This class took place in January 2012 during RISD’s Wintersession period. A website documenting the students’ coursework is available here. The results of the class are also described in my talk Unbuilding.

Dear Wintersessioneers,

To have big, we need small. To taste sweet, we need sour. To see a letter, we need the space around it. Identity is a study in contrasts; our character is made as much by the things we’ve chosen not to do as by the things we’ve done.

More than seven years ago, I taught the fall semester of senior thesis at Parsons School of Design in New York. It was the first of two thesis semesters for my students — I would help them to frame their ideas and initiate a few key projects in the fall, and they would complete their work and install their show in the spring.

I taught in the spring as well. Unlike thesis, my course that semester was an elective studio for seniors. Many of the students I had in the fall also signed up for my elective in the spring. Enrollment in the two classes was nearly identical.

But the class had changed. Fatigue and frustration had started to set in among the group. Students described feeling uninspired and unsure of what they were doing. As a gesture of understanding and solidarity, I retitled our studio “Antithesis,” which, if nothing else, might help to lighten the mood.

This is my third Wintersession course, and I’ve noticed that the dark days of January can produce a similar effect at RISD. Year after year, I join you at a piviotal point: not starting out anymore, but far from finished. In spite of its joking tone, Antithesis 1 was a great success; this year, I thought I’d give it another try.

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Teacher’s College

Along with Daniel Eatock, Metahaven, Formafantasma, and others, I’ll be conducting a workshop and giving a lecture at the 2012 Unibz Design Festival in Bozen-Bolzano, Italy this September. This year, the festival’s topic is “learning.” My workshop abstract and suggested reading list follow below.

A syllabus is a document. Photocopied, staple-bound, and generally up to a dozen pages, it is often produced by an instructor and includes a course’s most basic information: time and location, schedule, learning objectives, grading, rules for conduct in class, introductory text, reference figures and imagery, and an overview of the course’s readings and assignments.

The goal of this workshop is to produce its own syllabus. Over two days, we will collaborate to assemble a document that outlines a future course about design education, drawing from examples both within design and beyond. On day one, each designer will arrive ready to present for 5-10 minutes on a topic of their choice. Of particular interest are educators like Socrates, Ivan Illich, Maria Montessori, and Norman Potter, educational institutions from the Bauhaus to TED, and prior syllabi like those from David Foster Wallace, Milton Glaser, and others. Following these presentations, designers will be put in teams of two, with each team contributing a single page to the course syllabus — from timelines, annotated reading lists, taxonomies, learning tools, reference aids, and more.

Following a favorite teacher of mine, the syllabus will begin with an image and end with a list, forming points A and B of the document. How these points connect, and how future designers might make use of them, will be our collective concern and ultimate project.

Suggested reading

  • Stuart Bailey, “(Only an attitude of orientation)”
  • Stuart Bailey, “Towards a critical faculty”
  • Thierry de Duve, “Putting transmission in its proper place in the art world”
  • Rob Giampietro, “School days”
  • Rob Roy Kelly, “The early years of graphic design at Yale University”
  • Mark McGurl, “The Program Era”
  • Gunnar Swanson, “Graphic design as a liberal art”
  • Anton Vidokle, “Exhibition as school in a divided city”
  • Lorraine Wild, “Castles made of sand”

Branding & Visual Studies: Foundations and Research

Above, top to bottom: Quaker Oats mascot; Sealand identity proposal by Metahaven.

Almost two years ago, I was asked by SVA MPS Branding Chair Debbie Millman and Co-Founder Steven Heller to teach a course for the new program, which kicked off its inaugural year this September. Over the months leading up to the program’s launch, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in research and to seek out the opinions of fellow faculty as I prepared this class. I am grateful for their contributions, and for the smart and hardworking students that enrolled in the course. I couldn’t have asked for a better group, and their contributions deepened and amplified the themes I’ve laid out here at every turn. I found few resources online for assembling a class of this kind, yet its topics seem to infuse our contemporary discussions of design and identity. I offer the syllabus here as an evolving document and will be adding to it myself over time. I welcome suggestions for additions as well. —RG

Course description: Beginning with the history and underlying ideas of branding and identity design, this course will examine the development of classic identities as well as seminal identity designers and design studios. We will also review contemporary cases that highlight the challenges of brand and identity creation in specific sectors including fast-moving consumer goods, durable goods, services, organizations, places, and ideas. At the same time, we will examine both critical viewpoints around the practice of identity design and speculate on the future of brands and branded environments.

