Designer Interview: Carolina de Bartolo
Carolina de Bartolo is a designer and author, as well as a design educator of fifteen years who has coached and prepared Academy of Art University students from their first semester through graduation and award recognition. She has authored a number of online BFA and MFA courses and developed new materials and coursework for her many on-campus courses as well. She regularly sits on MFA thesis review committees and has served on several design competition juries. She is also the designer, author, and publisher of the award-winning typography textbook, Explorations in Typography: Mastering the Art of Fine Typesetting (co-authored with Erik Spiekermann) and its companion app of the same name.
What led you to design education?
I have a BFA in graphic design, graduate studies in anthropology and linguistics, as well as a teaching certificate for English language instruction. When I started working as a designer I missed my undergraduate part-time job teaching English. And when I was working as a teacher, I missed design. So, when an opportunity arose to teach design, it seemed like the perfect combination.
There are pedagogical principles in teaching English that are useful in any classroom, no matter what you’re teaching. For example, that the repetition that a student needs in order to retain new material will bore the teacher long before it bores the students. So I’ve applied some of those language-teaching principles to teaching design. Maybe it gives me a slightly different take on what it means to be a design educator.
Generally I think I like to teach because I like to learn. Being a curious person, a person who likes to try new things and stay informed, makes for a natural teacher, in my opinion.
How has design education changed in the past 15 years?
The changes in technology have certainly played a big role. Today, designers have to be able to design the same information in an array of multiple formats and plan for experiences on different devices. That wasn’t a big part of what I taught 15 years ago. Design educators have to make sure students understand what challenges and opportunities the technological revolution has brought on. At the same time, the basic Vitruvian principles of good design never change.
One of the things I teach early in the semester in design history is the invention of word spaces around 800CE. And here we are today with hashtags and URLs— no word spaces. It might be annoying if you had to read lengthy texts like that, but it’s possible. Word spaces were an invention, and anything that is invented can also be rejected. So I think it’s important to help students see the long arc of history, that everything cycles and changes.
Project-based learning is common in design education. In your current role, you work with students from their first project idea through final execution; how important is it for students to follow a structured design process during a project?
Process is important, for sure. However, I don’t think there’s only one way to approach process. You can take the advice of John Cage: “Begin anywhere.” Wherever inspiration strikes you can start. I do believe in planning and attempting to take the right steps, but I think there are many ways to go about that.
Often project-based learning starts with a research phase. What is the role of research in a design project?
Research is really important, but I personally think research is the easy part. Students tend to like to do a lot of research. I encourage them to do their research promptly and move on to creating something. There’s a book by Erika Hall called Just Enough Research (2013). But I tell students not to read it. (Sorry, Erika!) That’s because you really only need to know the wisdom of the title. That’s what you want to do, the Goldilocks amount of research. You can make a good decision with 70% of the information.
Also, there are different kinds of research. I’m not big on numerical data as a driver of design. Let’s say you were designing for a floral shop, it’s good to learn general information about flowers. Why do people like flowers? What’s the history of giving flowers to others? What do flowers symbolize? There’s so much ancillary information you could find out with regards to any subject. And those more abstract, poetic things about a topic can be very inspirational for designing.
Besides formal research, I also advocate using your own life experience and your own human knowledge. You don’t have to do so much research that it impedes your own progress. And sometimes you might try things “just because.” You’re not sure why, you just want to see if something works, but it’s not an idea that has arisen from research. Happy accidents can occur! So I still believe in serendipity being a powerful element in design.
How do you encourage creative exploration during a design project?
My book is called, Explorations in Typography, because I’m really into the idea of exploring and trying out many options. It’s good practice, good process. Many new design students come up with an idea quickly, execute it and consider themselves done. But there’s a lot to be excited about in exploring other ways of solving the same problem. It can be hard to get people to do more and more, but as a design teacher it’s your job to keep pushing.
I guess I encourage my students to work hard by having high expectations for them. In my experience, students usually rise to the occasion if you keep high expectations in place. Hopefully they realize that your expectations are high because you care, you respect their abilities and you believe they are capable. For me, there’s no pride in getting great work out of a great student. The pride is in getting the good work out of the student that came in and didn’t seem like they were going to be able to deliver.
Randy Pausch, in his “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” (2007) said, “The critics still care.” If you stop criticizing a person’s work, it means you think that’s the best they can do. But it’s good to be held to a high standard and get a tough critique. Nothing’s perfect—that’s the core of design, right? We just keep redesigning everything.
Do you encourage prototyping in the creative process?
I encourage whatever it takes to come up with a good solution. You’re always making a model in a certain way. Even making a sketch is a model, so a prototype is just a model of some kind. Of course you have different levels of prototyping and as you actually go through the process, the project becomes more and more real. Prototyping also allows you to user-test your product and do a proof of concept, which is very important.
How do you motivate your students to refine their work?
The way that I usually get people to revise their work is by telling them my own personal stories of “learning the hard way.” How I totally screwed up and wasted all kinds of time and money designing a terrible project. But before it was too late, I gave myself an honest critique, trashed everything, started over and guess what? I ended up with this great design. And I reassure them, “Don’t worry, you can always go back to that one version you thought was so good. But you won’t know if you can do better unless you’re willing to throw it out and try another one.”
Is there a "secret formula” for a successful design project? What does it take for a design project to be successful?
The only secret is that there are no secrets. There is no formula. There is no recipe. Every project is different. Every time you’re using a new element in your design or you’re responding to a different need, you have to figure that out. No one is ever an expert at any creative work, you’re always learning. You’re always trying to figure out how to do it. There’s not a particular, “A plus B will equal C every time.”
You learn how to design every time you design. It’s a whole thing of the path is made by walking. The designer is made by designing. You just keep going. Practice is how you learn to become successful.
Your background is in a traditional, 2D design field, yet 3D design is becoming more prevalent and accessible to students and designers. What has been the impact of 3D design in your own or your students’ work?
With all the digital experience around us, people have a longing for real, three-dimensional objects and something that has some tactile value. People want to touch something other than a smooth glass screen. That’s why the textured, thick papers and letterpress printing are so popular.
Nothing is really only two-dimensional. Even to be able to view pixels you need a three-dimensional device. If you design the 2D pages of a book, eventually you have to make decisions about paper bulk, covers and spines because a real book is a three-dimensional object. Fabric, too, is considered two-dimensional, but once you make it into a piece of clothing it becomes three-dimensional. The borders between 2D and 3D are very fluid, actually.
What inspires/motivates you to return to design education semester after semester?
I like working with people on ideas. So I come back to it because of the students and the feeling that I might be able to help somebody the way my college teachers helped me. The ideas that students come up with keep it interesting. I especially enjoy working with graduate students who have amazing ideas that have real potential to go out into the world. It’s also fun for me to see young people grow and change as human beings as they learn to harness the power of design. It’s very exciting! And I’m really honored play a part in that process for so many people.