International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD) 2010 Student Assessment

Thirty-seven UK colleges took part with 270 student registrations. Annually about a third are successful in passing the student assessment. The pass mark is set at 60%.

The ISTD Assessment Process
I have been an ISTD assessor for the last three years. In that time I have been fortunate to gain an insight into both typographic and educational standards. The assessors are drawn from both higher education institutions and the profession. Individual assessment teams are comprised one education person and one industry person. Each assessment takes 30 minutes and is verified by a senior ISTD member. The verification involves ensuring that the form is correctly completed and that assessor comments do not conflict with the assessment criteria descriptors. Should there be any dispute the case is referred to an additional arbitration process. The assessment form is then typed up and produced as a PDF. Work is identified for photographic record and photographed on the spot. All this takes place in one room and you feel as if you are part of one assessment machine! It is a very rigorous and efficient machine. A very impressive operation. Pass or fail, students can feel assured that their work has received due consideration.

The components of the project
The projects enable the students to demonstrate their conceptual abilities allied to high standards of design and typographic practice. Projects include five components. Typographic interpretation involves the conception of an idea and how this is executed through visual proposals. Evidence of practical research and development is required including contextual research, data and information generation, idea exploration and visual experimentation. Students present a strategy paper outlining their thought processes. They are required to supply typographic and production specifications considering media, materials and format. Finally the overall presentation is judged, not as a substitute for a weak idea, but whether its coherence enhances the communication. All this is a tall order for undergraduate students. Most students don’t successfully achieve either the individual components or the complete integrated package. There are questions for the students but equally for us educators – primarily why is it the case that so many students don’t pass?

Bridging the chasms of the design process
The challenges designers face are how to cross the chasms between each phase of the design process. The initial challenge is how to get started. Phd students face ‘the research question’ the rest of us just face questions. What is to be communicated and to who, where, when and how? This involves us in a practical process of research. Research is not an isolated process it informs, and is integral to, all stages of the process. We need to establish data and put this into context to understand information. This information can be analysed and evaluated. The first chasm we face is how to cross from research to the development phase. The development phase requires us to develop visual propositions. This requires visual experimentation, exploration and testing. We cannot remain within the relatively cosy world of gathering information.This phase also requires ideas development. One can employ logical reasoning and/or lateral thinking techniques as expounded by Edward de Bono. We need to create the ‘environments’ for the ‘happy accidents’ to occur. The next chasm is between the development phase and identifying an idea to take forward for further prototyping and towards the final visual. This requires the ability to edit and make critical judgments. Design educators call this phase resolution. This is perhaps the hardest part of the process. Up until this point all the research and development can be very worthy but can it be translated and transformed into an engaging, pertinent, challenging, exciting, entertaining and informative piece of communication? You’ve followed the design process step-by-step – but is that enough? What are the attributes of a well resolved project? Can it be described? Is there a formula? I have written about the design process in previous posts. The articles can be found here: The Design Process Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Typographic interpretation
My first piece of advice is to read and keep re-reading the project brief/assignment throughout the project development. Did you miss any of the subtle nuances on your first reading? As an assessor I think the answer is yes. Students need to consider the nature of visual communication and how to make ideas understandable. Complexity and ambiguity can be visually and intellectually intriguing but equally, to paraphrase Jorge Frascara, to deliberately mislead and confuse is abusive. When we conceive an idea it no doubt makes sense to us. But will others understand your idea and how will you know? How often do we test whether others understand our intention? Friends and family may well tell us what we want to hear to save our feelings. Although ultimately we all want to make visual communication that we have personally formed it is perhaps worth looking at previous examples of successful visual communication. My advice is to acquaint yourself with the history of idea development. There are patterns and formulas. Look out for them, identify them and learn from them. Build up your own visual database. This growing archive will become you reference points. By becoming a more aware designer, understanding the nature of influence, and that you are in a continuum of design thinkers, you will be able to make informed and insightful personal decisions. In my view this section is where you are likely to pass or fail and where you will lose most marks.

Research and development
Some contextual research is necessary to understand the area under investigation. The danger is to become trapped in endless gathering. It feels very purposeful to spend hours in the library, making visits to museums, interviewing people and constructing surveys. But what is the purpose unless it focuses you on to the next stage of ideas development? You have to analyse the research to understand potential directions. What does the research tell you? Where is it leading? Don’t just go through the motions. Don’t just draw the spider diagram because you feel you ought to. Do it if you have a reason to do it. Don’t just copy endless articles or print out internet pages – who do you think is going to read it? It needs to mean something to you and you need to articulate that meaning in some other way such as through concise reflective writing or a diagram. Show us how you are transforming data into information and into knowledge. Show us how you are applying your findings.

When writing a strategy paper, my advice is to say what your idea is straight away in the first paragraph. The strategy is an opportunity to convey your thought processes. It is not just a log of actions you took but why you took them and how it influenced the course of the project. You are not at the ISTD assessment to present your work. You need to think about this when you write your statement. Often in professional practice you will have to write a report to accompany your design proposals. You may have to leave your portfolio with a client and a clear, concise report will prove invaluable in terms of clarifying any complex aspects of the project.

Typographic and technical specifications
This is the ‘money for old rope’ section. This is a technical section and shouldn’t be hard to pass. Don’t lose out on the stuff you can learn easily. This section requires you to tell the assessor how the item is to be produced in reality. It isn’t about how the visual is made. You would not produce a mass produced item on your Epson printer. If your item is printed you will need to know about the paper stock/substrate and weight; type of printing (eg 4 colour litho); and whether it is printed in special pantone colours or full colour process (CMYK). If you are specifying for screen you will need to consider resolution; pixels measurements; and appropriate colour systems. Educators…where in the curriculum is this information delivered?

A bad idea presented well tends to fair better than a good idea presented poorly. It shouldn’t but I think it does. Learn the techniques of a good presentation. Don’t fail on this section. It is about taking care in how you organise things. Label things clearly. Attempt visual consistency across disparate items such as sketchbooks, research containers and the final portfolio. Think about the first moment an assessor will open up the folder – what will be their first impression? Clutter or order? You can really effect the disposition of the person looking at your work by some careful consideration regarding organisation. Think carefully how each item is made and finished off. It is demonstrating your level of care and attention. Why would a society want someone that doesn’t care about their own work? I have written about presentation in this article: Presenting research and development work.

In this article I have tried to reflect on my recent experience of assessing student work. Questions of assessment criteria and achieving parity in application inevitably arise. The ISTD reviews these criteria and are open in their discussions regarding assessment practices. The society is determined to maintain the highest standards of typographic practice within education. If it doesn’t who else will? This is a tough assessment – if you pass it really means something. It is a great acheivement. In my view it means more that your undergraduate qualification. This is a professionally recognised qualification. This is important at a time when it is tougher to break into the profession. There are many graduates and not so many jobs. Graduates are now expected to undertake free placements or even pay for them (see paying to work for free). In discussions with professional colleagues at the ISTD assessment they were committed to paying a fair wage and not exploiting talented graduates. This ethical stance is important for the profession to embrace.