The Way Forward in Design Education: Inviting Humanity into the Classroom with Carolina Becerra
Helping others and contributing to something larger than ourselves is a widely-regarded way to add meaning to our lives. Creative Director and Educator Carolina Becerra has found a way to reach beyond the walls of her classroom, deepening students’ understanding of societal issues in their communities and boosting engagement in the process.
Originally from Mexico City, Carolina is a long-standing design educator who works as a Creative Director specializing in brand strategy and brand identity development. “I really believe that education is the only thing that’s going to change the world. Education is super important to open young minds, and older minds, too. It is something that’s really close to my heart.”
Carolina was frustrated by the numerous “surface-level” projects showcased in recent grads’ portfolios, including rebranded coffee shops, beer labels and candy packaging, for example. “Packaging is a wonderful area of design that I love and enjoy, but I think [only showcasing this type of design work] contributes to the idea that design is just this frilly ‘let’s make things pretty’ thing, when I know for a fact that design is an incredible tool that can also change the world.” This inspired her to develop a project where deeper meaning and understanding drives design decisions.
Carolina’s semester-long project requires students to address a social issue in Vancouver, BC. In order to achieve the dual task of connecting to the larger world outside the classroom, as well as sparking engagement inside the classroom, she tasks her class with collectively deciding what is important to them.
Once the issue is agreed upon as a class, students are broken into smaller groups, acting like mini agencies and thinking about what they are going to offer the community to help solve the problem.
For the remainder of the semester, students work individually on smaller projects, divided into weekly milestones (the creation of a logo, various marketing collateral, etc.). They are required to ‘unlock’ each new milestone by completing the previous one; a process she likens to The Amazing Race. While she admits that some students find this frustrating, her goal is to help students stay in the moment and trust the process.
Carolina shares that the resulting projects are fantastic. Even the less successful designs “have a lot of ‘meat’ and a lot of substance”. Furthermore, this project’s learning outcomes are in direct alignment with RGD’s Code of Ethics, specifically 9.2.2 - “I will develop assignments that allow students to develop projects in the public good, projects that serve society, and projects that help improve the human experience.” The entire RGD Code of Ethics can be found here.
As educators, we can only plan a lesson, learning experience or assessment; the ways in which students choose to embrace the learning process can create unplanned (and often welcomed!) outcomes.
Carolina dedicates an entire class to the process of selecting a social issue of importance to the students, providing them with ample opportunity to talk about topics of concern. One of her classes wanted to run with the idea of affordability. Carolina admits she was really surprised by this: “I was like ‘Okay, so tell me about it’ and they had a lot to say. Some of the students went really deep and they were engaged and they were stressed and there were tears… I get emotional because when you hear the students talk about what they go through, I just want to hug them… [this project] opened the lines of communication and they shared a ton of stuff that otherwise you never know. And amongst the class, it connected them in a different way.”
Furthermore, students are invited to reflect on the process throughout the course. Carolina recalls that “...one of the biggest things they said they appreciated was that I made them ‘talk and think’.” In fact, students admitted that they wished they were made to talk more, saying “it felt good to be heard” and “rarely does anybody ask them about these things.”
And while not knowing the next steps frustrated some, others shared that they appreciated having to manage their anxiety, as well as learning to trust the process and trust the people they’re working with because “...sometimes you know, that's life. Sometimes you don't know what's going to happen next.”
The insights Carolina has gained through this project, particularly about students feeling heard, encouraged her to re-examine the way she teaches other courses. She is more aware than ever of the need to create space for these challenging but important conversations.
Inviting Humanity into the Process
In speaking with Carolina, it’s clear that she’s incredibly passionate about inviting humanity into the classroom. “As a design educator I have made that kind of my personal quest… to open their eyes to the world in a design context. As designers, we're the ones that drive all the communications. We have a lot of power and people sometimes don’t realize that or don't understand that or think about that. My personal commitment to my education career is to contribute as much as I can to opening students' minds to the world to try to get them engaged with what's going on around them.”
Carolina summarizes the importance of her work in design education like this: “It's very important to me personally, not to just be graduating people that do Photoshop (anybody can do Photoshop!). There seems to be so much emphasis on the tools and a lot less emphasis on the thinking… So let’s create thinkers, with good technical skills.”
Originally from Mexico City, Carolina Becerra studied communication design at Anahuac University and then obtained her Bachelor of Design from Emily Carr University in Vancouver, Canada. As an entrepreneur, creative director and designer, Carolina has ample experience collaborating with small and large companies developing design and branding strategies, doing creative consulting and leading creative teams. Co-founder and creative director at KUBE Communication design, a boutique corporate design studio for 16 years. Later she was the creative director / design manager at Science World BC an iconic British Columbia institution, where for 9 years she led a group of very talented young designers, many of them her former students. Carolina loves the business side of design and as a lifelong learner she is immersed in adapting to the rapidly evolving design industry. All throughout her career, Carolina has been an educator. Now with over 20 years teaching experience, she enjoys sharing her wealth of experience with her students. Carolina is a certified member of the Graphic Designers of Canada (DesCan). An active member of the GDC for many years, she is the current president of the BC Chapter; she has also held the positions of VP of Media, PR, Events and was the Education chair for 4 years.
Diana Varma RGD is an award-winning university lecturer and columnist by day and an avid podcaster by night, where she helps students connect their technical left brains, creative right brains and entrepreneurial hearts for fulfilling careers in creative industries. Specifically, she teaches in the areas of design, typography, print management, book publishing and interdisciplinary innovation.