Four Voices: York University Master of Design

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Four Voices York University Master of Design

Four Voices Interviews with four graduate students from York University’s Master of Design

Andrea Giambelli

On choosing graphic design

I studied architecture and worked as an architect, but I was determined to shift my career towards graphic design. I was already familiar with communicating by drawing and I am very passionate about working with visual communication. But I felt the urge to expand my practice in visual communication to include different approaches and issues rather than just conveying topics that relate to space and the material world like we conventionally do in architecture. I also wished to consider issues of representation that

are conceptual and intangible. That’s what brought me to want to pursue design at York. I was living and working in Milan but feeling the urge to transition to communication design. I gave a lot of thought to moving to Canada because I thought it would present new opportunities. In the end it has, in fact, been a very important choice for my life and my career. The York MDes program appealed the most to me. I checked out the professors as well as the alumni on the website and it all seemed really interesting. From the beginning I was pretty sure what path I wanted to pursue. I read very good things about the city of Toronto and the fact that it’s a two-year program means it was not too long.

On one’s thesis work

My thesis project makes use of information design and data visualization. I am looking at urban environments and specifically Toronto. Without getting into too much detail, I am using information and data collected within the city experience to create possibly more meaningful connections between citizens and the spaces they live in. I’m pursuing this topic in a variety of ways. I’m doing visual research — “traditional” design work — but I am also learning how to code for design and it has been a very, very big step in my growth as a designer. It is something that I wouldn’t have considered before. I’m also learning to output design work using computer programming in order to try to tie it all together, and I am learning the management skills needed to develop such a comprehensive project. Ultimately, I am proposing a prototype for a mobile application. On next steps

Right now I’m proposing an application based on a visual survey of five to eight questions that address an issue about the city of Toronto. All the questions address different key points, and each question will inform visualizations that address a specific subtopic in

greater depth. The visualizations will be accessible through a web interface or through an app on one’s phone. They will make use of augmented reality technology to allow users to experience urban data in the space of the city since we are talking about the city, and not just at home or in an enclosed space. I’m interested in interpretations of the city from the point of view of an engaged public. It’s a big challenge. Most likely these visualizations will ultimately be collected for a website where I can display them together. On developing one’s abilities

When I entered the program, I was sure I wanted to go be a designer but I was not sure what kind of design I wanted to do. Maybe branding, maybe editorial, or maybe information design and visualization. The York MDes program gave me the space to explore different paths and in the end I focused on what I really like: information design and visualization. This discipline allows one to balance practice between forms of experimental expression and function. I can be creative but I still need to maintain a structure that organizes the information. A designer needs to avoid presenting what isn’t needed, to avoid misrepre-

senting information. And so I think the first part my process remains the same as when I was working in architecture. On inspiration

I’m always looking for inspiration in other forms of design, or things outside of design, or things that are like not specifically related to design. I’m always trying to intellectually connect what I see to what I’m trying to do. But then there’s this other half that is more scientific. Objectivity stresses the need to understand information: how it’s structured and the manner that is the most effective to visually convey that information. On research

Research is very important. I did a lot of reading in literature and statistics. It also helped that I choose an elective outside the design program which turned out to be a very, very important opportunity. It was a course in the psychology department that was about civilization. From that experience, I acquired most of my research references which brought me to where I am now. On what’s next

I need to finish writing my thesis paper and prepare all the final design material. I

am currently engaged as a teaching assistant here in an information design course and I really like it. I didn’t think about it before, but I am glad to have had the opportunity to teach. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to stay in Canada or if I’m going back to Italy or to another place. I want to work in a studio but since I’m also very much enjoying my experience teaching, I may try to pursue some kind of balance between a job in a design environment and academia. I plan to work in places where I can do the kind work I have learned to do here, specifically, data visualization and information design. This program gave me the experience and tools I need to succeed. I’m not scared to work on other forms of design, but I wish to direct my career in a manner that makes use of my research thus far. This program opened my eyes to a broader idea of design, so I feel I am in a good place as I move into practice. I definitely want to engage with larger projects, either in Europe or here in Canada. I think larger companies hit a very interesting balance: The work is corporate oriented but it is data driven. This means that since these companies have expertise in using data

