Bridging Diversity: Ethical Considerations in Design Education
At its most fundamental level, design is about intention and action towards a desirable end. Design graduates are entering a professional world where street-savvy audience profiling is required daily. For these future architects of our communication environment, the challenge of preparing effective, ethical messages grows as the ethnic complexities of global culture continue to emerge. To this end, design education should emphasise intention and reception towards ends that are responsible in a societal context.
Sticks + Stones, a multi-university collaboration curriculum project, emphasises that designers occupy positions of power in our global culture, that this power must be used responsibly, and that designers should assume proactive roles in support of community and society. In addition, the project explores interpersonal and intercultural issues among students diverse in ethnicity, religious practice, heritage, gender, and sexual orientation. Sticks + Stones' innovative course structure and curriculum expands students' knowledge of regional and global subcultures, forces a reconsideration of existing pre-conceptions, and exposes some of the fallacies embedded in the common act of stereotyping groups and individuals.
The 2010 Sticks + Stones iteration will gather design students from China, Turkey, Germany, and the United States to follow a collaborative curriculum that sometimes requires risk-taking and confrontation on the way to understanding between individuals and groups. The curriculum will include traditional studio work, participation in online forums, and an international symposium in Berlin. This vibrant yet historically conflict-ridden city provides an appropriate backdrop for a curriculum addressing individual identity, propaganda, and the potential perpetuation of stereotypes by communication designers. Through design projects and forthright discussions about image perceptions, faculty will challenge students to (re)evaluate the stereotypes they hold of others, analyse the potentially unethical and stereotypical messages in contemporary design works, and then create small group and collective pieces in response to issues of stereotyping as it impacts views of immigration. Visits to the Holocaust Memorial, the Berlin Wall, and the Jewish Museum will enrich the students' work and discussions. Online interaction will play a significant role in facilitating group participation and in extending the project to a wider audience. Project followers will be able to track the progress and observations of students as well as add their voice to the dialogue.
Presenters will discuss the challenges and opportunities of multi-university collaboration curricula that integrate ethics into traditional, profession-oriented design education. Producing such a project includes bridging language gaps, overcoming institutional, governmental and political obstacles, and coordinating diverse international pedagogical practices.
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Citation: Audra Buck-Coleman, Ann Mcdonald, Mark Biddle (2009). Briding Diversity: Ethical Considerations in Design Education, Iridescent-Icograda Journal of Design Research, 1(1), 12-21.
"Designers and what they do have never been as valued as they are today, and that gives us the opportunity (as well as the duty) to responsibly use design to make a difference."
- David Berman, Do Good
Design: How Designers Can Change the World.
It is an understatement to say our world is substantially changing with access to affordable digital technologies that allow instant global communication. Technology encourages the rapid flow of information and opinion across international borders, facilitating a worldwide exchange. As Thomas Friedman described in The World is Flat, recent technological and social shifts, including digital online collaboration and the fall of the Berlin Wall, among other forces, have allowed us to view the world as a seamless whole. (Friedman 2005) Yet despite this outlook of potential for increased cohesiveness, we often remained focussed - potentially to adverse effect - on disparities rather than common ground. We instinctively order our worlds by categorising and grouping people according to common characteristics. Unfortunately these generalisations often lead to false assumptions and unhealthy relations. Ethnic diversity can be a source of clarification or obfuscation. As populations migrate across national boundaries, each country confronts the social discord spawned by immigration.
Whether it is the push of contrary political forces or the pull of a promise for a better life, migration today affects every region of the world with unprecedented force. Since 1970 global migration numbers have more than doubled. Today international migrants makeup three percent of the Earth's population - an estimated 214,000,000 people (United Nations 2009) - which is enough to comprise one of the five largest countries in the world. (U.S. Census Bureau 2009) In 2000 75% of the international migrants were living in just 12% of the world's countries. During this time the top three immigrant-receiving countries were, respectively: the United States with 35% of the immigrant population, Russia with 13.3% and Germany with 7.3%, according to the International Organization for Migration. (Bailey 2008: 5) This increased migration combined with a declining global economy has refueled the waves of anti-immigration sentiments and divisive propaganda; historically anti-immigration opinions rise when the economy declines. (Shah 2008)
Figure 1: Throwing down the ladder by which they rose. "The 'Chinese wall' around the United States of America." Harper's Weekly, July 23, 1870.
Figure 2: "The Chinese Question: Coolie, slave, pauper and rat-eater" Harper's Weekly, February 18, 1871. Figures 1 and 2 exemplify the United States' treatment of the Chinese during the Gold Rush of the 1800s. Once welcomed to build the transcontinental railroad, Chinese immigrants were banned in 1882 out of fear that they were taking jobs away from native workers.