Above all, this course will:

  • Educate and train your eyes
  • Ask you to observe, evaluate, and critique basic claims and assumptions
  • Provide you with a platform for research

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RISD Wintersession Workshop

Above, from top: Vendors for Ooga Booga, Sister, and The Holster, at the 2009 NY Art Book Fair, PS1, Queens NY. Photos taken by Martine Syms, Golden Age, Chicago IL.

In 2004 the New York Times Magazine’s annual Year in Ideas issue included an entry for the “Anti-Concept Concept Store,” which detailed a series of “guerilla stores” Comme des Garçons had opened in “hip, yet-to-be-gentrified areas in cities around the world, including Berlin, Barcelona, Helsinki, Singapore, Stockholm, Ljubljana, and Warsaw.” The article continues to describe the shops, “which are installed in raw urban spaces,” and their inventory: “‘seasonless’ merchandise drawn from current and past collections.” Comme des Garçons would keep the shops open for a single year, and then close up and move on. The new format enabled “companies to tap into new markets at low cost” and “to reduce inventory by recycling old merchandise. The pop-up shop, at least in contemporary retailing circles, was born.

But pop-up shops, by another name, are as old as human society itself. As long as we’ve been gathering in urban spaces we have built markets to trade, and those markets have sustained nomadic, made-to-order commerce, a mentality of sink-or-swim success, the retrading or recycling of used goods, and the aspirational promise of buying one’s way into a better life. The bazaar seller, the flea marketeer, and the street hawker all run pop-up shops, as do the pushcart vendor, the stadium winger, the traveling salesman, the Avon girl, and the Good Humor man. Tupperware Parties are pop-up shops. So are book signings and lemonade stands.

Shops are public spaces. For each of its objects available for sale, a value is assigned. Together, a shop’s setting and prices help its objects to become socialized. We collectively answer questions like: Which objects do we value and why? What can we do with these objects once they’ve entered our community? How do the objects gathered here represent us? The shop is a natural habitat for design.

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Graphic Design & Critical Thinking 2007 (with Luke Bulman)

After I finished the first verison of Graphic Design & Critical Thinking up in December 2006, I remember thinking: “That was so intense, so fun, and I learned so much: but how am I ever going find the energy to do it again?”

Fortunately the answer came by way of my fabulous co-teacher Luke Bulman, principal of Thumb Projects in Brooklyn, NY. Luke took all the great things about the first class and not only kept them but made them better. Rather than sticking to a format where we were leading discussions during every class, Luke suggested that we let students conduct their own discussions in the form of interviews, or Q & As. These interviews would be recorded and form the basis of the journal project, a centerpiece of the class.

What’s so important about the class journal is that in most other forms of graduate education one of the imperatives is to publish, yet very often MFA Graphic Designers, who are perhaps the closest of anyone to the tools of publishing, do not take full advantage of their abilities. At RISD, we’re hoping to build up the tradition of a class journal during the first year, a classwide discussion that forms the basis for students’ thesis work in the second year. Luke’s training as an architect brought essential depth to the students from that area of theory, with which he is much more familiar than myself having trained at Rice as an architect. The result is was a richer journal in every way, and by building the more visual “Projects” into the syllabus as a compliment to the readings, we were able to spend as much of our classtime showing as telling.

Finally, as I was wrapping up the 2006 class and getting feedback from students, I asked them to pardon a particularly inelegant piece of writing because it was simply the best articulation of that idea by a graphic designer. “Why does it have to be by a graphic designer?” one student rightly asked. “This class should be about reading the most useful ideas by the best writers, whoever they are.” I couldn’t have agreed more. In the second time around, with Luke’s invaluable help, I think we finally got it right.