and information, they are more trusted by clients. This is different from just “doing a logo.” This past summer I worked in the Milan office of the design firm Accurat and I saw that they were treated with great respect, more as design consultants. I thought it was an interesting place to be as a designer, but more significant, I saw what is possible and what they are doing for design. And companies like that are doing very experimental projects. You can work with data to create works of art. You can work with sound. You can work with motion. Those companies are the best ones. I think they are using client work to create opportunities to fuel research and be experimental. In my opinion it’s the best of both worlds. I like the fact that we are free to explore here. I feel the beginning went by so quickly. If somebody new is reading this I would recommend taking chances in the beginning and questioning why you are doing what you are doing. But then as soon as possible, try and look for ways to convert your ideas to action because it’s really, really, quick and I don’t mean it as a bad thing. It keeps you working.

Lucy Bilson

On choosing design as a career

I decided very early that I was interested in design. I was always interested in drawing and buildings. It wasn’t about making nice pictures. I would try to design a garden or something. And then I went to a Saul Bass exhibition when I was 11. I didn’t know who he was or his significance at that time, but I remember feeling enthralled by what I saw. It was then that I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” In the British school system you can take graphic design as a course which I found very rewarding.

On choosing York

I received my Bachelor of Design from York. I enjoyed it and learned an immense amount but afterwards, while working in the private sector I found that I really missed being in a learning environment. I felt like there were things I wanted to explore at a higher level than what I had done during my undergrad. I wanted to study further and considered other programs in Canada but my undergrad education was an excellent experience so I felt York was a good place to come back to and study. I also recognized that graduate level study is shaped by the relationships we build with other people, so if I was going be based in the Toronto area I wanted to build relationships with people that

I could potentially work with in the future. On the graduate experience

Graduate study here doesn’t feel prescribed. It doesn’t feel like the nature of undergrad where the focus is achieving a defined skill set and knowledge base, and at the end, everyone has attained an acceptable level of proficiency. The master’s program is not without guidance, but it’s very much driven by your own interests and you still have to meet a certain level of understanding. But it’s understanding achieved through your own exploration and experimentation, and I’m a person who is very much motivated by my own interests. The York MDes program provides a lot of opportunities for a designer. An undergraduate education is pretty prescribed by necessity, but the York MDes experience gives you the space to explore whatever you want and have it fail, or find out you’re not truly interested in the topic, or experiment to find your real interest. Having the space to do that is quite a unique opportunity. On development

In undergrad I would do a bit of research then I would do a

collage and then do six pages of sketches and then take those sketches and refine them. Then do more detailed sketches until I’ll have the requisite four options. It was a useful process and it was a good way to work but it was very linear. I had a system — however intense — but it applied to pretty much all projects. Now that I am in the master’s program my process is not as consistent project-toproject. It involves a lot more research and concept-based experimentation. My approach is not prescribed in advance. The focus here is on what we are trying to say and on what we’re doing and finding a way to visualize that, as opposed to thinking of visual things first and then refining them. We approach a project with research or reading or looking at how different designers are working or what they’re writing about. It’s very open and we move forward while maintaining that open attitude. On influences

I tend to gravitate towards museums and galleries and learning about artists and designers. It’s not an influence but I suppose part of my process: I like to explore how others approach their own

work. I also have an interest in the institutional structures of museums and galleries. I really like learning — which is kind of a basic thing to say — but I have an interest in how knowledge is structured. I think that the acts of collecting and archiving are fascinating and I would like to further examine how they influence the practice of design. On what’s next

I would like to practice and write about design and maybe do some teaching so I can still be in a learning environment. I like not having a nine-to-five routine. And I like being part of a diverse team and working on different projects. On the program experience

It’s a really good opportunity to examine design without any kind of prerequisites on what you should be doing. I value the opportunity to be here and have the freedom to pursue what I want to learn about and create what I want to make.

