Alex White is a teacher. “I enjoyed fifteen years as a professor at the Hartford Art School of the University of Hartford, where I was awarded tenure and promotion and served as senior faculty member in the department. Because of life changes, I resigned my position in 2000 and began teaching as an adjunct in graphic design programs in and around New York City. Currently I am the Chairman of the graduate program in Design Management at the Shintaro Akatsu School of Design at the University of Bridgeport and I teach in a post-graduate program at Parsons the New School for Design and other design programs in the New York City area.”
Alex White is an author. “I am an author of seven books on graphic design and typographic practice, theory, and philosophy. All my books describe in one way or another the idea of ‘right thinking,’ that is, making design decisions that are considered and defendable.”
Alex White is a designer. “My clients, which include magazines and advertising agencies, professional associations and schools, are located across the U.S. and in several foreign countries.”
We thank Alex for agreeing to answer our questions about these many hats (and bowties) that he wears.
Designer, professor, author, lecturer, consultant. How would you order them in terms of importance? How do they relate and how do they differ?
I have always required a variety of activities in my professional life. I chose professing design at the age of 24 because I couldn’t see spending my most fruitful creative years helping sell Diet Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Dean Witter Reynolds (really, Phil Dusenberry’s TV group at BBDO, a dream advertiser’s gig). So I went to grad school to test teaching, knowing I would be good at it and might just enjoy it. Plus, professing was the furthest from a boss I could imagine getting. Being on a college calendar is perfect for mixing things up: I necessarily concentrate on teaching for 14-week stretches and get to write books and other professional activities over holiday and summer breaks. Writing is teaching, but in a different time frame. I teach now but the reader learns it some other time. So I sense that writing and teaching are very similar. But the alone time needed for writing is essential to my brain and I revel in it. Designing, consulting, and lecturing are also teaching, but to different audiences with different needs. My clients tended to be organizations that needed expert help and instruction on carrying the thinking forward on their own. I loved it: drop in and just when things start getting boring, the job is over. Similarly, I always prefer a rush job to a long, protracted job.
Let’s start with teaching. After two years of grad school at Syracuse and then two years of teaching at your alma mater, Kent State University in Ohio, you returned to Connecticut in 1985 at Hartford Art School, University of Hartford. Could you describe your role in the development of their visual communication design program?
The HAS graphic design program was smaller and in disarray with faculty teaching to their own personal interests and strengths rather than addressing the needs of undergraduate students. A year after my arrival, HAS got a new dean, Stuart Schar, who was a powerful proponent of academic rigor and quality, regardless of the inconvenience that often brings. Graphic design was growing very quickly as a major throughout the U.S. in the latter 1980s, so managing the position of the popular graphic design program among the other majors at HAS was an important consideration. He initiated a plan to introduce annual reviews to the graphic design program. The idea that some students would not pass made the review process very consequential to students. Students understood that being a casual graphic design major wasn’t going to work. Over a few years, the review process evolved to winnow out all the weaker students under the shared leadership of several colleagues. The HAS BFA degree in graphic design became recognized as a stamp of quality in the marketplace. That recognition was very rewarding.
I have heard a consistent reflection on your teaching from your ex-students that goes a bit like this: “I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience at the time, but I ended up learning the most from him.” How does this make you feel and what do you think it means?
My philosophy of teaching is rather simple: learning to think and learning to see are the reasons to go to college. Students’ liking something doesn’t matter, doing things for prettiness’ sake is meaningless, and students have to learn to work for their knowledge. I ask two questions: “Why did you do it this way?” and “What is right about your design?” These require more than “I like it” as a response. So students are expected to have thought about their design decisions and need to be able to describe them convincingly. When students learn to do that, they almost invariably ace my classes. So it takes time to acclimate to my way of teaching – which I would not advocate for other professor’s design teaching. I must add the student payoff is far more immediate than post-graduation.
Could you tell us more about the graduate program at SASD?
