Cross-Disciplinary Projects: How Blended Disciplines Activate Change

| July 5, 2014

In “Impressive: Printmaking, Letterpress and Graphic Design,” it is noted that there is a movement of graphic designers looking to hand printing to recapture the sense of the human, unique, quirky, visceral mark that makes printing come alive. When designers incorporate printing techniques in their design solutions, the results resonate deeply and when educators encourage interdisciplinary investigations in the classroom, the solutions richer, and students find this hybrid learning experience life-changing.


Photo by Erich Vieth, with permission.

Printmaking, design, education, and advocacy are historically linked in the work and collaborative teaching of Sister Corita Kent in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her spirited work and inspirational teaching style creates a long-lived poster tradition in California. This link between cultural advocacy, printmaking and design is on the rise again in a small press movement in the US: in St. Louis, there is a street of such small presses thriving as community hubs of activity and exchange.

Printmaking in the educational setting provides active thinking and physical creating that hours
at the terminal designing cannot provide. Where design emphasizes strong concept development, printing encourages process and methodological problem-solving. The two disciplines complement each other and provide a differentiated learning atmosphere.
At University of Missouri-St. Louis, Printing and design collaborations help students stay in school and thrive. After seven years of creating posters for the UMSL design department, students and faculty are beginning to use collaborative studio experiences to reach out to their community. Projects include work for the local chapter of American institute of Graphic Arts, community building projects for a local pre-kindergarten program, and social messages for neighborhoods. Together, Printing and Design provide logic and impetus, heart, and agency to instigate change. Designers in the print studio have both the training and the means to solve grassroots problems, and make profound visual statements.

GN6A1974 MBG 7D macroWhen I think about activism, I think of the movements of the ’60s and ’70s. While I was too young to protest, I like the story of how my sister brought home for me, her seven year old sister, an Equal Rights Amendment shirt from her first pep rally. I wore this shirt the next day to my second grade class, and I remember telling my class about the Equal Rights Movement, equality for women, and repeating the chants she had taught me. It was thrilling to be part of this movement, to have the issues explained to me, and to spread these ideas in my own small way. This side-note has shaped my life in some surprising ways. To this day, I think the most empowering kind of activism has always been linked to education. It is as a design educator that I have found the most profound way to contribute to my community.

It is inspiring to see printmakers use their creative voice to champion social change. Designers too, as cultural practitioners, are keenly aware of their potential to inspire a community to act for positive change. At UM-St. Louis (UMSL), socially conscious multidisciplinary education keeps lower income students in school and GN6A1987 MBG 7D macroinspires them to serve their community. While it seems like a lot of ideas to juggle, for students at UMSL, these four disciplines: design, activism, printmaking and education spark and become powerful when engaged simultaneously: we can make meaningful change when design is mixed with printing, and advocacy is inspired and implemented through education. Learning today is significantly affected by physical industry, and change is best secured not just by digital connectivity, but also through the physical classroom. At our school, the print studio is the quintessence of such a physical classroom. Today, the potential to use printing and design to serve our community might again be its most influential.

In the age of social networking, digital production, communication and community, people are searching for real connections. In the new book, Impressive: Printmaking, Letterpress and Graphic Design, Sonja Commentz (2010) describes a new movement of graphic designers turning back to the craft of traditional printing to recapture the human, quirky, visceral mark that makes printed work come alive before our eyes and under our fingertips. In a world where it is cheap and easy to make digitally printed objects, what does it mean that so many young designers are choosing to spend their weekends and evenings in traditional print studios, or more boldly, are giving up their day jobs to hand-print full time? Is it just the current craze or is there something fundamentally missing from digital design that printmaking fulfills?

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Designers are naturally drawn to opportunities to forage afield and gain new perspective from other schools of thought. “Designers are, by nature, intellectually gregarious,” said designer Rick Robinson at the AIGA New Contexts/New Practices conference this fall. Many are particularly drawn to printing: when designers incorporate printing techniques into solutions, the results resonate deeply. Printmaking provides physically active thinking and creating that hours at the terminal cannot provide. While designers are disciplined to process concepts in the sketchbook and onscreen; we are activated differently by the physical industry and experimental nature of the print studio. We are energized by the introduction of chance, and by the way the printing press recontextualizes our original ideas, marking them with traces of how they were made. Where design emphasizes strong process-oriented concepting and ideation, printing encourages process to be extended into hands-on experimental and methodological problem-solving. And it’s hard to capture this in words, but it simply “feels” more industrious to make from scratch; there’s satisfaction from being part of the whole process. My classes, my design colleagues, and I myself, feel energized by the spirit and cheerful bustle of this different and complimentary process.