As explained in the Harvard International Review: "Immigration has always generated ambivalence during the best of times and hysteria during the worst. Historically immigrants in the United States are loved but only looking backwards: celebrating their proud achievements after the fact, while remaining deeply anxious about any further migration in the here and now, has been the constant pattern from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century." (Bailey 2008: 21)
Figure 3: "If you think I'm illegal because I am Mexican, learn the true history because I'm in my homeland" Immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles, California on May Day, 2006.
Recent global events confirm this outlook on immigrants:
- In 2005 Paris suffered violent riots led by groups of unemployed or underemployed youths, primarily children of North African immigrants, protesting the unemployment and negative treatment of immigrants.
- In 2006 the United States saw protests, boycotts and other demonstrations opposing tighter restrictions on immigration.
- Last summer more than 140 people died and 800 were injured during riots in Urumqi, China. The riots reportedly spawned over the discrimination and treatment of minority group Muslim Uyghurs by the majority Han nationalists.
- France continues its debated regarding limiting the traditional religious dress of immigrant Muslims.
- Tensions persist over Turks' immigration status and assimilation in Germany.
- In November 2009 the Swiss, out of a growing anxiety about increased Muslim immigration and the spread of Islam, elected to ban construction of minarets on mosques.
Figure 4: Stopp Minarettverbot, Propaganda posters such as this one helped convince the Swiss to vote in favor of banning the construction of minarets.
The heightened emotions combined with a declining economy help establish a climate where residents believe exaggerated and false claims about immigrants' detrimental or even dangerous status. It is in this climate that stereotyping and xenophobia flourish. Visual depictions have been used to express the current majority's anxiety of potentially losing power and being outnumbered by the "other" or foreigner. Graphic designers can easily become complicit in these detrimental graphics if they are unaware of their own biases or the false propaganda in the media stream. Sticks + Stones, an iterative multi-university collaboration, emphasises the positions of power designers occupy within our global culture, that this power must be used responsibly, and that designers should assume proactive roles in support of community and society. In addition, the project explores interpersonal and intercultural issues among students diverse in ethnicity, religious practice, heritage, gender, and sexual orientation. Sticks + Stones' innovative course structure and curriculum expands students' knowledge of regional and global subcultures, forces a reconsideration of existing pre-conceptions, exposes some of the fallacies embedded in the common act of stereotyping groups and individuals and raises awareness about the historical and contemporary propaganda forces.
Design graduates will soon enter a professional world where street-savvy audience profiling is a daily requirement that grows more important as the ethnic complexities of our global culture continue to evolve. If false stereotypes seep into graphic communications, the malignancy can negatively influence its mass audience. The principle axiom driving Sticks + Stones is that the more communication designers know about each other, the better we can shape responsible expressions for increasingly diverse populations. Project curricula are challenging and unorthodox, sometimes encouraging students to label and confront one another on the road to self-awareness and more informed perspectives. Through studio projects, readings, writings, discussions, online forums and an international symposium, participants will penetrate the subtle texts of other cultures to discover where our real and imagined similarities and differences truly reside. Sticks + Stones intends to propagate tolerant, socially minded designers through innovative, collaborative curriculum that takes a responsible worldview.
Universities have consistently sought to expand students' horizons and to increase the exchange of ideas in order to foster critical discussion and encourage innovation.
Syliva Hurtado, an education scholar at the University of Michigan who specialises in diversity issues, confirms this need: "Students who interact with diverse peers also report more frequent discussion of complex social issues, including such things as the economy and major social issues such as peace, human rights, equality, and justice. These studies indicate that students who interact with diverse peers demonstrate more complex thinking that is linked with both cognitive and social development." (1999) In addition to diversity among peers, the design classroom is being expanded to foster increased awareness of design's role in identifying and addressing social needs through projects that engage a community or tackle a civic process. Design education has recently begun to address the need to bridge cultures and disciplines, reaching over to anthropology and sociology for curricular support.
