Claudia Doms

Claudia Doms is a graphic designer and educator from Germany. She is a graduate of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie graphic design program and currently teaches at the British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow.

What was the impact of your experience as a design student and practitioner on the way you do research and the way you teach?

Being a design student and a practitioner have been two completely different experiences for me. Possibly the only thing that stayed the same has been working in different medias; printed matter, videos, spatial design, web-related projects etc. Working in open media formats is an important aspect of my teaching practice, and especially in the Russian context, where traditionally the outcome is clearly described, this can be very challenging for students.

As a student my work has always been much about my (very personal) views on the world around me, things I found interesting, disturbing, funny, unfair etc.; I reacted spontaneously to certain references and topics, which was also due to the (short) timing of projects. As a result, the outcome often had an immediacy and boldness to it, not seldom also a nativity; it was surprising and new for myself and I enjoyed the discoveries I made.

Once I graduated I didn’t quite know how to apply such working mode to commissioned work. Suddenly, I was asked to have a plan, I needed to know what the outcome would be, even how it would look like. There were commissioners who also had their ideas, and I became very shy to impose my own impulsive interests on the work I was paid for (also didn’t quite know how to do that). I think money generally changed my perspective and approach immensely. Money is never something that got discussed during my studies – nowadays I try to implement this discussion in my teaching.

I have never engaged too much in theoretical research. Back in the days, when I was studying graphic design at the Rietveld Academy in the Netherlands, writing was pretty much non-existent within the programme. We didn’t have to write a thesis and, although we did have some theory classes, they were more philosophy-driven rather than reflections on graphic design (on top of that hardly anybody attended). I think that has changed now.

After years of working for various cultural and corporate clients, the latter being extremely depressing, nowadays my interest is mostly driven by visual phenomenon and artefacts outside the established world of ‘good’ graphic design. I am interested in the everyday visual landscape that surrounds us, all kinds of ephemera and vernacular design as well as decorative and naive arts. I collect visual specimen from this everyday world, digital but also physical ones.

This interest in the everyday plays very much into my teaching. Generally my teaching is heavily focused on ‘making’. I cover the so-called ‘Studio’ sessions as opposed to ‘Critical Studies’ (theory classes which require much reading and writing) – although this separation sometimes feels rather artificial. I believe the term ‘research’ is often misunderstood in our classes (and moreover in the industry, which calls even a mood board ‘research’), therefore I often try to avoid using it. I tend to speak about visual investigations, it seems more accurate in the context of ‘making’.

It can be said that the collecting, analysing, reflecting, interpreting and translating of our immediate visual landscape into new work is at the core of my teaching practice. In addition, an ongoing discussion during tutorials about different types of practices and modes of working after graduation make an important part of the class.

As an educator, what are your main concerns regarding the construction of a curriculum?

My main concern as an educator is to create a sense of community, of support and of curiosity towards the things and people that surround us. Therefore, the projects that I write and guide are dealing with aspects of everyday life, because I believe all other big subjects are mirrored in those aspects. Where students want to take their analyses and interpretation is up to their capacity, interest and will.

I have never been concerned with constructing a universal curriculum as such. In fact, it seemed always curious to me that educators would write a curriculum and apply this vision to various contexts. How could I teach the exact same methods and contents in the Netherlands as in Russia? Would the students have the same reaction? Maybe not? Shouldn’t these aspects be taken into consideration?

A student of mine told me the other day that she considers herself an intersectional feminist. I like this thought. There is no one-size-fits-all type of feminism; there is no one-size-fits-all type of education. Everyone has different needs and interests, influenced by various cultural backgrounds and patterns: an intersectional system of family background, gender, ethnicity, wealth, ability and others.

Three years ago I found myself teaching at the British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow, a private school in which lessons are taught in English; however, to almost exclusively Russian students. It is a very particular context and risking to fail describing the circumstances accurately, I never the less will list some aspects of it, with the aim to give a rough idea of the situation.

My current students are very young, by the time they graduate with a BA their average age is 21. They usually live with their parents, not seldom they are already married. Not everyone can afford to study at the school I teach at, meaning a large part of students is from middle- to upper class background (although such terms don’t really apply to the Russian society). Sometimes students have their own drivers. On the other hand, some students have to work 30 hours a week in parallel to their studies to pay for the course. Some students study something else next to graphic design; diplomas, the actual pieces of paper, are a very important asset in Russian society. Some students are interested in the studies, some of them not so much. Most students are female – we currently have 5 male and 40 female students in the programme. This extreme ratio is due to the fact Russian male students have to go to the army, unless they study at a state school (which is not the case with The British Higher School of Art and Design).