For decades, designers have been drawn to advocate social change through hand-printed posters. In Poland, the tradition started at the end of the 19th century; and since the ‘60s, Cuban poster making has provided a voice of dissent for designers living under an oppressive government. But it is in Los Angeles where a nun discovered how powerful it could be to put printing, design education and advocacy together and teach through inspiring students to “give a damn.” In Los Angeles, hand poster making, graphic design, and community activism are linked in the work of Sister Corita Kent of Immaculate Heart College. Corita revolutionized Catholicism by reframing the Church’s message in contemporary terms, giving the Catholic religion new voice in the states. Corita was taken with the colorful forms, logos and slogans she found in the supermarket across the street from Immaculate Heart. The roadside billboards that were beginning to appear around Los Angeles also fascinated Corita. In her designs, she began reframing, editing and combining these familiar icons and taglines into moving new messages about faith. ( 2011)

An important ingredient of Corita’s vivid design was the immediacy of the silkscreen process, which could transform a number of different materials quickly and cheaply into jewel-toned messages featuring her precocious, organic, hand-lettered typography. Corita Kent demonstrated to the world the “ecstatic” energy that can come from combining ideas, refined with graphic design thinking, and the immediacy of silkscreen printing in her collaborative print studio at Immaculate Heart College (IHC). Silkscreen’s simplicity allowed Corita to distribute her messages more widely. The studio made a point of pricing handcrafted objects affordably so that practically anyone could take home a handmade object. Her classroom-workshop bustled with good-natured enthusiasm and creative energy of both devising and producing an idea start to finish. (Ault 2006, 42)

Here, students and teachers worked side-by-side in an organic learning and creating environment energized by the cause of making faith relevant. “The serigraphs hung on clotheslines drying, in the little back shed where she worked, talked things through, planned, and sketched with her students. It was like the mixing room of the hues of creation, colors in combat, contrast, harmony; enough and more for a century of sunrises.” (Ault 2006, 107) This combination of design and printing not only produced powerful and poetic expression, but also provided a memorable process and curriculum for students at IHC. Corita considered everything an experiment and encouraged students to make continuously and experiment intuitively. “Corita’s philosophy, presence and style were crucial factors in producing a permissive atmosphere in which people would relax, and gauge their own processes and visual fascinations. This environment made space for embracing new ideas and developing creative fluency, independently and in groups.” (Ault 2006, 44-5)

Both Corita and her students used design and printing as a powerful tool to advocate for church reform and anti-war activism. Corita is best known for her advocacy for a newly germane faith, such as Big G stands for Goodness, which uses the General Mills G, and Enriched Bread, which uses the Wonder Bread label. She also made headlines with her collaged slogans against the Vietnam War, including, Stop the Bombing, American Sampler, and her slogans in support of the Civil Rights Movement, Black is Beautiful, The Cry That Will Be Heard and Tender Be. While she stopped teaching at IHC in 1968, from 1946 until the end of her life in 1985, Corita Kent shared her messages for community action through silkscreen prints. Many of her students continue her legacy by remaining active in changing their communities. “Corita had a talent for galvanizing students’ creative forces and for channeling their energies into ambitious projects requiring tremendous amounts of planning research, labor and organization” (Ault 2006, 44) One such student, Karen Boccalero carried on the IHC tradition by using Corita’s techniques and philosophies to found Self Help Graphics, an organization in East Los Angeles dedicated to championing the printmaking of Chicano Artists. (Ault 2006, 47)

While Corita was able to activate her community to protest for human rights, today, printing and design seem paired to serve local communities again in quieter, yet no less effective ways. Today, printmaking seems to exist as part of a philosophical movement to simplify, to buy local, to have a connection with making and makers. While faster means are arguably cheaper and easier, for many printers, the choice to print by hand is not just a creative choice, it is also a social and ethical one. For many independent small presses, hand printing retains the flavor of American adventurism, the ‘60s spirit of rebellion. Eric Woods of Firecracker Press, St. Louis’ first “new” press, says his decision to leave his job in traditional graphic design was largely based on creative freedom: “I went to school for graphic design and after working for five years, I realized that I was not getting to make the kind of work I was in love with: I didn’t get to make the decisions. Starting Firecracker Press was a way of taking back control over what I was making. I enjoy being in charge of all steps of production from conception to final product.” (Woods 2011)

