One thing I lament about design schools these days is not all of them give students what is promised in the recruitment brochures. Thats why I still consider attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) one of my best life decisions. When I first started, I remember applying to Parsons, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and VCU. I was accepted to them all but, could only afford to attend VCU. (I had to pay my own way and the in-state tuition was the tipping point.) Regardless, VCU was/is one of the top rated public universities with dedicated art and design programs. It was also grueling.

 IMAGE CREDITS: Various Student, Alumni and Faculty work


During our freshman year we didn't design a single logo, not one page layout, not one product package. Instead you went through "Art Foundation" (code for lets torture these kids and see if they really want to become artists) which included multiple six-hour studios twice a week, classes in visual thinking, communication as well as the requisite academic classes. We were given assignments such as, "Next week, bring to class an original, non-relational, monolithic object." When we asked for clarification, none was given and for a full week most of us were dumb-founded. Those of us who thought we had a clue, had our solutions publicly dissected. In the eyes of Richard Carlyon, our instructor, we all failed. We were asked in our second week to try again. Another project involved developing a solution for "visual sound." Again in the eyes of Richard Carlyon, our instructor, we all failed. We would come to realize Art Foundation was less about showing your innate talent than weeding out those who didn't have the chops — a blessing for many who were forced to reevaluate their true desires in a career and a life after college.

IMAGE CREDITS: Various Student, Alumni and Faculty work


 Your sophomore year you had to declare a major within the school of arts. Some became sculptors, others chose to become painters, illustrators, print-makers, interior designers, fashion illustrators, multi-media artists, animators, photographers or filmmakers. All these majors accepted the sophomores with open arms. However, if you wanted to major in Communication Arts & Design (CA&D), you had endure a second gauntlet — a juried portfolio review at the end of your freshman year. The program attracted hundreds of hopefuls for the 50-60 available slots, essentially 10-15 students for every one opening. It could have been more it could have been less, 20 years later the memory wanes.You dropped off your portfolio in the morning and would return with the rest of the hopefuls in the evening to pick up the evaluation form. If you were successful you found a note welcoming you to the CA&D program. If you didn't make it in, you received a note of consolation and instructions on what to do to improve and what classes to take in the interim (200 level minimum university requirements like english, math, social sciences — while you waited another semester to reapply.) You weren't kicked out of the university, just denied access to the CA&D program.

OF THOSE WHO DID NOT MAKE IT, some were determined they would not fail a second time and took the jury's advice to heart, others were distraught and changed majors. Still others were more more drastic in their expression of disappointment and tried to harm themselves. It was these last group of students whose parents complained and threatened legal action that gave VCU's governing body pause. This allowed them to consider relaxing their requirements and grow their CA&D classes — at least that was the rumor.

THOSE WHO MADE IT THROUGH were subject to a mandatory curriculum; three years of advanced typography, three years of graphic design, visual thinking, art history, design history, B&W as well as color photography (using film) the courses go on and on. You were always exhausted if you took your assignments seriously.

 IMAGE CREDITS: Various Student, Alumni and Faculty work


 In return for your diligence you got to work with faculty like John Demao, Philip B. Meggs, Rob Carter, Ben Day, Richard Carlyon, Akira Ouchi, Lindsey Brinks, Nancy Strube and Robert Meganck. They all came from different backgrounds and themselves had been graduates of RIT, RISD, Parsons, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Columbia, Cal State, Cambridge, SUNY, VCU, Cooper Union, Ohio State and Carnegie Mellon. Some of these names are recognizable to the general public because they authored many of the books used in design schools around the world, they are part of the fabric of AIGA (past and present), others are recognizable only to their students. Though many of them held multiple degrees, BAs, BFAs, MFAs, MAs they were very approachable. You'd as likely to run into them on campus as you would at the Home Depot. (though it was called Home Center or some other brand in Richmond, before they folded/merged into Lowes)

Regardless of tenure or stature one thing my professors did ( constantly ) was push you to do better. They harangued you if you didn't live up to your promise. Some refused to accept your projects for grading if you worked below your potential. Some required you to redo the project and resubmit. To them it was better to get docked for turning in something late than turning in rubbish. They taught because they loved to teach. How did we know they loved to teach? Every Spring the student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times, would publish the salaries of all VCU professors. State school, public knowledge. It was painfully obvious that most of the faculty were not being paid enough to earn a living by teaching alone. This was a blessing. In order to make ends meet, many would write and publish design books and were practicing designers running their own design studios or agencies. They brought their real world experiences to their classes and we, the students, benefited as a result.

