Ikko Tanaka Essay for approach magazine

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To write about design education.” I accepted this homework from Mr. Ikko Tanaka exactly one month ago. I am no stranger to this area — I have tried to innovate design education in many ways throughout the 1990’s in relation to digital technology. All over the world I have questioned numerous educational institutions’ policies that lean towards the conservative rather than the truly radical approaches required by the new medium. I have sought to construct clear guidelines for design education that can enable the next generation of culture to be a healthy one. Yet especially this month in my travels and conversations, I have only found more questions, not answers. And they are usually questions that I cannot answer. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Mr. Tanaka, one of the greatest design educators in the world I have ever known, would leave me with this question as he parted our physical world on January 10, 2002.

Mr. Tanaka was not affiliated with any academic institution as a design educator professionally neither in Japan nor worldwide. Furthermore, Mr. Tanaka was well known for being a person that did not care for public lectures or guest appearances in academic circles. Those who knew Mr. Tanaka know well as I that to simply watch, just once, how he carried himself in all situations with humility, grace, and natural expertise was the opportunity to learn the pure spirit of design of living. His straightforward and unadorned manner of life was in striking contrast to the usual vanity and glittery lifestyles of the majority of designers. Mr. Tanaka was a regular human being—he showed us the simple fact that to speak to all humans, you have to be a human yourself.

Many people ask me where design education should be heading. What should be the curriculum? How many computers should be bought? What kind? Two years ago I had surprisingly clear answers to these questions. Today I do not. I realize now that these questions are merely the details, but the fundamental question needs to be formalized before anything of significance can happen. How does one build a career of lifetime inventiveness?

It is impossible to realize a new form of design education that is relevant to the ultra-fast pace of technology today. To create a clearly defined curriculum is impossible because the standards continue to shift. For instance, one month Flash may be in vogue, the next month a new streaming media standard could easily arise. To find educators that can maintain the pace with students is also impossible. Even students can barely keep abreast of the latest craze.

Contrary to what many say, I do not believe that this era of computers differs greatly from previous eras that are pre-computer. The young have always been able to stay ahead of the old. We can compare the emergence of the Macintosh computer to the emergence of the handy Rotring pen. However even in the era of the Rotring, within 10 years of its emergence there certainly was no “Rotring Version 6” that could crash the way Photoshop Version 6 can. Tools in the digital era change extremely quickly, often not for the better we are all finding today.

I write this short essay at a wooden desk in a tiny hotel in Köln, Germany. The regular ringing of the solemn bells of the nearby cathedral continually remind me of the sad thought of Mr. Tanaka’s departure. I recognize this feeling from 5 years ago when another dear mentor passed—the American graphic designer Mr. Paul Rand. Tanaka and Rand shared the same quality of honor and dignity that made it seem a noble pursuit to be a designer. I feel fortunate for knowing both Mr. Tanaka and Mr. Rand. The impact of such inspiration transcends good teaching, quality curriculum, or entire schools for that matter because they provide us with the core motivation to seek higher ideals in daily life.

The greatest form of education, whatever field it may be design, education, economics, science or what not, occurs when you have the fortune of meeting great people. Period. You will find great people by being earnest in your work, humble in attitude, and doing your best in all situations. You will find great people by taking the inspiration you have received from others, and unselfishly generating new inspirations to add to the pool of common knowledge. But most importantly, you will find great people by believing that there can be greatness somewhere in the world.

There is a book on Ikko Tanaka with the ridiculous title 'Ikko Tanaka: Graphic Master.' Ignore the book and read Tanaka's exquisite visual language through his own work. And some archived notes on Paul Rand's visit to the Media Lab are linked [here].


Copyright 2005, John Maeda.