What the f**k is Graphic Design?

Working with Forresters High School feature
Photo credit: Flip Design Agency

Following on from her earlier post this year, Zoe Patterson, Programme Director for Graphic Design at ECA, describes another student engagement initiative that benefits both undergraduate and school students….

What the f**k is Graphic Design? wasn’t the actual title we used when embedding our Designer in Residence scheme into six local Primary and Secondary Schools. But that question was what we tried to answer for young learners, their teachers, careers advisors and parents about this misunderstood and often undervalued subject.

In recent years, coalface staff have noticed that the level of design-ready applicants recruited to the graphics programme has been limited in quality (not quantity). Applicants’ portfolios, which are requested as part of the Design School’s admissions process, show a disconnect between what they are taught at school and what we expect of them at this institution. In order that we might help broaden the landscape of successful applications to the programme, strengthen the portfolio component and help to convince young learners, their parents/carers and teachers the value of creativity and design as a fulfilling and viable career choice I invited University students to reflect on their own educational journeys. What better way for my final year students, products of the successful peer intensive curriculum, to test their skills outside of the University setting. Indeed what the f**k do they know about Graphic Design and how can they share it effectively?

Designer in Residence was created whereby year 4 undergraduate students were challenged on a weekly basis throughout academic year 2017-18 to embed themselves within a local primary or secondary school as resident designers. The ambition here was to introduce the subject of graphic design through a sustained drip feed, hopefully making the subject more memorable for the young learners, as captured in the following short video:

Vast amounts of planning, numerous meetings with school contacts and detailed emails did not prepare either me or my students for the amount of challenges we would face. At some point you just need to throw yourself into it and see what transpires so that’s what we did.

For most it was a bumpy ride. This was a big step in students taking control of their own learning and project managing with many different stakeholders. Kelly described her ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’ moment when faced with a class full of indifferent 15 year-old boys. Andrea spoke of her incredulity of a headmistress who kept referring to Graphic Design as Graphic Arts – a term not used since the 1950’s.

Despite being incorrectly perceived as trainee teachers or classroom assistants, there were moments of magic for my students too. At Tollcross Primary School’s lunchtime ‘Art’ club, Daniel held the work up of a pupil citing its merits in front of the class. He later learnt for this young learner this was a first; her work had never been highlighted and used by way of a good example before. The impact on the child was immense.

Package and Brand Electricity 2

One graduate working with a Bruntsfield Primary School P6 class was tasked with weaving graphic design theory and practice into the curriculum theme of Electricity. Creative problem solving, risk taking, lateral thinking, communication, project management, amongst the many core design skills this student employed in order to fulfil this unique ‘task’.

We wanted everyone to feel like they could be a designer even if they didn’t or couldn’t draw.

– Aiden Kwok on his experience working with a P6 class.


Accompanying workshops facilitated by the Careers Service helped University students identify their learning within these complex environments and reflect (one of the learning outcomes of this course) on their own experience and actions. Challenging and frustrating were the common adjectives used by the University cohort on their end of semester self-evaluation forms when reviewing their experience but so too were acknowledgments of their patience and ability to listen and communicate. Maybe they know more than they think about the world of Graphic Design.

Zoe Patterson

In 1998, after ten years working in the design industry, both in Britain and the United States, Zoe Patterson entered Edinburgh College of Art as Graphic Design Programme Director. Since that time, she has maintained her professional practice and developed her research in the field of education. This has manifest itself in a number of design and teaching projects, the most significant of which won The Guardian University Award for Employability in 2013.

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