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Typographic Research

This class was presented in a very informal workshop format. Its original title at Parsons was “Experimental Typography,” but I was determined to challenge my students on this designation. I wanted to know what made typography “experimental” to them, if this word was appropriate, and, if not, what a better title for the course might be. For more on this question see Peter Bil’ak’s great article, “Experimental Typography. Whatever That Means” (link below).

My feeling is that all typography falls somewhere on a spectrum between tradition and transgression, but what’s transgressive for one era is quickly traditional for the next. Jan Tschichold’s Die neue Typografie was groundbreaking when it first appeared, only to become fully absorbed as Modernist orthodoxy while Tschichold himself shifted back to more classical forms and techniques. Using this as a model, we can see Tschichold’s life as a life spent not in persuit of typographic experiment but in persuit of typographic research, first in and of his own time, and then through history.

By shifting the emphasis of the class from typographic “experiment” (whatever that means) to typographic resesarch, we were able to both broaden and deepen our activities as typographers. Instead of the misplaced oblgation to simply “break rules,” we could now examine the assumptions underlying typographic rules and traditions, making any disobediences more calculated, disciplined, and purposeful. We were also able to see how certain typographic practices—modular typefaces, for example—have always been categorically described as “experimental” (largely because of their form), and we were better able to connect our own work in this area to the historic tradition. Finally, we were able to examine the nature of written language itself, how it differs from speech, how it is represented through alphabets and ideograms, how the Latin alphabetic characters function as a formal group, and so on. We labored to examine the practice of typography through both philosophical and material lenses.

Rather than start the class with a lengthy syllabus, I decided to pay homage to an Intermediate Photography course I took with Catherine Opie and Laurel Nakadate years ago. Catherine and Laurel started our class by showing us 100+ contemporary photographs we should be aware of and telling us why we should be aware of them. Rather than start with words, they started with images. I had always wanted to start a class of mine in the same fashion. All of the images from my initial lecture, “100+ possible examples of experimental type, loosely grouped, in no particular order,” were posted to our class blog, beginning here. You can also browse them by group below.

The class blog was a new addition to my class environment. We treated it as a bulletin-board-like space where we could post images and ideas we wanted to share. It gave our class a virtual presence when we weren’t in session, and gave us a place to capture and share our ongoing typographic research. Its name, 2143, came from Parsons’ “Course Reference Number,” or CRN. This seemed like a more neutral way to name the class while we were debating between “Experimental Typography,” its official title, and “Typographic Research,” our preferred title. It is powered by the wonderful web application Tumblr. The beauty of Tumblr is that you can email images to it with captions, making it very easy for my students to post throughout the week.

The rest of our work was formulated as a group of eight one-week projects, functioning in much the same way as the projects do in my class Antithesis. The projects are assigned depending on how the class is doing, individual needs, and my own intuition. They tend to be very simple, short, and open-ended. We use them as development and discussion points to more fully understand some of the important issues in the contemporary typographic landscape. After making an initial one-week effort on all the projects, students select three to finalize and the class shifts to a much smaller, more tutorial-like format. —RG

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Graphic Design & Critical Thinking

How do ideas become visual? How do emotions take shape? What do we assume about the things we see? What do we take for granted? What are our expectations for communicating with others? How do they communicate with us? How should information be organized? In what form does it pass from one person to the next? What are the boundaries between the precious and the everyday? How do we evaluate beauty? When do visual things become ideological? Which kinds of communication are information and which are propaganda? Which kinds of communication are ethical and which are unethical? Who decides? What should learning about design require? How should we do it? What does criticism have to teach us? Who can make design? What kind of rights and authority can those people lay claim to?

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As Communication Designers, we are asked to have a tremendous number of technical and analytical skills at our disposal to communicate information that is unfamiliar to us in ways that are unfamiliar to our clients. Designing maps, magazines, typefaces, and posters are all very different skills requiring different tools and a deep understanding of how certain forms favor certain kinds of content when others do not. Successful designs and designers not only understand these problems themselves but manage to communicate them to their audiences.

