The Development and Implementation of an Interdisciplinary Foundation Program at FIT/SUNY: Thinking, Making, Doing

Leslie Blum and Donna David

Fashion Institute of Technology/State University of New York


Before students can undertake sophisticated environmental graphic design (EGD) projects, they must learn very basic skills in visualizing three- dimensional space, working in scale and “making things.” Because these skills span traditional educational boundaries and departmental programs, they often fall between the cracks. This paper explains the design of an innovative interdisciplinary foundation program at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), a part of the State University of New York, which incorporates “learning by doing” and teaches skills that cross the disciplines.

The program contains the traditional components of an introductory Communication Design or Graphic Design program: typography, layout, color, computer skills, design history and a generous offering of liberal arts courses. In addition, the program concentrates on the following:

1) integrating three-dimensional visualization

2) incorporating the concept of “scale”

3) introducing “time” and “space” as part of visual language and design basics

4) strengthening presentation and professionalism

5) strengthening hand skills by “making things”

This program promotes critical thinking and is unique in that it is interdisciplinary in nature and scope, gradually introducing more complex concepts, while building skills that are not routinely addressed in a traditional fine art based foundation program. Students have the opportunity to acquire skills that are unique to and shared by four different BFA programs offered at FIT: Graphic Design, Advertising Design, Packaging Design and Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design (proposed).

The program graduated its first group of students in May 2013. Many are pursuing a BFA in one of the aforementioned programs.


Stemming from conversations at an FIT school-wide retreat (2007) about a “common” foundation year at FIT, in 2008, faculty members from the departments of Communication Design (CD), Packaging Design (PK) and Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design (VPED), formed an Interdisciplinary Committee to conceptualize a lower division AAS Foundation that could prepare students entering the respective upper division BFA programs and better reflect the realities of the design professions. To bring the Interdisciplinary Committee’s vision to life, Communication Design, the traditional feeder for the AD, GD and the PK BFA’s, formed a departmental committee to revise its lower division AAS curriculum and create a truly interdisciplinary design foundation.

This foundation program has the appropriate combination of hand, technical and presentation skills balanced throughout the courses and aligns with the College’s Strategic Plan, to strengthen the Academic Core and promote critical thinking. It includes 24 credits of SUNY-required liberal arts to round out their education, creating a student who not only has design skills but also understands the relationship of design to the larger world.

Starting in the first semester, students have reading assignments and are expected to do both reflective and descriptive writing. The required introductory English class in the first semester teaches them basic techniques for both types of writing assignments. Textbooks are assigned for each class and the students use these texts as a foundation for their personal design library.


Note: We are presenting only courses that specifically support interdisciplinary education.

Year 1 Overview

The basic approach to the first year is to address the reality that students entering the program no longer “make” things as they grow up. Art classes, as well as shop and home economics classes, where students learn hand skills, have been cut back dramatically. The current emphasis on technology in the secondary schools reinforces the separation of the mind and the hand.

Comfort levels with professional software such as Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft PowerPoint lull high school students into thinking they are “designing” finished work. Easy and fast access to myriad high quality images on the internet dulls their skills of observation and perception of detail. “Research” begins and ends with Google. The classes in first semester are intended to break down their assumptions about seeing, creating, researching and synthesizing the act of designing and teach them to think in new ways.

The courses described below are unique to an interdisciplinary approach to design education, starting with formal abstract studies.

Semester 1: Relevant Courses

Design Studio I

Design Studio I introduces basic design theory, principles, practice, vocabulary and the analysis of line, shape, form and plane through traditional exercises in two-dimensional composition. Students develop and expand their design abilities through a progression of assignments utilizing simple and complex combinations of design elements, such as dots, lines, circles, squares and triangles, on a two-dimensional field. This provides a gateway to the program through a series of challenging abstract exercises, instilling in the students the discipline and dedication needed to be successful in the program. It emphasizes “seeing” and drawing skills, fundamental visual relationships and basic design vocabulary.

This course incorporates drawing and studio techniques, as students explore design principles and basic problem solving. Rendering exercises such as basic drawing, perspective drawing and creating visual translations support the designer’s ability to quickly sketch ideas. The assignments are executed primarily in black and white as the students develop an understanding and appreciation for the possibilities of the applied image and design vocabulary. Some assemblage and paper construction are introduced to assist in the development of hand skills and discerning visual distinctions.

Capturing Creativity

As a contrast to Design Studio I, Capturing Creativity leads students through a series of inventive exercises in which the student realizes there are many different sources of inspiration for creativity. Daily documenting of experiences, posing questions and developing ideas are put into practice and examined. The skills of writing, drawing and critical evaluation are combined to emphasize their importance as part of the design process.

Semester 2: Relevant Courses

The goal of this semester is to build upon the skills and knowledge gained in the first semester. Projects become more concrete and less abstract. Design process is stressed using sketch models throughout design development and carried through to finished model or comp.