In a recent initiative, the American design organisation AIGA has defined trends and identified essential competencies that designers will need by the year 2015-if not today. In addition to traditional formal visual communication skills, these requirements include: the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams, the "ability to construct verbal arguments for solutions that address diverse users/audiences" and the "ability to work in a global environment with understanding of cultural preservation." AIGA's noted projections suggest that designers will increasingly need to rely on expertise from the social sciences and humanities in order to solve problems in a global market where there is a need to "understand both differences and likenesses in audiences" and to navigate a "reconciliation of tension between globalisation and cultural identity." (AIGA 2009)
Many design programs have initiated projects that encouraged student groups to work with non-profit organisations in the design of communication materials, but the work of identifying need and then creating work that engages a specific issue or community represents a further expansion of the design studio. Early student work as part of the U.S. Design for Democracy project and more recently Project M in their focus on "act locally" (inspired by Sam Mockbee's Rural Studio which built structures for communities for more than a decade) challenge students to realise that their work can have "a positive and significant impact on the world." (Project M 2009) By creating work that engages a world beyond the classroom, design education and visual communicators can begin to respond to global and local community pressures and foster an increased understanding of others.
Social experimentation in the classroom
From the beginning in 2005, Sticks + Stones deliberately gathered diverse design students to explore how their places of study influenced their visual communication messages. Students are encouraged to talk openly about stereotypes and to shed political correctness and engage candidly on the touchy issues of race, religion, and socioeconomic class. The first iteration of the project in 2005 brought together design U.S. students from Odgen, Utah, located outside Salt Lake City, and Birmingham, Alabama. Inherent in this pairing was the common intensity of each region's religious devotion - Southern Baptists in Alabama and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah- and contrasting racial makeup and related historical strive: Ogden, Utah's population is 88% white and only 1% black and did not play a role in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States whereas Birmingham, with a population that is 58% white and 39% black, was a primary location for pivotal Civil Rights events, including Martin Luther King Junior's letter from a Birmingham Jail and the nearby march at Selma, Alabama.
The 2006 project expanded to include students from Massachusetts and California to further diversify the demographics representative of the continental United States. Specifically these 49 participating students embodied 16 ethnic backgrounds, 13 religious affiliations, and eight countries including Iran, El Salvador, Spain, the Philippines, Japan and Columbia, and this diversity provided the framework for their discussions of stereotypes, labeling and racism.
On their home campuses students tackled assignments that challenged their perception of their fellow Americans and met mid-semester in Los Angeles for a three-day workshop. Students toured the Museum of Tolerance and J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; both offered exhibits on Nazi propaganda. These works gave students added perspective for the potential negative effects of their chosen profession. Students engaged in awareness-raising exercises, discussed prior assignments including the labels and terms they had used to describe others' works, and generated poster designs that confronted stereotypes addressed in those discussion. Once students returned home, they created stereotype-awareness raising works for their respective communities. Works from the overall iteration were curated into an exhibition that opened at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama and subsequently traveled to Utah. (See the Sticks+Stones website at www.sticksandstonesproject.org for images of student work.)
Faculty collaborators found the three-day symposium, travel component - for 2006 to Los Angeles - and the increased diversity of the group were two of that iteration's most successful aspects, and decided to expand both for the 2010 iteration. This year's iteration will reach across the globe to include 60 design students from China, Turkey, Germany, and the United States. The collaborating students' countries represent an even greater diverse political culture, ranges of expressive freedom, socio-economic class, and religious devotion with likely disparate views on a multitude of issues including stereotyping, racism and immigration, which will serve as the framework for the 2010 Sticks + Stones curriculum.
This curriculum will begin with each body of students again meeting on their respective campuses, reading and discussing assigned texts on stereotyping and propaganda design. Students will complete projects that challenge their ideas of propaganda and initiate research into immigration. The 2010 Sticks + Stones iteration delves deeper into multiple complex issues, and thus requires a more extensive travel component. Students will then gather for a two-week symposium in Berlin, Germany, an appropriate backdrop for addressing individual identity, race, history and propaganda. It is a key European city for higher education and research and has been recognised by UNESCO through the "Creative Cities Network under the framework of Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity" as a City of Design. Discussion and project work will be enriched by visits to the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, the Reichstag, and the Jewish Museum as well as other local art and design venues. The historical relevance of the Nazi propaganda will be compared to today's rhetoric, including the images likening U.S. President Obama to Hitler.
Figure 5: Poster for Mass Distribution: "I've Changed!" U.S. President Obama with Hitler-like mustache offered on LaRouche Political Action Committee's website as pdf "mass distribution" poster.
In Berlin students will introduce themselves to the group through visual presentations and will chronicle the stereotypical, racial, and immigrant issues in their country. By having students step into the role of "teacher," in addition to serving as "pupil", these participants will learn first-hand about global stereotypes and their consequences. Forthright discussions about beliefs, ideologies and their ramifications will be combined with intimate experiences in a foreign land. Although the Berlin students will be in familiar territory, they have will have the opportunity to gain a new perspective on their home country through the eyes of the foreign students. These "teachable moments" provided by the Berlin symposium are essential to the goal of the project: to understand the "other" on a personal level.
