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Kali Nikitas: On education and real-life challenges

After getting a glimpse of the structures and dynamics of studios all over the world, we now come back to the very foundation, which is well known to most of our interns: design education. For the majority of designers, a solid, eye-opening and even mind-broadening design education is the much-needed boost to find their own path. Design education is obviously not only about getting to know design history, but also about learning techniques, forming ones’ ethical and moral design values and rethinking what design can or might be.

We are very happy to get some insight from one of the field’s most outstanding figures: Kali Nikitas. She has excellent knowledge in the field of design education, a close connection to the design industry and we felt that she has a great sense for what students might need before they even know it.

Regarding an educational perspective towards internships, what challenges arise when it comes to collaborations between young designers and already established studios?

Young designers, before and after graduation, head into a studio not really knowing what to expect. I find that the biggest challenge for students is managing their ego which affects both the host studio and the new intern. Young designers want their real-world experience to be as dynamic and supportive and self-managed as school. Is this a fair expectation?

At our school, the classroom has been a laboratory of experimentation and exploration. Students have been creating work that is not hindered by the obligations of commerce or promotion. When these students step into a studio, they are about to experience that which is not easily taught. Of course, many things can be learned in school about real-world practice, but the culture of a studio, the role of the individual and the daily routine is and should be very different than college.

In regards to preparing students for an internship, our undergraduate and graduate curriculum has courses that educate and prepare students for a professional experience. A lot of our instruction is about behavior and how important it is to be collegial, collaborative, and teachable.

Most of these soft skills are emphasized throughout the curriculum as a parallel to the producing of the work in all of our studio courses. You could almost imagine two tracks within the curriculum. Students receive briefs for projects in their design classes. They research, develop, and produce their ideal outcome. During this process, they engage with faculty, classmates and designers in the field. They are inherently forced to use people skills to advance, learn and grow. Are they articulate, are they boring or entertaining, are they listening are they engaged. Are the students on their cell phone or are they sitting at the front of the room taking notes and contributing to the discussion? We often talk about how to be a good student, and at the same time, we have to remind ourselves that many students do now enter college knowing how to do basic human skill building, but we are here to teach that ... shaking a hand and looking someone in the eye, for example.

If our school has done its job we have both prepared the student to be a good intern and we have matched our talent to a studio that is best suited for a successful outcome. In most cases, Los Angeles-based studios come to us, and they are required to tell us what they seek, how much they pay, what the time requirement is each week, and what tasks the intern will be doing.

By the time students are looking for an internship, they have a vague idea of what works within the broad design field is of interest such as printed matter in cultural institutions or user experience in ad agencies. This is helpful when they start looking to be placed in an environment that is inspiring and informative. All students understand that an internship is a test run to their future.

During the internship, each student checks back with the mentoring faculty on how it is going and if any assistance is needed such as managing a complicated issue or concern. Many studios cannot pay, and because college is high in cost, we do encourage students to decline unpaid internships. It is no longer reasonable to ask for free labor, and more companies are in compliance. It still is very hard to assess the value of mentorship and the importance of an internship as a method of teaching design and processes rather than just getting cheap employees.

Coming back to your mentioned experimental approach, how is the feedback from former students, did it help them in their industry career or even in fields outside design?

Our BFA and MFA departments in graphic design are more on the experimental side of education in the States. At our school, students are asked to think creatively and critically and be both experimental and dangerous in their form-making and problem-solving. Finding employers that welcome young talent to challenge the status quo is not common.

At the heart of an experimental curriculum are courage and innovation. Our alumni have been out in the field working for established studios, firms, and agencies and many have started their own studios. The college experience, the internship, and all that is learned from both is a formula for success.

A safe and expected design education is not that exciting and it inherently does not give opportunities to the individual to act outside the norm. Our program believes that mindful and responsible design can change lives and communities for the better. Our students recognize that they have something to say and through design, it can be said. The majority of our student work is speculative. We teach students to produce work cross-platform and more importantly to believe in their own opinion and formalize projects that contextualize their concerns and dreams.

The faculty have built a contemporary design curriculum. One that is always changing and evolving to meet the needs of today’s student. Within the design faculty, everyone has a thriving practice in addition to teaching. They create assignments that elevate an expected bachelor degree curriculum. Historically and still commonly, student’s BFA education seeks to meet the needs of “today’s” concerns. Our students are asked to look into the future and commit to shaping the future by asking “why not.” They are taught to be propositional and original in their student practice.

In a lot of design related studies, an internship semester is mandatory, is it the same in the US, or are there different ways to do an internship? How is the internship already integrated into a “normal” design career?

