The perils of teaching graphic design in the land of the Shapeshifters

The blog stats from yesterday have given me more food for thought. I am actually in the middle of some serious writing, and I am taking out some time here for light relief as it were. God, I love this blog! Why didn’t I think about this before? It is such an outlet for emotions and all kinds of assorted palaver. I think I will become a much more pleasant person all around for this. Do all of my ranting and raving here and step out into the world as fresh as a daisy! Totally amazing this is!

So, anyway, where was I? Why do I end up pissing off some of my students to the extent where they still have emotions that are bitter enough for them to hold a grudge against me years later? When they haven’t seen or heard from me in a long long time? I think this somehow does relate to what I teach, which is graphic design – pure and simple. No software, no technology – just design. I expect students that take my classes to already know Photoshop and Illustrator and all of those other good things before they sign up. So, unlike some of my colleagues, whose course material neccesitates them to also teach technology and software, I cannot hide behind any objective evaluation criteria as far as the acquisition of any technological skills during my course are concerned. There are no written exams or quizes that I can dish out in a studio design class either. It is entirely based upon project development and evaluation. Now, obviously, there are massive amounts of reading and research involved in doing this, however the outcome of that will need to be transformed into a project’s concept, its visual outcome and that is precisely what comes into the classroom and gets critiqued in front of the entire class. So, what I do when I teach is pure critique. And that is precisely where the cookie crumbles.

There are quite a few objective evaluation criteria when you do a design critique, regarding information hierarchies, informational flow, gestalt and so on and so forth. One also asks to see results of reading and related visual research. So all that is tangible stuff that any graphic design instructor with even only half a brain will hold onto for dear life. But then, there is this one elusive component that unfortunately does sneak its way in and that is taste. Now, for some reason, we all have this assumption that taste is something that we inherently posses – like beauty or a good singing voice. We never realize that taste is actually an acquisition, which is solidly grounded in learning. And no matter how accomplished your informational hierarchies are, and no matter how adroitly you have pulled off the visualization of a concept – if you lack taste – that indescribable something, that deus ex machina of all design – you are soooo f.u.c.k.e.d! And that is the bottom line, I’m afraid. 

I do have a vitriolic tongue in my head. I can be cruel. And when occasion demands it, I will go straight into the heart of the matter and say that what I am looking at lacks taste. Which can of course be perceived as a huge subjective insult towards that individual, that could go on to rankle inside of them for years and years afterwards, I suppose. But, alas, here in Turkey this can imply something quite a bit more substantial than just a subjective remark directed at one particular person. In fact, I really have been thinking for quite some time now that this lack of taste is more in the nature of a cultural manifestation (I have come here after conducting years and years of design class critiques, where I have seen so many repeat manifestations of this that at this point I have really and truly lost count):

We are designing with the Latin alphabet, ergo we are designing by Western European graphic design rules, that demand a thorough knowledge of Western European typographic history, so that Western European taste can actually be acquired. And the Latin alphabet has only been around in this culture for 80 years or so. And that simply isn’t long enough!

We Turks are an originally nomadic people from the Orient. So, our genetic roots are Far Eastern. Our closest linguistic relatives are the Koreans and the Japanese. Roughly 1000 years ago, a very severe draught in Central Asia compelled our ancestors to migrate westward where they encountered Islam and the Byzantinian culture. They must have been quite forceful these incoming horsemen and they ended up conquering both the Arabs and the Byzantinians, became settled and set up a series of Turkish empires in Asia Minor. However, as divine irony would have it the nomadic conqueror ended up becoming entirely conquered by those that succumbed to him. Thus, the shamanic religion was relinquished for a strange adaptation of Islam and civic culture was entirely taken over by what was Byzantinian: Byzantinian cuisine, Byzantinian etiquette and manners, Byzantinian court rules and attire, Byzantinian architecture. And high culture from the Iranians: Miniatures, ornamentation and literature… The poor old nomad with his horse and tent simply did not have sufficiently powerful cultural stamina to withstand the force of what came in from the thousands of years of settled cultures that he found himself surrounded by. The Arabs, the Byzantinians and the Iranians. Ancient, powerful cultures grounded in millenia of tradition. The Turks were really no match.

