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Commentary & Analysis

Do We Really Need Graphic Communications Education?

Do We Really Need Graphic Communications Education?

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: November 6, 2006

Do We Really Need Graphic Communications Education?

November 6, 2006 -- One of the key challenges for businesses today—especially graphic communications businesses—is the ability to source and retain qualified personnel in an increasingly complex and digital business environment. A particular challenge for the graphic communications industry is educating young people to work in a constantly changing business, encouraging many of them to be entrepreneurs, savvy in multiple media, with the capabilities to take the risk of creating independent businesses.

Some continue to believe that one of the problems with graphic communications is the fact that it is a hidden industry, and that is the reason why “no one” has any interests in working in our industry. This is quite untrue. We wake up to music, we play music in our cars, we listen to music on treadmills and in gyms, music plays while we shop, eat, and relax; it's in commercials, in movies, and TV shows. Why is not everyone in Julliard or Berklee? Why is not everyone doing something in the music industry? It's just as “hidden” as graphic communications is. We eat food three times a day and snack and drink in between. Why is not everyone in agricultural college? It's a meaningless, fruitless lament, which I reviewed in arecent article.

Many educational programs have changed their names from “graphic arts” or “printing” to “graphic communications.” If we really believe that the name changes mattered, then we believe that new media are part of “graphic communications” just as much as printing is.

Young people are often called “digital natives.” They use rich media on a daily basis, surrounded by computer graphics in games and in movies, immersed in digital photography in cell phones and new cameras. They are handing in school projects as digital files or as PowerPoint presentations. This “excuse” that no one “knows” about our industry is wrongheaded. It might be better described that we know little about them. Graphic communications is not hidden; it is all around us, just like food and music are.

No better indication of the lack of congruence of market needs and education can be found than in a very interesting story in the Wall Street Journal about the rapid increase in salaries for workers in new media. Some jobs have increased their pay ranges by more than 50% just in the past year due to the lack of supply of qualified workers.

Many educational programs have changed their names from “graphic arts” or “printing” to “graphic communications.” If we really believe that the name changes mattered, then we believe that new media are part of “graphic communications” just as much as printing is.

The VistaPrint business was designed by people with systems analysis in their background. No graphic arts executive would be likely to invent a VistaPrint.

Among the challenges that graphic communications programs face is keeping their offerings in tune with the current and emerging needs of graphic communications professionals. Sometimes, however, those skills are being taught in other schools or departments in those same colleges and universities, such as art departments, or communication arts departments, and computer departments. Sometimes there are academic turf wars where there is competition for the affections and aspirations of the same exact students. Is the concern about attracting students to graphic communications departments more about this competition than it is other factors?

Whether or not this is the issue, never has there been a more vibrant, technologically diverse, and dynamic graphic communications marketplace. What is taught in most of today's graphic communication programs will be outmoded in years, and not decades. Academic turf wars aside, there are some foundation elements that ensure that the right talents are cultivated for the student's best future interests.

The role of theoretical versus practical knowledge. There is a creative tension in many fields of study between practical and theoretical issues. Paradoxically, the greater the amount of change, the greater need to emphasize theory, and the less need to emphasize practical knowledge. It may seem backwards, but although there is always an effort to graduate students with marketable skills, marketable thinking ability is the best long-term skill.

Students are immersed in a technological revolution, unaware of a world without an Internet. Technology touches student life in ways previously unseen by their teachers. This gives them a deeper personal understanding of technological change. My generation was insulated from much of it, since it was common that new technologies would first be adopted by high-level researchers, such as in labs and the defense department, and then big business, and then small businesses and consumers. We were more likely to experience something technologically new outside the home than in it. Today, consumers often have technologies, even as simple as instant messaging, that corporations fear to implement for security reasons. An example of how backwards this has become is found in a recent story about companies buying iPods for corporate training.

Systems analysis is usually taught only in computer classes, but is actually related to economics. The whole concept of workflow is based on an understanding of microeconomics and that a system has a goal with has an optimal cost.

Taking a systems approach. What tools do we give students to understand this kind of world? A major goal of education is to instill a desire for lifelong learning in students, and then equip them with the skills to do so. This requires a firm foundation that teaches students to think clearly and logically, leading to the capability to evaluate and approach complex problems confidently.

It is not lost on me, with an MBA in management information systems, that the VistaPrint business was designed by people with systems analysis in their background. Nowhere in graphic communications programs have I found emphasis on systems analysis. Therefore, no graphic arts executive would be likely to invent a VistaPrint. The recent interest in workflow systems is actually a sign that our systems are changing, and that an understanding of systems analysis is lacking in industry management.