As a frequent destination for immigrants, Germany struggles with national and European immigration policies. While it has made progress toward an inclusive state, it still struggles with national and European immigration policies. (Stritzky 2009) Turkey is another country highly influenced by a large flow of immigrants, primarily those fleeing the violent conflicts of Iran, Georgia and Iraq. Turks also influence Germany as they comprise the second largest group of immigrants in Germany yet have difficulty assimilating into that culture. (Deutsche Welle 2009) Political tensions in the Middle East stifle Turkey's economy whereas China's is burgeoning into a dominant global force. The Chinese are proud of their technological innovations although last year's conflicts in Western China burden the country with the associations of repression and ethnic strife; in 2004 China also claimed the largest peacetime migration in human history as more than 10 percent of the country's residents moved from rural areas into the cities. (Roberts 2004) The United States reputation for being an inclusive "melting pot" has most recently been tarnished by the frequent protest and unrest associated with Latino immigrants, racial profiling of Middle Easterners associated with 9/11 and racist treatment of persons of colour. The collective histories of these countries successes, downfalls and migrant-related strife will provide essential context for the overall group activity in Berlin. This body of students, diverse in custom, life experience, and closely held beliefs, will gather in one location for debate and collaboration on the issues of stereotyping, racism, xenophobia, and migration-all through the lens of visual communication. And as the weakened global economy demonstrates, we are all closely connected and interdependent, no matter what physical distance might lay between our communities and countries.
The Role of Technology
Today's education communities are calling for greater emphasis on collaboration and on bridging international cultures, and technology is an integral component to contemporary collaborative endeavors. The Open Education movement's key tenet is that "education can be improved by making educational assets visible and accessible and by harnessing the collective wisdom of practice and reflection." (Iiyoshi and Kumar 2008) Web 2.0 social networking tools have fostered a culture of sharing that promotes contribution and distribution by many as opposed to a few experts. Design educators taking advantage Web 2.0 open source tools for class use can foster transparency in dialogues with students and between peers and encourage responsibility and increase the visibility of design process.
John Seely Brown and Richard Adler in "Minds on Fire" a call for "Learning 2.0," look at how participatory media shifts the focus of attention from content of a subject to the learning activities and human interactions around which that content is situated "from access to information to access to other people." (Brown and Adler 2008) They examine ways in which "open participatory learning ecosystems" support active, passion-based learning. In making their argument they cite the design studio system as an example of social learning with guidance by a practitioner, where students work together in a common space and peripherally participate in each other's design process by listening to instructors' critiques of other students' projects. Through small group and collaborative projects the relationship of instructor to student is shifted to a peer-to-peer model. The implementation of social networking software as part of course exchange has the potential to shift the role of instructor as expert even further afield.
Sticks + Stones 2010 will use a project website to form a common project community and exchange process virtually before students have met face-to-face in Berlin. Faculty will design the framework, but it is only through student uploads and posting that the online class commons will be fully realised as a space of exchange. Through peer-to-peer exchanges, both teaching and learning can occur without faculty as a necessary conduit. Potentially volatile topics in non-monitored exchange can lead to misunderstandings and heated debate, but the faculty will strive to minimise these occurrences by establishing a clear framework for and expectations of the project and through ongoing monitoring of the site's content. The project website will allow increased visibility of the design process as each step is documented and uploaded work is then viewed in comparison to work of peers in students' home classrooms, globally by the Berlin 2010 group, and ultimately by the larger Sticks + Stones audience.
Raising the Stakes
The lessons learned from exercises, design assignments, discussions of stereotypes, racism and immigration as well as field trips to Berlin destinations will culminate in a project addressing the truths and myths about immigration. By tackling a topic lacking a knee-jerk solution and firmly established facts, students will be challenged to sift through the information regarding immigration and find the productive facts around which to build their design project. As an installation in a public space with a companion website, the collaborative exhibit will have a higher profile than most design studio assignments. Students will be asked to consider both a physical audience in Berlin and a potentially larger global audience that can participate through the project website and possible global reinstallation exhibition. After installing and reflecting upon the exhibit's reception and returning to their home campuses, students will be asked to further populate the online exhibit component by soliciting stories and information from people diverse in generations, ethnic backgrounds, and migration-related experiences. Simply working through the task of graphically representing issues of such complexity calls up the principles of responsibility and truth to message in addition to compromise. Students will be challenged to balance the constraints of specific cultural values against an objective ethic that portends we all exist in an ultimate melting pot.
