Head of the Class – John Paul Dowling


Posted October 10, 2016 in Design

John Paul Dowling is a designer and educator who has recently taken the post of Head of Department: Visual Communication at the National College of Art and Design on Thomas Street. With the college year about to kick off, he shares his views on his practice, education and austerity.

“I started my academic career teaching at Limerick School of Art and Design; it gave me the foundation to get me where I am today. From there I moved to England when Natalie, my wife, was studying on the MA Womenswear at Central St. Martin’s.” Dowling’s own freelance and studio work was “always grounded in typography,” he says. “It became a bit of an obsession.” While in London, he re-established connections with the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD), which lead to him becoming an assessor on their annual student assessment scheme.

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“I was lucky at the relatively young age of 28 and the relatively little experience I had to have been made Lecturer at UWE Bristol, within a year I was promoted to Senior Lecturer. I truly loved my time there, I had never worked harder in my life, and I had never loved my work more. With all that hard work came great success for the team, the students and the department. In hindsight – at Bristol – we were the perfect storm of lecturers, all from completely different creative backgrounds but all with a love of subversion in all its forms. It was all about the message, the story, the narrative. I guess everything still is. Our consistent performances at international design awards led to me becoming successor of Professor John McMillan as Education Director of ISTD.”

He returned to Ireland in 2015. “After 8 years in Bristol, and with a baby on the way it was time to come home and I was very fortunate my current position came up in NCAD. For once, I was on the right side of economic uncertainty by returning to Ireland from the UK not long before Brexit,” he adds. The new role as Head of Department of Visual Communication in NCAD means “more paperwork now, [but] teaching is still the same, and that’s the fun part.”

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Dowling’s teaching practice is still motivated by a worldview where the role of design and the designer is broad and impactful, but not necessarily within the context of the commercial imperative. “I believe cultural creation has an inherent morality,” he states. “Young designers need to realise that they are the bastions of culture; they are there to protect it for all of us.”

The challenge is “making a commercial success from culture creation when everything is set up for the lowest common denominator to thrive. Student designers have the ability to be game-changers; but not if they are looking for inspiration on Tumblr or Pinterest all day. They are game-changers if they are not apathetic. If they simply don’t accept the norm and push for something different creatively, different aesthetically, different personally, different socially and different economically, then I can breathe easy.”

“On a positive note, I think increasingly, students are drawn to work that does not align itself to commerciality in the traditional sense, but work that impacts on cultural and societal levels. Work that improves people’s lives – if only marginally – has more moral capital. Unfortunately you don’t find too many people commissioning that kind of work, but that’s okay too – that kind of work comes from necessity not from want.”

This outlook extends beyond the classroom, into Dowling’s views on practice and studio structure. “For me the biggest issues facing the designer today is that, for the most part, we are intrinsically linked to commercial entities and thus far we are at the mercy of the markets. Like many other industries, you can see a shift towards self-sufficiency. Studios that are putting their own work out there, whether in books, workshops, typefaces, speaking appearances, or slogan posters – whatever – smaller studios need to survive. If they are not willing to take on work that is either mind-numbingly boring or morally uncomfortable, they need to figure out alternative revenue streams.”

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“If, as a society, we become less social, and as automation starts to really become a reality, designers will most likely utilise the technological innovation. But creativity is a team effort and they will continue to work in groups, real groups, the same people in the same room. And what better place to do it than the design studio, learning, learning, learning all day long. We won’t all be working from home that’s for sure.”

As a regular contributor and speaker at industry and educational events and conferences, Dowling is very conscious of the representation and presence of design in the broader culture. “We [as a design community] have a job to do instilling the value of our practice to those outside of our community. If you can’t write about, if you can’t talk about it, then you can’t sell it. And ideas need to be sold!”

In terms of education, Dowling has had firsthand experience in a variety of schools and locations. “From what I’ve seen and experienced, design is taught differently everywhere,” he says. “For the most part, internationally speaking, only about 20 per cent of schools are pushing the boundaries of what the subject can be. The Americans have come back into the game in a big way: RISD, Art Center Pasadena and Yale; all with a very individual and clearly focused ethos. I think CalArts will have a resurgence too as we tire of the ultra clean digital design influences and the aesthetic becomes more chaotic and experimental. But that’s because they haven’t changed rather than being the zeitgeist. This side of the world, you’ve got places like Aalto [in Finland], Bolzano [in Italy], the RCA, UWE Bristol and LCC who all have a unique voice – if not at BA level certainly at MA. “

“I think in Ireland we might all be a touch similar [to each other] with the exception of a leaning towards ‘digital here, illustration there’. The challenge for me over the coming months and years, is to define who we – NCAD Visual Communication – are, and what we have to say, how we say it and how we represent ourselves on an international stage. Irish schools have trained some of the best out there. Considering we get little to no private donor funding like our American colleagues, it is testament to educators on this island.”

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Beyond NCAD, there is an imperative to extend design education beyond the colleges and to connect with bigger and younger audiences. “I think the real work needs to happen in second level education. There is an assumption that design is about aesthetic, but that’s the easy part. Learning how to think is a little harder.”

“Things are happening though. ID2015 was massive; OFFSET is an ambassador for Irish design; the 100 Archive; the Craft Council – not only by putting the ‘D’ in DCCOI, but by actually financially supporting. We need an Irish presence at every major international event, whether it’s furniture at Milan Design Week or fashion at Paris. We need to decide what we are going to target and go for it. And I don’t mean sending someone off on a Ryanair flight with matched funding. I mean sending a team, a pavilion, and bringing buyers to them. As a nation we have done it with tourism and it works, we have done it with the arts and it used to work.”

Education has been a regular fall-guy in an age of austerity and the results are noticeable, according to Dowling. “Austerity has eroded much. If our government could only value design and the creative industries like our neighbours across the water, they would wake up and invest, invest heavily. You think London became a design capital by chance?”

For more on John Paul’s design work and typography, visit johnpauldowling.com

David Wall is a graphic designer and partner at WorkGroup and a founder of the 100 Archive

Words: David Wall

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