If your idea of a designer is someone who focuses mainly on aesthetics – creating an eye-catching logo or poster, perhaps – then talking to Visual Communication Design professor Bonnie Sadler Takach (’89 MVA) will convince you to start thinking much bigger.
“Design is not only about the product or what is created, but about the ways we can come together and collaborate for real need,” she says.
In almost every class Sadler Takach teaches, she incorporates a community-based project that allows students to get hands-on experience. The projects from her classes over the last few years span the local to the global: creating an advocacy and fundraising campaign for a local society that offers support for new immigrants; working with the Office of Sustainability to raise awareness of sustainability issues by recycling items found on campus into three-foot tall sculptures; collaborating with youth in Uganda to share an understanding of youth issues around the world in the form of a digital quilt.
Sadler Takach’s approach to teaching has its roots in her past experience running a professional design practice, where she took a strong interest in working with social agencies and community organizations. When she joined the Department of Art & Design – first as a contract instructor in 1984, and then as a full-time faculty member in 2002 – she brought the principles of partnership and collaboration she had followed in her practice into the classroom.
“It can be an improvisation, a leap of faith off a cliff to see how we’re all going to work together,” she says of these collaborations. “But what I’ve learned is that we’re really starting to build a community of learning that’s not just about what we do in our class – it’s about those connections with our community partners and people on and off campus. That really excites me, and the students really find it meaningful.”
This approach also supports the larger vision of the Visual Communication Design unit, which has earned a strong reputation for focusing on people-centred, socially responsible design practices.
“Our students are learning skills to take them into many, many different fields and areas, but there is this idea of ‘how do we consider and respond to issues that are critical to people?’” Sadler Takach explains. “We were one of the first schools internationally to be looking at this kind of ethos of social responsibility.”
“Even though we’re a small program, we’re very well known for this – graduate students will come from all over the world to learn in this kind of an ethos,” she adds.
One of the issues that has held particular interest for Sadler Takach in recent years is health information and messaging. In 2012, along with Pamela Brett-MacLean (Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine Program) and Aidan Rowe (Art & Design), she curated an exhibition in the FAB Gallery that explored the relationship between the disciplines involved in the emerging field of health humanities, which connects medicine, health sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences.
InSight: Visualizing Health Humanities was visited by over 800 people during its four-week run and included the work of students from several design classes. Sadler Takach was particularly impressed with an idea from Kim vanderHelm, one of her junior-level students, who designed a series of 12 cubes with different student concepts for the show’s visual identity pictured on each side. When people interacted with the cubes, discovering the different combinations that could be created by bringing them together, it helped to tell the larger story of the vast possibilities for connections across disciplines.
“This idea went far beyond a typical branding or visual identity exercise,” says Sadler Takach. “It went a long way to helping us understand the role of design at the beginning of a new area.”
The curators followed up the original show with InSight 2: Engaging the Health Humanities, an international exhibition and symposium held last year that involved people from across the university. “It was an amazing, empowering experience for the students and learners across areas,” Sadler Takach recalls. “We had medical residents, master’s students in public health and our undergraduate students here working together to design an environment that allows public health professionals and workers to be able to practice the way they wish.”
As she continues to give her students unique opportunities to collaborate with people on and off campus, Sadler Takach is also interested in the pedagogical theory that underlies this approach. She is exploring ways to develop a curricular framework that provides adequate structure, but still allows for flexibility to respond to the needs of students and the partners they work with in class.
It’s a complex task, but Sadler Takach’s years of teaching have showed her that the end result of an open, collaborative learning process is well worth the extra effort.
“[Our students] learn to challenge how and what they’re learning, and how to design their own lives, which then can continue after school,” she explains. “They’re initiating their own professional development and personal development, and lifelong learning.”
“This helps all of us consider our roles as engaged citizens and social advocates,” she adds.
Department of Art & Design