Design Studio II

Design Studio II focuses on working with three- dimensional objects and space. Projects move from abstract through practical as students learn to articulate their ideas visually as well as verbally. The first project is a free form dimensional collage that is an introduction to how working in three-dimensions shifts the focus and opens up new possibilities. Students create a composition in a “container” that represents a dream, a religion or a mystery. They explore how to create a vignette by exploiting depth to establish a visual hierarchy and using the outside as well as the inside of the container as a design element. The students are encouraged to push the design towards unexpected solutions and consider the viewer’s reaction.

The second project is a variation of the traditional exercise exploring how multiple planes create a form. Students cut out squares, circles, and triangles and put them on a bamboo skewer, creating simple sketch models. This technique allows them to easily and quickly experiment with how the placement and spacing of the shapes on the skewer controls the overall form that is generated. Students explore changes in size, alterations in rotation, geometric to organic, and adding a void. For their final model, students choose their most successful sketch model and build it with illustration board, replacing the skewers with spacers. From this project they learn to limit the number of variables they introduce to a form, which builds upon the principles of simplicity that they learned about in Design Studio I.

With the next project (a variation of an assignment from the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design department) students design a visual narrative, using their own photography that is mounted on panels in a room with specific dimensions. As the project progresses, they create several variations in a 1/2” = 1’-0” sketch model using Bristol board. They experiment with scale and placement of photos to tell their stories. They learn that color, size, direction of lines or shapes in a photo, or series of photos, can lead a viewer through a space or encourage them to turn a corner to explore.

A final 3/4” = 1’-0” final model of the room is made of foamcore. Students photograph this model at “eye level” with scale figures to illustrate the illusion of a real space. They learn to visualize the project at full scale and how the viewer will experience it. In the end, they become empowered by completing this rigorous and foreign project that initially seemed quite daunting. They have sharpened their designer’s eye, paying attention to visual details as they move through their surroundings.

The semester ends with an extension of the room project, now referred to as an “installation” hypothetically on view for the public at a specified location. Students must translate the “essence” of their room design
and narrative to an invitation and a street banner. The invitation uses innovative folds or “pop-ups” to reference the composition within the room. Designing the banner forces them to apply the imagery that they have developed for use in a 3D environment on a two- dimensional plane, reinforcing what they learned in Design Studio I. They study readability and legibility of typography in oversized work, and are continually encouraged to compare what they see on the computer screen and what they see at full scale, which helps them internalize what works and what doesn’t.

Visual Language

Students learn to break down a visual message to interpret and create graphic images and symbols that communicate meaningful information. References and reading material in visual rhetoric and semiotics as well as analysis of contemporary designers’ use of symbols and symbolic imagery are addressed. Projects include a high contrast, stylized symbol set and the creation of visual puns, a commonly used advertising technique. A basic “research” project is assigned in which students create a simple booklet or pdf presentation about symbols based on “observation” as research, in addition to library and internet sources. Students are encouraged to create their own themes, preferably based on personal experience. The goal is an understanding of the historical and cultural roots of symbols.

Year 1 Review

At the end of this first year, students are asked to bring in select projects from semester 1 and 2 for review by faculty and classmates. During this time, students reflect on what they have learned, make connections between assignments and realize how far they have progressed.

Year 2 Overview

The second year is a bridge from the introductory year of the Communication Design Foundation, with its abstract, theoretical approach, to the four BFA programs. Each profession is introduced in its respective course. Projects become more concrete and challenging, requiring the students to utilize the conceptual and technical skills they acquired during the first year, while incorporating “real world” content in industry-based assignments.

Semester 3: Relevant Courses

The third semester of the program is very unique to FIT. Students are introduced to four majors in four separate courses: Foundation in Graphic Design, Foundation in Advertising Design, Foundation in Packaging Design and Foundation in Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design. These are specialized classes taught by a faculty member from that program.

These classes are mixture of projects, lectures, field trips, guest lecturers and alumni visits, designed to provide exposure to the discipline. The faculty teaching these courses have experimented with using a common theme for the semester to reduce the amount of research a student must generate for each project. Themes extend beyond the student’s experience as a way to move them out of their comfort zone and encourage them to utilize research for ideas and design directions. Last semester’s theme was “science,” chosen to loosely coincide with the STEM efforts in America’s high schools. Faculty diversely interpreted this theme; topics included food science, human prostheses, wind power, the Mars Rover and a proposed high tech laboratory that floats on the ocean’s currents.

Students are encouraged to throw away assumptions, be original and work through assignments from concept to finished printed comprehensives and/ or three-dimensional models. They are reminded to use skills, concepts and techniques from the previous two semesters and are expected to make group or individual presentations in each course, increasing their comfort level in this area.

“Foundation in” Courses

The projects in Foundation in Graphic Design include design of a logo and its applications for a fictitious company. They also design a complex printed promotional piece that reflects a unique visual identity for their company. From this exercise, the student begins to understand that a logo alone does not embody the brand of a product or service. In keeping with the three dimensional aspect of the program, they experiment with the materials and form of the printed piece.

The projects in Foundation in Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design include representing a brand in three dimensions, a table-top display unit and a larger scale kiosk project. The latter is a group project.

