September 12, 2011

Designing and Teaching: User Experience Architect and Educator Charles Field

Charles Field (with his son above) enjoys being in the position of practicing design and teaching it. He also has a particular interest in the history of design. I had the privilege of speaking at Charles Fields’ Design History class at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here he shares his takes on the profession of design and its relationship to design education: 

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
I am a User Experience Architect who teaches a course in design history/critical thinking for designers at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. 

Where are you from?
Originally western Canada, but I have lived in a few U.S. cities. 

What is your statement about being a both a practitioner 
and teacher within the field of design?
I aspire to altruism, but I suspect my current occupations have more to do with self-interest.

I am addicted to the problem-solving and pace of being a practitioner. For the sake of argument, design history, aside from the development of book typography, starts around 1820. And even that is a stretch, but let’s imagine the rate of change in the last 190 years—it’s fairly brisk.

It has clearly accelerated in the last twenty years; a field once defined by paper and the idiosyncrasies of print technology has divided into many forms.

So I don’t really feel that I can keep my teaching relevant without staying abreast of the field. And I understand things better when I make them.

As a teacher, I enjoy many aspects of it: course and curricula design, my faculty colleagues, watching the world change through the students in my classes, and the breadth of academia as a tonic to the narrow focus of business concerns. Teaching a single course per term keeps it fresh. 

What influenced your interest in teaching?
Honestly, I just assumed I always would. At one stage there were 5 teachers in my immediate family, so it was kind of part of the atmosphere.

Earlier in my teaching career, I was motivated by a desire to know Design History in greater depth; now discussing how we all perceive and communicate through design in a more current sense is the interesting part.

Interpretation of “Novelty” by student Jennifer Aeduk 

Where have you taught and where are you currently teaching?
Well, everywhere I have lived since graduate school, but not contiguously. Otis Parsons [aka Otis] and CalArts in Southern California, San Jose State, San Francisco State and California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in Chicago. 

What tools and materials do you use to teach?
The current course is based in discussion and a couple of course books, but I still use a Design History database that John Calvelli and I constructed in 2001/2002. 

How does time factor into your teaching?
Well, there is never enough if that’s what you mean! You always have too much material, too many projects, too many topics to cover.

The challenge with any “History” is to attempt presentation and examination of the culture from multiple points of view. There are narrative arcs in Design History that are taken as common sense can seem a very limited—even intentionally limiting—construct. Modernism stands out as one of those. A recurring time conflict is always depth versus breadth.

And frankly, it just isn’t that fun if I am the only one talking, so another time issue is constructing each class to facilitate discussion. 

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
Interacting with students. If it were anything else, I would have stopped long ago. It is a consistently engaging human activity. I also like redesigning the course as I learn more, find new things, think new things. 

Was there a part of teaching that was particularly trying
and how did you deal with it?
I think the worst aspect of teaching is how marginalized it is in this culture. Pardon the soapbox, but I know a lot of dedicated and persistent faculty who are pathetically compensated for their talents. Korea is a good example of how this might work better.

On a personal note, one of the first courses I taught was a full year of History of Design and Illustration. It took quite a bit of preparation, and then I was such a green teacher that I didn’t really know how to teach it. Many of the students survived it nonetheless, and a couple, like Khoi Vinh and Jamie Myrold have done very well. 

How do you stay creative? Draw? Or keep a journal?
I am lucky to be able to be creative through work I find very engaging. Other than that I write, play music, fix bicycles... 

What are some of your sources of inspiration?
I am basically a pop culture historian—I think the fancy term would be Visual Studies—so pretty much everything. And the vernacular parts, too. 

What is your advice to people who are starting to teach?
  1. Learn how to speak in front of people so you don’t sound of moron all the time. Practice.
  2. Steal project ideas from the best, then invent your own. I see a lot of younger teachers who just teach the projects they did in school—that’s not good enough. The world changes.
  3. Make time, or find a work situation where you can contribute visible things to the discussion of design in the culture.
  4. Teaching may not be the only thing you want to do. Try a bunch of things.
• • •

All images courtesy of Charles Field.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews

Pay it forward by supporting Design Feast
If you liked this lovingly-made interview in this sustained series celebrating Makers, show your appreciation by supporting my labor of love—Design Feast, which proudly includes this blog. Learn how you can help.