Asking students to expand their creative work beyond what is possible in their home environments entails certain risks. Politics, religion, censorship or simply social discomfort may cloud the horizon of unlimited possibility, but this also increases the stakes and challenges each individual to scrutinise country, community, religion, and family on the influences they hold. This body of students, diverse in custom, life experience, and closely held beliefs, will gather in one location for debate and collaboration on the issues of stereotyping, racism, xenophobia, and migration-all through the lens of visual communication. Will students freely push for an objective, comprehensive report on the social complexities of immigration in their countries? As an installation in a public space with a companion website, potentially with international viewers, the capstone project will have a higher profile than most design assignments. Students must carefully consider the installation's diverse audience-an effective dose of reality for pre-emergent professionals.
Students will bridge native languages, global time zones, and cultural norms to create an important learning experience. What endures in the student's mind is that design is power, and that power is best used to celebrate our individuality even as we revel in our new sense of cultural unity across the planet. Sticks + Stones faculty collaborators create new curriculum by recording its processes and regarding itself as an ongoing research project that probes vital new questions and invites other faculty and institutions to sprout new curricular shoots in similar directions.
Sticks + Stones 2010 asks an international network of faculty to participate in developing curriculum and calls upon students to make visible their missteps and preconceptions about the image-related issues of stereotyping and immigration. Sticks + Stones faculty collaborators create new curriculum by recording its processes and regarding itself as an ongoing research project that probes vital new questions and invites other faculty and institutions to create curriculum in similar directions. Perhaps if today's design students can appreciate the value of making a difference then the next generation of design professionals might realise a measurable, positive effect on our world.
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Figure 1. New York Public Library Digital Image Collection, Thomas Nast, artist, Image ID: 833651.
Figure 2. New York Public Library Digital Image Collection, Thomas Nast, artist, Image ID: 833685.
Figure 3. Creative commons: Jonathan McIntosh, Immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles, California on May Day, 2006. Accessed Aug. 1, 2009. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:May_Day_Immigration_March_LA06.jpg
Figure 4. Creative commons: rytc, Stopp Minarettverbot. http://www.flickr.com/photos/rytc/4127392589/. Accessed Dec. 1, 2009.
Figure 5. LaRouche Politcal Action Committee, http://www.larouchepac.com/node/11422. Accessed Aug. 1, 2009.
About the authors
Audra Buck-Coleman is an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. She holds an MFA in design from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a Bachelors of Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Over the course of her professional career, Buck-Coleman has written, art directed, curated, designed, authored, and directed numerous design projects, including Sticks + Stones, an international multi-university collaborative that investigates labeling and stereotyping in graphic design. Recently Buck-Coleman's design work has focussed on the social impact and ethical considerations of the design practice; these concerns permeate her design research as well as her design pedagogy.
Department of Art
University of Maryland, College Park
2M317 Art-Sociology Building
College Park, MD 20742-1311
Ann McDonald is an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, where she teaches in the Graphic Design and Interactive Media programs. She holds a BFA from the University of Washington and an MFA from Yale University. She focuses on educational interactive projects with social relevance that can best be achieved through interdisciplinary collaboration. Her design work for clients such as The Boston Symphony Orchestra and The National Health Sciences Consortium offers wide audiences access to complex topics.
Department of Art+Design
239 Ryder Hall
Boston MA 02115
Mark Biddle is currently a Professor of Art, at Weber State University, in Ogden, Utah, where he has served as department chair and coordinator of the visual communication program. He holds an MFA from Indiana State University, Terre Haute. His professional work, for clients in both the public and private sectors, has won awards at regional and national levels. Mark is currently working on book design and illustration for "Navigating Lake Bonneville," a collaborative effort including original guitar compositions, poetry, and drawings.
Department of Visual Arts
Weber State University
2001 University Circle
Ogden, Utah 84408
Xin: Icograda World Design Congress 2009
This paper was submitted for the Icograda Education Network (IEN) Conference that took place during the Icograda World Design Congress 2009 in Beijing, China, which was planned in collaboration with the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). The broader theme of the congress, Xin, literally signifies human speaking and hence message/letter in Chinese, Xin-信 which represents a primitive means of communication. The IEN conference invited papers under the following themes: Design Education and Innovation; Design Education and Diversity; Design Education and Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration and Design Education and Regional Development.
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- Facing the Future: Postgraduate Research in Communication Design
- Sustainability and Design
- Understanding How Graphic Design is Animated Through Use
- New Approaches to Writing About Graphic Design
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