The majority of the classes in the first few years of Communication Design are geared toward teaching these critical design skills in a cumulative way. In Typography, for example, projects are assigned one-at-a-time to gain an understanding of how letters are made, then words, and then the printed page. A class in Book or Publication Design allows for experimentation within the bounds of these forms by first explaining our expectations from them as an audience.

In the last few years, you have been faced with millions of micro-decisions about how you relate to these forms and strategies of design. A class on strict Information Design, for example, may have left you feeling comfortable with extremely refined typesetting, or it may have reinforced a sense that you work best with more intuitive, gestural solutions. The point of making these micro-decisions on project after project is to build up something like an instinctive method for taking apart communication problems in a visual way. Many designers call this instinctive method their design “process.”

In the Senior Thesis, your process (which is always evolving) was put to the test for the first time in a major way when you had to use it to grapple with a communication problem of your own devising. However, as different as this project may have seemed in terms of its requirements, the Senior Thesis was still, like the classes before it, cumulative and methodical. It began with a diagnostic (What are you interested in?), continued with an initial problem (How will you find out more about it?), and concluded with a bigger challenge (How will you present your learning to others?).

The real world is a much messier place. Designers are seldom given three weeks (let alone fifteen) to focus on any single problem, and problems are not defined around gaining skills but by desired outcomes. A typical designer may be working on several different projects at once, some interesting and some not, all requiring different skills and innovative solutions. What designers fall back on again and again is their process.

Like the Senior Thesis, this class will allow you to continue an investigation of your design process. But, unlike the Senior Thesis, this class will apply real-world constraints to your process. Your task will be to tackle nine one-week design challenges that are outcome-specific. Some of your solutions will be successes; some will be failures. All of the projects are designed to teach you more about your process. In the end, you will choose three of the projects to refine and complete. Along the way, we will continually engage the world around us and our relationship to it.

Instructor’s note: Though this class only has nine one-week projects, I have an ever-growing pool of projects do draw from, depending on how the class is doing, individual needs, and my own intuition. They tend to be very simple, short, and open-ended. At least a few are adapted from some of the great teachers I’ve had over the years.
18 One-Week Projects

The nine weekly projects (P1-P9) will be graded as High Pass, Pass, and Fail. Each of these projects are worth 5% of the total grade, meaning that all nine are worth a combined 45% of the grade. From these nine projects, each student will select three to refine during the five refinement weeks in the schedule. These three “final” projects will be worth an additional 15% each, combined for a total of 45%. The final 10% of your grade will be based on attendance and classroom participation, particularly during critique.

Visitors will add their new perspectives and insight to our thesis class and will function in a variety of capacities. They may lead critiques, attend individual meetings, give an artist’s talk, or direct a small workshop or charette. You will be advised in advance of their participation in class. Attendance for these sessions is mandatory.

From time to time, we will go on trips as a class to stimulate discussion and response, and in order to view our classwork in a broader context. You are encouraged to suggest possible outings and contribute to shaping this class as you see fit.

(P# = Project #)

  • Class 1: Introductions and general info. Assign P1.
  • Class 2: P1 Critique. Assign P2.
  • Class 3: P2 Critique.
  • Class 4: Field Trip. Project Refinement Week 1. Assign P3.
  • Class 5: P3 Critique. Assign P4.
  • Class 6: P4 Critique.
  • Class 7: Individual Meetings (Portfolio Review). Project Refinement Week 2. Assign P5.
  • Class 8: P5 Critique.
  • Class 9: Project Refinement Week 3.
  • Class 10: Field Trip. Project Refinement Week 4. Assign P6.
  • Class 11: P6 Critique. Assign P7.
  • Class 12: P7 Critique. Assign P8.
  • Class 13: P8 Critique.
  • Class 14: Individual Meetings (Portfolio Review). Project Refinement Week 5. Assign P9.
  • Class 15: P9 Critique.
  • Class 16: Open house and individual meetings. Three final projects due.

This class was first given in spring 2005 at Parsons School of Design in New York.

