Two Cultures, One Design

Danish Lecturer René Bennyson (left) and American Professor John Drew

Professor John Drew has taught graphic design at Cal State Fullerton for 16 years. One secret of his longevity is an openness to new ideas, especially if they improve student outcomes. So this fall he tried something he had never done before, and integrated a group of international students into his classes.

For two weeks in September, University College of Northern Denmark Lecturer René Bennyson and eight of his graphic design students were assimilated with forty-eight of Drew’s students. This pilot program, “Graphic Design in a Global Market: An American-Danish Perspective,” was launched by University Extended Education (UEE) as a way to foster cross-cultural collaboration between CSUF and international students.

Ditte Pihl

“We knew Americans did things differently. But to actually see it, a different speed, design process, and work method, it was still surprising.”

Bennyson and Drew (along with guest speakers) alternated lectures on graphic design perspectives from their respective countries. But the real cultural integration came through a collaborative project: eight groups, each led by a Danish student, were formed and tasked with creating UEE outreach materials for a Western European market.

“We knew Americans did things differently. But to actually see it, a different speed, design process, and work method, it was still surprising,” said Ditte Pihl.

Initially, the students’ differing approaches clashed. This was not unexpected; it was encouraged. Danish students are deliberative, researching heavily and creating a limited number of designs that are supported by their findings. Americans may skip research altogether. Instead, they make quick decisions and produce a wide range of design options.

“Right away, the American students starting putting forth all these ideas, and we just kept saying, ‘Hang on, we need to do our research first,’” recalled Danish student Kasper Legarth.

This is what Bennyson hoped would happen. “We are strategic. We keep questioning the problem. But if you keep questioning, you might not come to a solution. Americans are good at making decisions and going forward,” he said. “I want my students to understand their process by experiencing it, engaging with it. That’s how you learn new approaches.”

Additionally, Drew’s classroom was reflecting a new trend: graphic design is going global. Though it was nearly unheard of when either professor began teaching, it is no longer uncommon for designers to collaborate with colleagues from around the world. Often, these collaborations are conducted solely through e-mail and phone calls. This trend is now supported and encouraged by emerging technology. Adobe, the world’s largest producer of graphic-design tools, recently released their Creative Cloud, which allows designers to share files nearly instantly and effortlessly.

"Knowing how to collaborate cross-culturally is becoming a necessity."

In fact, when Bennyson and his class visited an ad agency in Santa Ana, they talked with an in-house graphic designer who had recently collaborated with a designer in Europe he had never met.

“I knew it was happening in Danish ad agencies. It’s happening here as well. Knowing how to collaborate cross-culturally is becoming a necessity,” Bennyson said.

Like most of the American students, Jason Bonjoc initially found it difficult to adapt to a different style: “This was basically a four-week project squeezed into two weeks. We wanted to go breakneck speed and they’re deliberately paced. But in the end, though their method was almost the opposite of ours, I can see that it still manages to work,” he noted.

“It was fascinating watching them meeting in the middle,” said Drew. “I was happy to see my students learn about breaking down complex problems in design, and then use that information to make decisions that have facts and reasoning behind them.”

Though the students worked on their projects during class time, the truncated production schedule meant frequent e-mails, phone calls, and late nights were required to ensure deadlines were met. For some, this out-of-class collaboration made the assignment all the more meaningful.

“I took three of the Danish students out for coffee, and it was one of the most enlightening experiences of my college career,” said Bonjoc, who doesn’t recall ever meeting someone from Denmark before. “We just talked about common frustrations, experience with design, and our daily lives. I realized that we are so different, but also the same, united in a passion for design. To really grasp that—there’s no other feeling like it. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”

Students collaborating

“I realized that we are so different, but also the same, united in a passion for design. To really grasp that—there's no other feeling like it. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything.”

In their two weeks here, the Danish students not only completed their assignments, but still had time to visit advertising agencies throughout the region—DGWB, Grand Central Arts Center, and The Truth Agency in Santa Ana; Saatchi & Saatchi in LA—as well as attend baseball, football, and hockey sporting events. On their last day on campus, the groups presented their finished products to UEE administrators, various CSUF College of the Arts faculty, as well as interested students and staff members. Before discussing her groups’ design, Pihl offered some final thoughts about her time in America.

“This collaboration has become an important tool for us, one we can incorporate into our daily design work, and that we can present as a skill set for future employers,” she said. “When we leave, we will not only have memories of palm trees and big hamburgers to take home with us. We will also take this experience, which will make us better designers.”