Professor Peter Lunenfeld of UCLA Talks Graphic Design, Media and Art with Study.com

Apr 22, 2011

The Design Media Arts Department at UCLA features innovative interdisciplinary classes that cover much more than the basics. Vigorous, research-infused teaching provides students with insight into where art, design and media intersect in our culture - and where they're going in the future. Study.com caught up with dynamic professor and researcher Peter Lunenfeld to find out what makes UCLA's Design Media Arts Department stand out.

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By Douglas Fehlen

UCLA Design Media Arts University of California Los Angeles graphic design computer illustration Web Internet website

Study.com: Could you describe your educational and professional background and how you came to teach at UCLA?

Peter Lunenfeld: Eclectic describes both my background and my interests. My B.A. from Columbia was in Dutch economic history, mostly because I thought the professor who taught this subject was the single most interesting person I had ever met. Outside of the classroom, I was a varsity rower, and since virtually everyone on the crew went to Wall Street after graduating, so did I.

After a few months of selling American pension fund managers on the idea of investing in the Japanese market, I got bored and left for Wyoming, where I worked at Yellowstone National Park. After stints as a box-packer, bouncer and documentary filmmaker, I ended up getting a Ph.D. in Film and Television. While I was working on my dissertation, I got a job in the computer graphics industry.

My first position in academia was at an elite private art and design college. Teaching in their graduate design program was like getting a second Ph.D., and I've combined research and teaching in design, media and art ever since. Three years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to join the faculty at UCLA in the Design Media Arts department. (See how those words keep popping up?)

Study.com: How did you become interested in the field of graphic design and multimedia arts?

PL: I'm a humanist who teaches makers, which is academic speak for saying I'm someone interested in thinking about design, media and art, and teaching these ideas to the students who then go out into the world to produce design, media and art. I think that graphic design became incredibly important as the computer became our culture machine. Graphic design and its ways of organizing knowledge inform the juxtaposition of text and image, and their interrelated contributions to meaning become more important with each passing nanosecond of digitization. I've been involved with what we used to call 'multimedia' since the era of laserdiscs, and I never stop being amazed by what students are capable of making with emerging technologies.

Study.com: Can you tell our readers about your major areas of research?

PL: I concentrate on the impact of emergent technologies on creativity, specifically the impact of computation and communication on design, media and art. My fourth book on this subject, which came out in this spring, is called The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine (MIT Press, 2011). I am also committed to developing what I call 'visual intellectuality,' and have a pamphlet series called 'mediawork' that publishes innovative collaborations between major thinkers and compelling designers. Linked to these areas is my commitment to building the digital humanities.

Study.com: Are you currently working on any research or book projects, and if so, can you tell us about them?

PL: I am co-writing a book titled Digital Humanities 2.0 with two colleagues from UCLA, one from Harvard and the chair of my old department at Art Center College of Design. Don't worry if you missed Digital Humanities 1.0 - we'll catch you up! If you can't wait, check out a video of the five of us giving a talk about the project at the Humanities Center at Harvard. I'm also starting a project on the cultural history of Southern California, a dive into the past after so many years of thinking about the present and the future.

Study.com: What courses are you currently teaching, and what courses do you typically teach each year?

PL: I always teach the intro seminar on media theory for our first year graduate students, and an upper division class on design and society. Other classes I do include: an advanced grad seminar on what I call the 'Maker's Discourse' about artists, designers and scientists and how they write about their creative practices; a survey of optical media from 1850 to 2050 called 'The Fourth Wave' (the part from the present to 2050 is the most challenging, since it hasn't happened yet); and the research component of Design Media Art's Brand Lab, a unique, two quarter seminar/studio.

Study.com: What is the course you've enjoyed teaching the most in the Design Media Arts Department? Why?

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PL: It's a toss-up between my Fourth Wave class and Brand Lab. The Fourth Wave offers a synthetic method to think about media starting with photography, moving through cinema and television, and culminating with the digital. It's incredibly exciting to be able to offer UCLA undergraduates (and not just our majors) a way to think about the culture that they are in the process of creating, in historically and critically informed ways.

Brand Lab, which I co-teach with my DMA colleague, designer/media artist Rebeca Méndez, is an innovative mix of design research and design practice that tackles a different topic each time. The last time we taught it, the concept was 'Re:Brand LA,' which allowed us to do a deep dig into how we can reshape urban concepts of place and space.

Study.com: Does your teaching frequently influence your research, and vice versa? In what ways?

PL: Teaching 'is' research - the lecture hall and the seminar room are places to gauge the clarity and efficacy of my primary investigations. Research 'is' teaching - at least of that single student who is me, the researcher. Stanley Fish, distinguished Milton Scholar, former chair of the English Department at Duke, blogger for The New York Times and well known intellectual provocateur, asks the following question: 'What is the difference between a university where the instructors are well trained and perfectly competent, and a university where the instructors, in addition to being well trained and competent, are producing the research that is taught at other universities?' Producing the research that is taught is precisely what drives me.

Study.com: What advice would you give to a student who is considering pursuing a career in graphic design and multimedia arts research and teaching?

PL: You're not just a student, you're also a curator and cultural entrepreneur. You have to create ways to catalogue and store your experiences, the things you've seen that inspire you, the interfaces with which you've interacted and the bits and pieces of the world that all great artists and designers scavenge like foxes to create their work. Then you need to move from curating to deploying, realizing that a 21st century 'creative' has to be able to go much deeper than appreciating or even creating 'style.' If you want to succeed, you have to be committed to making meaning.

Study.com: What is the most important thing a prospective student should know about the Design Media Arts Department?

PL: To succeed in the department, you have to be willing to take on emergent technologies and sophisticated concepts - and make compelling work with them. You need to balance the demands of the department and its disciplines with your other classes, all in the context of a world-class research university. In other words, you need to think, make and chew gum simultaneously. Wanting to change the world doesn't hurt either.

Study.com: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to share about your research and teaching experience at UCLA?

PL: ULCA is this country's greatest urban public university. It's a privilege to contribute to its mission.

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