Graphic Design: A Youth Media Strategy

Young people still struggle to tell their own stories in their own words, and to effectively use contemporary artistic media to express themselves to diverse audiences.
As we challenge teens to be more creative and more thoughtful in their engagement with the world and their communities, graphic design offers a focus for young people’s fascination with new media technologies, and an outlet for their urgent desire to make their voices heard.
As tools for both media production and consumption become ever more accessible, it is vital that we equip young people with the technical and critical skills to evaluate and take ownership of the media that pervade their lives.
Why Graphic Design
Graphic design offers young people a unique entry-point to the broad field of media arts. Contemporary design, essentially an entirely digital practice, gives teens an opportunity to make a direct connection between “analog” artistic work in the studio, and a digital product mass-produced for a large audience. Design encourages teens who are new to media studies to connect previous studio artwork with their future media production, providing tools uniquely suited to revision, experimentation and adjustment, and collaboration. Teamwork fostered by collaborative design in turn forms the basis of a teen arts community where young people support each other, articulate and share ideas, and undertake ambitious projects that cross and combine diverse artistic disciplines.
Ongoing examination of design and media in the urban landscape makes students more aware of the presence and effects of design in their lives, from advertising, to textbook layouts, to cell phone interfaces. Design can help students learn to think visually and clearly articulate their ideas to others as they learn to evaluate the success (or failure) of design work they see every day.
As preparation for higher education and future careers in many sectors, design teaches students to approach communication with others with an open mind and an ability to be flexible, to work across disciplines, and to articulate ideas that they care deeply about and affect change.
Teen Graphic Design Curators
The Urbano Project—a Boston, MA non-profit that seeks to empower urban teens, professional artists and community members to use art to affect social change in—partners Teen Visual Art, Film, Spoken Word, and Graphic Design Curators with professional artist-mentors during the school year to brainstorm themes for teen-led performances, screenings, and art exhibitions. The Teen Curators develop calls for submissions, lead outreach to teen artists from all over the country, and jury submitted works to create public events.
The Teen Graphic Design Curators—intermediate and advanced teen artists—consider their work and that of their peers in the context of Boston’s arts community, and are challenged to think critically, express their ideas in different ways to diverse audiences, and consider the role of an artist in his or her community.
The 2008-09 Teen Graphic Design Curators, Jeffrey Cott (age 18), Jake Giberson (age 19), Lauren Li (age 17), Hazel Manko (age 18), and Dianna Willard (age 19), came to the group with skills ranging from spoken word poetry, to film, to silkscreen and comic book design.
From handmade collage with found typography, to silkscreen, to digital photography, the Curators became comfortable expressing their ideas in the visual language of graphic design and working as a team to translate their thinking into digital production. Curators worked across nearly every artistic medium, employing drawing, printmaking, collage, digital imaging, and even video to complete the final work.
Suggestions to the Field
Make the leap to new media. Encourage teens who have experience with drawing, printmaking, photography, and other studio arts to become involved with a graphic design class or project. Students who my not initially feel comfortable working with digital media or working as part of a team may be receptive to design instruction that draws on their previous artmaking experience.
Develop a creative space. A traditional digital classroom can have the effect of isolating individual students, fostering the relationship of teen-to-computer at the expense of inter-personal communication and cooperation. Initiate “hands-on” projects based on design techniques and concepts, and make clear connections from digital design concepts to the production and physicality of a finished work.
Use media to play and experiment. Encourage students to see the computer and design software as expressive tools open to revision, duplication and adjustment, and experimentation. Seek out instructors skilled in other media (printmaking, drawing, video, etc) and develop collaborative lessons that add to teen participants’ repertoire of artistic approaches to design challenges. Through discussion and class projects, help teens draw connections between the “gestural” movements of drawing and other studio arts and their own design practice.
Foster a community of teen artists. Design is an ideal context in which to develop teamwork and collaborative projects. The importance of input from many different artistic media, the designer’s mandate to create work that speaks to (or for) a particular audience, and the flexibility of the digital process, all support teens to work together and become deeply invested in the group. “If the effort is put in from every individual,” Jeffrey explained, “the final product becomes more powerful and serves as the voice of all those people and their ideas.”
Explore the field. Offer teens frequent opportunities to examine and discuss contemporary and historical graphic design work. Find examples of design concepts such as composition, rhythm, and contrast in media that teens will be familiar with, for example, comic books and Japanese manga are an excellent source. Discuss connections between design movements such as Dada or Modernism and the political climate of the times, and encourage teens to consider how their own design practice responds to the current social and political moment. Visit local design exhibitions, and encourage teens to collect samples of contemporary design that they find compelling.
Next Steps
In the current era, when graphic design is changing quickly and semantic divisions between “art” and “design” are becoming increasingly irrelevant, collaboration across media during the creative process is vital to the creation of truly innovative work.
For teens who frequently feel that their voices are not being heard, and who feel uncomfortable or even threatened in an unfamiliar neighborhood, graphic design provides an opportunity to take ownership of mass communication and forge a community that crosses social and geographic boundaries.
The youth media field must expand to cater to teens interested in graphic design—a medium that affords young people a viable career option, a platform for expression, and skills to work collaboratively.
Alison Kotin is communications + youth programs coordinator at the Urbano Project in Jamaica Plain, MA. A Massachusetts native, Alison works as a visual artist and graphic designer while pursuing an MFA in Dynamic Media at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
[Credit: Photo by Jennifer Webb]