ON THE LIST OF “GIVING PROFESSIONALS,” teachers are right up there with nurses, doctors, and therapists. But as any teacher will tell you, there’s plenty of getting, too. For designers, that holds especially true: The skills required at the blackboard mirror those needed in the conference room.
“My first real experiences with public speaking came through teaching in the Continuing Ed program at the School of Visual Arts,” says Gail Anderson, who’s most well known for her 15 years as an art director at Rolling Stone, and who now serves as SVA’s director of design and digital media. “All of the skills I honed over many years in the classroom have served me well to this day: learning to express, defend, and question ideas in constructive ways. Pushing students to look at problems from different angles has also helped me push the designers I work with, as well as the many interns I’ve mentored. I’ve developed patience, clarity, empathy, and even some useful tough-love skills.”
Marcos Chin, a freelance illustrator who also teaches at SVA, says teaching has made him a much better listener.
“When I’m in the classroom, I often have to interpret what the student is trying to tell me, and then respond to that, as opposed to the actual words they’ve spoken — experience that’s happened with clients, as well,” he says. While crafting campaign illustrations for the Lavalife dating app, Chin was asked to “turn up the volume” on a visual element that suggested chemistry between a couple, but instead, he re-drew their expressions to make the attraction more palpable, responding to art director’s real concern rather than the explicit instructions. (It worked: A test campaign in New York was expanded nationwide, then the ad-buy went international, generating even more assignments for Chin.)
And the communication lessons he’s learned go beyond words.
“Early in my freelance illustration career, I wasn’t aware that the way that I present myself to a client affects my chances of getting a job,” he says. “I used to believe that if a client liked my illustrations, then that was all that mattered — my work would get me more work. But I learned very early in my teaching career that the energy I bring into the room affects not only how I’m viewed by my students, but that I also get that same energy back: If I’m tired or seem bored with the topic we’re discussing, my students will reciprocate those feelings, and the class usually drags on.” Chin recently pitched a public-art project to prospective clients, and kept those lessons in mind, speaking naturally, revealing his personality, and making it abundantly clear that he was excited about the project. (Sure enough, the client team sent him a contract a few weeks later.)
Of course, if you’re experienced enough to teach, there’s a chance you’ve lost touch with trends that appeal to younger audiences. Teaching provides the chance to keep learning from an elusive demographic.
“When I started teaching 27 years ago, I knew what the students were talking about — we were peers, and our pop-culture touchstones were similar,” says Anderson. “Over time, it turned into, ‘What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?’ And now I pretty much have no idea what students talking about until they roll their eyes and explain it to me. But that’s what keeps me engaged and learning so many years later.”
Anderson’s students have explained memes, Instagram stories, and their unending fascination with Supreme, themes that laid the groundwork for SVA Style, a magazine that celebrates everything from students’ enamel pin collections to food, fashion, and favorite novels; the effort has helped make the school’s viewbook and other marketing materials even richer, and in the process, made Anderson a better storyteller.
Designer Sam Michaels, who teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, learned the fine art of emoji from her students right after purchasing her first smartphone. But for her, it’s less about pop-culture and more about staying on top of the latest sharing tools and technology: “I didn’t learn much about web design in school and today I work pretty exclusively in print, but last year I went back to school for a web certificate,” she says. “I can’t tell my students they need to be able design for different mediums if I can’t do it myself.”
We often forget that for every hour we spend with a Wacom tablet, a computer, or piles of sticky notes, design is ultimately about working with people. And few things strengthen that muscle as much as leading a class of two dozen hungry minds.
“As I moved into a management role at my full-time gig I found a lot of similarities to how I approach teaching,” says Michaels. “Try to give people what they need to succeed and then get out of their way.”
“I went into it thinking it was about me making an impact,” says Anderson. “But teaching has made a huge impact on me — the way I work with others, a sensitivity to people’s strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to engage with people of so many varied cultures, skill sets, and personalities. It’s been life-changing, and it’s all thanks to my department chair, who always gives his faculty the space to make mistakes and to grow from them.”
Interested in a launching your own teaching career? Reach out to friends, coworkers and fellow AIGA members to see if you already know someone teaching at a local school. If not, seek out learning institutions online — not just big universities but community colleges, specialty schools like Art Institute and General Assembly, and even continuing ed programs through your city or county. You might start off by reaching out to an instructor and offering to be a guest speaker or by contacting a department chair, sharing your qualifications and asking how to get involved. And remember, previous teaching experience is rarely required of adjunct faculty members — most schools just want you to share what you’ve learned on the job. In exchange, you can expect to earn roughly $3,000 per class, which generally includes crafting a syllabus, meeting for 15 sessions, prepping and grading assignments, and holding weekly office hours; some schools also offer health insurance and free or discounted classes for instructors. But no one’s really in it for the money.
“Like everyone else, I’ve experienced my fair share of tears, the occasional attitude, and students who are overwhelmed,” says Anderson. “Every instructor has stories — it’s like we’re war buddies in some funny, secret way. We compare notes and strategies for keeping kids off their phones, getting them to use their hands to do sketches, and ultimately, helping them focus. But it’s a club that I’m proud to be a member of. Through all my ups and downs, SVA has been the one constant in my career. It’s home.”