What I remember most about studying at VCU was that of the faculty I gravitated to, not one of them taught me a technique, or how to use a piece of software, or even how to solve a problem. Show the student the way and it becomes a crutch. The faculty I benefited from most taught us how to see the world differently, taught us to think, how to communicate, how to use color, how to illustrate with typography, how to break 3-D space, harness light and to see the beauty in the human form.There would be more than enough time in future years for honing your Adobe CS skills and camping out in the Mac Lab.

To be fair, VCU graduated its fair share of nonstarters. The faculty and the curriculum is only half of the equation, it is up to the student to take advantage of the brain-trust available at the design schools. A degree may get you in the door but, it won't get you the job. Some saw the gauntlet as a way for the professors to get the upper hand, like catholic school nuns. I prefer to think of them as getting us ready for the real world. If they didn't do it, the world would have done it for them. And the world is not always kind. So here's to you Phil Meggs, Akira Ouichi, Robert Meganck, Rob "Don't Stretch Type" Carter (you too Lindsay Brinks) for making the class of '88 what we are today.

... ... ... ... ...
Hyperlinks to:
Rob Carter: Books
Robert Meganck: Website
Nancy Strube: Notes
A History of Communication Arts
The VCU CA&D department

... ... ... ... ...
In Memorium
Phil Meggs: Wiki
Richard Carlyon: Microsite


A few years ago I started publishing an impromptu series of discussion posts on my LinkedIn groups to counter the naysayers who kept repeating the mantra. "Print is Dead!" As these pundits typed away at their keyboards I knew that print design had moved into the realm of the under appreciated. Despite this fact, a wry smile crept onto my face as I reflected that these pundits still needed business cards, packaging, corporate identity and printed collateral. We live in a virtual world accessed by smart phones, tablet PCs, laptops, desktops and touch screens.
Yet everyone of our devices came in packaging meant to extend the allure of our fetish objects. The demand for print design may have contracted, but will never go away. We are human and we respond to the tactile.
... ... ...
Be sure to scroll down to the end of this post to see the first LEVIS' Workshop videos Printmaking
... ... ...

Though I was originally pulled in by the Printmaking video, the Levi's Ready to Work campaign struck a chord with me and possibly every other American who has ever been laid off. At the risk of being suckered by Madison Avenue, I love the new campaign because it reeks of Made in the USA — even though Levi's are no longer made in America.

Never-the-less, the sentiment is there and the feeling is authentic, if not genuine. (full disclosure, I do work in advertising/design)

 The Levi's Ready to Work campaign and its real-world extension the Workshop Project extols an appreciation on something near and dear to my heart, traditional print design. I design mostly for the web these days. Though it is the work of Wieden+Kennedy, it is a campaign that Hal Riney might have dreamed up. All advertising aside, it is true that there is nobility in an honest day's work.

With copywriting like this how could you not be moved? From the press releases and the FAQ on the website:

This summer we've opened up our doors for the first of what will hopefully be many Workshops scattered across our fare country. The Workshops are places for creation, inspiration, and collaboration. We're excited to bring the first of these experiences to life right in our own backyard. Located in San Francisco's iconic Mission District (home to one of the first Levi's® factories), we've opened up a community print shop. During July and August we'll be hard at work teaching classes on classic letterpress machinery, screenprinting designs, setting type, and getting our hands dirty.

The Levi's® Workshops have mapped out a series of collaborations with local businesses and community groups to create original artwork and inspired designs that honor their respective passions and ideals. You can see the full schedule of events on our calendar.

We'll also be working with other Bay Area pioneers. These are folks who have inspired others and trod down the not so beaten paths on a mission to do something different and challenge convention. These amazing souls each have a powerful story to tell and you can read about their work with us here.

As the world has become more reliant on conveyor belts and less on individual craftsmanship as the norm of production, one might be forgiven for believing something integral to the process has been lost. Speed is no substitute for elbow grease, though, and pride and hard work are resilient qualities. This is what Levi's® Workshops are meant to be about. And in an age where anyone with a computer and an opinion can disseminate their thoughts on the internet in just a few minutes, the time is ripe for a return to the roots of meaningful communication. Levi's® will provide the means, you need to provide the heart and sweat. We invite you to join us in San Francisco–or somewhere else along the road–to roll up your sleeves and get to work."

... ... ...

We Are All Workers: Levi's Workshops - Printmaking
Let's stop talking about it and start doing it. Levi's® Workshops invite you to roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and get down to work. Join us at the print shop located at 580 Valencia St in San Francisco and look for more Workshops coming to cities across the country.