I had the pleasure of moderating a lively panel discussion on Saturday, April 9 as part of the Faculty Forum portion of AIGA Minnesota’s Portfolio 1-on-1—one of the largest and longest-running student design events in the country. 210 design students from around the upper midwest converged on downtown Minneapolis for two days of workshops, studio tours, and (as the name suggests) one-on-one portfolio reviews. The speed at which the event sold out this year is an indication of the robust state of design education in this region.

The Faculty Forum—attended by more than 30 design educators from a variety of public, private, traditional, and for-profit institutions—was kicked off with an invigorating and provocative keynote presentation by Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Tom took us on a fascinating tour of the challenges and opportunities of design education in a time of change, in part by reflecting on a previous time of change—the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s. Fisher emphasized this challenge by pointing out how most design students now are digital natives, “it’s almost as if our students are natives in a different land.”

AIGA Minnesota President Seth Johnson picked up on this thread of Tom Fisher’s remarks by elaborating on the significant challenges present for design educators, “The 30,000-foot view provided by Tom Fischer was inspiring and right on target. But I still struggle with comprehending how old-world educational models will respond to the quandary of implementing the changes he’s describing. That’s where the real conversation is — and the real work, too. I’d argue that, unfortunately, most academic programs (and the institutions that own them) simply aren’t set up to quickly adapt to the fast and changing pace upon which our society is now based. What incentive, for example, is there for a non-digitally-native tenured professor to completely adapt her skills and methodologies to meet today’s demands, especially when she needs to continue to teach yesterday’s curriculum to students currently in the antiquated program?”

Tom Fisher’s remarks were followed by a lively panel discussion and Q&A featuring veteran local designers Bill Moran of Blinc Publishing and Bill Thorburn of The Thorburn Group, as well as educators Paul Bruski of Iowa State University, and Alex DeArmond of University of Wisconsin-Stout. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the panel brought the conversation from the stratosphere down to ground level with a strong focus on the importance of the tangible elements of graphic design like typography. For me, the interesting tension of the session was drawing connections between Tom Fisher’s big vision and the reality of what is happening in the classroom.

Keith Christiansen of St. Cloud State University followed up by email with this comment: “I had the impression you left one question dangling…how do we as design faculty teach social media? It’s definitely important to factor in. I bring it up in my classes and have sited the Geek Girls (Twin Cities-based bloggers and social media gurus, Nancy Lyons and Meghan Wilker) who view it as a new paradigm for communication. The analogy is like in a party where you meet with people in short exchanges and the rule is you can’t be a bastard, over hype or be obnoxious or the Facebook/Twitter crowd will freeze you out. If a client lies or misrepresents, the news will be spread immediately. In other words one has to be empathetic, somewhat cool, useful, provide value and above all reliable, trustworthy. This is a simplistic view of course but I am attracted to the virtues of it as a new communication model. I share that with students and Integrate it with problems posed to them in terms of their projects-how they come to their solutions matters.”

University of Minnesota professor Steven McCarthy followed up by email with this comment: “We didn’t touch on the role of research in design education.” Here’s a link to a recent Eye magazine blog post by Steven on the topic.

Special thanks to Jennifer Price and John Vorwald of AIGA Minnesota for organizing the Faculty Forum. There was definitely an interest on the part of the educators in attendance to continue the conversation!