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Day 05/03/2014

{ Rethinking Form + Content in the Classroom, Part I } Confessions of an Unwitting Modernist


As I’ve mentioned in my inaugural post, I’m a teacher-turned-graphic-designer. And in the process of getting an MFA in design, I found myself spending a whole lot of time thinking about teaching.

I found that the parallels between graphic design and teaching run surprisingly deep. And the more I looked at the two in tandem, the more I felt that the features of one field shed light on the other, and vice-versa.

So what are those parallels?

First, graphic design is, above all, a mode of communication. Graphic design deals in ideas. Its goal is to transmit them effectively from source A to
audience B.

It seemed to me that the same could be said about teaching.

Second, graphic design is also a service discipline: it exists as a vessel for ideas from other disciplines. (In this way it differs from its more self-contained, self-sufficient sister fields of product design, industrial design, fashion design, and architecture.)

Again, the same could be said about teaching. What’s more, the parallel is more pronounced the farther the teaching gets from hands-on practice. (For instance, the more an English class is about responding to texts than it is about writing, or the more chemistry class is about studying formulas than it is about testing them in the lab, the more teaching resembles graphic design, though the expansion of digital-age “participatory design” is a direct exception to that.) Therefore pedagogy that is removed from hands-on experience relies more heavily on the communication of ideas.

Taken together, these two parallels reframed teaching as inherently interdisciplinary, like graphic design. Teaching requires mastery of a subject area as well as mastery of effective communication practices.

Finally, graphic design involves an essential duality: form versus content.

Typically, designers view content as the material they are required to transmit; this is where the interdisciplinarity arises. Form, then, is the series of decisions designers make to transmit the content. In the hands of designers, form gives content intentional shape.

But having been a hyper-rational critical thinker for most of my life, embracing the mysterious and subjective allure of form is hard for me, despite my ten years of working as a graphic designer.

And yet it is form that adds value to content by enhancing it. Form is what makes a thing designed. Form is what makes content visually eloquent and evocative. Form is what draws so many designers to the field in the first place: it’s where they assert (and insert) themselves. It’s where they wield their power and have their fun.

This understanding suggested a rupture in the parallels between graphic design and teaching — or at least teaching as I had practiced and observed it as a high-school English teacher:

Whereas a designer’s practice lies predominantly in form — the crafting of content — a teacher’s focus is often predominantly on the content itself.

At least mine was.

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There are many reasons why many teachers focus on content more than on form.

Some reasons are positive: teachers tend to be personally dedicated and invested in their subject areas; and learning benchmarks tend to emphasize what is covered, not how to cover it.

Some reasons for the emphasis on content are not so positive: education typically emphasizes breadth over depth, a point that fellow rethinker Jenna Marks has recently questioned; and assessments of both students and teachers are, in the public school system, increasingly based on content-heavy standardized tests.

In my case, as a private school teacher, I would add the (now astonishing) fact that I had no formal training in pedagogy. As far as I can tell, holding a degree from a prestigious college served as a proxy for knowing how to be an effective teacher. But in truth, knowing a certain amount about literature — and mastering the demands of my own content-heavy schooling — mostly primed me to be a slave to content.

And if there was one thing I was intent on as a teacher, it was getting my students to be close readers of literature. I was Riverdale’s queen of the question sheet.


Most of my students acknowledged that my nightly question sheets did get them to read more closely. But in the vast majority, those sheets didn’t exactly ignite a passion for great literature.

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The major movements in graphic design’s century-long history have hinged on designers’ varying perspectives on the relationship between form and content and how, as a result, designers have interpreted their duty to each.

I’ll begin at the beginning: The Reign of Form.

The Reign of Form was embodied by Modernists, the minimalist, grid-loving, sans-serif-fancying designers trained at Germany’s roving Bauhaus School and Basel’s Schule für Gestaltung. These northern Europeans fanned out across the design world from the 1930s through the 1950s, wielding a stylistic conformity that lingers still today. Its evangelists insisted that Modernism emerged from a philosophy of deep commitment to content, though in fact it reflects a distinct set of formal preferences like any other aesthetic style.

In 1930, British typographer Beatrice Warde captured the Modernists’ perspective on form and content in a metaphor that has entered the graphic design canon. A connoisseur of fine wine will never choose an ornate goblet fashioned from solid gold, Warde asserted, but rather a simple stemmed crystal glass. “Everything about [the crystal goblet] is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.” Similarly, good graphic design “should be invisible” and free of “mannerisms” so that the content can be appreciated without interference.

If you’re wondering just how this metaphor represents The Reign of Form, congratulations —you’re paying attention. But consider for a moment the practical outcome of Warde’s insistence that design “invisibly” serve content. According to a modernist, that supposed invisibility is achieved only one way: through minimalist, grid-driven layouts, with type set in one of a small handful of sans-serif fonts.

Modernism Mashup

Modernism is alive and well today.

Here’s the thing: Modernists would deem this narrowly-defined form ideal irrespective of the content — be it advertising, propaganda, the arts, or public-interest information.

Indirectly but unmistakably, form trumps content.

But we’re not done yet. The full picture is more complicated.

Remember that form is the domain that distinguishes that which is designed from the default: that which is not designed.

Allow me a comparison of my own. Graphic designers who reduce form to a one-size-fits-all response to all manner of content are like fashion designers who think one single outfit is best suited to all women. That is, a design philosophy that pushes for the strict unification of form effectively neuters form. And in neutering form, hyperconformity neuters design’s most potent valence, the power to enhance content through visual evocation.

In these ways, the first movement in graphic design history both fetishized and crippled form through extreme formal reductionism. I’d argue the movement is more accurately understood as The Reign of Conformity.

Wading through all this in my MFA study, it dawned on me that I had been a teacher in the Modernist mold. I sincerely believed that those endless question sheets were the best way to reveal to my students the finer points of a text — because they were my preferred way. I was the Beatrice Warde of the classroom, and those sheets were my crystal goblet — a one-size-fits-all response to all manner of content.

Next — Form Goes Bonkers: How Post-Modernism Filled Some Holes in My Pedagogy

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