Four days, thirty one students, and a design school in the centre of Paris. This was the basis of the workshop I was invited to run at ESAG Penninghen in Saint Germain as part of the Fête du Graphisme 2015. It was one of ten workshops being run simultaneously in ten different schools in Paris by ten invited international designers. It was my second visit to ESAG Penninghen – I was there in 2011 as a jury member for the student diploma assessments, and it was nice to return.
While four days is longer than normal to run a workshop so thirty one students is also more than normal. The theme I chose for the workshop was inspired by my good friend George Hardie and one of the workshops he ran on the MA at ESAD. It's a method/theme that uses collected objects as a basis for the generation of ideas. I fashioned this to the location and to my own interests and chose to make the twenty 'arrondissements' of Paris the basis for the collection of the objects.
In the centre of my own practice, as a designer and an educator, I've always been drawn to the humanistic possibilities of design, of the potential to be able to tell stories, of tapping into the imagination – in short, a design practice that ultimately, at its best, is able to reveal something about our shared human condition. I also believe that one need not go to the extremes of our condition to do this as so much about our relationship to the world around us is revealed in the everyday. In fact the reason I find the everyday so fascinating is because it is so close to us that its often the last place we look for clues about our hopes and fears. But there are other reasons I am drawn to this methodology. Observation, interrogation and discovery seem to me to be central to the design process and in addressing a question that students of design need to ask and educators need to find ways of answering – which is where do visual ideas come from?
Observation is not a passive act and is not the same as simply looking. It is a reflective process that demands constant questions – what I call interrogation. It begins by looking at what seems obvious and everyday and by questioning what we think we know. In turn this leads to the third element – discovery – where things are revealed or inadvertently uncovered as a result of close scrutiny. Discovery is a central component of graphic design – our ability to discover is generally greater than our ability to invent. In short, it is easier to find a world than to make one. This proposition was central to the workshop.
Working with the title ‘The Paris Museum of Extraordinary Everyday Objects’, the students were asked to work towards creating an exhibition of collected objects and an accompanying catalogue. An ambitious objective for a four-day workshop but a challenge that the students addressed with dedication and enthusiasm.
Divided into groups, the students were asked to collect objects from the 20 arrondissements of Paris – ordinary objects in many ways, ones they found in the street or came across in shops, new or used or even broken, objects they found visually interesting or intriguing. They could be parts of bigger objects. If possible they needed to have a degree of ambiguity with regard to their purpose, function or origin.
Let’s play – but let’s play seriously!
The next step was to interrogate the collected objects, trying to establishment what we could conclude about them simply by observing. A shoe for example. What could we say we knew. That is was a shoe – an item worn on the feet. That it was the shoe of a child – because of its size. That it was a girls shoe – because of its colour and style. That it was not very old – by the nature of the materials. And why was there only one? At this point knowledge is replaced by conjecture. And that's fine because conjecture is a doorway to imagination, not from an abstract idea but from what is in front of us. What we see must inform us so that we can then inform what we have seen.
The students were then asked to create narratives about their chosen objects – two for every arrondissement. And even though these narratives were imagined, they needed to be believable because even fantasy needs to be taken seriously. So the students needed to base or reinforce their narratives through historical research and link their stories to Paris.
With all the objects selected and the narratives at the point of completion the students began to work on the publication. Divided into 10 groups, each one focusing on two different arrondissements, they were asked to design printed items that could vary in size and format as long as they folded down to an agreed common size. The exhibition catalogue is therefore a compilation of all the different printed designs held together by a cover.
The students needed to include the small texts they had written in their printed items – the same texts that would be used as captions for the exhibition. The challenge was to tell visually what they had told in words.
As a final work the exhibition is as important as the catalogue – they are equal parts of the narratives they created. To produce what they did in the time available is quite an achievement bearing in mind that workshops are always short intensive bursts of concentrated focus, serving as gateways to further study, new possibilities and ideas. In the end there's never quite enough time to take outcomes to where they might ultimately go. The aim was to demonstrate that the key to finding visual forms and languages comes from understanding what you have in front of you, that the content will always tell you something and give you visual clues if you are able to observe carefully.
Below – A selection of the student work
Below – the catalogue
A big thank you to all the students, the school directors, to Ludovic Dumielle for his help and hospitality, and a special thank you to final year student Alice Ottenwaelter (below) for all her extra work and dedication in organizing the catalogue and final exhibition after my departure.
Participating students: Julie Anet, Yves Barreira Diegues, Andrea Berthet, Mathilde Bubbe, Alexis Cathala, Audrey Coffignot, Éloïse De Luca, Marine Dion, Amandine Dormoy, Kévin Drygala, Coralie Frat, Pauline Gallois, Flavie Garciau, Olivier Jeanmaire, Luna Kindler, Océane Lasselin, Qingling Li, Maxime Martin, Marie Milon, Léa Murawiec, Alice Ottenwaelter, Lucie Plançon, Fiona Poupeau, Mathilde Rinjard, Cécile Santais, Jeanne Schelle, Baptiste Siguier, Thétis Tsahakis, Baowen Zhang.