The timing of my return to school is uncanny. Within two weeks’ time, my son will be starting kindergarten and I’ll be attending my first class in twelve years. He will begin his educational career and I will begin graduate school. He’ll start learning how to read, how to keep quiet in the classroom, and how to tell time, and I’ll lead off with a semester of History of Communication Design, Process and Methodology for Innovation, and Design Research Methods.
For the record, we’re both very, very excited.
This August I will begin work toward a Master of Fine Arts in Design-Innovation Studies at the University of North Texas. In doing so, I’m chasing my long-standing dream of becoming a design educator. As I work my way through the next three years I’ll share my observations, experiences, and discoveries here as a record for myself and a report for others who may have the same aspirations.
My dream of becoming an educator surfaced when I was doing my undergraduate work at Texas Tech University in the late 1990s. My mentor at Tech, Frank Cheatham was firm, clear, and unswerving in how he felt design should communicate and look. He also had an encouraging spirit and he genuinely cared about the success of his students, which is probably why he pushed his students so much. He wasn’t ok with letting me be just a designer who made pretty things, he wanted me to think. The time he took with me, the effort he put into challenging me to be a better communicator, and the care he used when doing it inspired me.
While working as a designer and art director, my dream of becoming an educator was put away, seemingly in my shirt pocket because it never wandered far from my heart. I set to the task of learning my craft by doing. While my schooling had built an immeasurable foundation for my career, I quickly learned that there was so much more to learn in the workplace. Like I tell others, real education begins with your first job.
While working, “professor” wasn’t on my business card but I still taught when I had a chance (and without the consent of my co-workers at times). Whether it was speaking to First Graders about art, reading student writing as a judge for competitions, or meeting with new designers to offer my experience, the high was the same each time I got to educate or encourage. Interacting with students as well as those who were more experienced than I was as exhilarating as creating the artifacts of design and solving problems visually and verbally.
I was gabbing last year with a few other designers and art directors who do volunteer design work with our group at Flipbook Co. We started talking about what our dream design job would be. We talked around the circle about what that dream project or job would look like. When it was my turn I talked about how I had always wanted to teach but also how it was too good to be true and how the picture of being a design educator was probably a lot rosier in my mind than its reality. At that point, a designer and recent graduate called me on the carpet:
“But you’re good at it and you obviously love teaching just from how you talk around here.” He went for the jugular. “Why don’t you just go for it?”
I couldn’t hide. From that moment, the reality of going back to school and becoming an educator rattled around in my head. I thought of it when I went to sleep and it was waiting for me when I woke. I dreamt it. There was no escaping.
The next few weeks were spent talking with professors, talking with other art directors, reading articles, scouring the web for information on MFA programs, and even looking up salary surveys. I needed to know if a career as a design educator would be anything like what I imagined or if I was dreaming the whole thing up. After all, it sounded like too much fun to be real. My research pointed to the same conclusion, which was summed up beautifully near the conclusion of a two-hour talk with Michael Gibson, an Associate Professor and the Graduate Programs Coordinator for Innovation Studies at The University of North Texas College of Visual Arts and Design. The answer to my “is being a design educator a worthwhile endeavor” question was addressed up clearly and succinctly.
“It’s a great reason to get up every morning.”
Since that talk and after learning everything I could about the MFA in Design-Innovation Studies program at UNT, I applied. And this August I will be setting out on one of the most exciting and opportunity-opening experiences I’ve ever faced. I have a feeling my kindergartener and I will have a lot of stories to share.