Kickstarting a module

Poster design by R. Cathro & O. Beckett

This academic year I had the pleasure of teaching into (then running) a 2nd year undergraduate professional practice module for UWE Illustration students. The majority of professional practice modules within the creative industries introduce students to a facet of their industry whilst enabling a broader understanding of professional life after University. This particular Illustration module had to include a collaborative element with a live component and was provisionally launched with a future looking brief. The premise of the brief considered how new technologies could develop the Illustration discipline and, or the profession. From a teaching perspective the module flagged up ones relationships with industry experience and academic practices when designing/delivering future based content on a particular subject, for a distinct discipline and within a specific program.

I’ll set the scene… was asked to teach a professional practice module in Illustration and I’m not a professional Illustrator and therefore have no industry experience. The initial approach to the module brief leaned toward the use of digital technologies through ideas such as the ‘Internet of Things’ and the subsequent development of ‘connected objects’. In essence a very interesting and forward looking brief for students wanting to consider new ways of making and thinking – within an established industry that has certain schools of thought on what it produces. As with the previous (industry based) experience dilemma I found myself in familiar waters (although this maybe attributed to my own expectation levels of what it means to practice and teach a subject area) if one considers that the ‘Internet of Things’ is still pretty much in its infancy – regarding the graphic arts and as a taught subject area in Illustration.
That said I have worked on externally funded projects that embrace the ‘Internet of Things’ mantra and I do have a specialism in digital technologies for print and fabrication. Despite this I still found myself questioning the level of experience that would be needed to successfully deliver an Illustration brief that was achievable within the given time frame and made sense to students studying Illustration and at this moment in time. There was also a program based consideration for the module after considering how the content would fit with other taught elements of the course and perhaps more importantly beyond? This then leads us to question how the students would relate to a sophisticated technologically informed scene and develop ideas for an Illustration industry that hasn’t really made this leap.

Speading forward in time and to reframe/tweak the previous future based professional practice module I did two minor things. Here’s the two things… thing one, I situated the core aspirational theme of the brief alongside two industry based quotes from Illustration academics – thus keeping the outook linked to the discipline (a gut feeling). Thing two, I repositioned the technological component from the ‘Internet of Things’ to the crowd funding platform Kickstarter (a phenomenon synonymus with the digital age), therefore the technological component becomes an enabler for a project rather than the subject of a project.

Illustration Academic source quote 1:
“You will want people involved who I would describe as T-shaped: very deep in one discipline but promiscuous enough to have the grace and confidence to move across disciplines”
– Ronald Jones quote from Freeze Magazine also used by Roderick Mills at the Interpretation Illustration Symposium 2014

The quote above was used at an Illustration conference to discuss future based practices in Illustration. The reference evokes a multidisciplinary approach or outlook, a position that might also be attributed to many aspects of working life today, especially if we consign to the statement that ‘there is no such thing as a job for life‘. That said (and without heading down the path of ‘jack of all trades, master of none‘) the possibilities for applying a disciplinary knowledge to ‘other fields’ can often result in advancing ones own discipline without making a departure from it.

Illustration Academic source quote 2:
In 2012 the academic Lawrence Zeegen, dean of design at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London exclaimed in a Creative Review article entitled ‘Where is the content? Where is the comment?’ that Illustration had become entrenched in navel-gazing and self-authorship. It didn’t stop there as Mr Zeegen then went on to say that the discipline was “obsessed with its own craft, and has withdrawn from society’s big debates to focus on the chit-chat of inner sanctum nothingness”. There’s more from Lawrence… “It’s time for the profession to stop pleasing itself and engage with the world outside”. In the context of this module the use of crowd funding attempts to address some of Zeegens concerns, albeit discreetly. For example the platform encourages submissions that identify and captivate an audience and articulate why this something needs to exist today. This activity promotes engagement with ‘the world outside’ and perhaps goes some way to offering something new to its field i.e. why fund something we already have? Lot of ‘somethings’ in that last sentence!

The above allusions to future practices in the creative industries was the starting point to develop a module that embraced the aspirational vibe of Mills ‘T-Shaped people’ reference and Zeegen’s ‘call to arms‘ that championed socially conscious practitioners but also questioned the stereotype of a discipline.

Below is the introductory brief that I set for a 2nd year undergraduate Illustration program as part of a Professional Practice module in 2015.

Massive generalisation to follow: Industry based Illustrators often work in isolation, are categorised by style, restricted to a pre-defined brief and as such have less manoeuvrability to explore a range of image making possibilities and set their own briefs within said industry. In essence it’s a contract of sorts, where all parties understand how the system works, agree and therefore everyone gets paid. Great!

What if ‘s to follow: What if you had a creative idea that didn’t necessarily fall within the (generalised) field of Illustration practice? What if you knew other creative individuals who believed in your idea and wanted to contribute? What if there was an untapped audience out there just waiting for the results of your amazing idea? What if the public were willing to pay you to realise your idea? What if you were able to broaden the possibilities of what it means to be an Illustrator today… imagine!

I had thought about describing the structure of the module but maybe that should be saved in case I decide to use the content toward a conference paper. I can say that the module challenged preconceived ideas about what it means to ‘Illustrate’ and promote an idea today. This concept based approach also drew upon the role of heritage and how creative thinking (that comes from Illustration) can contribute too ‘other fields’ – whilst enhancing its own. I’ll just leave you with some visual cues concerning the breadth of what happened.

Prototyping Workshop at UWE 2015


Pitching a project for funding



Funded Kickstarter for a International Collaborative Illustration Publication.

Extract from a spoof TV Show entitled The Show.

Teaser for a location based shadow theatre collective.

The world beyond the image

P.Laidler, Prop Idol, 2012, Inkjet Print

“One is playing with the world referred to by the image and the other world which is the image itself”
Michael Craig Martin

Some thoughts about Mr Martin’s observation on images and how they represent objects, albeit objects that we know primarily as images.

Something interesting things about props:
Many props are ordinary objects. However, a prop must read well from the house or on-screen, meaning it must look ‘real’ to the audience – or its appearance must resemble ones visual expectations of the object. Many real objects are poorly adapted to the task of looking like themselves to an audience, due to their size, durability, or colour under bright lights, so some props are specially designed to look more like the actual item than the real object would look – strange yet interesting.

Object traces:
Film props have an interesting physical presence as they are objects that are originally encounter through a mediated or often a screen based representation and therefore come with a certain amount of anticipation as physical objects. These expectancies are multifaceted, in so much as they are bound up in a specific type of image world where the object is designed for its onscreen and subsequent two dimensional presence. This potentially adds a further layer to Michael Craig Martin’s observation on how images operate -depending on which world we originally encounter them in – real or fictional. When drawing this kind of object one is accessing a further ‘world referred to by the image’ – the cinematic world. For example the prop is often bound up in nostalgia, connected to a narrative or wedded to a monumental protagonist who’s DNA resides within the fictional surface. Like Craig-Martin, it is interesting to consider what remains when flattening the object into two dimensions or in his own words, “You can see in my paintings, I’ve taken away the context, I’ve taken away the shadows, I’ve taken away expression, I’ve taken away the personal, and yet so much remains.” My own inquiry considers what type of minimal representation maybe significant to best capture a mediated quality of an object, and in this instance how a props fictional function can be preserved in an artefact that oscilates between multiple worlds.
See links to Craig Martin’s work on the Artsy website here.