Students experience more complex communication issues working with full size forms. Concepts of scale are reinforced by making models and placing them in the environment around the college. The students are introduced to fabrication methods in the department’s workshop and they experience the process of collaboration when working on larger scale projects.

Foundation in Packaging Design provides three- dimensional projects at a smaller scale, and reinforces the concept of a brand. In Foundation in Advertising Design, students focus on developing concepts and presenting messages to the public, which can include applications in the environment, such as bus shelters, guerrilla advertising and of course, digital displays in Times Square.

Over the course of these three semesters, faculty work to reinforce design methodology in a studio setting. All courses stress observation, research and writing, the process of design, and verbal and visual presentations. In addition, students experience the interconnection between digital and hand skills.

Design History

To parallel the four Foundation courses, Design History expands the traditional content of graphic and advertising history to incorporate the history of packaging, environmental graphic design and exhibition design. Examples of cutting-edge contemporary design in all of those fields are presented and discussed as well. The course introduces important concepts, movements, artists and technologies that have shaped design in the past and are changing design in the early 21st Century. The students study design in context, the role of design as a reflection of culture as well as its ability to influence social change. While this is primarily a class to study visual history, they learn the vocabulary and research techniques to analyze and write about design, whether their own work or works by others. All of the assignments involve the integration of images and words to communicate an idea, whether it be written or spoken. Some of the assignments involve writing short, succinct paragraphs supporting their analysis of a design, idea or cultural touchstone so that students learn to write effectively. There are team projects and debates that foster peer to peer learning as well as encouraging students to develop their own definition of what constitutes “good” design. The class moves away from rote memorization to learning in context, encouraging individual thinking. The debates also sharpen their presentation skills, especially in terms of persuading an audience.

Semester 3 Review

At the end of semester 3, students are asked to bring in and display projects from the four foundation courses, just as they did at the end of semester 2. This time is used for reflection in terms of their progress and in relationship to the work done by other students. They can use this review to assess their strengths and solidify their decisions about which program to choose to earn their BFA. This final review also allows the faculty to see what has been done in other sections of the class and to compare notes.

Semester 4: Relevant Courses

This semester is the final one before a student graduates from the AAS program. The goal is for students to synthesize all of the concepts and skills they have learned over the previous three semesters.

The fourth semester features Capstone Design Studio. The first half of this course is devoted to a group project in which the students develop brand and design strategy. Guided by faculty, each group invents a fictitious forward thinking multifaceted company. The group then assigns the roles each student will assume over the course of the project and chooses a leader who is responsible for keeping the project moving and ensuring proper communication with the professor.

The project includes a research lesson with a librarian in the FIT Library. Each group writes a five to seven page creative brief, including concept boards, a basic analysis of the competition and a bibliography. They are asked to describe the company and what it produces, whether it is a product or service, based on library research. To help them understand today’s emerging business models, they must include information about the company’s involvement with the community and its sustainability practices. The design strategy for each company must include aspects from all three “foundation” courses from the previous semester: packaging, advertising and a three- dimensional component such as signage, displays or information panels. Graphic design is covered within all of these components, and includes traditional print applications as well as ideas for smartphone apps, web sites or tablets.

The students learn the advantages and disadvantages of working in a group. This is a hard lesson to learn. Periodically, class discussion is about handling issues that arise. These are lessons they will use well into the future.

Presentation technique is stressed in this program to help students with communication skills and to build confidence. The group project culminates with a formal presentation to the class and invited guests from industry. The presentation consists of on-screen visuals and an assortment of comps and models unique to each project. Each student is expected to speak during the presentation.

The second and final project in this course is essentially the same as the first—students devise a fictitious company, develop a design strategy and design and apply a brand identity to it. The difference here is that students work individually on this project. They are expected to use all the skills learned previously as they continue to work through the end of the semester. This project is used for assessment purposes to gauge core competencies for graduates from the AAS program.


The FIT Communication Design Foundation AAS curriculum is an important step towards an interdisciplinary approach to design education that crosses the disciplinary boundaries and allows the students to think in multiple modalities. This curriculum approaches design as a creative process that synthesizes “thinking making doing.” The program more closely mirrors the professional world today where firms are expected to design a broad variety of components for a given project utilizing a variety of media. The demands of business and technology have blurred the divisions between disciplines, requiring practitioners to be comfortable working across those lines. The expectation is that the students will carry their experiences beyond the classroom and into the built world.

The program will produce designers who are able to utilize diverse knowledge and skills in order to work well in collaborative teams. Working in teams builds social skills that students will need working with other professionals to achieve their designs, a reality of large- scale projects. They get a healthy respect for what they don’t know and gain confidence with the skills they do have. They will understand the advantages of working with specialists, making them better clients.

“Learning by making” and working three- dimensionally doesn’t just help those professionals who choose to work as environmental graphic designers; all design work is strengthened by understanding visual communication in the built environment. Regardless of the choice of major, FIT Communication Design Foundation AAS students have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of work in three-dimensional space.

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