Letters, Symbols & Composition

Typography is a greatly varied discipline, as are the kinds of work typographers are often asked to produce. The aim here is to solve a number of difficult problems using typographic methods culled from the first semester of training in Type I. These include a knowledge of the history of typography; a familiarity with typographic and alphabetic forms; and an awareness of how these forms should be used, either complicitly or resistantly. We will initiate a semester-long discussion about how the way we see words tells us how to read them and vice versa. We will cultivate our own ways of controlling and creating typographic information. We will look more actively at the typographic world around us, and we will learn from those observations and from our own hard work and critical feedback.

The ability to place your work in context with that of other designers and design history is essential. Over the semester I will suggest many books to compliment the projects we’re doing in class. It is not required that you buy all of them, but it is strongly suggested that you seek them out, either at a library or a bookstore. Some of the suggested readings will be essential for completing the assignments.

There will be no midterm exam.

There will be no final exam, but students will be required to present all the work completed during the semester for a final review. At that time any improvements on past assignments will be taken into account and grades will be changed accordingly.

Your grade depends on the completion of the assignments on the day that they are due, class participation, periodic reading assignments, and punctuality.

This course is dedicated to:

  • creating an intense second semester of typographic study, application, and experimentation.
  • explaining how considered typographic handling advances the meaning of a message, idea, or thing.
  • investigating the meanings of symbols and other non-typographic forms.
  • developing more fully the fundamentals established in the first semester.
  • addressing individual student needs/abilities and learning how to improve upon them.
  • aiding students in learning how to manipulate type and symbols into compositions at a professional and highly creative level.

The objectives of this course are:

  • help students understand and trust the value of their own ideas and execute these ideas with clarity and confidence.
  • examine ways in which subject matter from students’ own lives might be engaged by their design practice.
  • create a series of projects that will provide a stepping-stone to more complicated, more nuanced work.
  • foster an environment that encourages meaningful discussion, criticism, and fun.


This class focuses on critique and working method more than critical reading. Some readings will accompany the project assignments, but there is no master reading list. However, if you haven’t already got it in your library, Robert Bringhurst’s book will be indispensible for this class and for all of your future work as a typographer.

This class was first given in fall 2003 at Parsons School of Design in New York.

Typography I

This course celebrates the rewards of using type to effectively communicate. Typographic principles combined with general history, both aesthetic and technical, will be presented. This class covers every aspect of Western Typography, from the single letter to layout on the page. The terminology of type use combined with all the essential principles of using type correctly will be explored through the study and application of historical examples and modern practice. This class provides a comprehensive foundation to what is at the core of all communication design: type.




  • Class 1: Introductions. General Overview, Projects, etc. Intro: A Deck of Types, pt. 1. Intro: Type Comparisons. Policies & Grading.
  • Class 2: Discussion: Savan. In-class: Type Comparison 1. Intro: A Set.
  • Class 3: Discussion: Baker. In-class: A Set, pt. 1. Due: A Deck of Types, pt. 1. Intro: A Deck of Types, pt. 2.
  • Class 4: Discussion: Hoefler, Lupton & Miller. Lecture: Typographic Classification. In-class: Type Comparison 2.
  • Class 5: Discussion: Rock, VanderLans. Lecture: Period Styles. In-class: A Set, pt. 2.
  • Class 6: Discussion: Frutiger, Heller. Lecture: Aesthetics & Typography, Legibility. In-class: Begin Type Comparison 3.
  • Class 7: In-class: A Set, pt. 3.
  • Class 8: Discussion: Elliman, Gerstner. In-class: Kerning Project. Due: Type Comparisons
  • Class 9: Quiz: Bringhurst. Lecture: Space, Type, & Measurement (Bringhurst). Presentation: Books & Chapbooks. Intro: A Chapbook.
  • Class 10: Discussion: Tschichold. Lecture: Readability. Critique: A Chapbook.
  • Class 11: In-class: A Set, pt. 4.
  • Class 12: Critique: A Chapbook. Discussion: Warde, Bayer.
  • Class 13: Critique: A Set, pt. 5. Discussion: Eggers.
  • Class 14: Critique: A Chapbook.
  • Class 15: Due: A Set. Due: A Chapbook. Good-byes & Final Words

This class was first given in spring 2003 at Parsons School of Design in New York.