It’s 7am when the alarm goes off. Graphic designers Maxim Volkhin, Mikhail Milnikov and Konstantin Lukyanov have a little time in which to eat breakfast before getting ready for a long day ahead. For the next ten hours, the designers, who are in their late twenties and early thirties, will sit through lectures on topics from typography to layout to fonts. This is just an ordinary day at Campus, a five-week intensive programme designed to immerse a cohort of carefully selected participants in all things graphic design.
The project is the brainchild of Dima Barbanel, a well-respected graphic designer who is best known in Russia for his editorial design work on publications such as Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Playboy and FHM. Yet it is for his new project Campus that the 40-year-old hopes to be remembered. Barbanel’s objective at Campus is to encourage revolutionary thinking in design, something he learned in the late 1990s under the tutorship of Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer famous for devising Benetton’s controversial advertising campaigns.
At Campus, students are known as “co-workers” and are taught in a contemporary cuboid-shaped building in Fominskoe, a traditional village near Moscow. Both the construction of the school and its running costs have been made possible with sponsorship from Russian internet giant Yandex. According to Barbanel, the company shares his concern about brain drain from Russia. “It’s also important to them to find ways of capturing the interest of the young generation, to hold on to them, and somehow persuade them that life in Russia will get easier,” he says.
Despite the sleek building and the occational piece of sophisticated equipment, conditions are generally spartan — all part of the school’s ethos, which espouses the virtue of self-discipline as part of a broader process of self-improvement. These values fit with the teaching style at Campus, which has at its core the apprenticeship model in which the novice observes and imitates the master. “As a lecturer I have absolutely nothing to say,” says Barbanel. “But I can pass on a method by working with someone sitting next to me.”
This type of instruction, which aims to make education a lived experience, has its roots in the thinking of Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford University. Bandura’s cognitive apprenticeship theory maintains that the situation in which teaching takes place is fundamental to learning. According to Bandura, it is essential for the master to model behaviours in a real-world context, which apprentices can then imitate. As Rodion Serebrennikov, an alumni of the course puts it, “Campus is ideal for anyone who wants to get to the very essence of what they do.”
“When a student rubs shoulders with a master they have the good fortune to glimpse his vision of the world and if they are lucky, to be sparked by his fire”
Working alongside Barbanel is a raft of instructors, many of whom are flown in from around the world. Eugene Yukechev, editor-in-chief of TypeJournal.ru, an online journal dedicated to design, has travelled from Berlin to give a class on font and typography, two skills, he says, that are vital for any graphic designer. “A sophisticated understanding of typefaces and the nuances of typography are essential to any designer because they help make a product clean-cut and fitting to its purpose,” he says. “You can tell a lot from a designer’s work with typography, about their professional skills but also their level of personal awareness.”
The process for becoming a student at Campus is both challenging and unusual. With no tuition fees to pay, selection is based on merit but also on innovative, empathic thinking. Campus hopefuls are initially asked to complete a questionnaire that evaluates their worldview and personal values, an exercise that winnows out the majority of unsuitable applicants. “The most important thing for us is that the candidate has a burning admiration for the being and work of the ultimate ‘great designer’. There has to be a sense that they just cannot get enough of it,” says Barbanel.
Those that make it past the first stage are given three hours to respond to three short documentary films in the form of an installation. The first is about the life of a hunter, the second about an orphan, and the third an elderly woman singing about her departure from the material world. While candidates are generally able to relate to the protagonists in the first two films, the elderly woman seems to catch most of them out. “The test is one of feeling and compassion,” says Barbanel. “But most do not understand that the old woman’s song was about beauty rather than grief.” Based on this two-part exam, nine co-workers are selected to study in three cohorts throughout the year.
The emphasis at Campus is on nurturing each individual to bring out their best qualities rather than subjecting them to a one-size-fits-all type of education, which is the norm at most of Russia’s design schools. To help achieve this, the curriculum is holistic in nature; in addition to design, students have lectures on a variety of subjects including psychology, film editing and music. Those that shine are invited to work alongside Barbanel. The early success of the school has meant that plans are underway to open three more branches, in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Krasnoyarsk.
“The most important thing for us is that the candidate has a burning admiration for the being and work of the ultimate Great Designer”
A third component of the programme is a potted history of Russian design. “Some think that the Russian school of design doesn’t exist, that it was just the Constructivists, the 1960s and then us,” says Barbanel. “But that’s not how it was. There’s so much more.” Given the apprentice model espoused by the school and its ethos of continuity between generations, it’s no surprise to discover the Campus motto: “Mastery comes from craft”. “My overall goal is to fix the aesthetic and industrial higher education system in Russia,” says Barbanel. “I’m ashamed that the work of older generations has fallen apart. I want to pay them my respect but also show the generation now in their twenties that you can learn about design from people who achieved more in the course of one lifetime than we could ever imagine … We speak the same language but have forgotten how to apply the old contours and ornaments. The continuity of tradition has been broken.”