Musings of a Design School Graduate

Three years ago I stepped into the design world for the first time after a long but familiar journey from the Philippines. I started the Master of Arts in Exhibition Design program at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC in the Fall of 2009, and will finally be hooded this Saturday.

Looking back I can really say that design school has changed me and opened my eyes to a world I only ever dreamed existed before I had started. It has transformed me in so many ways, from my work methods, my aesthetic, how I deal with people, and of course how all of these (and other elements as well, I could go on and on) have informed my design process.

If there is one thing that design school has done for me that I am extremely thankful for, it would be that it really opened my eyes to design in multiple dimensions and really, how design thrives in everything we do, not just as designers, but as people who live in a world of objects, art, and experiences.

Conservation class in the Corcoran Museum’s art storage rooms

When I started the program I came with a very art-museum kind of mindset, thinking what I would learn would be solely for the purpose of exhibiting art. As time passed however, I came to realize that what I was exhibiting or designing for wasn’t as important so much as how I was able to communicate the stories behind them. As I interacted with students from other disciplines, I also realized that it was this communicative power of collaborative design was what made what I do so exciting.

Thanks to my experiences in design school I’ve really become interested in learning more about anything and everything — because being immersed in the content or concern of your design can really help you get good ideas out. I believe this applies to all areas of design as well — by completely empathizing or living the basis for your design, your ideas can begin to take shape in a way that will respect both your abilities and creative integrity whilst satisfying a client or need.

That isn’t to say however that design school is all self-affirming and enlightening discovery — there are times when I seriously doubted my abilities and wondered how what I would do would ever make a difference. Or if my ideas were unique yet viable enough to make someone want to hire me. I plateaued more than once and it drove me nuts. But somehow, experience makes you suck it up and get through it — especially if there is a deadline and a grade on the line.

Last weekend I finally finished my thesis presentation — which was my final requirement for my Master’s degree. For the past year I was working on an exhibition about kendo — the martial art and sport of Japanese sword fighting. This topic was a no-brainer for me as I’ve been practicing kendo for over 10 years and am still absolutely in love with it.

I designed an exhibition that would travel not just an exhibit but a practice hall as well, in a structure made from repurposed shipping containers. I wanted not just to convey information about kendo, but also have a dialogue between the actual practice of it and the exhibition in order to give the displays a real-world context. In the exhibition I included information about other Japanese martial arts, the history of kendo and its modernization, the practice and techniques, and the community.

The point of the exhibition was not just to give information but to provide and experience of the world of kendo — and how a traditional practice that is so intrinsically linked to a national identity and culture can also be a platform for inter-cultural exchange and understanding. My experience of it really led me to believe that the beauty of practicing martial arts today lies in this specific intersection of culture and community, and I worked very hard to try to convey that as best as I could through my design.

The design thesis process was certainly a grueling but incredibly enriching experience. It was something that really defined my grad school experience and definitely made me appreciate different ideas and techniques to a different degree. Especially since everyone in our class had almost radically different ideas but really presented fantastic ideas.

Simply put — design school changed my life, and was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself thus far. I’m proud to be a product of my program, and most of all, a product of my experiences.

All images in this post by Renee Alfonso

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