A tour of ESAD

June 2nd, 2012, 4pm

In May 2012, I was invited to speak at Matosinhos School of Art and Design (also known simply as ESAD) in Porto, Portugal. An afternoon of progressive and theoretical lectures about web design had been organised for the students by young teachers Tiago Pedras and Paulo Zoom.

We’d been promised a short tour of the school, and as soon as we entered the building I became incredibly excited at the activity all around us. For me the best creative environments are multi-disciplinary, where ambitious minds are thrown (or come) together to follow their own independent paths. These are places where chance encounters and experiences can lead to unexpected forks in the road and unique collaborations.

As Tiago led us around the building my eyes were drawn in all directions, but most evocative for me was the impact on the other senses. Smells that I’d almost forgotten, such as the heady cocktail of inks in the screen printing room. The stink of sawdust and sound of band-saws in the woodwork area.

I noticed the collective focus of the technical drawing class, heads down in deep concentration as the tutor paced between the desks, hands on hips. I saw pockets of activity everywhere, and I loved the “free” rooms where students gathered in small groups to push projects forward without scrutiny.

Eavesdropping, we witnessed the disappointment of a young girl as she received a dose of honest feedback from her life-drawing teacher in an intimate assessment. On the floor, flanked by an army of easels, was a carpet of drawings awaiting critique, many of them somewhat amateur. I considered just how much more disappointment that teacher would deliver that afternoon.

We spent some time in the small but wonderful library. With heads cocked to one side we dragged index fingers along the spines of books covering every creative subject, pulling out interesting specimens to share with each other. We strolled alongside thousands of archived publications, pausing occasionally to browse magazines and volumes at random. From the upper level we looked upon a handful of engrossed students at the desks below, heads buried in books. In one corner a librarian tapped away at an old PC, spectacles resting on the tip of her nose.

In nooks and storage rooms we discovered machines old and new; a magnificent printing press buried under a pile of junk, a wooden-framed Telex loom in a corridor, iMacs dedicated to the display of interactive art, and a wonderful 3D printer packed with powder.

As I ate lunch from a plastic tray in the small canteen, the youthful exuberance of the students around me was palpable; each of them perhaps convinced a gratifying career of recognition and success awaits in their chosen discipline.

I remember that sense of expectation from my university days — a belief that in my case as a landscape/nature artist it was only a matter of time before I became the next Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy. Of course this didn’t happen, but the journey was incredibly valuable, and indeed led me to the kind of unexpected forks in the road I mentioned earlier. That’s why I’m now a designer.

In a world full of outdated or misguided web design teaching unable to keep up with the pace of technology and innovation, schools like ESAD stand apart thanks to people like Tiago and Paulo and their desire to bring curriculums right up to date, stay relevant, and ensure the breadth of this education encompasses much more than what we might learn from slavery to programming languages and Photoshop.

In just one day at ESAD I learned an incredible amount. Just imagine what these young students will learn from their years in this magnificent school, fortunate to be immersed in an environment of chance and unexpected opportunity. Life may never be so good.

Christine said thanks.

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Simon Collison

Designer, Fictive Kin partner, and New Adventures organiser. Speaker at design events, occasional writer, frequenter of airports. Thoroughly nice chap.

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