And why is this so important to graphic design you may ask? Hold on, I’m getting there – slowly I admit but… (hhh)… Roughly 1000 years ago Turks underwent a full cultural transformation and roughly 200 years ago marks the begining of yet another, when Turks started to undergo the process of becoming Western European. So, we are talking about a nation that is highly capable of undergoing vast transformations. On the one hand this may appear to be a good thing but in truth it is also a huge national shortcoming I think. Turks change too easily, too readily. We do not really internalize and identify with things, it all sort of ends up staying on the surface – to be relinquished at the drop of a hat (so to speak – these kinds of hats get dropped over generations of course, but dropped they nonetheless get around here). I think we are quite unique in this too. Is there one other nation anywhere that has changed 2 alphabet systems in one millenium? (I do know that the Koreans changed from Kandji to Han-guel but that is not entirely the same thing since Han-guel is based upon ideograms too…)

Now, one of the things that Turks took on as part of their new cultural identity back then, a thousand years ago, was the Arabic alphabet. And one of the things that they let go off in favor of westernization about 80 years ago is that exact same alphabet. In the 1920’s we adopted the Latin alphabet. I do know that there is an awful lot of malarkey in the western mind that the westernization of Turkey was this Jacobean thing, imposed from above and held only in place through the intervention of a powerful military mechanism. Nothing could be further from the truth: Shapeshifting, I think, is just about the only true Turkish attribute. We are in fact totally brilliant at it. There is no ruling class Jacobean enough or army strong enough anywhere in the known universe that could get a nation to change two typographic systems in less than a thousand years, unless there is a predisposition for that type of fundamental change ingrained within that culture itself. Come on folks! Think about it! 

There are of course, extremely good attributes that the shapeshifter characteristic gives this nation: Adaptability, intelligence, resourcefulness. An excellent sense of humor. Turks, in general, are very bright and talented people and I really do think that a lot of it is due to this quality of the shapeshifter. But… but… but… Like I said, this has its downside: If you are so capable of breaking from your past, by the same token you are incapable of establishing tradition. 80 years is not even a nano second where the cutltural history of a nation would be concerned. And there is no way that something as vastly novel as the Latin typographic system is going to become part and parcel of a nations heritage to the point where it becomes ingrained into your system as taste. Turkish graphic designers have to learn typographic tradition. In fact they have to work bloody hard at it, since they have to unlearn first: An avalanche of typographic disasters lurks on every street corner here, and furthermore comes into your home in the shape and form of packaging and daily newspapers. Taste is something that you begin to acquire on your mothers lap. But what if the women’s home journal your mother was reading while she was holding you is a mine field of unspeakeble graphic design horrors stretching form cover to cover? (Incidentally, your mother could be an astrophysicist in all of this – makes no difference whatsoever: She’s a Turkish astrophysicist right? Besides she doesn’t really need designer taste in order to be able to get on with her job, calculating star distances and whatnot – you, on the other hand, do!… hhh…) Who is to blame? Your mother? The shopkeeper on the corner with his unbelievable sign? The publisher of the journal? Nobody. It is a cultural phenomenon that happens only here, in this land of the eternal shapeshifters. I go to Arabic countries and admire the typography – just about one of the most beautiful things that man ever invented I think. Then I go to Europe and fall in love all over again with illuminated manuscripts and thousand year old Roman inscriptions. Both to the east of us and to the west of us people have had millenia to assimilate these to the point where it is in their bloodstream. These people do not have to unlearn anything and relearn taste to become good designers – whereas we Turks really really really do. Which is the point where evil old cows like myself come into the game.

I am relentless in this. I will not tolerate the lack of taste that comes from a lack of knowledge, a lack of assimlating tradiition. OK, we are now working with the Latin typographic system and a thing of beauty it is too. So deal with it! Now, there may be very little evidence of its beauty on the streets at the moment – like I said 80 years ain’t long enough for that to have come about yet. So, it is your bloody job to sit down and find all the beneficial evidence and incorporate it into your system whichever way you can – if you have decided to come into a university’s visual communicaton design program and find yourself in my classroom, that is. And if you don’t, if despite all evidence to the contrary you still happen to insist on thinking that your ingrained taste, the one that you walked through the door with, is quite sufficient for the task at hand, then I will make it my business to blast your sorry ass six ways from Sunday. That is my job! Teaching/learning is so not about namby pamby molly coddling. At its very best teaching is about breaking habit! And a good instructor worth his or her salt will do precisely that. Break your habits. Sadly, the one that I am compelled to break, that I am in fact paid a very decent salary for breaking is the habit of your bad taste, which is a direct result of the shapeshifter culture that you are a part of. Sorry people – tough bagels. But that is how I see this. We are reaping in the untold benefits of being the little old shapeshifters that we are but we have to learn to recognize our shortcomings and deal with them. Or else…

To give credit where credit is due, in 9 cases out of 10 my long suffering brood ends up being pathetically grateful for all the beatings that I subject them to. What usually happens is that I get a totally wonderful email from someone one or two years after they have seen the last of me, thanking me – really really thanking me from the very bottom of their hearts for what I have put them through. I am eternally grateful whenever that happens and like I said, it does happen more often than not.


Oh and, just to give an idea about Turkish typographic disasters: A few years ago I compiled a little flash page based upon some photos that my colleague, sound designer Selçuk Artut shot in London in a Turkish neighborhood. So take a gander at this:




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