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Lenora St. Blog

The Value of Design in Our Time

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Natalia Ilyin, program director Cornish Design


It’s a new semester! And yet, it’s a complex start. The last few days have been tumultuous for our nation, and I spent them the way every Cornish faculty member, administrator, and staff member did: staring at a screen, trying to make sense of violence and insurrection, thinking about our students and about how this time is affecting them—affecting all of us.

Cornish BFA Exhibition
Cornish 2018 BFA Exhibition

I found myself thinking about Design, about the value of Design in our time. When I say “Design,” I am referring to our Department of Design here at Cornish, and to the creation of communications, which is what our department does. We teach communication design and illustration, game design and UX, experience design and animation. We’re the department that guides students to embody their ideas using current platforms—we teach them to make their thoughts accessible to others using paper or electrons: phones, tablets, computer screens, social media, print, video. For now, I will call all of us, students and faculty, “communication designers.” For, whether animator or comic artist, in the last analysis, we all plan and execute the sending of a message from one person to another.

When people say things in our country, they say them through the systems that communication designers have created. When they mask truth, they mask it using our talent and our expertise. When they reveal it, they reveal it through our skill. After watching events unfold this week, I feel there is no more important task at hand for designers than to “weigh and say,” as we say in the critical thinking business. We must think broadly, resist cultish dogma (on both ends of the spectrum), research, examine, and make our own decisions about what we will support and what we will not support using our talents and our skills.

class project post it notes
Post-It notes from collaborative design project brainstorm

  Designers, animators, and illustrators are the people that turn the valve of communication on or off in a society. We can turn the stream of discourse on. Or we can squeeze it shut, and allow other pipes to pump out disinformation, propaganda, and distraction. If, as a student, you’re wondering what you can do about what’s going on today, that’s what you can do: You can grab onto the wheel and open the valve. Whether making packaging design, animations, interaction design, comics, illustration, graphic design, or goofy little animated GIFs, you can support what you believe, using your thinking, your skills, your ideas—and no one else’s. 

Our very young, fragile bundle of states needs citizens who are educated to think critically, the way our students think. It needs designers who recognize propaganda and disinformation, the way our students recognize them. It needs intelligent communicators who weigh the layering of historical context, the grey areas, the complexities of real life, in the ways our students weigh them. Our society needs the stream of fresh insight—the ideas made real—that our students create and command—whether in purely business or purely social realms. Educated designers can foster a truer, better world. That’s the value of design in our time: that’s the reason we’re all here, learning what we learn, and making what we make, starting a fresh new semester at Cornish. 


Professor Natalia Ilyin is the director of the Design Department at Cornish. She is also Professor of Design and Design History and Criticism. Her most recent book, Writing for the Design Mind, was published last year by Bloomsbury.

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