Aala Sharfi

On choosing the York MDes program

I completed an undergrad degree in architecture and then wanted to transition into graphic design, but I was looking for a program that would give me the freedom to explore work or do research that I was interested in. I was interested in a program that would give me the room to be a bit more interdisciplinary. So that’s why I chose this program. I looked at OCAD University but I felt that their masters program wanted a very specific outcome. I looked at some schools in the US. And in the end

it was between York University and the design studies program at Parsons but Parsons didn’t have a studio component, it was just research. Because I wanted to do creative work, this program was the better option. On research

My research has transformed since I started. I was interested in questions of identity from the beginning, and at first I was trying to figure out a way to think about issues of representation in terms of space. I was doing some mapping work, but now it’s come down to my performance of identity and specifically my Sudanese identity. I’m using design to interpret Sudanese identity and look at how it changes. It’s a challenge because identities are not

fixed entities. On the program experience

I think my experience has been rewarding. A lot of my struggle in the beginning related to my difficulty trying to explain a thing that’s very natural to me. I didn’t really think about my Sudanese identity as much before. But my thesis has made me try to zoom in and zoom out, to think of the little things that make me Sudanese or the large things that encompass Sudanese identity. And now there’s an uprising happening in Sudan. It’s kind of crazy that I’m doing my project while that’s happening. I feel that this theoretical idea of identity as a performative concept is now happening in real time and I can respond to that. On developing over time

At the beginning I was looking at language. I was looking at bilingualism using Arabic script and English script and the juxtaposition of the two communication systems. I then turned to different mapping systems. What I was trying to do was find a way to visualize and explore an idea of cultural identity. I went through different ways of looking at it but ultimately I was able to narrow my focus

to a way that communicated to a broader audience.

On influences

I found a lot of cultural theory I read to be very influential. I On the design process also completed an elective in I started a lot of design anthropology and while I was studio projects just looking at the only designer there, that language and the forms course has turned out to be language takes. For example, quite helpful for how I am now is it possible to visualize looking at my thesis. The how things sound through elective gave me the tools to typography? Or, how can shift my thinking from an I visually manifest the difficulty anthropological lens to one of or moment of pause that political science, to explore occurs when I have to flip an idea of identity. It also gave between English and Arabic in me a look at the field. It made my head? me realize that I’m not the only person thinking these things, On her background that there are people who have I move a lot. My parents live in completed bodies of work on Abu Dhabi in the UAE. I grew similar topics. up between Canada and Sudan. I went to university in I have a background in archiEngland. The globe feels like a tecture, so it’s been good to very connected thing to me. I be exposed to people that are was trying to show that condoing different things because nected nature when I looked I’m quite new to this. Our trip at mapping for a time, but my to Cranbrook Academy was mapping exercises always great because I got to see pointed back to a kind of other approaches to graphic “identity flipping,” between design, including their thesis something and coming back books. And I did a course at to something else. I then began ArtEz University in the to look at how the notion of Netherlands over the summer identity is quite political. I which was rewarding. Just started looking at histories of being there and looking at political dissent or political everything helped me to find uprising and now that a revomy own place for how I want lution is taking place in Sudan to pursue my thesis here. as we speak, that’s what I’ve stayed with. On what’s next I have no idea what happens next. I think the program has

been quite helpful by just being surrounded by people that are doing what I like to do. I’m also teaching now and maybe that’s a route that I would want to consider in the future. But more than anything I’d like to practice. My thesis has fostered an interest in cultural challenges so maybe I’d like to work with cultural institutions or something similar. On her favorite aspect

I think what I like most is how people in this program are from different backgrounds. I was really afraid of applying to graduate school because I thought everyone would be a graphic designer and I thought I would be the only person that wasn’t. I like that there’s a lot of people here that are from different backgrounds. There’s a lot of feedback and cross-fertilization that happens here between people because they have different backgrounds and different ideas.

