A Fine Balance
Why graphic design is both a contemplative art and a professional practice.
By Camille LeFevre
|These vinyl banners were created by graphic design students and hung across campus. Student artists: Rebecca Alvarez-Alcocer, Pablo Byrne, Suzelle Camou Osete, Mauricio Martinez Portillo, Fernando Garcia-Verdugo, and Ana Villa Zamora. |
April 2012—In our consumer-based economy, graphic design is ubiquitous. Whether on screens large or small, subway walls or billboards, magazines or corporate letterhead, graphic design permeates everyday life. In the minds of most, graphic design is a commercial venture. Designers may integrate color, form, symbols, words, and images, but their goal is to create a memorable brand, logo, layout, or product package.
For David Grey, however, graphic design is much more. As the chair of the Graphic Design Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design and a professional designer who runs his own firm, Grey views graphic design as both a contemplative art and a professional practice.
“Graphic design is a way of seeing the world,” he explains. “It’s a way of appreciating the present moment and how things come together. In our program, professional practice begins with the motivation to see more clearly.”
Designers can engage in mindfulness by being present during the moment of practice. “When students see elements of graphic design in the everyday world, when they directly perceive color, form, texture, rhythm, and pattern in nature and in man-made objects, that’s an expression of mindfulness,” he says.
Balance is an integral part of the department’s curriculum and the faculty’s teaching methodology. “Balance isn’t created, it’s allowed to happen,” Grey explains. “Students are encouraged to truly engage. With this comes an opportunity to explore moral, ethical, personal, and highly stylized design.”
As an example of how he supports this approach, Grey introduces students in Graphic Design I to Miksang, the Tibetan Buddhist practice of discovering pure perception. “The idea is to learn how to appreciate the essence of visual elements such as color, form, or rhythm, before beginning to label or intellectualize the experience,” Grey says.
As an adjunct faculty member, Joel Nakamura teaches graphic design students to render their work with the acute attention to detail that comes from being present in the moment of creation. A commercial and fine artist, his work is world-renowned for its vibrant mythological imagery that straddles pop and folk art aesthetics.
“As creative people, we are constantly contemplating design issues,” he says. “I always look at what has been produced and ask myself what I would have done differently. My approach to being creative is to always create. I paint when I’m not producing art for a client. I also visit museums and browse books to keep my creative inspiration batteries charged.”
In a similar vein, award-winning designer and adjunct faculty member Maggie Macnab teaches students how to incorporate nature’s balance into their own work by sharing lessons she offers in her book Design by Nature: Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design (New Riders Press, 2011).
“I guide students; I don’t dictate,” Macnab says. “Design is about creating balance in your life. So I ask students to make their own choices. I want them to learn how to let their creativity and intuition lead them toward making an aesthetic statement. I hope to teach them how to think critically and creatively—skills that are applicable far beyond graphic design.”
Grey agrees. Such skills are necessary for graduates to “move forward in their careers, whether in graphic design or professions they haven’t even considered yet.” And the balanced approach to practicing graphic design as taught at Santa Fe University, he adds, “helps them better appreciate every creative aspect of their daily lives.”