Count on me to turn the very first class of my very first day of graduate school into a full-scale debate. IP&T 655 "Instructional Print Design" doesn't sound like particularly fertile ground for philosophical disagreement, but it's not difficult to imagine that in a room full of students with backgrounds from engineering to English to elementary ed, we had a unique and beautiful specimen in full bloom on the whiteboard before we'd even finished introductions. Our instructor began class with the invitation to list all the fields of design we could think of. We listed architecture, engineering, fashion, landscape, industrial, network, theater, visual (yes, gasp, they put print and web designers in the same category) etc. etc. Trouble ensued when he then asked us to place these fields along a continuum from ARTSY to TECHNICAL. Needless to say, though the discussion was tentative at first, it quickly became apparent that this would not be an exercise in common consent:
"Landscape is very technical! You have to consider soil composition, drainage, growing seasons..." "Yes, but in the end, what they really care about is that it looks good."
"The end result of engineering is a functional product." "Sure, but the best engineering happens when you think outside the box, stretch the norms, get creative..."
Even at the risk of being branded an overbearing shrew (at least for the semester), I felt compelled to push, rather loudly, for a unilateral criterion. If we can't judge by the intent, the process, or the end product, what can we judge by? Can we judge at all? We discussed, debated, proposed ideas and shot them down, and finally agreed to place professions on the ART-TECH continuum based on this; If a professional were forced to FAIL in one of these two areas, which would they most likely choose?
Obviously, this method is not truly unilateral either, but we were able to come to some mostly-mutually acceptable conclusions. If a fashion designer were forced to fail, it would likely be in the technical aspects of a piece rather than the artistry. An engineer, on the other hand, would be more likely to choose an artistic failure for her designs.
Here is a representation of the fields we classified on our design continuum:
We didn't dislodge any paradigms, probably didn't even raise any truly significant questions. But the process of relinquishing assumptions, of consciously adjusting vantage points and doggedly searching for an underlying truth felt very much, to me, like what higher education is all about.