Yuyeon Cho, ART ’14, a graduate graphic design student, sits among the sea of images, slowly disassembling the figures. She carefully peels the magazine cutouts from their backings, laying them flat in a pile beside her folded legs. Looking out onto the hundreds still assembled, she says to me, “Sorry, I might be doing this for a while.”
Cho’s project is a result of many meticulous hours spent with scissors and paper, an embodiment of the values championed by the founder of the Yale
University School of Art graphic design progam, Alvin Eisenman, who died earlier this month at 92. In 1951, he developed the first graduate program in graphic design in the United States at Yale. Today, U.S. News and World Reports ranks Yale’s program second nationally, just behind that of the Rhode Island School of Design.
Durin his tenure, Eisenman instituted a system of three-week-long workshops with guest tutors. For instance, Cho’s work is a product of one of these workshops, taught by Linda van Deursen that required students to incorporate some element from Vogue’s archives into their own personal project. These short-term workshops are one of the main course components of the graduate program.
The school is a two-year program, though some students from non-design backgrounds choose to begin with an introductory year, bringing their total schooling to three years. A total of 42 graduate students enroll in a core curriculum, which includes additional electives in areas of interest and a final thesis project. The sense of community is central to the program as graduates and students refer to their collective experience in the first person plural, sdaying “we” instead of “I” or “me” when discussing graduate studies.
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As an undergraduate, Eisenman attended Dartmouth College, coming to Yale in 1951 to work at the Yale University Press and what was then called the Graphic Arts Program and is now the School of Art. That year, he taught Yale’s first graduate courses in graphic design, and formally established the program as it still exists. Until 1990, when he was replaced by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, ART ’64, Eisenman served as the chair of the program, and moved the field away from the Madison Avenue approach of commercial design toward a more academic form of study.
Tom Ockerse, ART ’65, a professor of graphic design at RISD who established RISD’s graduate design program in 1976, described Yale as the birthplace of the discipline. “Graphic design was a rare term that only started to develop at Yale and started to separate itself from what was more generally called ‘commercial art’,” he said.
Much of this had to do with Eisenman’s academic approach to connecting his field to others areas of study: to give the new discipline legitimacy, Eisenman was careful to place graphic design in a historical context. He inserted the work of the graphic designer into the historical continuum that spanned cave painting and the Guttenberg Bible. Nancy Skolos, ART ’79 and head of the department of graphic design at RISD remembers Eisenman’s comprehensive view of the design discipline. “The thing that really made an impression on me was just how broad his reach was in terms of graphic design. He had an almost photographic memory of the history of typography and printing, and he loved the Bienecke Rare Book Library,” Skolos said.
To broaden his students’ perspectives, Eisenman integrated international perspectives into his curriculum, both by recruiting guest lecturers from abroad and sending faculty to European design hubs to train. In the 1960s, Eisenman sent Christopher Pullman, ART ’66, and Senior Critic in the graphic design program to Switzerland in order “to eavesdrop on the program in Basel which was admired in this country,” Pullman said. This practice established a lasting tradition of international education as a means of introducing students to new visual vocabularies and styles.
Eisenman’s colleagues, many of whom began as his students, describe his range of knowledge as encyclopedic. In the classroom, he emphasized a holistic approach to the design process, teaching students the A-to-Z of visual design technique. They attest to his focus on specifics, sharing that he would meticulously detail each step in translating a work of art from the wall of the YUAG to a print reproduction, or spend a semester having students only draw “R”s by hand. Graphic designer and educator Lawrence Wolfson, ART ’75, recalled another seemingly strange classroom activity of Eisenman’s: “We spent a Saturday making paper from carrots,” he said. “On orange paper.”
Eisenman did not limit his students to physical media. In an email to the Herald, Jan Baker, ART ’79, and professor of graphic design at RISD remembered a field trip to the Computer Science department that Eisenman had organized. “We were all confused why he had brought us to this large noisy room with punch cards spitting out of this unknown machine that took up the entire room. ‘The future is here’ he remarked.” He was, of course, correct.
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The Graphic Design Atrium, where all the graduate design students sit behind small desks, feels like a pressure cooker. Scott Langer, ART ’14, sits at his desk, beneath a sign which teases, saying “1 Minute Left.” Across the room, a sheet of paper posted beside the wall clock reads, “Fuck the Clock.” But rather than describing the atmosphere in terms of anxiety, Langer sees it as a space of productivity. “There’s a spirit of doing and making work,” he said. Specifically, making and doing work that helps students become distinct designers, he said. This period of growth manifests itself in each student’s final thesis, the model of which has somewhat shifted since Eisenman’s time. The original thesis had an academic focus, requiring students to produce a singularly focused research project. Students now create a body of work that expresses their evolution as designers. “The basic question is, ‘How does Scott Langer make graphic design?’” Langer pondered.
For contemporary graphic designers, part of developing a style is learning how to share and advertise work in the digital age. It’s a fact that pieces designed and exhibited in physical spaces eventually wind up on the Web. “A lot of our students right now have to grapple with the fact that what they do will be encountered first on a computer, or on a screen at least,” said Senior Critic Henk van Assen, ART ’93.
Technology has also allowed designers to integrate dimensions like movement and time that are harder to communicate on paper into their work. Many of the current projects are “Media agnostic,” Langer said, meaning that assignments can now be more open-ended, such as exploring the virtues of one individual object. Digitization represents another change from Eisenman’s time, where prompts typically asked students to make a poster or a corporate logo. “Today, it’s about how you can articulate ideas in the best medium possible,” Langer said.
The Internet also facilitates entrepreneurship. Graduates now commonly start their own companies rather than joining well-established New York advertising firms. Many find the idea of aligning personal design practice with a large corporate identity unappealing. “There seems to be an interest in keeping it small-scale,” van Assen said. “Several of our students start small businesses with just two or three of them, and that is often based on collaborations that they already started here while they were students.” Caspar Lam, ART ’10, and YuJune Park, ART ’10, began their own design practice, Synoptic Office, post-graduation. Their website showcases work ranging from small, text-based projects to life-size art installations. “For us,” Lam said, “design is really a way of looking at the world and using whatever media and medium to achieve that perspective.”
Yale’s ability to adapt to modern techniques and ideas while maintaining a standard of excellence is what drew Lam to the program. “The work that was coming out of the program was very avant garde,” Lam said. “And [it] really represented some of the most interesting developments in graphic design today.” In 1951, Eisenman laid the foundation for what would serve as the model for graphic design in the United States and those core values have allowed the school to transition through the 20th and into the 21st century, shaping the field of graphic design along the way.