On Aug. 27, junior Naia Shedd was in class. However, that day, class was atop an abandoned American spy tower in former West Berlin, flanked by 20-foot street murals and stenciled graffiti. In the basement sat deserted technology once used to intercept Russian radio transmissions.
It was the third day of Shedd’s three-week study abroad trip across Germany and Switzerland with her classmates. The day before, they’d taken a stroll through the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin. The day after, they were scheduled to tour the studio of one of Berlin’s most famous letterers, Martina Flor. These were just a few of the 25 sites they’d see between the dates of Aug. 23 and Sept. 10.
The course, titled Design Abroad, is a seven-credit global learning program offered every other summer. Students admitted to the program travel a total of about 5,600 miles, touring museums and galleries, going to workshops and setting out on regular excursions to historic landmarks. For Shedd, it was all she’d ever hoped for.
“Before I even came to college, I knew I wanted to study abroad,” Shedd said. “My friends all told me what a life-changing experience it was, and that if you can do it, you should take the opportunity. I got into the design major last year, and within a few months, I learned about this study abroad. Immediately, I was like, ‘I gotta go on that trip.’”
The program began two years ago, when design professors Kacey Morrow and Brittany Schade decided to create the first international program the design department had ever done.
“[Morrow] had always wanted to put together a study abroad,” Schade said. “When I heard she was doing it I jumped on board, because why not? Who doesn’t wanna go to Europe?”
The two set out to create a course that pulled together some of the very best design landmarks the continent has to offer, mixing lessons in European history with workshops alongside real design professionals. The result was a program that starts students out at the creation of the international design scene, and walks them through the milestones that brought it to where it is now.
“We were specifically interested in Germany and Switzerland because they’re sort of the central hub for the birth of graphic design and typography,” Schade said. “We try to bridge the gap between what we know now, and what was set up for the international design scene back then.”
Junior Kerry Hammond, another student on the trip, felt the history lessons played a vital role in understanding and interpreting the curriculum as the course progressed.
“We talked a lot about history,” Hammond said. “While we were in Berlin, our whole thing was going on tours, going to museums and learning about what happened. But once we got to the firms, we had workshops, we journaled and we talked about how design has changed through history. So, I would say it’s really focused on us learning about the history, and then applying it to real life.”
Shedd’s favorite part of the trip was seeing the Berlin Wall. Meeting the people who’d lived in East Germany during its construction made all the books she’d read about it more realistic, she said — like a history lesson come alive.
For Hammond, the best part wasn’t on the itinerary. Wandering around Berlin, the group stumbled upon Olympus’s Perspective Playground, an interactive art exhibition, and decided to check it out. Inside, they found entire rooms dedicated to obscure light shows, and tens of thousands of illuminated streamers dangling from the ceiling.
Schade hopes her students learn to be smarter international travelers, and they use the experience as a stepping stone in their evolution as designers.
“We hope students learn about themselves through experiencing cultures that aren’t their own,” Schade said. “We want people to be really introspective about their experience and find ways it can change their approach to design, or just give them more of a well-rounded approach to their design thinking.”
Schade said the program isn’t only for design majors —anyone is welcome to apply, as long as they can demonstrate a working understanding of the role design plays in our lives, and appreciate design in the context of these places.
Design Abroad’s next trip will take place the summer of 2019.