Down the street, co-founders of All Along Press were largely driven by intellectual curiosity. “What drove us in the beginning was the question: ‘Do you think we could do this? Do you think we could make this work?’ We were always taking on projects that were a little past our knowledge base,” says Steven Brien, co-founder. His partner Elysia Mann adds, “Today, our mantra has become ‘Is this approach honest, direct?’ We have a penchant for taking on the ridiculously time-ineffective. To us it means, we didn’t do it for money, we did what we wanted to do. If something in me needs expressing, whether it is easy or fast, I will take the time it takes to make the piece unique, special.” Brien and Mann opened All Along Press as a collaborative print studio and work space three years ago. About the power of the collaborative space they add: “I think people like to break routine and share headspace with people from other fields. We definitely do. We were taught in college that anything with duplicates was printmaking. This position opened us to a wider multi-disciplined approach to printmaking that has really helped us tackle the new problems we need to solve in our professional shop.”

Traditional print shops run by this new breed of practitioners often become a hub for a culture of collaboration and experimentation that gives agency to a new sort of community. “Printed material is woven into so many aspects of our lives. One of our goals for the shop is to give voice to talented artists and writers who need our help to be heard. Our shop is democratic: We own it and we also share it,” states Mann. To explain this, Mann suggests that what the Internet has done best is to connect people. “We connect so much more online that it builds, in turn, expectations: a hunger for equivalent community in real-time, for personal, visceral experience.” The print shop ends up being a different sort of network, a common denominator connecting people from diverse disciplines. “While we’re running the presses, the musicians upstairs start to incorporate the rhythm of the presses into their compositions; the tap dancer who lives next door will walk in to dance and compose to its sound. This shop is a place for making a mess, making jokes, making new kinds of art.”(Mann 2011) Woods’ shop is a similar kind of hub for new, more serious-minded culture. “We host regular poetry readings and set and print an artifact of the event while the poets are reading.” These events are beginning to morph into performance art. “It’s really interesting to play a part in them, and to support local writers with the events.” (Woods 2011) The artifacts, printed broadsides of single poems, advocate slowing down and savoring these art-fusion events, and savoring the poem’s words, sound, and meaning. “Everything’s so glossy: there’s an overabundance of printed material everywhere we go; but with so much of it, people have less of a connection to who made it, and they seek out hand printed things to make a connection.” (Mann 2011)

When educators encourage interdisciplinary investigations in the classroom, not only are the solutions richer, but at University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), many students find this hybrid learning experience life-changing. When disciplines become interconnected, when projects offer an opportunity to blend the lines between areas of curriculum, that’s where the learning really begins. At UMSL, collaborations between printmaking and design have created traditions that are clearly linked to student success. When I came to the school in 2003, our school had a large population of students who were barely passing, and who left school with a 2% chance of job placement in their chosen field. In class, students expressed their disinterest through instant messaging in class, failing to complete homework assignments, and generally bringing in a below-average quality design work to critique. Students were sullen about the workload and unmotivated to take initiative. After a semester of struggle, I took my first class down to the print studio to print designs they had made for class. The energy and interest changed immediately in the print shop. Students were actively participating, working together in teams, and suddenly this learning was fun. After this first print day, students were smitten with their design-printing successes and invested more time and energy in their work, and incorporated print-shop style experimentation steps into their design process. Suddenly doing more and working harder was its own goal, in the print shop, but also in the design studio. Finished design projects started popping up with hand-set type and silkscreen covers, and students took greater and greater pride in their initiative, and portfolios and classes got better. As the school’s art/design culture grew, our reputation for educating enthusiastic and talented “art/designers” has grown. In 2011, the graduating class at UMSL had 60% job placement at the best design and ad agencies in St. Louis. For students working two jobs to go to school and leaving school with large student loans, this has been a life-changing transformation. Students and faculty have created posters using techniques borrowed from design, printing and mixed media image making. Not only are the resulting art/design works more effective and unique, but students say these experiences have revealed to them a new way of working. They finish collaborative projects more disciplined, mature and excited about making, and this excitement gives them the ambition to think big, stay in school until graduation, and acquire enough skills to be competitive in the profession.

Our students are often the first in their family to go to college; some are first generation Americans; many if not most in the art school are paying for school themselves through loans and several jobs. Our campus is the most diverse in the city in terms of age as well as income and ethnicity. (Cohen 2004) For them, print and design disciplines complement each other by providing a differentiated learning atmosphere. Design is a difficult field to fully assimilate in most programs: it combines anthropology, psychology, art, problem solving, drafting, writing, typography, as well as knowledge of numerous changing software applications. This is a lot to ask the average teenager to absorb and be passionate about. Through a differentiated learning approach, students can engage through several different points of entry, and faculty can more effectively teach, and reach out to, students with a range of different learning styles. When consulting Howard Gardner’s points of entry guidelines for complex subject matter, design traditionally offers narrative, logical and aesthetic points of entry for students. When we add experiments in the print room, we add a healthy quotient of interpersonal and hands-on entry points to our learning environment, and the potential to deeply imprint students with a love for their work. (Gardner 1999, 189) This cross-disciplinary approach seems to be especially meaningful for students from more diverse educational backgrounds and means. There is one aspect of class that is not dependent on how much you were able to save for your laptop, how good your high school was, what programs and fonts you have: it is a sacred opportunity to turn off the computer and FOCUS on the moment.

