A 40-Minute Crash Course In Design Thinking

Let this short film on designer and teacher Inge Druckrey open your eyes to the design details all around you.

Inge Druckrey has been teaching design for more than 40 years. But what she has really been doing is teaching people to see. "You really learn to look," she says in the opening lines of Inge Druckrey: Teaching to See, remarking on the benefits of an education in art and design. "And it pays off….Suddenly you begin to see wonderful things in your daily life that you never noticed."

The 38-minute film, chronicling her work as a graphic designer and an instructor of design, was directed by Andrei Severny and produced by statistics wizard Edward Tufte, Druckrey’s husband. Rather than retreading Druckrey’s biography—she was born in Germany in 1940, worked as a graphic designer in Switzerland in the mid-1960s, and has since held teaching posts at Yale, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Philadelphia College of Art, among other institutions—Severny tries to capture the essence of Druckrey’s magic as a teacher. Through interviews with former pupils, as well as surveys of her own graphic-design work and those of her students, the film shows Druckrey’s gift for teaching others to see the world through eyes both critical and curious. Teaching to See lets us, too, become her disciples.

You don’t walk away from the film with a single penetrating insight; it’s more of a grab bag of Druckrey’s practices, ideas, and projects. Little lessons crop up at every turn. In one sequence, Druckrey describes designing a concert poster for the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s performance of a piece by Beethoven. Her first idea was to use the contrast of light and dark, evoking some of the turmoil of the composer’s own life. A large abstracted B, made from a page of notation from one of Beethoven’s manuscripts, dominates the piece visually. Druckrey explains that the idea for the B was there from the start. Next, she used staff lines to create a letter E in the negative space adjacent to it. But she wasn’t sure where to go after that, so she stared. It’s important, she narrates, "to give yourself time to stare at it and see what’s there, what does it want, what’s possible."

Throughout the film, these kernels of wisdom come not just directly from Druckrey herself but also secondhand from the recollections of several of her former students. One recounts how exacting Druckrey was as a drawing instructor—"I remember drawing a juice bottle and the constant correction, the constant back and forth; it could be very trying at times," he says—but admits that when he finally began to see what she was trying to get him to see, namely the relationship of the ellipses and other shapes that made up that bottle, it was nothing short of a "revelation."

These interviews underscore another central point of the film: Druckrey is a designer whose influence will not only live on through her work but also through the work of the countless others she guided throughout her career. The film is about Druckrey as an individual and the unique way of thinking—and seeing—that she instilled in so many others.

But the film did not begin with these grand ambitions. One day, Druckrey showed Severny and Tufte a short clip on type design that she had produced for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. They thought they could do better, and over time, a much greater project emerged. The challenge became how to most effectively represent not only the finished products but also the processes and philosophies behind Druckrey’s work and instruction.

"I normally write and direct narrative films with actors and fiction stories," Severny told Co.Design, "so making something out of a lifelong collection of still images by Inge Druckrey and her students and colleagues was a bit of a challenge. Since you have control over stills, it’s important to remember that every movement should have a purpose.

"We have used a lot of type and captions on the screen, which increased the information throughput and made the film more coherent," Severny says, speaking like a true Tufte collaborator. "Just like good design is seamless and invisible, good editing should be invisible, too, leaving all the emphasis on the content."

A particularly thoughtful sequence, one that brings to life Druckrey’s dictum about seeing wonderful things you never noticed, has her narrating a student’s attempt at developing a typeface. Severny lets the student’s capital letter R take up the whole screen, fading from one version to the next as Druckrey narrates the refinements taking place before our eyes. For those who don’t think much about type on a daily basis, it’s a two-minute crash course in "really learning to look" at letters, a glimpse into the interdependent system of angles, connections, and stroke weights that make some typefaces just feel right.

Severny hopes Teaching to See will be illuminating to both laypeople and those already familiar with Druckrey’s work. The film, he explains, "follows the good Edward Tufte tradition of focusing on 'forever’ qualities and not following any current trend, which should make this documentary valid in 10, 20, or 50 years from now."

Tufte, Severny, and Druckrey have made the film available for free, in its entirety, on Tufte’s site and allowed us to embed it here. For information on screenings and to read some brief reviews from some noteworthy designers (including many former students), head over to Teaching to See.

[Hat tip Swiss Miss]

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  • Georgia Gibbs

    The exercises are a great way to get your creative thinking cap askew again. Wonderful. Thank you.

  • Em Wass

    Inge was one of my teachers at the University of The Arts, though she made me and most of my class second guess going into design our first year, I still have the most respect for her. She was a hard teacher and would push us, but what she taught me 8 years ago is still a base for a lot of my work. And when I do something that I know is bad design or not quite right, I still hear Inge saying "Emily, this is not good"

  • Gthomas

    A great article to begin the day with. I was one of the fortunate ones to have had Inge as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute. That was more than 40 years ago when Rob Roy Kelly brought her to the US to start the era of "swiss design" at KCAI. I eventually went to Yale for graduate studies and spent the whole second year developing my thesis project on drawing for designers with Inge. Inge is one of those teachers that changes your life forever and no degree of technology can enable you to see what she can show you.  An important article in this day and age for those who don't have a clue about design roots or those people instrumental in shaping it.

    Gregory Thomas
    Professor. Director, Center for Design Research
    University of Kansas

  • delainanicole

    I knew Rob Roy Kelly's name would show up somehow. I was in his final class of students before he passed away, and these exercises were all eerily familiar.