This article was originally published in 2016.
Welcome again to our 2016 By Day/By Night series. Here we profile a range of design teachers from our tertiary institutions to find out what projects they’re involved in outside of work hours, and how their personal creative endeavours feed back into their teaching roles. Today we speak with Head of Department, Graphic Design, Jonty Valentine from Whitecliffe in Auckland.
Whitecliffe graduates are thinking practitioners with an understanding of both contemporary practice and the traditional mythologies of the sphere of Graphic Design. Their broad technical skills mean they are well equipped to explore and articulate a diverse range of visual outcomes for design projects, making them highly sought after by the industry. As active members of an ever-changing design community our students embrace the opportunity to communicate with the world – to use their conceptual and visual skills to inform, persuade, entertain and educate.
Hi Jonty, can you tell us a little bit about your background, your career path, and how you got in to teaching.
I completed my undergraduate degree in Graphic Design at Ilam School of Fine Arts (University of Canterbury). After graduating I got a job as the designer at Waikato Museum of Art and History in Hamilton. This was a great first job, but after five years there, the City Council decided to “restructure” the Museum. This was the 1990s and we were caught by the newly fashionable field of management’s neoliberal doctrines of quantifying efficiency and pecuniary accountability in cultural institutions that spread across the land. We all saw the writing on the wall and half of the staff left as the museum gave away the best parts of its collection and was forced do more populist shows rather than do pointy-headed art exhibitions — to attract more farmers, I guess? So I started teaching at the School of Media Arts at Waikato Institute of Technology. Media Arts was really radical; it had a great inter-disciplinary art course, way ahead of other art schools in NZ at the time. It was one of the first degree courses in art/design conferred by a polytechnic in the country, at least four years ahead of AIT/AUT.
After a couple of years of teaching I left for the USA to do my Masters at Yale University. Yale was as awe-inspiring as you might imagine. I had a super smart, close group of classmates. The faculty were really impressive: Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Paul Elliman, Michael Rock, Jessica Helfand, Allen Hori… But also it was just the whole university that was an unparalleled privilege to have experienced. Yale is the United Nations of Universities in the best old American kind of way. Absolutely championing cultural diversity, supporting a plurality of critical idioms, but also utterly focused on academic rigour, being relentlessly critical and demanding a depth of knowledge that we so often discourage as elitist in NZ.
A year after I graduated, I returned to NZ to take up a teaching position at AUT. I also began freelancing under the banner of Index (my Yale thesis was partly about indexing). Although it wasn’t for a few more years that I properly set Index studio up as a company when Amy Yalland joined me. Now we run Index together out of a warehouse in semi-rural (actually semi-industrial) Sunnyvale (actually Henderson).
And last year I jumped ship from AUT to start teaching at Whitecliffe.
Outside of work hours what creative projects and/or research are you involved with?
Pretty much all of the design work I do now is in collaboration with Amy at Index. We are keen to see what we do as a speculative, experimental graphic design studio where we play with the aesthetics of production, collaboration, distribution and publishing. We started calling Index a “print research unit”, inspired by Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop and the Elam Fine Arts Print Research Unit (EFPRU) run by John B. Turner. But that is probably more aspirational than actually descriptive. We have a Risograph printer, which enables us to produce short run publications and posters and to engage in small-scale-publishing. This is the most interesting stuff for us, where while we are collaborating with artists and writers, et al., we can collapse the more typically separate roles of editor, designer, printer etc., so that the development of image, written, design and material content can all be negotiated simultaneously, extemporaneously.
The hard-core of my research (I mean in PBRF terms) has developed in to being about NZ graphic design history. I began doing the journal The National Grid in 2006 with Luke Wood. We have published eight issues and are hoping to do another issue this year, if we can find funding… As well as doing TNG projects with Luke, I have done a number of my own exhibitions and publications on NZ graphic design at Auckland’s Objectspace gallery: Just Hold Me (2006) about publication design, Printing Types (2009) about typeface design and Mark Cleverley: Designer (2014), yep, about Wellington designer Mark Cleverley.
How does your personal practice feed into your role as an educator?
I have always primarily thought of myself as a graphic designer (I mean professionally), my output may not be huge but I’m always looking for more design projects. I like to call myself a Journeyman Designer. Of course I am also very interested in addressing the role of design schools and I have strong opinions on what a design curriculum should look like now-a-days. But my teaching was never really motivated by an interest in being an educator, a pedagogue; I mean I don’t see pedagogy as being my practice. Well maybe it was at the start, but then I became cynical about the kinds of people who get excited about “alternative” teaching methods at Universities. I was always more simply motivated by a love of graphic design. I just want my students to be as excited about immersing themselves in and then questioning the practice, mythologies and history of graphic design as I was.
Maybe that was a slightly tangential answer? Can I re-phrase it and say that it is the constantly developing fields of art and graphic design that feed my personal practice and my teaching equally. The cultural sphere of graphic design somehow trumps, comes before both the spheres of education and the commercial industry for me.
How do you balance these two roles (educator and practitioner)? Are there any particular benefits and/or challenges?
Actually there are three roles I struggle to balance: teaching, my practice, and researching. The ideal scenario for me would be for all of those things to join up. I mean, I would love to be able to overlap them all together as an ongoing connected practice or enquiry. Where my research, teaching and studio work all result in the same outcome, or where the projects my students are doing feed my research, where my students, senior students at least become co-researchers, collaborators.
We are lucky in New Zealand. Here one of the requirements for tertiary institutions is to take on the role of critics and to be the conscience of society (under section 162 of the Education Act 1989). We as educators are not tasked to merely train our students to enter a narrowly imagined commercial industry; we have a higher calling (without meaning to sound too TEDx televangelical). My students are not just doing projects that emulate some contrived idea of current industry conditions. Courses that do that usually conflate stylistic trends with actual innovation. Rather my students do projects that are more essentially about the sphere graphic design and exploring its changing role in society. About testing and questioning graphic design’s ability to help translate, disseminate, and communicate messages in an engaging way. And this transcends short-term vocational aims.
What are the best bits about working at a place like Whitecliffe?
The size of the school, the culture and the sense of community. And I mean that across the whole art school. I have worked for other bigger institutions where there are so many layers of management that there seems to be no real mechanism to evaluate anyone’s actual contribution to a department, so the really good things more often happen in spite of the institution rather than because of it. Strategic decisions seem to be more focused on maintaining a superficial façade of quality while keeping the juggernaut of a bureaucracy grinding on… Whereas at Whitecliffe the people making the big decisions are just down the hall and they immediately support and act on good ideas — so staff and students are more directly invested in the school. This does affect our ability to argue about and all respond to new ideas, and to develop the curriculum. This culture also directly, positively effects the student engagement with the course and the work that is produced.
Find out more about Whitecliffe by visiting: www.whitecliffe.ac.nz