The Dialogue of Teaching

The Dialogue of Teaching

SWING HALL, SWING ALL (2012) celebrates the joy of being a social being.

Newly hired Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Keetra Dixon is thrilled to join the RISD community, almost star-struck at the notion of working side by side with some of her all-time favorite designers. Despite many years of experience as a practicing professional, she sees herself as a novice when it comes to “blending learning, making and teaching into a unified studio practice.”

Dixon traveled to RISD from Alaska last year to lead Urging Osmosis, a graduate workshop in Graphic Design that encouraged students to focus on methods rather than results. “It was all about process,” she explains, “taking on methods used by designers they emulate and learning by openly exploring those methods.”

The experience was as educational for Dixon as it was for students. “I’m not looking for a lot of nodding when I’m teaching a class,” she says. “I’m looking for a conversation. Students at RISD are phenomenal: hardworking, on point, willing, smart and engaged in active dialogue. That’s a community I want to be a part of.”

Dixon is also energized by RISD’s educational philosophy and the emphasis in every department on learning through making by hand. She describes her own creative process as “medium agnostic” and says there is “no division between hands-on and digital craft” in her studio. “Developing tool-based techniques and restricting yourself to specific applications and outcomes is particularly dangerous in the realm of graphic design,” she notes. “It’s smarter to take an agnostic approach up front and then find the best tool for the job—maybe one that pulls the project in an unexpected direction.

“Students at RISD are phenomenal: hardworking, on point, willing, smart and engaged in active dialogue. That's a community I want to be a part of.”
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Keetra Dixon

”The more intelligent our tools become,” Dixon adds, “the louder the voice or bias of the tool becomes.” She is a huge fan of questioning and “breaking” tools. “It’s incredibly important to pick things apart,” she explains, “and find the little hiccups the maker of the tool did not anticipate.” This approach, she notes, is not unlike the longstanding tradition of using paintbrushes in unorthodox ways.

Dixon’s own work has taken some decidedly unexpected turns—particularly through the more conceptual projects she categorizes as experiential design. Consider Swing Hall, Swing All, for example—an interactive installation commissioned by Minneapolis College of Art and Design (where she earned her BFA) for Northern Spark 2012. The group swinging experience (pictured in first photo) challenged participants to stay in synch, with out of pace swinging resulting in collisions.

“The piece was inspired by the difficulty of social navigation,” Dixon explains, “and it celebrates the joy of being a social being. It’s about both the pleasure and discomfort of being close to others.”

Dixon hopes to infuse her classes with this kind of genre-defying work and is excited about the mix of students in various majors already signed up for her fall Experiential Design studio. In every class and workshop she teaches, she strives to push students beyond their comfort zones—to tap into the learning that comes from approaching things fresh, like a beginner.

“I find a lot of inspiration in partnering with others, and brushing up against people with different opinions creates a really rich teaching environment.”

As an associate professor at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), for example, Dixon developed a course called The Process Lab, which tested students’ boundaries as designers. “My goal is to expose students to the range of stuff that’s out there,” she explains, “and to encourage testing, innovation and continual learning.”

At RISD, Dixon expects to expand and develop these notions of discomfort and exploration, and looks forward to co-teaching with other Graphic Design faculty members. “For Design Studio I, we’re organizing the curriculum as a team,” she says. “I find a lot of inspiration in partnering with others, and brushing up against people with different opinions creates a really rich teaching environment.”

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