Michael Johnson's recent article on this week's selection process for a new Head of Department for the Communication Art & Design course at London's Royal College of Art. The RCA is the world’s only wholly-postgraduate school of art and design, and has produced a roster of well-known alumni including Alan Fletcher, Daniel Eatock, Jonathan Barnbrook, Why Not Associates, and Sara Fanelli.
In his article, Johnson argues that the current department, under the leadership of Dan Fern, has become hobbled by the "art" approach, and that its students are beholden to a working ethos that has little relevance for the outside world: "The key issue that has distracted the course for decades has been 'art'. Communications graduates have been at pains to present their work within the context of white walled galleries, not grubby old commerce. Work has often been presented as 'work in progress', never finished. The 'process' has become the king, not the problem to be solved."
For many, this is an inflammatory position. Is Johnson's problem-solving, commerce-oriented methodology the only legitimate approach? Or is it possible that the purpose of design education is to empower students to produce work that reflects their individual motivations, white-walled or not? Can't "art" and "design" approaches coexist simultaneously in our practice? Why are we so eager to create a cut-and-dry dichotomy between the two? As Adrian Shaughnessy remarked earlier this week in an article for Design Week, "Fern’s critics hope that his successor will push the course towards creating graduates with 'real world' skills in branding and digital communication. That’s the safe option. I'd prefer to see someone who could update Fern’s vision of a course which produces creative people capable of exploring new ways of thinking from a perspective of craft informed by artistic vision, for a world where commercial imperatives are no longer the only benchmarks for success."