Dr. Garreth Blackwell is a designer and a strategist. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy where he teaches courses in design thinking, creative business development, and creativity. He has helped found multiple 2D and 3D design companies and has acted as their founder, principal designer, or consulting partner. Before becoming a faculty member at VCUarts, he was an instructor of journalism at The University of Mississippi where he taught courses in layout and design, photojournalism, and entrepreneurial development from 2007-2011.
He is the co-author of Design Your Own Magazine, a book that deconstructs the process of publication design into 15 simple steps. He is the co-editor of The Roads of Broken Dreams, the Robert Kennedy Award-winning publication about the shrinking communities of the Mississippi Delta. His second book, Growth: A Manual for Professional Creative Practice, focuses on the business side of creative practice and will be released in late 2023.
Blackwell holds a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University where his dissertation focused on the changing definitions of goodness and social value within modern design. Blackwell also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi where his research focused on entrepreneurial media production.
My formal design education was rooted in communication, of putting together form and content as Paul Rand said. As an educator, my goal is to help students feel confident in different methods of research, ways of thinking, and processes of ideation in order to form individualized approaches to effective visual communication. This front-loaded process prioritizes ideas and connections over specific form-based outcomes. Personal aesthetics can always change and evolve but not without a solid understanding of the breadth of the creative process.
Design education should never neglect reading, writing, and research at any level. Designers are charged with creating a visual future, and in doing so, they have the responsibility of relating their work to a larger cultural context. This relationship of culture and context is governed by an epistemology grounded in ultimate reality, whether understood properly or not. A well-informed designer is a powerful designer, equipped with tools and ideas that go beyond a single individual. Designers who can critically examine their work and the work of others are capable of creating new connections within the visual world. And a designer who can write, is a designer capable of building new discussions about our craft and profession for future generations.
Processes in design provide avenues for rich exploration. My work is highly contingent on process, so final forms are of less ultimate importance to me in early stages of design education. By exposing students to multiple ways of thinking and seeing, they are more capable of exploring ideas in new and powerful ways, instead of relying upon popular design trends or outdated forms of visual communication. Emphasis on ideation not only moves students into the uncomfortable spaces where they are forced to expand their abilities, but it helps them develop concepts that might otherwise be written off in a more form-based curriculum.
Advocating for process above form does not downplay the importance of the work we do as designers, rather it elevates it to something achieved only through questioning, experimentation, and the very real possibility of phenomenal failure. A firm grasp on personal process allows a student to understand specific benchmarks within a project, but it also gives them a foundation to change and transform alongside the world they design for. In any given project, the final form may be a failure while the concepts explored are fertile for new discovery. In this way, my grading is not entirely contingent on form, but takes conceptualization, process, and ideation into account.
The whole of creative practice is an expression of our place before a Holy God. Within this understanding, a successful design classroom is based on interpersonal relationships, allowing for the safe expression of personal ideas within the understood framework of continuous critique. A student’s individual inquiry and a teacher’s limited design brief are only parts of successful educational design practices. While parameters are always presented to students, I stress the importance of critically thinking and going beyond the brief into areas that are personally appealing, socially responsible, and culturally expressive. My project parameters are built around specific concepts and questions, allowing students to deliver their work across a spectrum of mediums and forms for final critique. The entire process of teaching should encourage a student’s responsibility toward and ownership of ideas, work, delivery, and critique. Design education should always breed a loving dependance on Christ and connection to the community of Christ through His myriad gifts that animate our given place, time, and knowledge.
Design education should frame a student’s place within the larger practice of design. The field of graphic design has a rich history of discussion, rebellion and experimentation. This history should always be more than details about someone’s life or work, and should be contextualized within projects to guide exploration and ideation. History that exists in a vacuum will always fall upon deaf ears and fails to understand the timelessness of our gracious Father. Because of this, design history has a place within each class I teach. History that becomes a part of contemporary design practice has the ability to become influences or ideas or points of departure for a student’s work and provides a critical vantage point by which we may more fully understand the redemptive arc of the work of Christ. Our field developed within social, political, economic and technological events that shaped our ideas and practices today. In the same way that design practitioners and writers have written about the influence of these events, it is important for design students to consider our current climate as a lens for visual communication exploration because of the sovereign God who has placed us here for such a time as this.
Most importantly, design education should be in constant flux. As my students explore assignments through visual communication, I am always taught new things or being shown new ways of seeing. The variety of students and project scope and length generates new ideas that influence projects for following terms. Additionally, a design educator should always be exploring new practices, ideas or disciplines that can help instill a deeper desire to learn in his or her students. As a constant learner, I am always finding new ways to incorporate disciplines from across society into my classroom. In this way, I hope to not simply educate designers for today but for the world they will create after graduation through their calling in Christ.