It’s been about a week since I received the rejection letter from NC State. I had a good run, I began my studies in a 4 year program at a private university, maintained a near perfect GPA while there, and made some very good pieces for my portfolio that I still parade around to this day. And it was a good school too. The best of its kind that I could find with professional, knowledgeable and attentive teachers, a list of successful alumni with impressive resumes, the appropriate regional accreditation as well as accreditation with NASAD, a peer reviewed accrediting organization that defines art and design education in cooperation with AIGA.
But, like all private universities in this country it was ridiculously expensive, so after a year I rejected the idea of taking on nearly $100,000 of student debt and transferred to a local community college with the intention of fulfilling the extra liberal arts credits that the much, much cheaper public universities require and also to ease the debt that I’ve accumulated from the private university at the same time.
Unfortunately my options were extremely limited; short of uprooting my family it was NC State or nothing. I was nervous about putting myself in that situation given that NC State’s College of Design is notoriously hard to get into and requires submitting a 10-piece portfolio, 2 essays plus one optional essay, an interview and if you manage that they still ultimately only accept around 30 applicants out of thousands for each program. But the only other alternative to this was to spend a fortune on private universities all too eager to let me in and take my money and the shirt off my back too. Regardless of what I did it was a Sophie’s Choice between backbreaking debt and the premature death of my educational goals.
And here I am without a school to call home. My educational plan was developed to strictly adhere to AIGA’s philosophy on the education of graphic designers. Which is that two-year programs are designed to either allow students to transfer to four-year programs or to prepare students for jobs as assistants in the design and printing industry (AIGA, “How Do Design Programs Differ?”). They don’t mean this to instill a class-system within the design industry but to promote a higher standard of professionalism that will result in progress and development of the field. If I could explain in one simple sentence the unifying message of the top designers and educators who contributed to the book “The Education of a Graphic Designer” it would be that graphic design education should be based on a comprehensive liberal arts program.
The idea that design is essentially a field of interdisciplinary research is not a new one, but it has only slowly become an academic policy with the recognition of design as a respectable profession and the realization that a robust and cultured education is just as important, if not more important, to the makeup of a good designer as artistic aptitudes, in fact, the old Bauhaus master Lázló Moholy-Nagy had said, “A human being is developed by the crystallization of the whole of his experience… Only when men and women are equipped with the clarity of feeling and sobriety of knowledge will they be able to adjust to complex requirements and to master the whole of living” (Ken Garland, “Anxious about the Future”). More than anywhere else, Universities have seemed to reach this same consensus with design education by implementing rigorous programs in order to create designers who are able to distinguish themselves through their scrupulous and accomplished conceptual work from the scientific backgrounds of computer technicians and the leisure play of bedroom designers that have encroached on the field with the advent of the digital era.
Well, it was never my intention to be an assistant fumbling with color swatches at the wrong end of the desk. I support applying the highest standards for any field, especially for design and have justified my decisions on that premise to complete all of my liberal arts credits at a local community college in order to save money. I’ve taken argumentative writing, critical thinking, literature, political science, economics, environmental biology, foreign language, a half-dozen math courses and more towards that end. NC State’s College of Design states that they consider the potential of a submitted portfolio over the quality of the work, but I can’t help but wonder how much my focus on the ideals of a comprehensive liberal arts education over the last year and a half as opposed to art and design-centric courses cost me in the relative scope and strength of my portfolio. Ironically, I consider that thought to be an optimistic one, I would at least like to think that there is “potential” in my creative ideas. So, while my circumstances have caused this serious hiccup in my educational goals it also instills the hope that my portfolio is merely a surmountable weakness that can be fixed with the redirection of my focus from liberal arts towards the study of art and design. Since I’m finishing that chapter of my education I have a whole year to prepare for my application and until then the only sensible thing to do would be to study, work on my portfolio, and seek out other opportunities.