Teaching (by) design Visual communications majors tutor aspiring artists

Nationally speaking, high- school-level courses in graphic design, as opposed to general art or special projects such as yearbooks or student newspapers, are surprisingly rare.

So when venerable University City High School launched a new graphics class last year, a group of visual communications majors in the School of Art readily agreed to help tutor students in the fledgling program.

Critique with tutor and students
Visual communications graduate Sunil Manchikanti (second from right) leads a critique with graphic design students from University City High School as part of a new tutoring program coordinated by Heather Corcoran, assistant professor of visual communications.

“The relationship has been outstanding,” University City High art teacher Todd Yancy said. “We’re still in the process of developing curriculum, but the way you get better is by learning from the people around you. The way the Washington U. students came in and helped funnel and channel and deliver information couldn’t have been better.”

The class is the brainchild of Yancy and local designer Traci Moore, a University City High alumna and chair of the Municipal Commission on Arts & Letters.

Over the past three years, the pair worked with University City students to develop a new graphic look for Spectrum, the school’s annual compendium of student writing, sparking a surge of interest in design issues. The full-credit class, Moore explained, was created to harness that energy while preparing aspiring designers for more rigorous college careers.

“These kids are so intrigued and have such enthusiasm, but a lot of them would be at a disadvantage applying to art school,” Moore said. “They don’t have portfolios, they don’t have a lot of strong sample projects, they don’t really have a sense of what it would take to do this for a living.

“We want them to get to the point where art school seems like a real possibility, where they can see themselves taking that next step.”

During the summer of 2002, Moore and Yancy — with support from Principal Elizabeth Bender and art department head Tony Taylor — assembled a small design lab of used and donated PowerMac and iMac computers, basic software and other equipment. Moore also began a series of conversations with Heather Corcoran, assistant professor of visual communications at the University, who had recently worked with the campus chapter of the Amer-ican Institute of Graphic Art on a series of student-designed community service posters. Together, Moore and Corcoran conceived the tutoring program and began mapping out objectives.

By the start of fall classes, Yancy and Moore had enrolled close to 20 students and Corc-oran had recruited nine seniors from the School of Art’s illustration, advertising and graphic design concentrations. At first, tutors simply offered their younger colleagues advice and individual critiques, but as familiarity grew and the spring semester rolled around, six tutors took on expanded roles, preparing and teaching entire lesson plans.

“We met to brainstorm general topics, but the seniors really defined the goals, designed the lessons and presented them to the class,” Corcoran said. “It was a great opportunity for them to build something and then watch it play out in the classroom.”

David Kroll and Sunil Manchikanti led an introduction to graphics software, particularly Adobe Illustrator, a standard in the industry. Deia Schlosberg and Wesley Gott taught two sections on typography. Danielle Rifkin and Ellen Sitkin employed the game Pictionary as starting point for a three-part series on iconography and the importance of communicating quickly and simply.

“It’s been very rewarding,” Sitkin said. “I’ve learned a lot about how to lead a class, and the kids are amazingly respectful.” As seniors, she added, “we’re in this little bubble, always sitting in front of our computer screens, and it’s really inspiring to watch them just pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and start making things.”

Rifkin agreed, “It was really great, especially this semester when we’re working on thesis projects, to get out of the studio and into a different atmosphere. Their energy and enthusiasm gets you more motivated to do your own work.”

At the end of the spring semester, tutors conducted a final review and awarded four top students large, professional-quality portfolios, purchased with a grant from the School of Art’s Art Student Council. Re-ceiving portfolios were Tuan Belk, Robert Collins, Allison Leigh Scott and Tamara Taylor.

“We feel that there are a lot of terrific artists here, but we only have four portfolios to give so we leaned toward those of you who are seniors and perhaps going on to college,” Moore explained to the class. “Hopefully, we’ll see those of you who are juniors again next year.”

Corcoran is also anticipating the coming fall and has already enlisted a half-dozen tutors from this past year’s junior class.

“One of our priorities will be making the program more visible, which could be an interesting project for the students as visual communicators,” Corcoran said. “Developing some kind of fun logo or graphic, printing up T-shirts — those are the kind of things that can help kids get excited about a program and ultimately help it to grow.”