In 1965, Western Washington University’s Department of Technology was granted $490,000 from the Ford Foundation to establish a Visual Communication Education program, known today as the Design program. Since then, the program has undergone many transformations, merging with the Department of Art in 1993 and establishing its own major. On Friday, Oct 12th the Board of Trustees approved the program’s application to become its own department.
The Department of Design Chair Elsi Vassdal-Ellis said that the Design program had been discussing the possibility of department status for over six years. Up until the Board declared Design its own department, the program was housed within the Department of Fine arts.
“Design is not a fine art; it’s not a performing art. It comes out of an art background, but it’s a professional program,” Vassdal-Ellis said. “There are greater needs for design professionals that are separate and distinct from the fine arts studio.”
The Department of Design has reconstructed its curriculum as well as the degrees offered. Current seniors of the Design program were required to undergo a portfolio review process during their junior year; that separated them into one of three concentrations: graphic design, production design or new media. The new department is doing away with those concentrations to provide a more integrated educational experience.
The department offers two, revamped degrees in design. Students can either pursue a 62-credit Bachelor of Arts degree with a required minor, or a 115-credit Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Vassdal-Ellis said that although the department eliminated the three concentrations, the new curriculum provides students an additional course in both graphic design and new media. Both degrees require taking courses in graphic design, visual communication, typography and digital media design.
“In reality, they’re short one class if you’re to look at having a specialization and that’s where the minor comes in,” Vassdal-Ellis said. “It allows them to tailor some of their experiences that they’re more interested in by completing a minor.”
Senior graphic design major Lacey Nagel said that she is excited about the recent change to the Department of Design because it will create a necessary identity separation between art and design.
“Art is really an expression of what the artist wants to do. It’s just kind of what makes the artist happy and their style. With design, you have a client and they have a very specific need so you always have to change things from your original ideas,” Nagel said. “We’re not here to make things pretty, we’re here to make things work.”
Vassdal-Ellis said that while the design minor is currently only available to art majors, she hopes that through hiring more full-time faculty, the department can open its doors to non-majors wishing to minor. She said that in the future, the department would like to move its entrance portfolio requirement until after the completion of the 200-level foundations courses so that those applicants who were not admitted to the major would still receive a minor in design.
“I think one of the biggest things that students have to accept is this profession continually changes. It’s driven by current fads and trends,” Vassdal-Ellis said. “There will always be something called good design, but if you’re not willing to embrace the changes in technology, the changes in social norms that would affect the kind of work that you do, then you ought to find something else pretty quick.”