“While computer access is becoming ubiquitous, access to tools and other materials needed to build physical things has become almost extinct in the schools”. (Oppenheimer 2003, 197) Jane Healy wrote, “Visual stimulation is probably not the main access route to non-verbal reasoning. Body movements, the ability to touch, feel, manipulate, and build sensory awareness of relationships in the physical world are its main foundations.” (Healy 1990, 341) Healy wrote in her book, Failure to Connect, How Computers Affect our Children’s Minds that abstract reasoning, according to psychological research, grows out of “physical experience of action.” Intense tactile work with the hand, in study after study, is proven to send powerful signals to the brain, helping it to learn and develop. (Healy 1998, 185-9)

Inspired by West Coast printing and design, I started printing silkscreen posters at UMSL for our lecture series not only to challenge my students to make higher quality work, but also to give them design work that was free to take home. These poster projects grew gradually into collaborations outside of class, and then into projects where students collaborated with each other to make printed artifacts. Printing is now seen as something we do for fun, a reward for strong class work.

Students at UMSL have used the poster work and ideas of print/design collaboration as a springboard for many projects to address and support their community. In the last few years, thesis projects have included printed shirts and materials for a Filipino empowerment group, a poster campaign against Apathy, a redesign of a skate park identity, as well as many hand-screened books and covers that have grown from this work. And gradually, these students are taking this tradition of print and design advocacy outside of school to create messages to impact their neighborhoods as young alumni. I have, in turn, been inspired by my students to improve my community and have made a poster confronting the crime problems on campus, a logo and redesign for our underfunded campus early childhood center, as well as posters in Arabic and English arguing for religious tolerance. This summer, several former students submitted their social posters to the “Messages to the World” exhibition I juried for Shanghai Normal University.

Not only are printing and design collaborations good in the classroom, but they provide cheap and easy ways for our communities to make the world more beautiful, give voice to ideas, and even solve community problems. The UMSL print lab provides agency for testing design ideas. After 7 years of collaboratively creating posters and printed objects for the UMSL design department, students and faculty are using the blended studio experience as a rich way to reach out. Together, print making and graphic design provide logic and impetus, heart and means, to instigate change. Designers who are comfortable in the print studio have both the training and the means of production to solve grassroots problems, to better our homes and neighborhoods, and make more profound visual statements.

Ault, Julie, Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita. London: Four Corners Books, 2006.
Brien, Steven, of All Along Press. Personal Interview. 6 January 2011.
Cohen, Margaret. “UMSL student Profile.” Missouri, UMSL New Faculty Orientation [Talk]. St. Louis. 10 August 2004.
Commentz, Sonja, Impressive: Printmaking, Letterpress and Graphic Design.
Berlin: Gestalten, 2010.
Gardner, Howard, The Disciplined Mind: What all Students Should Understand.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Pages 186-199.
Healy, Jane, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It. New York: Touchstone, 1990. Page 341.
Healy, Jane, Failure to Connect, How Computers Affect our Children’s Minds. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Pages 185-9.
Mann, Elysia, of All Along Press. Personal Interview. 6 January 2011.
Oppenheimer, Todd, The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved. New York: Random House, 2003. Pages 196-209, 363-396.
“Sister Corita.” Corita Art Center. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Wilson, Frank R., The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, language, and Human Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Page 189.
Woods, Eric, of Firecracker Press. Personal Interview. 6 January 2011.

Category: Essays, Printmaking

About the Author ()

Jen McKnight is an associate professor of art and art history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Jennifer McKnight earned her BFA at Washington University in Printmaking and her Masters in Graphic Design at California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Her work is recognized in publications such as Print Magazine, :Output, and “Becoming a Graphic Designer: A guide to Careers in Design” by Steven Heller and Theresa Fernandes. Her design writing is published in the AIGA National Education Archives, Redaction Magazine, No Tasarim, as well as in Means by Which we Find our Way, edited by David Gardner and Andrea Wilkinson and Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions 4th ed.

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