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RAF Inspired: On Being a Design Educator

March 3, 2016


On Being a Design Educator
By Sherri Baker Hamilton

As teaching has recently evolved into my full-time gig, I’m frequently asked, “Do you like teaching?”

At face value, the answer is simple. Yes. Of course! Who wouldn’t enjoy being a catalyst for the proverbial “clicking on” of the ol’ lightbulb? What knowledge previously did not exist, now exists. It’s semi-miraculous, I tell you. When learning occurs, teaching is good. As good as eating a slab of chocolate decadence cake <shout out to Leo’s Bakery>. To top it off with drizzled chocolate icing, being a teacher means I aspire to be one of those hipster professors, riding my bike in to work, scarf around my neck, laptop and design annuals strapped to my back, inspiring future designers, with summers off. So sweet. So sweet.

But the deeper question at the heart of the original really should be, “What does it mean to be a design educator? And, do you like doing that?” Because, in fact, there is much more to being an educator than being in the classroom. Ask any teacher.

Mind you, I’ve only been at this teaching thing for a fraction of the time I spent in agency-land. My perspective certainly may be a tad skewed. But, here’s my take.

On being a design educator.

  1. I now look at art and design, read about it, think about it, and evaluate it more than any other time in my life. Truly. More than when I was a student. More than when I worked at agency jobs. I eat up the good, the bad, the old, and the current for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I think about the future of design. More than ever. I look at what my students and my professional and educational colleagues are all creating. I’m excited to say that I genuinely care more about art and design now. Which leads me to point #2…
  1. Being a design educator has made me a better designer. All that inspiration and influence doesn’t just go into a dark void. I’m a more thoughtful artist now. Instead of striving to rise to the standards of colleagues in the adjoining cubicle, I strive to rise to the standards of Milton Glaser and Paula Scher. I’m not sure who said it first, but something about “my best project is the one I’m currently working on” pretty much sums it up.
  1. Teaching is like giving birth at the end of a triathlon. A quadrathlon. It’s exhausting. It’s harder and longer than you think you could endure, but somehow you make it happen. Plan. Teach. Assess. Drop. Let’s do this again next year.
  1. To continue making associations… working in academia is like being a stranger in a strange place. It operates under a different language, a different speed, a different climate, and different patterns than the profession I’m used to. Different is neither good nor bad so, let’s just say, I’m happiest maintaining dual citizenship.
  1. Patience, patience, patience. Repeat.
  1. Success as a design educator is fleeting but cyclical. My greatest successes come with the success of a student. They start out as little green babies who don’t even know about the pen tool and think PMS refers to that time of the month. Then somehow, they end up landing a job and a title I would have given my left kidney for at their age, or winning an award, or starting their own business, or making a really cool difference in the creative community in some other way. Those achievements are the jewels of my effort with any student. It’s brief and experienced from a distance, but still so sweet. They come, they go, and then it starts all over again with new, funny green babies.

I could go on and on as educators so easily do. But, what about that second, more meaningful question? Do I like all that it means to be a design educator?