THE WEBS OF ACADEME

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WITH LESS THAN A SEMESTER LEFT AT COOPER UNION, Mike Essl carries a resume that is fortified like a seasoned art director's. Freelancing with SiteSpecific, an 8-month-old interactive design agency in New York, Essl art directed the acclaimed Duracell site (www.duracell.com, rated among 1995's top 10 Web sites by Mecklermedia's Internet World), SiteSpecific's graphic identity and a raft of spec sites.

The Duracell project was "so ambitious that I didn't do any homework last semester," Essl confides, referring to the particularly time-consuming task of creating the Real McCoy Toy Test, an interactive game that features windup toys from vintage Duracell commercials.

Essl's rocketing career path just hints at some of the changes at advertising and design programs around the country, which are shaking up established curricula with new-media innovations. While Essl and many pioneering designers are self-taught, courses in Web design are popping up everywhere; within the last year, almost every major design or ad school in the country either added a course in interactive media or beefed up an existing program.

With no established canon, interactive communications is emerging in as many varied strains as there are schools: from experimental programs at Carnegie-Mellon and New York University, where students hail from academic backgrounds as eclectic as geology, drama and classical music; to the design-centric academies like Cranbrook, Cooper Union, Pratt, the Minneapolis College of Art & Design and Art Center; to ad-focused programs at Portfolio Center and the University of Texas/Austin.

One of the most startling developments, though, is how quickly students that have been weaned on the mouse are rising to the status of Web design experts. At the University of Texas' ad program, a class requirement for Web design students is to educate their professors about the medium. The rate at which these students are being grabbed for internships and jobs, where they're often being handed projects for corporate sites, is also stunning. Bruce Wands, director of computer education at the School of Visual Arts, says he receives daily phone calls from employers seeking interns.

Upon graduation "out they go and make money," marvels John Slorp, president at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, who says he's never seen anything this big shake the design profession.

The demand for interface designers is so great that "clients want to grab them in midstream," says Paula Goodman, associate chairwoman at the Art Center advertising department. While admitting that the money is "pretty awesome," Goodman adds that "the smart students realize that spending the extra time in school is important." Obviously, freelancing their way through tuition payments is commonplace among these wwwunderkinder. Recent Art Center grad Tiago Soromenho-Ramos, 25, (known professionally as Tiago) snagged his job at TBWA Chiat/Day last year through an internship, and is now freelancing at the agency full-time. While a student at Art Center last year, he e-mailed Jay Chiat about his Web site, which was designed as a showpiece for Chiat and other potential employers. Impressed, Chiat immediately snatched him up as an intern.

But Tiago, who taught at Art Center last semester, suspects that freelancing doesn't always amount to quick cash. Often students find themselves in a bind when they accept complex projects and expect to figure out how to execute them in the process. "People were coming in halfway through the class saying, 'I have a client and I need to know how to do this.'" he recalls. The fact that clients entrusted students with such ambitious projects "was cool and scary," he says, explaining how at times they'd miscalculate the difficulty of a project and sometimes have to hire a programmer to pull it off. "I had to go in and bail them out a lot," he adds, laughing.

While Tiago is self-taught, he says he'd like to teach a class specifically on Internet advertising, "which is very different from designing on the Internet. When you're in advertising, to just have a pretty face isn't enough," he says. "Pure design" isn't going to get users to pull over and stop on the info highway, something that's become abundantly clear to him as he produces sites such as Nissan Pathfinder's. "Right now most ad agencies approach a project without a Web site in mind," he says, lamenting the number of sites that are derivative of print and TV executions.

Slorp, who often lectures about the Internet to business executives, cites surveys that show that Fortune 500 companies are leaving the Web as fast as they are entering; he points to the urgency for good design, both visual and navigational. "This is a design-hungry medium," he stresses. "There is some real sense of classic design skills moving over to the Web, but it's not as evident as people would like to make it out to be." Compared to print and TV, where the advertising is steady and insistent, he explains, "in Web advertising you have to go for it, it doesn't parade in front of you. I believe every piece of Web advertising has to have a gift attached to it to pay you back for your time spent there."

Slorp's words are echoed in the imaginative and entertaining sites posted by close to 40 MCAD students, (www.mcad.edu/compass/students.html), most of which package artwork with provocative scripts, stories and links to related sites. Arya Senboutaraj's site, for instance, is like a '90s adaptation of Dante's "Inferno," with levels of heaven and hell into which surfers can ascend or descend.

To find anything resembling an established curricula on Internet communications, you'd have to dig back some years into the programs at places like NYU and Carnegie-Mellon, where design professor Dan Boyarski began an interface design class in 1989. At the time, he says, "we were one of the only ones teaching any interface design on campus." Now the design program has branched into a master's track in interaction design and several undergraduate classes in everything from interface design to kinetic typography. "It really comes down to information design for digital media," Boyarski says. "We're still fundamentally teaching people to think clearly and organize information."

Suddenly, course work like cognitive psychology is finding a place in a design degree, and in hindsight, Boyarski believes, the study of human behavior always should have been a background to design communication. In the old model the designer was simply the creator of the piece, he says. Now, "there are too many issues related to communication and how human beings process information, and those questions have been difficult for one discipline to answer-you have to start to look at the larger picture." Hence, Boyarski adds, "I'm intrigued with the idea of involving someone from drama or filmmaking. There's a whole tradition there that we need to tap."

A similar approach is found at NYU's interactive telecommunications program, which evolved out of its Alternative Media Center, founded by chairwoman Red Burns in 1971. With a heritage in experimental media, NYU will continue to recruit a diverse student body, Burns says. The constant challenge, she adds, is "how can the new tools that are available add to the human experience, rather than create more noise? The fact is, we're training a new kind of professional-we have to train people to learn how to learn."

But with all this emphasis on art direction and design, how are copywriters being trained to make this transition? Paula Goodman, who teaches a copywriting class at Art Center, says interactivity is top of mind in her class, as students spend hours discussing the best way to relate to consumers on the Web. "You have to be strategic in the way you solve problems," she explains. "I often refer back to the '84 Macintosh campaign and how the strategy was not only reflected in the product, but reinforced in the creative."

Hank Richardson, Portfolio Center's design program chairman, says since they began Internet ad classes this year, art directors and copywriters have been responsible for coming up with interactive executions along with their traditional commercials and print ads. "I think we're about to see a resurgence in creativity," he predicts. "The art director will be reborn and take on a higher skill level, not unlike during the Doyle Dane days."

Yet, while many Web classes are overbooked, not everyone is getting swept up in the surf craze. Despite the overwhelming demand for Web designers, Lynda Weinman, a design professor at Art Center, who's just released an Internet design guide, "Designing Web Graphics" (New Riders, Indianapolis), notes that many art students still cast a cold eye at the Web, finding it unglamorous and awkward. "I'm surprised how many students would rather do film or video," Weinman wonders. "I don't think they understand the magnitude of the medium, how so many mediums are funneling into online delivery. To them it looks like a very lame, limited design environment. They don't see a reason to fight with it now,

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