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22.09.29 + Perspectives

Diksha Watwani on Teaching at School while Learning on the Job

Diksha is a Senior Designer at Trollbäck+Company. She specializes in graphic design, motion design, and branding and has been teaching design and animation at SVA since 2016.

What do I learn from teaching?

Being an introvert and a poor communicator, I took shelter in my art journals as a child. After a long and bumpy road, I eventually listened to my gut and chose to go to art school. This decision was an immediate comfort to me. Later, when I began my design career, my communication skills gradually improved. I started teaching substitute classes early on. It was only when I started my teaching career that I realized: I had felt this dire need to communicate better throughout my life. I think it’s why I chose a career in design and visual communication - it helped me bridge those gaps.

I teach a junior/senior class at SVA called Motion Workshop. I call it ‘Storytelling with Graphic Design & Animation.’ When I enter my classes, I remind myself of where I was when I started and how much art has improved my own life since then: emotionally, mentally, spiritually as well as financially. To understand what students need to learn beyond the tools and techniques is to bridge that gap of communication, irrespective of whether they apply it to their lives professionally or personally. If they understand how to do that, I think I did my job well.

What's it like teaching at SVA while always learning on the job?

Teaching and learning is a relationship that continuously feeds itself, whether it means tools, technology, thinking processes, or principles. A good chunk of the fall semester goes to basic principles of design and motion, as well as formal thinking. Then, the students animate the same principles with music. It hurts their brains: it requires their left and right brains to work together and sense layers of sound in the music while animating simultaneously. Many class processes are similar to our industry; they just come in smaller nuggets and are less intense - research, sketches, style frames, storyboards, and final animations, all emphasizing communication and story-telling. My experiences as a teacher nudge me to always be a student in life – it’s a gift. I learn as I go and give along the way. It helps me process what I’m learning.

What do you do when students struggle with expressing an idea?

Most of the assignments I give are about self-expression, which I have them explore on macro and micro levels. They must learn to direct, design, and animate their own stories. I believe that the better they get at telling their personal stories, the better they will be at telling other people’s (like clients).

They usually get stuck with expressing an emotion or describing an adjective – things that cannot be seen but only sensed. Just like everything else, I help them break the process down.

1) Do inner research: articulate an idea by free-associating and writing down words associated with it.

2) Do outer research: pull visual references that express the idea.

3) Brainstorm to figure out what form the idea can take, e.g., is “Happy” a dog, a geometric shape, an abstract shape, or a simple line?

4) What shape can the story take - abstract or narrative?

Doing this sets an intention, and from there on, they get into the phase of image-making using design principles, color theory, style frames, storyboards, and so on.

I also like quotes and bringing them to class. I think it helps students look at problems from other perspectives, sometimes with metaphors. One of my favorites is from Desmond Tutu: “There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.”

How has teaching inspired you?

Each student is unique in their growth and how they express themselves. While most need guidance with storytelling, animation, and design, some need help with concept-building, some with technology, some with their speed, and others with their coping mechanisms or creative roadblocks. They each require different guidance. I have to be agile and attentive, from big-picture stuff down to the details.

This lets me wear a lot of hats, and it makes me want to do more professionally. Teaching has shifted my perspective on my own design career. My experiences in the classroom have taught me how to keep a bird’s-eye-view while also working through details. It inspires me to take on more leadership roles in my work, which wasn’t realistic while freelancing. I look forward to applying this practice professionally someday.

More than anything, teaching keeps me in high spirits. It brings me great joy to invoke a spark in the students and to feel the energy from what they produce.

“There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.”

–Desmond Tutu

Do you think that being a teacher helps you in your professional practice?

Teaching is a two-way channel where students are (usually) as eager to learn as I am to teach. I have to maintain many relationships – keeping in mind that each student has individual needs and concerns – while also managing the whole course at a higher level. With the stronger students, the flow is smoother, and they require less motivation and direction from me. It’s with the ones who struggle where I learn the most. They challenge me to be more agile and more flexible in my thinking. I have to be able to look at a problem from different angles and stay excited about solving it: that’s always good as a design practice, too.

How do you apply what you learn as a teacher to your collaborations with teams and clients at Trollbäck+Company?

Teaching has been quite a humbling experience. A lot of it is about stepping inside other peoples’ shoes: it’s not about me, it’s about them. This helps me focus when collaborating with clients. It’s always about returning to their idea and creating solutions for what they want to communicate.

Teaching has also taught me to reference fundamentals in bite-sized pieces so that students can better grasp the larger ideas. Collaborating with teams at Trollbäck+Company somehow feels the same when everyone brings the best of their knowledge and skill to a project, and together we create the whole from those pieces. We then have to communicate everything to the client in ways they can digest and understand, and sometimes that means doing it in bite-sized pieces.

Anything you would like to share with others/industry regarding mentoring in general?

SVA BFA Design hires working professionals to help bridge the knowledge gap between academia and industry. I think it’s a good practice to share your knowledge as you learn, irrespective of the environment, whether at school or the workplace. I believe mentoring culture keeps the inspiration flowing to both sides and makes everyone involved better at – and more connected to – what they do.

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