All this requires some kind of mental discipline, often developed by studying science and mathematics. Appreciation of experimentation and the scientific method builds capability for rational decision-making. Mathematics stresses thinking abilities, and often creates skills that allow students to grasp far more than the obvious.

Not everyone is up to that. Some people are naturally rational thinkers, others are emotional thinkers, the typical left-brain versus right-brain simplification of the world. This is why we educate ourselves and students, so that we can at least operate in either world with some reasonable functionality. Not that we lose our left- or right-brainedness, but that we enhance our natural talents and fill in what is not. These kinds of things change over time. I actually avoided heavy math until I had that one teacher in graduate school who somehow got it to make sense: two years later I was teaching quantitative analysis. I always thought that was strange, but that's the power that education has. It took an attitude adjustment.

Systems analysis is usually taught only in computer classes, but is actually related to economics (and also related to concepts taught in calculus). The whole concept of workflow is based on an understanding of microeconomics and that a system has a goal with has an optimal cost. I see very little economics content in graphic communications programs. Some programs will have economics as it relates to production. One college requires a course in political economy, so one has to hope that a student would find his or her way to microeconomics as a liberal arts elective, which would be a much better choice. It's not likely. Microeconomics is more important than macroeconomics, because you delve into topics such as division of labor, marginal costs and comparative advantage, essential for understanding technology adoption and implementation. Now that skills are no longer in discrete tasks but in how those tasks interrelate, this is more important than ever.

Now we need new graphic communications professionals for a growing need: information chaos. Graphic communications programs can teach people how to create order out of such chaos.

Driving creativity through education. One philosophy course that should be included in a good curriculum is the study of logic. Sometime in the future, students will have to make careful decisions. In an interconnected world where technology changes the nature of the connections and the participants, workers are constantly faced with decisions. Classes in psychology, both for understanding how one works with others, but also applied to the nature of communications, and how graphics affect the understanding of information are important. Together, with sociology, for example, it lays the foundation for understanding why personalization technologies can or can't work.

Entrepreneurship study should be part of the program. Because so many graphic communications students will one day run small businesses, or be executives, or be freelancers, it's hard to imagine being successful without this study of applied creativity.

Creating order out of chaos. Why does one need a graphic communications degree? It's hard to justify since so many executives and workers found their way to the industry from elsewhere. My undergraduate work was in marketing and managerial science. One consultant I know was a biochemistry major, and his work is all the better for it. There are so many ways to get to this industry and be successful. There is a reason why people with degrees in non-graphic disciplines work in our industry and do well: we need their specific skills.

But now we need new graphic communications professionals for a growing need: information chaos.

Graphic communications programs can teach people how to create order out of such chaos. There is so much information being created, that the management of it, the organization and display of it, and storage of it, has to be crafted by someone knowledgeable in the various media we now have, and the media to come. We are far better at warehousing data than we are at displaying and deploying it. There is no doubt that the delivery of information is becoming more graphically intense, enhanced by embedded video and audio. The technologies, the standards, and the applications are all moving targets. That's why it's so interesting to be involved in it.

This is why it's so essential that students learn the theoretical means of getting messages to audiences in efficient and effective ways, because the graphic communications professional can understand the subtle, interrelated steps that those who are not professional practitioners cannot easily see.

Looking toward the future. The need for a skilled practitioner to make sure the message gets where it needs to be and is understood will not disappear. We need people who can think, and are well-grounded in basic concepts, have skills in implementation in media that don't really exist yet. This means that there will be new professions in graphic media that will emerge amidst the constant change.

This is a great time to be a graphic communications major. Things are changing so quickly in graphic communications that we should not envy the educators, but should certainly envy the students. They've got a whole new media world to play in, and the rules are being written as they go along. They're the ones who will play key roles in taming the media chaos.

Let’s all do our part to encourage a growing talent pool and increasingly relevant content in our graphic communications programs.  One way we can do that it to support the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation in their efforts to provide financial support for students who are interested in careers in the graphic communications industry.  Stay tuned to WhatTheyThink this week to learn more about the important work of this foundation and the role we as members of the graphic communications communication can play in building our future.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink.com's Economics and Research Center.

What do you think? Please send feedback to Dr. Joe by emailing him at drjoe@whattheythink.com.

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Wide Format Editor

Richard Romano

Richard Romano, Section Editor/Senior Analyst
Richard has written about communication, graphics hardware and software trends for the past 15 years.

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