ED: Us here at Soapbox have watched fellow graduate Daniel Hobson on his journey to the other side as a now fully qualified Tutor – Blimey! We just had to ask more…
Being asked by Soapbox to pen my journey from Graphic Design Student at Winchester School of Art, to Graphic Design lecturer in the far east of China, gave me a chance to reflect on a four-year period full of new: experiences, friends, food, places and challenges.
At this moment I am back from China where the campus has closed for the winter holiday and for the Chinese spring festival. I am sat in the dining room of my parent’s house, spending 9 months out of the country means I have no home of my own in the UK. Drinking a cup of strong coffee, looking out on the coldest day here so far, which is a lot milder than some of the -15c Siberian temperatures we have experienced in Dalian. I begin the start of the journey that has led from being responsible for my own design projects to becoming responsible for the teaching and learning of a cohort of more than 90 second year students.
Winchester is a small and peaceful city, full of history as the old capital of England, with its quaint streets, leafy parks and renowned cathedral – a stark contrast to the mighty size of Dalian, one of the many expanding cities of China. In Winchester, a busy and creative studio of a highly motivated designers surrounded me, where we frequently worked together on our projects late into the evening. I was very fortunate to have been part of this group of young designers as we encouraged, inspired and bounced ideas off of each other. Our studios became a second home as we filled all available white spaces with the colour, shapes and patterns of our creativity. As a student I had my ambitions and dreams to become a designer that created work the world would see, to write new design rules and set new trends.
Figure 1 My future wife Katrina and I in Winchester
In the second year this would all change when I met someone whose path I would join; my soul mate, friend for life and partner, Katrina. As Katrina is Chinese to stay together we discovered the complex and sometimes unfair immigration system. To give us more time to tackle the inevitable problem we both studied a Masters together. This pushed our design skills further and questioned our roles as designers in modern society; tackling problems such as designing for Dyscalculic Nursing students, rethinking how to engage the always connected audiences of today and what the future of print will be.
Figure 2 MA final outcome, Dyscalculic cube
At the end of the Masters we received the opportunity to move to Dalian, China and gain experience as teaching assistants. Following my future wife I took the spontaneous decision to apply, this was the start of an adventure to China.
The selection process was to provide support at the Winchester summer school, this is where I met someone who has become a close friend, colleague and business partner; a French man full of life, Olivier Blanc. In the classroom as a teacher for this first time I spent time talking to the students about their ideas and experiences, Olivier recognized my potential as a supporting and naturally empathetic teacher and recommended me for the role.
For me this was a big step, the day I first left home was the day I packed my suitcase and travelled 5500 miles. Arriving in Dalian, China, I didn’t start my first job as a designer but I completely embraced the role of teaching. As a job teaching in China, each day has different challenges, but most important thing is taking the time to talk to students supporting, encouraging and nurturing their creativity. In my first semester I met and worked with a very experienced tutor from Australia, Stuart Gluth, a friendly, welcoming person with a big heart. Stuart inspired me, he was comfortable to walk into any classroom and inspire students in the way he delivered design concepts through imaginative workshops that had us all thinking outside the box. He could make what would seem a simple task of cutting and positioning black and white shapes a thoughtful provoking challenge to create the most contrast possible.
Figure 3: Stuart Gluth and I taken on a trip to Beijing. November 2013
To this day I continue to follow Stuart’s philosophy of trying new ways of teaching design. Sometimes this leads to success such as workshops that involved tracing the grid of a magazine and then re-applying the content of the magazine back onto the grid in a new and novel layout. Sometimes trying new methods such as having a 100 students work together to group images based on their keywords leads to chaos and a lot of noise. But this is the art of teaching trying and reflecting, it doesn’t always work but it leads to new ways of working with the students, where classes are new and fresh and not stagnant and dull.
When second semester arrived, it turned out that Stuart was moving back to Australia, leaving his large cowboy boots he always wore, to fill. I was thrown into the deep end, given a cohort of students to be responsible for. For me this was the break I had been looking for, rather than sink I embraced the challenge, I wrote my first brief and planned the teaching based on the learning outcomes. I was fortunate to receive expert guidance and support from the Dalian team to ensure I didn’t sink.
At this point it was the realization that what I teach, how I encourage, how I inspire will have an impact on the future success on this group of next generations of designers in China and beyond, it was this realisation which became part of my dogma to ensure the students receive the skills that they require to be successful in today’s world of design.
Figure 4 Students mind mapping a response to a given article
A year later I was given the full role of teaching fellow. No longer a student working on my own project, but instead planning and deciding the direction of the projects a large group of students will undertake and how we can collectively get the most out of their ideas. We have just finished a book project where the students illustrated a poem, as a teacher I judge their success on the diversity of ideas and work they completed. We had concertinas, pop up books, hard back books, fold out pages, cut through, books that where made from an old camera, a triangle book, all kinds of imagery printed onto different papers. It is seeing the final work and it is seeing the students excel, become confident and bold that I enjoy most from this job.
Figure 5 Student artist book designs
I have now completed higher education teacher training where through reflective practice and continuing to try new teaching methods, I have achieved distinction. This has given me the confidence in myself to recognize that what I am doing as a young teacher is having a positive impact on the students.
I am still at heart a graphic designer and through building a network of clients and friends in Dalian I have had many opportunities to apply these skills. Publishing editorial articles in the city magazine ‘Focus on Dalian’, building websites for a client in France, pitching packaging design to a New York drink company and as marketing officer at the university designing informational and promotional posters. This gives me a retreat from the teaching and keeps the design tools sharp. I also get to use those important skills to plan and design student exhibitions and then get those creative hands dirty with some paint and a hammer.
Figure 6 Photographic essay ‘Transport of China’ as part of own practice.
One of those differences of being a tutor to a student is the assessment, which becomes the assessment ‘process’. As a student there is the pressure of the hand-in day, the desire to get the best mark possible to succeed in your future career. As a student, the day after hand-in you suddenly find there is little to do, you are set free, your sketchbook has been locked away and it is time to celebrate the end of a year. As a tutor it’s the start of rigorous days of scrutinizing each students portfolio. The assessment has to be a fair process where work is moderated internally and through an external examiner. This moderation process is integral as judging creativity and design can be open to personal bias, this adds to the pressure to ensure you give each student the mark they deserve, you can find yourself debating marks by margins of 1 or 2%.
Figure 7 Students final work exhibition
Unlike a student the assessment becomes more than an individual’s mark, it is the success of the full cohort. As a tutor you reflect critically on the teaching and learning, have I taught the skills the students needed to complete the brief? Was the delivery of teaching suitable for students to assimilate? Have the top students been challenged enough? Was the teaching at the right level?
One similarity in assessment is it can be a measure of success both as a student and as a tutor.
This journey has been a big adventure and life experience for both Katrina and I as we both start our careers.