Egor Sokolov

On choosing the York MDes program

I chose the York MDes program because I wanted to further develop my own skills and ultimately, carve a path for what I could contribute to the design field. In a direct sense, faculty here have helped shape my interest in both areas, and indirectly, my interests have been advanced by the discussions that grow from critiques with both faculty and my classmates. These discussions have introduced me to a lot of methods that I was not aware of before entering grad school. They have also helped me to bridge the gap

between method and theory. I’ve been able to identify my skills and question my assumptions in order to develop as a designer and hopefully as a future instructor myself. On his background

After I completed my Bachelor of Graphic Design I completed a certificate in printmaking and I worked both as a freelance and in-house designer. But teaching was something I had a passion for and wanted to do at the university level, so I decided it was time to stop working and apply to grad school. My interest in a future teaching career was one of the main deciding factors why I chose to attend York. I know a number of alumni who graduated from the program and they explained that on top of funding, York offers teaching assistantships.

That was a huge draw. And so far, teaching has turned out to be everything I thought it was going to be. It’s like what Angela Norwood said: It’s using a different part of your brain because it’s no longer about you doing the design work but rather it’s about creating a situation or environment where others can pursue a goal. I am providing knowledge and guidance, and hopefully helping foster instincts in others to pursue how they see design and how they can work through it. On thesis work

I’m looking at systems in general, and specifically, the ability to systematize one’s studio practice through the ideas put forward by Karl Gerstner in his book, Designing Programmes. I’ve built from the work that I usually do. I had never before considered how variables and conditions can shape work within my own practice, but now I’m seeing that there are a lot of things that I can do based on the conditions that I can provide myself before actually making. Gerstner sought to take external subjective factors out of the equation. He defined a design programme as a rule or system defined by the designer that could help shape the

decision-making process for a particular solution. Gerstner stressed incremental, iterative changes as one approached a solution. These incremental changes allowed the designer to perceive the benefits of slight variations. He called it “creeping up on a task.”

was one of the main factors in my decision. I didn’t even second guess my choice coming here. Once I saw the funding and the possibility of teaching assistantships, I knew this was the right choice. I could safely take the risk of not working for two years to be able to focus on I think it has made a big differ- my research and thesis. ence within my own practice because previously I would approach certain things in a more chaotic manner. As I started looking at information, I started finding programbased ways of working and it started to fill a gap I was missing in my own practice. I started to understand not only how I can produce something original, but how I can also intentionally introduce controlled variables into my design process. On what’s next

I’d like to teach. I’ve have applied to a few schools. I’d still like to work freelance and be involved with what happens in the field but I want to continue teaching and pursue that full or part time. On financial support

The funding and fellowships here are significant, especially when compared to a lot of other schools. York’s funding

The York University Master of Design (MDes) program is a two-year full-time program for students looking to challenge the conventions of design. Our program accepts talented, highly motivated applicants, interested in a challenging, experimental and intellectually rigorous approach to design practice. We immerse students in an intense environment where they develop their individual and creative potential. The two-year experience begins with coursework and culminates in a thesis project that reflects each student’s personal direction for design practice. With approximately 14 students and dedicated studio space, our Graduate Program in Design is among the most intimate and selective in Canada, a distinction that complements York University’s status as a large, comprehensive research university.

We are also fortunate in having a roster of full-time faculty of outstanding distinction, and we augment the student experience through various field trips and workshops conducted by internationally renowned designers who come to York from various parts of the world. York’s Master of Design is a terminal degree. To that end, qualified students may apply to teach in our undergraduate Bachelor of Design program based on a variety of factors including creative aptitude, relevant expertise and departmental need. Where available, students also have the opportunity to take up research assistantships. Should you have any program specific questions, contact the Graduate Program Assistant in Design, Andrea DiFlorio Sgro at or visit

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