Unfortunately, at Carnegie Mellon, design is more like robotics

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One of the hippest figures in the world right now is Banksy, a ballsy Brit who has established a portfolio for himself that’s a brilliant hybrid of guerilla art, graphic design, graffiti, and unadulterated talent. Check out his manifesto: It’s a page taken from the diary of WWII Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, who wrote about the disease and death surrounding him, and the genius who sent lipstick to the camp instead of food. “At last someone had done something to make them individuals again,” he wrote.

Banksy’s manifesto points to debilitating misconceptions in Carnegie Mellon’s design department. Individuality provides a wealth of creative and nontraditional solutions, and sometimes the seemingly unnecessary and gratuitous design solves a different, and possibly equally important, problem than the clear answer. Sometimes, you have to do the unexpected.

Our design program is touted as one of the best in the country, yet visits to design firms have revealed potential employers unimpressed with our work, and murmurs of “Oh, another Carnegie Mellon portfolio?” at interviews have shown the nature of the work students are churning out here: clean, efficient, and good, yes, but all the same.

Ignore the fact that the work we see hanging on IDEO’s walls is distinctly different in principle from Carnegie Mellon’s, ignore the fact that we’re being taught design that caters to one class of people (middle- to upper-class, style-conscious clients); the design department is continuing a long Carnegie Mellon tradition by making robots of us all.

Design students are about as diverse as you will find at an upper-crust school: Within that pre-defined demographic we have the typical ratios of class and race represented. The students come from predominantly fine arts, photography, drafting, or design backgrounds, but by the end of four years in the program, you wouldn’t be able to tell given the results of studio projects.

The environment contributes to the assimilation within the program. Studios are bare, equipment is minimal, prices — for things like studio fees and even the most basic of design elements, color printing — are high, and therefore restrictive. The set up of the program is such that students spend a year bonding just to be drastically split by major and distance. To go from spending a year together in Maggie Mo to a year where communication design majors are in Maggie Mo and industrial design majors are in Porter is extreme and detrimental; it denies the possibility of 2-D work influencing or working in conjunction with 3-D work, and vice versa.

From the beginning, the assignments are ones of homogenization. Do not sketch. Draw one line. Do not use your eraser. Make one stroke. Freshman year sees weeks of learning how to draw perfectly straight lines in inch-long increments, eventually turning into simple 2-D — and then 3-D — shapes. It’s hard to think outside the box when you spend weeks perfecting squares and cubes.

The small crop of professors means students are being circulated within the same pod of design ideals year in and year out. Professors form an “answer” to the design prompt assigned, and reject most anything that challenges the enforced style norm or is different from their expected outcome. In communication design, where one professor teaches and grades at a time, there is less objective analysis of any single design and less input for the students to draw from. Professors say not to care about the grade, to do the work for yourself; but work done to the satisfaction of the student consistently receives lower grades.

The rejection of individuality strips students of their passion for design, students slowly stop caring, and as peer expectation drops, so does motivation, and, in turn, production quality. Students dedicate more and more of their time to alternate classes and extracurriculars, where they want to learn the material.

Design is inherently a combination of creative ideas, where inspiration is drawn from a constant flow of information and reinterpretation. Openness to variety breeds innovation, a typical trait Carnegie Mellon prides itself on, but type surrounded by white space is getting tired, as is having to explain away every detail and function of any object. Sometimes, it’s okay for a part of a design to be decorative.

Visiting lecturer James Victore was asked about creativity restrictions in the classroom, to which he reluctantly responded that, well, students have to start somewhere. He’s right, you can’t break the rules without learning them first, but there’s value in the belief that you can’t say you’ll keep all the rules now and break all the rules later. My dad’s mantra is better: You have to practice the way you’re going to play. And I want to play by my own rules.