Yale is celebrating more than one milestone birthday this year: As the University hits 300, one of its programs, graphic design, is turning 50.
The Yale School of Art’s Graphic Design Program will hold events May 4, 5 and 6 in celebration of its 50th anniversary, during which speakers will discuss the impact of the new cultural and technological environment on the profession of graphic design.
The anniversary weekend’s events include a series of lectures — many of which will be given by Yale School of Art graduates — looking at the past, present and future of the field. Topics range from design in the 1950s to the increasing impact of computer technology on the field.
Former director Alvin Eisenman created Yale’s Graphic Design Program and ran the program for 40 years until the current director, Sheila de Bretteville, replaced him in 1990.
Since her arrival, de Bretteville, the first woman to receive tenure at the School of Art, has ushered in several reforms to the program. She has succeeded in recruiting more women into the program’s faculty. And she has also been working to create a connection between Yale’s graphic design program and the city of New Haven.
“I wanted to link the program to the city to make social activism a form of graphic design,” de Bretteville said.
De Bretteville said she has also worked to give students the freedom to do independent work and explore varied facets of graphic design. To keep up with this changing field, students must be constantly attentive to the changes happening in the world around them.
“The present always mutates,” de Bretteville said. “Students must be conscious of the mutation, understand its meaning, and be critical of it.”
Throughout the last 50 years, the graphic design profession has splintered into many different mediums. The focus has shifted from print and text design to more technology-oriented media, such as broadcast, motion graphics, interactivity, gaming and cinema.
“Despite these changes, all of our students continue to make things you can touch as well,” de Bretteville said. “That stays current.”
Graphic design students are encouraged to manipulate their work with passion and intelligence, de Bretteville said. They discover the meaning of what they are making only during its creation, not knowing in advance what it will become.
“This is also true of the program,” said de Bretteville, referring to the constantly changing nature of graphic design.
De Bretteville said to achieve a successful outcome, graphic design students must be critical of themselves and the projects on which they are working. When designing, students must treat subjects with conviction and doubt.
“It is our project to encourage students to believe in design and also to be skeptical about it,” de Bretteville said.
Yale’s graphic design program admits up to 16 students each year into a two-year program of study. Program coordinators try to attract students who are skilled in making compelling visual objects and able to take a critical stance on what they make.
De Bretteville also looks for students with whom she can work well.
“Applicants are so busy selling themselves and their work. Some have forgotten about having a conversation with someone,” she said. “They must also possess a discursive possibility.”