Worksight Blog


Graphic Design Education

Cooper Union’s Lubalin Center 30 over 30 Exhibit

Photographed from an exhibit wall at the Lubalin Center in NYC in which designers were asked to comment on various iconic designs as part of the center’s collection. Jessica Helfand and I both wrote about art Director/Designer Lou Dorfsman’s ad, circa 1961, for CBS. The text under the largest “ha” reads, “He laughs best who laughs last”—an ad explaining the broadcasting company’s success in focusing on comedy television.


From Cave to Code

My young son once asked, ‘Why are we here?’, writes Scott W. Santoro. When the question was flipped back to him, ‘Why do you think we are here, Ellis?’, he responded, ‘To learn stuff!’

Ellis was right. If for no other reason, we’re here to learn stuff, and graphic design makes it easy. Our field is so rife with varied subjects that we can’t help ourselves – it is almost forced upon us.

When Pearson Education asked me to produce a graphic design textbook five years ago, I went through everything I know about the subject, and learned a lot more in the process.

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Guide to Graphic Design

A 360-page textbook written and designed by Scott W. Santoro over the course of five years. The book published by Pearson Education is translated into Chinese and Arabic. The last word in the book is, “whew.”
See a website created about the content.


Poster for Tomorrow

Pratt student, Ian Rousey, (an undergrad in the design program) won entry into a worldwide competition in which designers were asked to interpret the phrase “Death is not Justice.” Ian’s poster was completed as an assignment in my Graphic Design 2 class. It is an ingenious use of type and the research of statistics on the death penalty. Shown is the poster (left) sitting next to others being presented on the site. Congrats Ian. See the official site at <>

Brno, the Czech Republic

Photo from a presentation made in June of 2010 in the city of Brno, the Czech Republic, as part of the Brno Poster Biennial. The event included the jurying of a large poster show, exhibition of Worksight graphic design projects, and lecture (as part of a connected symposium), answering the question posed: Are Ideas Enough Today?

An animated icon was made of each presenter, which included Petr Babák (CZ), Oded Ezer (Israel), Andrzej Klimowski (UK/PL), Sato Koichi (Japan), Lizá Ramalho + Artur Rebelo (Portugal), Karel Martens (the Netherlands), Rick Poynor (UK), Igor Stanisljević (Croatia), John Walters (UK), Martin Woodtli (Switzerland), Alan Záruba (CZ).

The Czechs have a rich history of graphic designers creating groundbreaking work including Ladislav Sutnar who taught at Pratt Institute from 1946 to 1949. I received a BFA in graphic design from Pratt and now teach there, and the Czech audience was happy to see a photo of the school and current student work from my senior design class.

Making Connections

An embarrassing moment as a graphic design teacher came when I made a comment to a student whose work was static; dead. I wanted her to find a way to liven up her designs and told her she needed to “break out of the box.” Looking for inspiration, I asked what her parents did for a living and she replied, “They own a funeral home, they’re undertakers.”

I don’t think she was being a smart-aleck and I really did have good intentions—it’s just part of the way I teach, to probe a little. The belief is that by looking into past experiences and family histories designers can expand their visual vocabulary and learn to make meaningful connections. I’ve been practicing this myself since 1988, from my days as a Cranbrook student. It was there, in the midst of Deconstruction theory, that I decided to have a personal investment in my method of production.

Plumbing was “it” for me—generations of my family all directing fluids. The metaphor was satisfying, a blue-collar contrast to my white-collar profession. Systems behind the walls became analogous to systems in the mind; tools and processes I knew so well were now consciously massaged, as a layer, into a tough, everyday aesthetic. In the spirit of Magritte’s “This is not a pipe,” the surrealism of word and image became a looking-glass to “see” graphic design better.

Teaching this approach is another matter. It’s hard to get design students to mythologize their lives. And yet, as a teacher, I know that the more input, the richer the output. Ultimately, if I can get design to begin to mean something to them personally, I’ve done my job.

When it works
An undergrad student of mine, Chakaras, had served in the military and had a strong sense of discipline and authority. He allowed his experience to translate beautifully into an investigation of badge-like iconography, and grid systems countered with a kind of typographically distressed snafu—an acronym used by soldiers to mean (s)ituation (n)ormal (a)ll (f)ucked (u)p. The visual metaphor of the military also came out in his research and play with camouflage and gestalt theory. His study opened up an ongoing layer underneath his commercial, problem-solving, graphic design.

When it doesn’t work
The choice not to include one’s past might occur when others expect clichés. No one necessarily wants to be bound by where they’re from or what they did before. Being from India could involve designs that are colorful and ornate, or not; a family of accountants might not offer any exploitable formulas, especially if you hate math; a love for hip-hop doesn’t have to mean that layouts include graffiti—but maybe.

When it’s challenging
Ali showed me his portfolio full of images of human body organs. Short of thinking that pornographic gore was his obsession, I finally had to ask, “where was this all coming from?” Did I even want to know? It turns out that both of Ali’s parents are doctors, and he was on a medical track until graphic design came calling. The imagery found its way in and brought shocking, yet beautiful, mechanisms to his layouts.

Another student, Mike, explained that the metaphor he had found in grad school was none other than Mr. T of The A-Team fame. What’s incredible was how he was able to use this character to drive an examination of pop culture, hero-worship, and celebrity-ism. Eventually, Mike became the persona of Mr. T, including himself, literally, in many of his designs.

The fact that someplace or something might feed your work is, in effect, acknowledging connections with larger systems—culture, community, and environment. The art historian, E.H. Gombrich, who made analytical studies between art and the psychology of perception, wrote, “Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread which is not there.”

In a sense, connections between personal histories and graphic design aren’t really there either. The value of a link is only made real by believing in it. Not being afraid of seeing yourself in your work is the first step.

Originally published in “The Education of a Graphic Designer” edited by Steven Heller, Allworth Press, 2005