My teaching mantra is “learn to think and learn to see.” The Design Management graduate program is an opportunity for working designers to expand their skills in these two areas. Design Management is a subject that combines design thinking with business. It is a way of expanding a designer’s skill set. There are only a dozen or so programs in the U.S. About two thirds are design schools that add business courses. The other third are business schools that add design thinking. The DM program at the Shintaro Akatsu School of Design (SASD) at the University of Bridgeport works in close collaboration with the School of Business and the Entrepreneurship Center to give our students new knowledge, superb experience working with clients, and discovering the benefits of working with others – even some non-designers – to develop innovative, thoroughly practical solutions to business problems. Graduates bring to their design practice a hugely-expanded horizon of possibilities to bear on behalf of their clients. The 42-credit program takes four semesters to complete and meets on Thursday evenings. Business courses can be taken in evenings as well. More information is at sasd.bridgeport.edu/mps and write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have any opinions on the current state of design education and what they are doing right/doing wrong? How do the Connecticut schools compare to New York and beyond?
The practice of graphic design has been changing for thirty years because of technology. As technology becomes an increasingly significant subject matter in the classroom, something else has had to make room. It is truly horrible to think that the study of form is what would lose in this arrangement. For most students it takes semesters to really understand figure/ground in particular and design relationships in general. All private schools – whether in CT, NY, RI, or MA – are hungry for students, so they all have to offer a solid reason for their program’s existence. Balancing art, design thinking, and technology is a shared challenge by all schools.
What are the pros and cons of teaching undergrads versus graduate students?
Let me start by saying that I love teaching freshmen. They know they don’t know much and they are extremely spongelike, which is a key attribute of any student at any level. Teaching freshmen is as much about teaching them how to learn as it is about teaching them anything about design. But undergrads in general trust unquestioningly that what they are given is what they need. Grad students return to grad school intentionally: they know what they want to learn and what holes they want to fill in their knowledge. They are also more in touch with the cost of their education: they expect excellence and are more eager to work for it. I suppose it is gratuitous to say that both groups are fun to work with, but that is my truth.
The SASD DM program was developed by your former HAS student, Brian Miller. What was it like working with a former student? I imagine a unique sort of pride from someone who is a former student and who sees you as a mentor?
Mr Miller created the program in the image of the groundbreaking Pratt Design Management program, from which he graduated with his MPS. Brian has always had a keen sense of business and entrepreneurship. I noticed it when we first worked together a couple of decades ago. I believe it comes from his father, who was an accomplished engineer. I have worked with other former students and have thoroughly enjoyed each experience. Far from being Mini-Me’s, they have broadened into various fields but they all share design talent, inquisitive minds, and strong self motivation. As chair of the MPS program, I have had occasion for some of them to speak to my graduate students and their achievements are a true pleasure to see. I do take pride in their achievements, but I know they have earned their own successes. I take great delight in being told “the one thing I remember most from your classes,” which is invariably a throw-away line (of which I have many because I can’t talk about design without context of the world around us) or simple act that meant little to me but made a big difference to them. These remembrances are all different and always surprising to me.
Of all your teaching experience, do you have a short list of ex-students you admire, keep in touch with, collaborate with, endorse and/or beam with pride from?
Yes. And it is always a genuine pleasure to hear from any student with whom I’ve worked. Teachers teach to make a difference, and finding out how much of a difference is as good as it gets.
What qualities make for an exceptional student?
An inquisitive mind, a keen desire to excel, and a love of words. Speaking of which, I made this up today and entertained my beloved as I put away the breakfast goodies on the top shelf of the refrigerator:
A1: “Which branch of armed services loves soup the most?”
A2: “I don’t know. Which?”
A1: “The Marines, because their catchphrase is bouil-lon!” (read that out loud like you mean it)
What qualities make for an exceptional teacher?
Though understanding and empathy are essential, a teacher’s role is to encourage excellence. Teachers must know they are not there to be a student’s friend. These can sometimes be in conflict, as students are eager to get understanding of their perpetually tough circumstances. A great teacher clearly describes purposes and deliverables, gives information necessary for success, and lets the students meet or exceed expectations. Teaching responsibility for outcomes is part of the gig. When students get an A, there should be tears of exultation in their achievement!
My teaching mantra is ‘learn to think and learn to see.’ The SASD Design Management graduate program is an opportunity for working designers to expand their skills in these two areas.
When, how, and why did you first decide to write about design?
Writing and designing are both making thought visible. I always enjoyed writing, having had an influential high school English teacher (whom I have properly thanked, ahem all you designers who know who your most valuable teachers are). He taught me “If you can’t write it clearly, you haven’t thought it clearly.” Truer words were never spoken. I also loved designing. So I realized in graduate school that writing and designing and explaining all meet in book writing. This was undoubtedly my most valuable takeaway from grad school.
