“We make it safe for students to take chances, and you can’t do that when you’ve got a bunch of drama queens.”—Jennifer Cole Phillips

Ellen Lupton + Jennifer Cole Phillips: Co-Directors, MICA GDMFA Program / Baltimore MD

“we make it safe for students to take chances, and you can’t do that when you’ve got a bunch of drama queens.”—jennifer cole phillips

Do you see this program as being particularly collaborative versus some of the other top-ranked Graphic Design MFA programs?
Ellen: In some situations, people have to collaborate. But in general, our attitude toward collaboration is that we invite it, but do not impose it. For example, the collaborative book project that we conduct with graduate students, like Graphic Design Thinking or Type on Screen, is by definition a collaborative enterprise. No single person would be able to do that by themselves in the time allotted, and the whole project is structured as a way to highlight the contributions of individual students. Plus Publishing Workshop is a class elective.

MICA GDMFA Classes of 2011/12

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

We feel that every student coming here is spending a lot of money and time on their education. So even though in the real world, collaboration is by far the norm, grad school is not the real world. People really want to come away with a sense of agency over what they make. I strongly believe that if people don’t want to collaborate in grad school, it should not be imposed over and over again.

Jennifer: Another example of a studio project where that option will be given to students, is in Core Studio 1, where we will tackle the Gates Foundation Record for Life. The challenge is to redesign the child health records all over the world. Students will be invited to work collaboratively if they want to. But because it’s a month-long project, we feel that forcing students to work in a group for that amount of time is too restrictive.

Visiting Artist Workshop with Martin Venezky

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

Ellen: So many groups are dysfunctional and we don’t have time to fix them. There’s always one person everybody wants to work with, the group that has no leader…

Jennifer: There are uneven producers. Some people do all of the production, while others don’t pull their weight.

How do you select your candidates for the program?
Ellen: There is an incredible amount of opportunity in chance. Basically, there are 300 people within this marketplace; it’s a very small group. Everyone applies to RISD, Yale, MICA, SVA, Cranbrook, CalArts, and that’s it. State schools are a separate market now. The applicants that are really good, have top pick.

Jennifer: But I think what we have discovered, is that sometimes the students that don’t seem on the outset like the superstars, end up really becoming the most exciting candidates.

Ellen: Every year, we admit some truly alternative people, which is fun. But it can’t be all of those people. For instance, we have a young woman who is outstanding, but doesn’t do any graphic design. She is so brilliant. Her background is in environmental design and she has such interesting experiences.

Jennifer: She lived abroad and brings a lot of global perspective to the group.

Ellen: But she wouldn’t be doing as well if she weren’t surrounded by people who know what graphic design is. Her class gives her direction.

Jennifer: In fact, her typography skills are terrible. The way I corralled her was, I equated typography to painting and said, “You know this.” As soon as she started to think about her typography as artistic work, the next thing she brought in was fabulous.

Ellen: Often students with a weaker initial portfolio get the most out of the grad school experience.

Jennifer: One other really important thing is that we try to avoid drama. You know, the students where you can tell it’s going to be all about them. Instead, we try to find students that are open and unafraid to submit to a community. We make it safe for students to take chances, and you can’t do that when you’ve got a bunch of drama queens.

Dinner at Ellen’s

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

Ellen: There have also been a couple of collaborative thesis projects; in fact, you guys were the first. Then there was a collaborative the following year…

Jennifer: Kern and Burn

Ellen: …and last year there were three guys who collaborated together. Those were great thesis projects. These collaboratives voluntarily emerged out of the situation. I’m hoping we’ll get a collaborative this year, but I’m not seeing any evidence. And it’s too bad, because it breaks the chain. I feel like you guys inspired people to see that students could do that.

How did you two meet?
Ellen: At MICA. Jennifer and I were teaching in the undergrad program. I decided I wanted to start a graduate program, and quickly realized that I needed help and couldn’t do it alone.

Jennifer: Ellen took me out to tea. She said that she didn’t have a graduate degree, but that I did, and asked if I would want to start a graduate program with her. That was 10 years ago.