The students grew up in Putin’s Russia, they have not known any other. They are not encouraged to speak out about their opinions and thoughts, not by the state and usually not by their families. They have a completely different idea about what ‘political’ is as ‘we’ do in the western Europe. Being political is not an option, politics are done by institutions who are ‘above’ the society. The only way to be political is to ‘fight’, to risk being put to jail over night without a reason or a fair trial. (I am putting words in quotation marks here, according to how I hear them from my students.) All forms of self-organisation are usually being prevented by local authorities, be it for propagandistic reasons or economic ones. In this climate, where everything is being politicised, most students consider themselves a-political. It can also be said that many students simply have too many everyday problems to deal with, there is no time to fight for a ‘fairer society’. But some do of course (often supported by the family), and kudos to them.

The international teaching staff (myself included) do not speak Russian, or hardly anyways. It takes years to get an approximate idea of the situation. I realise that it is impossible to free myself of the image of the better-knowing and better-off Westerner, as it is intrinsic to my situation and the position which I inhabit at a/the British university in Moscow. What I can bring in though, is a new perspective on the Russian (visual) context, to point out things that locals might not notice as it often happens with things one grows up with – and this momentum is also intrinsic to my position and leaves room for dialogue and exchange.

Relevant international (design) literature is hard to come by in Russia, we rely mostly on scans of books, which is obviously not the same as holding a book in your hands – especially for a designer. Once again, it can also be an opportunity to create something new, something outside of the context of the established.

All mentioned above has a huge impact on creating the curriculum, a curriculum that leaves room for, and encourages everyone to speak out about about what is on their minds, whether those are social issues or more unreflected personal topics and references – although those are often of course intertwined.

Finally, breaking the comfort zone inhabited behind the screen by many young students is another concern of mine. Facilitating and encouraging projects that require a large amount of dealing with the physical world that surrounds us is therefore incorporated in all projects.

How do you balance between what you bring as educator and what is built collectively from the experiences in the classroom?

I don’t really see a difference between what I bring in as an educator and what is built collectively from the experience in the classroom. I believe an educator must encourage and facilitate a collective learning process amongst students, as well as students and teachers. Depending on the process of the project some classes focus more on group discussions and feedback between peers, others (the minority though) are set up more like critiques with me as the tutor.

All projects are set up in a way that they become dialogues about our lives and interests and how we look at things that surrounds us, how we look at things that peers make and what (different things) we see in them. Therefore my teaching relies heavily on the curiosity that is brought in by the students and by myself towards all work presented in class.

What is your process to construct a more diverse bibliography for your class? Is this effort something you make explicit to the students?

If you are talking about writings from authors of different cultural and/or social background, I usually start with references known to me through my context of growing up in Germany and studying in the Netherlands which speak to me, so there will be many Euro-centric names. I try to embed, where possible, Russian authors, though I heavily rely on my Russian colleagues to advise me on literature, as hardly anything is translated. An important figure (maybe the most important one) when it comes to writing about Russian graphic design is Vladimir Krichevsky. However, once again, none of his many books are translated. We often discuss this situation in class, the fact that most prominent graphic design literature is coming from a certain group of people, what impact this has on the development of their own practice and how they can change this situation by contributing themselves. I am at this point not focused on specifically including writings from social minorities, if this is what your question is getting at.

And finally, what references, literature or resources have inspired you or were fundamental in your learning and teaching experience?

Looking at and engaging with the Russian visual landscape for a few years now has taught me a lot about my own (western) idea of making. Whereas I grew up with the idea of having to do something ‘new’ and ‘innovative’, an element of copying and re-making makes an essential part of the Russian approach. Possibly the most prominent example for such an approach can be found within Russian iconography: the best painters are not the ones who ‘invent’ new icons (this doesn’t really exists as there is a set canon of icon motifs), but the ones who achieve to give the icons something special, something transcendent. It is about creating the same, but different; to look closely at, and re-work the existing (tradition). It is also a very visual approach, as opposed to a more concept-driven European approach (‘form follows function’). This idea is something I (unknowingly) missed in experience as a teacher and practitioner in Europe and I am glad to have found it through teaching in Russia.