A design edukation.

This month’s Design Notes is written by James Victore, who is a graphic designer, illustrator, animator and product designer. He also teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Victore is fortunate to be doing exactly what he loves to do, but as he shares with us this month, there’s no “right” way to get there.

My professional bio reads, “self-taught.” This is both right and wrong. It’s right in that I have no formal education and never learned the right way to do … anything. But it is wrong because throughout my career – hell, throughout my life – I have been able to seek out and find great mentors, teachers and influencers. One of my mentors, the great poster designer Henryk Tomaszewski, once told me, “You can only teach what you know.” So I teach what I know. I teach how to play. I teach how to invent. For a while, the title for the class I teach was “Knowing Your Butt from a Hole in the Ground.” This is much more accurate than “Class GDD3015E.” As a teacher, I use assignments that come from Tomaszewski’s method of teaching abstracts: words and phrases designed to put students in a dark room and make them fumble around for the door. I sometimes feel like an evil, mustached tormentor when I give out an assignment. One exmple would be “Always the Other,” or “A Big Nothing, A Little Nothing.” On the surface, they mean nothing. No visual clichés or rote responses are embedded in them. But when the students really put their minds to it, they arrive at unexpected places. Places that are often personal, intuitive and meaningful.

My own education was flecked with failure. As a university freshman, I ended the first semester with a 0.04 GPA. I was asked to leave. I was sure that things would be different in New York City, and I transferred to the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I made it to the second year before I was asked to leave. It wasn’t that I didn’t like design, but I just couldn’t find the excitement in it. Never being one to say “uncle,” I pressed-on.

Today, I teach at SVA, my “almost mater,” where I try to be the teacher that I needed: less a teacher, more a fire starter. I discourage my students from becoming designers. Designers tend to think alike. They even dress alike. I want my students to become good, strong citizens, independent thinkers and entrepreneurs. I try to get them to look inside themselves for answers, and not to follow trends or fashion. I try to get them to be open, and to expand their ideas of what design is and could be. I encourage them to see possibilities everywhere, love the process and read Rilke. Only when students question everything can they find ways to surprise themselves and, ultimately, their audience. But I think one of the most important things I do with my students is allow them the freedom to fail. This is important to me because when you are free to fail, you stop searching for the “right” answer. I teach design, not math. There is no right answer. No right typeface or right color. My own work is a continuous search for illogical ideas, the beautiful ugly and the confidence to put it on a page.

Being a teacher has led me to surround myself with even more hotheads, anarchists and geniuses. I will be starting a new experiment this summer with my designer/teacher pals Paul Sahre and Jan Wilker. “SahreVictoreWilker” is a weeklong design workshop in NYC. This will be the first time we all teach together and we have no idea what to expect. It will probably be a glorious mess. If it’s not, we will have to try harder next year.


James Victore