How does writing a book on design compare to teaching a course on design?
One is a monologue and the other is a dialogue. The essence of design education is the critique, where we discuss the design decisions a student has made. That is why I find online design education so challenging: the critique is out of time and the comments from classmates tend toward the banal. A significant difference is that teaching a course has a defined semesterly time frame and a book expands to fill all available time – at least until it becomes embarrassing to ask one’s publisher for “just one more week.” I got myself into a bit of a bind the past few years: I committed to a book each year for the past three and it is not easy to do with the other full-time job at the university. An updated version of Advertising Design & Typography was published in 2015, Listening to Type: Making Language Visible was published in 2016, and my next book, The Elements of Logo Design: Design Thinking, Branding and Making Marks, will be published in 2017. But as has been said by others, the formula for writing is simple: butt in chair for enough hours.
Can you talk a bit about your most recent book?
Listening to Type: Making Language Visible came out just a few weeks ago in October. It is 8×10” and full of typographic samples. It is a complete overhaul and revisualization of one of my previous books, Thinking in Type: The Practical Philosophy of Typography, which was published in 2005. Ellen Lupton’s Listening With Type came out two weeks before my Thinking in Type in 2005. The ghastly realization of their insanely similar titles was a blood-draining experience – and came far too late to do anything about it. As history and amazon.com shows, Ellen’s book won that comparison. So we bided our time and rethought the content. I am very proud of the results: Listening to Type can better withstand comparison and will lead readers to better design thinking than many other books.
As a designer, do you have a specific philosophy of graphic design?
Graphic design is a tool to enhance communication. More broadly, design is a tool for enhancing the experience of being alive. Making objects prettier is fine, but that doesn’t address the real issue: how to make things work better. The choices we make in what we surround ourselves with tend to be the things and services that enhance our lives. Prettiness is an aspect of that, but I firmly believe functionality supersedes prettiness.
Is design more subjective or objective? Is it less art and more business?
I consider there are only two conditions in design: intentional solutions and random solutions. Intentional solutions have something identifiably right about them and reveal the thinking of the designer. Random solutions have nothing wrong with them but have nothing particularly right about them. They may be tasteful, but they are not thoughtful. Therefore, I would definitely side with objective. I don’t think art vs business is germane to the discussion: rather, does a design add value to the message and enhance a user’s experience?
Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with the Type Directors Club?
You become what you devote your mind to. I became a member of the TDC in 1993 while in Hartford and maintained a somewhat distant relationship to the club. When I moved to NYC in 1998, I began showing up at events and evidently didn’t smell bad, so I was invited to join the Board of Directors. I served on that body for 11 years, winding up as President and Chairman. It was great fun rubbing shoulders with the greats in typography from around the world. I surely learned more from my colleagues than I gave.
You’ve been called “the type whisperer.” How would you describe typography, as part of design education and in practice? Would you say it is THE essential component of design?
I would hardly consider myself a type whisperer, though typographic whispering and SHOUTING are essential weapons in a designer’s armory. But I have learned that the very best typographers worldwide are invariably humble people. There is something about typography that attracts practitioners who are respectful of never having mastered the art. I have a profound respect for those designers who are engaged in working with letterforms in new ways. Typography is absolutely the essential element of graphic design that differentiates it from image manipulation (formerly “photography”) and other design disciplines. It takes years – decades – of practice to really understand the possibilities of letterform use. What fun! Who would want to engage in a profession that can be mastered in months or years? Then what? Boring repetition or atrophy? It is more fun to constantly see ways of improving one’s work until senility or death.
Finally, how big of an influence was your father to your career, and what parallels do you see in your own career path to his?
My father, Jan V. White, was a renowned design author and consultant and, beginning in his 50s, global lecturer. He worked alone in his studio at home, so his career was my model. He was easily the biggest influence on the way I think. His seminal book is Editing By Design, which posits that designing is a process that edits a message to reveal its meaning and value to the reader. Though he had a very sophisticated aesthetic, he was anti-prettification to his core. He didn’t understand what the TDC was up to by its recognition of “such illegible works” and whatnot. I called him a philistine and he returned the favor. So Editing By Design, or “EbyD” in family parlance, has been published in multiple languages and gone through edition after edition until now, when his publisher has asked me to prepare a new edition. I am probably the person on earth who best knows how he thought, so my contribution to keeping his works alive feels appropriate. It will be a difficult authoring process nevertheless.