Design Education in Context

revolution/evolution Two Decades and Four Hundred Designers Later

Tarek, Noha, Samir, Mohammad, Leila, Akram, Karl, Huda: these were the faces behind the infamous Graphic Design Program at AUB, renowned since its inception for being tough to get into and even tougher to graduate from. They were the MC’s of this great experience I fell into almost randomly. Needless to say that, as a young person moving from high school to university, I had no clue that the journey I was embarking upon would be so pivotal.

 Questioning; discovering; debating; exploring; arguing; agreeing on whether a proposed solution for a set design problem worked or not—this recurrent exercise was part of our daily maneuvering at the department, along with being instilled with the how’s, what’s and why’s of design thinking, skills and techniques. Fighting over an answer seems like a distant memory now. Looking back, it was during those exchanges that I came to understand the term “context.” It became clear to us that what mattered was not what one thought of a certain visual solution in reference to personal taste. We were, instead, entrusted with a whole set of attributes to assess design, all related to the fact that design was (and still is) not art. Graphic design is/should be noiseless communication. Clear. Trustworthy. Referential.

Laughing; playing; learning; reaching out—we were a bunch of young men and women, living together the experience of this design school for four years. We made ties and connections, we established friendships, we were colleagues, we became family.

Mind-opening; introspective; self-discovery—as citizens of Beirut, Lebanon, the Middle East, the World, we managed to forge, each for him- or herself, an understanding of how we, designers-to-be, had the power to make change; to convince; to inform; to relay; to tell the truth; to brainwash; to influence. This led to a much more enlightened perception of the world around us. Life, time, happiness, boredom, conflicts, wars, and many other subjects appeared totally different when seen from this angle. Learning how graphic design had served the purposes of the greatest dictators, for instance, was a useful thing. And it was also a big, decisive leap forward toward a clearer understanding of everything around us.

Bridging history, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and many other realms in the design studio is undoubtedly what led me to find out my predilections. Investigating, years later, the correlation between how we Lebanese make use of languages and our varying senses of national and confessional identity, it soon became obvious to me that the initial questions had been raised a few years earlier, in the studio at AUB, and had then bloomed when I left my familiar context—when pursuing my post-graduate studies at Central Saint Martins in the UK. This made me realize the breadth and latitude of the open-ended approach to design education we had been offered.

Giving back; achieving; opening up; surpassing—all these aspects of this academic springboard into real life added to a rich but pragmatic design education, leading many of us to where we stand today.

Nineteen years later, I believe that enrolling in AUB’s Graphic Design Program was the best possible move I could have made when I chose to step into the field.

Article contributed by Nathalie Fallaha to the book celebrating the 20 years of the Graphic Design program at the American University of Beirut.