways in which they interact in determinate and indeterminate ways and most importantly through the manner in which they have been designed. This seems transparently clear. I would argue that until recently, the context for understanding the role of design has been extremely limited. Not design in the highly specific sense, but design as fundamental to nearly everything that humans do and create. I realize as I say this, that I am perhaps diluting boundaries that some people feel should stay in place, but perhaps that is the ground upon which design as a discipline needs to be reimagined."

I will include additional material from the day in another posting, but one of the highlights was the return of the founding faculty to the university, as well as alumni of the program. Some of the original teachers are still there and they were also celebrated. Alumni spoke with profound passion about the impact of their professors on their lives. It was very touching.