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Advocating Humanism in Graphic Design

UH professor Joshua Unikel asks big questions at design educators’ workshop.

Humanism vs. Posthumanism: What is at the core of graphic design education in the 2010s? 

That was the question posed by the 2018 FREE Workshop this summer at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Such open-ended questions are typical of the FREE Workshop, a week-long conference and think-tank for design educators launched by graphic designers and co-founders Yasmin Khan and Jessica Wexler. Under their collaborative Workshop Project, Khan and Wexler created FREE Workshop as a way to explore the “radical potential” of design education.

Intrigued by FREE Workshop’s topic this year, Joshua Unikel applied to the workshop as a member of the “humanism” team.

But what does that mean?

“What ‘humanism’ meant for me is that people, either as individuals or as a larger collective, should be at the center of graphic design and design education.” On the other side of the table, the “posthumanism” team focused on design that takes technology, systems and networks as its primary concern. 

Unikel’s perspective was largely inspired by his experience teaching at UH, one of the nation’s most diverse campuses and home to many first-generation college students. Though this is only his second year on campus, the diversity he’s experienced at UH has made a big impact on the way he approaches the classroom and design curriculum.

“Teaching here reminds me every day that graphic design education should be shaped by a diverse landscape of designers, like we have at UH,” he says. “That diversity is a rich opportunity to teach design as an cross-cultural, international and human-centered dialogue.”

At the conference, Unikel teamed up with fellow “humanists,” Daniel Chang of Biola University and Karen Zimmerman of the University of Arizona, to address the concept of “Humanism 2.0.” 

“We defined ‘Humanism 2.0’ as the way people advocate for themselves and interact with technology in the ‘Age of Information,’” explains Unikel. In today’s environment, where the Adobe Creative Suite dominates design software and snapping photos on a smartphone is practically second nature, they wanted to find a way to keep people at the center of the equation.

Their solution, inspired by French theorist Roland Barthes’ concept of denaturalizing myths — the notion that history and habit shouldn’t be confused with natural order — was to “de-naturalize the tools of graphic design.”

“We talked a lot about volition and choice and empowering our students to make choices,” adds Unikel. “Our goal was to develop curriculum or concepts that would allow us to take something like a MacBook Pro or the new cloud-based Adobe Creative Suite and teach our students the history, strengths and limitations of them. Not just so that they have a retroactive understanding of these tools, but so that they can make informed, conscientious decisions about how they want to shape their design individual practices.”

To accomplish their task, the group brainstormed a range of far-reaching ideas, from issuing thumbdrives to students with the oldest usable and relevant version of the Adobe Suite to a caravan of vehicles, inspired by architect Cedric Price’s “Potteries Thinkbelt Project,” that moved in a modular, open-ended network across the country to offer everything from maker labs and print media training to workshops and lectures depending on community need — whether that community is a university, high school or underserved neighborhood that asked to participate. 

Even though these ideas have remained just ideas, Unikel is confident that his time at FREE Workshop has had a significant impact. “For me it wasn’t about implementing a specific idea or solution per se,” he says. “It was more about finding ways to come back to the classroom at UH and start finding ways that I can empower my students as people in an increasingly tech-centered discipline.”