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By: Nicholas Ducassi (A'10)
When the Carnegie Mellon freshman design major opens his eyes, the sunlight shining through his dorm room window seems a tad too bright. And he feels too well rested for just six hours of sleep—especially after getting practically no shut eye for most of the week. He looks at the time displayed on his phone. It’s not morning; it’s 6 pm. His mid-term critique for his Design Studio class was nine hours ago, meaning he missed his chance to expound upon his project with his professor, which is expected from each of the students. He had already been struggling in the class. Now this. If that’s not enough, his flight home for spring break departed two hours ago.
When Justin Edmund gets his assignment back a few weeks later, it’s accompanied by a yellow sticky note that reads: Set up a meeting with me.
“Oh my God,” he thinks. “I’m getting kicked out of school.”
He had seen this coming, but not because he hasn’t worked hard. If anything, he has overworked himself to compensate for having never taken so much as a drawing class before enrolling at CMU. He did have plenty of experience growing up, just not in design. By the time he was just six years old, he was a successful actor, both in commercials and TV shows. Then, in 1994, he landed the role of the son of Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in “The Preacher’s Wife” motion picture.
But when it came time to apply to college, Edmund realized his passions lay elsewhere—namely video games, sketching, and the Internet. He applied to several top design schools with a portfolio comprised mostly of roughly sketched logos and Web site ideas. Evidently, by getting accepted to Carnegie Mellon, he showed promise. But the potential he demonstrated in his application portfolio is—by his own admission—lacking in his school work. His design classes mystified him, and his grades weren’t good.
For some, it might be hard to comprehend why studying design is difficult. “It’s not just about making pretty things,” explains Dan Boyarski, a professor of design. “It’s about understanding human nature, understanding other people.” And preparing students to be able to design everything from furniture to Web sites is no easy task. Good designers, says Boyarski, possess not only sharp intuition and a creative mind, but also a grasp of psychology and form.
And it’s exactly those traits that Edmund’s Design Studio professor isn’t convinced his student can master.
When the wary student steps into the conference room for his meeting, he scans the table, where professors are seated. His Design Studio professor isn’t there. “Why are you here?” one of them asks. Not sure what to do, Edmund is about to leave. Then, a voice stops him. “I asked him to be here.” His Design Studio professor has just entered the room. “Sit down, Justin.”
Edmund is clearly told that if he plans on making it to his sophomore year—let alone graduating from the College of Fine Arts’ School of Design—he needs to start grasping the concepts he’s being taught. The stern words make the student reevaluate why he chose to pursue design. He was an avid video gamer growing up, and technology piqued his interest in studying design. He hacked into video game servers in middle school, and by high school he taught himself rudimentary Internet programming and designed basic Web sites for his friends. Some form of communication design was in his future, or so he thought.
Edmund’s mother couldn’t offer much advice: “I would see the other students’ work, and I thought, ‘That’s such a pretty chair. Why can’t Justin make a chair? Why can’t he study industrial design?’ Instead, he had his computer set up with all these buttons you could push. I didn’t understand it at all.”(Continued …)