NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 45


Learning From Valence: On Teaching Through Common Interest

Nina Paim/ Corinne Gisel

Like any collaborative endeavour, this mode of teaching requires time to get to know each other, and gain trust. Fortunately, in Valence, we had 35 teaching days of eight hours each, spread out over almost four months, resulting in over 300 hours of contact time with our students. This might seem like a banal observation, but the reality is that time is increasingly scarce in education, or at least in Europe. It’s not only that one-week guest workshops are becoming central to many curriculums, but, that the ongoing commercialization of the contemporary university has sped up the clock, demanding increased speed and efficiency from faculty regardless of the consequences. Nowadays, teachers have more and more students and less and less weekly contact with them. In Valence, we had the privilege of spending time  building a common-ground with our students.
In order to foster collective teamwork,  we declared ourselves to be “a design investigation unit.” We prompted our students to pick a crime and look for suspects. We never presented a closed definition for crime, and instead, discussed it as a group. Together, we  understood crime not primarily in legal terms, but in a broader sense, as anything that has or has had a negative impact on the world. There was only one crucial restriction: the suspects could not be humans, they had to be products of design. But again, we didn’t define what design was, and instead left that open for discussion as well. At the end, we didn’t only consider objects made by those who call themselves designers, but rather any human-made artifact, process, system, or structure, that was constructed to do something in the world, often with a specific intent in mind. Through this simple set up, we were able to foster a space for critical thinking, and reflect on the social, political, and environmental impact of design.

Our students identified eleven objects of interest and their choices were as diverse as their personalities. One student, Julian, actually looked at the classroom set-up as a suspect of creating conformity. Other objects of interest were: the emojis in digital devices; the phenomenon of Happy Slapping; the sensationalist packaging of news; the gendered typography of toys marketing; the smartphone; a “Made in Bangladesh”-label; Snow White and her princess peers; the norm of “nude” products; and submarine fibre cables. Like detectives, they followed their objects, navigating the knotty networks they are part of. Each of them approached their topic differently. Some went into the field to gather insights, others ventured into the entangling territory of scholarly research, interviewed experts and witnesses, or compiled and analyzed data, others took a more personal approach, playing with building blocks, looking at their own wardrobes, or even creating a set-up for a round table discussion to happen. At the end, they each drew their own conclusions and made their case in an unique way.

Throughout the class, we tried to be conscious of not passing judgment, and would avoid giving personal opinions. Instead, we would always invert the question to the students: What do you think? What do you find interesting? What don’t you like it? We wanted to be support structures, amplify what was already in them, and foster their own sense of decision-making. Our role was less that of traditional teachers, and more that of editors of this “design investigation unit.” We never placed ourselves outside their projects, purely providing feedback or validation. Instead, we were there in the field, with them. We read their sources, debated their argumentation, workshopped titles, edited their texts, helped them with their scripts and storyboards, while also making popcorn to watch films in the classroom. We sat behind the computer and  helped set their layouts. We were not teaching, but turned into their assistants, executing their designs, helping them to print, cut, fold, and install their works. Our eleven students produced films, spacial installations and even designed handouts or small publications. Their results were shown in an exhibition in the city center of Valence, which was visited by the entire school. And although we know that we are extremely biased, we were sincerely touched by what they made. In our opinion, their works were enticing, engaging, provoking, critical, and mesmerizing.

Around the time we started teaching in Valence, after seven years of working together on an off on projects, we had finally decided to team up. We didn’t have a name for this new endeavor, but we knew that “making research public” was our core mission. We wanted it to be something inclusive, something that could become bigger than ourselves. We wanted our work to be about others. As our class progressed, we realized more and more than what the work we were conducting together with our students, could, in fact, become the backbone of our practice. Teaching went through the looking glass, as we learned from Valence how to become common-interest.

Nina Paim

Brazilian designer, researcher, and curator  Nina Paim  (Brazil, 1986) holds a BA in Graphic Design from Gerrit Rietveld Academie (NL) and an MA in Design Research from HKB Bern (CH). She has taught and lectured in Aruba, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy, Portugal, the UK, the US, and Switzerland. In 2014, she curated the exhibition  Taking a Line for a Walk  at the 26th Biennial of Graphic Design Brno, for which she received a Swiss Design Award in 2015. She co-conceived and edited the book  Taking a Line for a Walk , published by Spector Books Leipzig in 2016 and supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Between 2017 and 2018 she was the program coordinator of the Swiss Design Network conference  Beyond Change , questioning the role of design in times of global transformation . In 2018, she co-founded the non-profit cultural association “common-interest.” 

Corinne Gisel

Swiss designer, writer, and researcher  Corinne Gisel (Switzerland, 1987) holds a BA in Graphic Design from Gerrit Rietveld Academie (NL) and is currently finishing an MA in Cultural Publishing at ZHdK (CH). Her writing has been published by Occasional Papers, Diogenes, Spector Books, Walker Art Center, and Lars Müller Publishers, and has covered topics such as design education, dress culture, the digitalization of the museum, LGBTQ+ button badges, and money as a medium for political opposition. Corinne has taught and lectured at POST Design Festival, Ésad Valence, FHNW Basel, and Krabbesholm Højskole. She co-conceived the book Taking a Line for a Walk, published by Spector Books Leipzig in 2016 and supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. She co edited the book  Protest.The Aesthetics of Resistance, published by Lars Müller Publishers in 2018. In 2018, she co-founded the non-profit cultural association “common-interest.”

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