Meet someone who has completed four years of design education and ask them to reflect on their education, and they’ll likely tell you stories of the dreaded foundations assignments. These craft oriented projects focused narrowly on a single “core” of design, like color, or line, or texture, or shadow. I remember the “coloraid” projects at Carnegie Mellon. We were to select a magazine layout, pin it to a board, and examine it.
And then, our task was to recreate the layout – exactly – using tiny 1/8″ square pieces of colored paper. It took forever (my memory of freshman year is a bit tired, but I recall it taking close to 100 hours), and at the time, we all questioned the point. What on earth could we learn from such a menial and monotonous activity, and how was this a good use of our really expensive education?
In fact, the foundational year of design education is full of activities like this. Paint a hundred color blocks a single color, but with a complete spectrum of saturation. Draw every letter of a single typeface, as realistically as possible. Sand a perfect sphere out of a cube. Sand a hundred perfect spheres out of a hundred cubes.
In a word, these projects were intended to teach craftsmanship, and many have historic roots in Bauhaus education, or pre-Bauhaus arts and crafts approaches to the production of artifacts. By focusing on a simple, contained, and tedious task, students formed tacit skills necessary for visual decision making – for a thoughtful process of design, related to the creation of form-based objects. Specifically, these projects offered four major benefits to students.