Each school is different. Our college does not require internships. Perhaps this is because we do not have the manpower to oversee each and every one. However, we do offer courses for which students register. These Internship classes are structured to help students find the ideal internship and faculty remain available for any help during the internship.

Students become more and more interested in getting internships before graduation. They need money, they want experience, and within our courses, in the junior year (and MFA year 1) we work with all students assisting them in finding the most ideal internship.

We received some rejections from exciting studios, mainly because they don’t believe in the internship-system as it works today. One studio would only work together with young talents on a project-based partnership in the future, another studio generally wouldn’t work with interns, because of ethical reservations when it comes to giving away the work, they’re not keen on. Some studios just told us, that cooperating with interns did not work for them.

Internships are not for everyone. The only response I have to reservations about hosting an intern or taking an internship is the importance of stating expectations. If both sides are honest about what they offer and what they can deliver then, both parties can make the decision to pursue a working relationship, or not.

I have to be honest, internships are either good or bad but if you believe, as I do, that all experiences are worth doing for the opportunity to learn more about yourself than I hope more and more students start to engage in internships. Although there are students that have reservations, perhaps they will entertain new forms of internship based for instance on short full-time commitments. Our students are off for 4 weeks in December and 1 week in March. Could students do projects during those times? I don’t know of any new or unique internship styles, but it is worth exploring and remaining open to new experiences.

Since you are well connected within the design industry, have you overheard any discussions reevaluating the whole concept of internships?

Funny enough, not really. I have noticed that more people are looking for a project to project assistance. Also, people are starting to understand that taking an intern means being responsible for another’s development. It is a form of mentorship, and it has a lot of significance. Maybe people are busier than ever and have no longer have the time to mentor?

How might new opportunities to learn look like for design students? More commercial projects during their studies, government supported projects for young designers or simply inspiring young designers to seek more self-initiated projects?

The best answer is hosting workshops. The way the young studios are engaging in the academy is very exciting in many ways. We have had huge companies like Facebook and Google come as well as smaller branding firms like Linked by Air, Central Office, Moniker, and Urgent Agency and of course the one/two man studio, Jan en Randoald, Alexis Mark, and Corners. They all gave fantastic workshops as if they were mini-internships and this is a small piece of a much larger list of guests who came through our doors. So one student could go into the studio for a long three-month internship, or they can seize a graduate education here and do roughly ten workshops with studios that have relocated to Los Angeles for just enough time to share their wisdom of life in the “real world.”

Sometimes sponsored projects are an excellent opportunity for students. Companies can come in with funds and propose that students take some time working on a problem in a “think tank” setting with the oversight of a faculty member. This is the ideal in-between-space. The sponsor is seeking innovation not usually found in the office. Creative freedom allows students to do work that is closer to their school work than straight up professional work that tends to be more conservative.

When comparing students from 10 years ago to today, do you think young designers are looking for something different in their careers? Are design students better, than they used to be? What has changed?

This is a question that I could spend hours and hours in discussion with anyone willing to listen. However, it may be safe to say that like all generations, students are always different, from year to year as well as a decade to decade. Students today, in the States, have more and more fear because they are financially invested in their education like never before. That does weigh heavy on their willingness to explore and take risks because it is human nature to not veer too far from the familiar when experiencing anxiety about the future. However, I am interested in education for the sake of providing skills that can make students citizens of the world, active members of society, people interested in being of service to others, and of course, qualified practitioners.

Do you feel that there are fewer students with artistic values and ethical principles than there used to be? Is the hunt for their personal and artistic growth set aside for rather practical reasons? How could that be changed?

I actually think that students are very committed to having an ethical practice. Isn’t that refreshing? Also, times have changed, and design practice is multi-faceted. One studio can engage in a number of practices under one roof. There are countless examples of this. Designers are not asking permission anymore to be anyone other than who they want to be and make anything they want to make. I find this inspiring and delightful.

We have the feeling, that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on young designers to portray themselves as already fully-capable professional-designers, even though they should be in a wild and free experimentation phase. Shouldn't an internship be a guarded time for experimentation and learning?

YES YES YES YES — Please tell that to all of the employers for interns.

Kali Nikitas Portrait
Kali Nikitas is chair of the Communication Arts and founding chair of the MFA Graphic Design Program at Otis College of Art and Design in LA. She taught and/or has been part of the administration at Northeastern University, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Kali has curated international design exhibitions, has facilitated TYPO Berlin and San Francisco, and she has hosted workshops and special events all over the world. Kali currently serves on the CalArts Alumni Council. For more information, just follow her fantastic Instagram account @knikitas