Why do you work well together?
Ellen: We’ve learned a lot about each other along the way. We both didn’t really know what we were doing when we first started the graduate program. We made a lot of mistakes. We still make mistakes, but I feel like we finally figured it out, and it’s gotten so much better. Things like what students need…

Jennifer: How to balance things, course structures, how to bring guests in…

Visiting Artist Workshop with Denise Gonzalez Crisp

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

Ellen: It’s very different from undergraduate teaching. Conducting a graduate program is a much more intimate group. It is much more customized. It is also much more time-intensive. It is essential to have another person when directing a graduate program. A lot of the other grad programs only have one director.

Jennifer: Well, SVA and RISD do.

Ellen: Yeah, but I think grad programs typically have one person. Like I know Steve Heller works with Lita Talarico, but everybody calls it Steve Heller’s program. I think Jennifer and I are more in sync with co-directing MICA, and that’s unlike anywhere else. I would like to assert that MICA is unique in equally co-directing a graduate graphic design program.

Ellen Lupton + Jennifer Cole Phillips

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

Jennifer: And it’s not just a formality—it really is a collaboration. Ellen and I bring a lot of different things.

Ellen: For instance, I’m a really big picture person, and Jennifer is really detail-oriented. That works well for us and the students.

Jennifer: But also, I think we are both very strong writers, and we both love writing. That’s a useful similarity, because we ask that of our students. If Ellen had to do all of the writing and editing, that wouldn’t work.

Ellen: And we disagree about things all of the time, but I think that’s good.

Jennifer: Probably the most difficult is knowing when one of us should respond to certain things.

Visiting Artist Workshop with Peter Buchanan-Smith

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

Ellen: We haven’t always been very good about clarifying duties, although we are getting better at it. There is no point in having two people do the same chore. I think collaborations are like marriages, and it’s really good to decide who does what. So if I take out the trash, I’m not mad at somebody else for not doing that, because that’s my thing, and I care about it. Generally, I am the scheduler. Being clear about who has what chore is essential to co-directing a program.

Jennifer: Ellen is on the road more than I am, so I end up acting more as the presence for our program at the institution. I serve on some high-powered searches and committees where our presence is needed.

Ellen: Yeah, I don’t do that.

Jennifer: We’ve learned a recipe that works for us. There needs to be a balance of structure but also options.

Ellen: It can’t be too specific, or else it would be like directing an undergraduate program. But it also can’t be too vague, because some of the students have never experimented, or have never been authors, or have never controlled the outcome of their own work. Students need to know what is expected while still feeling like they have a safe place to test new things.

How do you feel about team-teaching?
Ellen: We used to do that, but not so much anymore, because the program got bigger, and we have too many students now.

Jennifer: It was a waste of resources for MICA. With the way that education is moving in schools all over the world, but especially in America, faculty are being asked to deliver more economically and efficiently.

Visiting Artist Workshop with Peter Buchanan-Smith

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

Visiting Artist Workshop with Denise Gonzalez Crisp

photo: ann liu-alcasabas

Ellen: But also, I think it’s redundant for what we do. Jennifer and I get impatient with each other. I found myself rushing critiques when Jennifer’s level of detail got to be too much.

Jennifer: Our team-teaching methodology is more structural, so for instance, we develop curricula together. But the course isn’t delivered by two people at the same time. We also bring in visiting artists, guest lecturers, and advisors for particular projects. This is a really important part of the program. People come in and expand upon what we can’t offer. So multiple teaching voices come in more organic ways.

I would argue that the students in our program get a lot more hands-on attention from the directors, not only because there are two of us, but because there is a strong personal commitment and investment on our part, to take care of our students. I can’t say that any other program does that.

We’ve joked that, when Ellen goes to bed, Jennifer stays up and responds to emails, and when Jennifer goes to bed, Ellen wakes up and responds to emails.
Ellen: Heh, that’s true. I have a farmer’s wife schedule. Students are covered around the clock.