Clay Culture: Across Disciplines

Two educators presented a collaborative challenge to their ceramics and graphic-design students: learning to work with and for another creative person in a different discipline.

Learning and incorporating knowledge from outside disciplines is an invaluable tool that is underutilized in higher-education curricula. While universities offer a wide array of majors in art and design, many students barely interact with others outside of their areas. This fact prompted a multidisciplinary project between the graphic-design and ceramics departments at Montana State University’s (MSU) School of Art that emphasized how experiencing differing media could elevate and add value to students’ educations.

1 GDSN student Daniel Miller and ceramics student Carlos Palmer compare ideation sketches to the slip-cast bottles.

2 Miller (left) and Palmer (right) discuss the slip-cast forms’ possibilities and prototypes for collaboration.

Why Interdisciplinary Making?

Growth comes from diverse learning experiences like talking to and working with creative peers. Divergent thinking happens when we hear opinions from people with completely different backgrounds, inspiring creative thought and exploration. Current educational systems were not designed to meet the demands that students face outside of school. Interdisciplinary collaboration can start to prepare them for workplace demands by having them present thoughtful work that considers tactile experiences, methods of making, and users of all backgrounds.

Packaging Course

The packaging course at MSU focuses on methods of three-dimensional communication requiring students to utilize design research and creative thinking that employ strategic and appropriate design decisions. I recognized we had the opportunity to work with students in another department who could conceive and make items that the graphic-design students could physically package, and also allow design students to explore different ways of making and thinking via collaboration with students in the ceramics department. The project enabled creative decisions that blurred the boundaries of what stereotypical graphic design can look like, which also prompted students to design better, not for themselves, but for other people.

3 Daniel Miller and Carlos Palmer’s packaging collaboration; bottles: slip-cast porcelain, fired to cone cone 9 in an electric kiln; packaging: laser-cut 1/4-inch plywood.

I worked with Jeremy Hatch, associate professor of ceramics, to define the root purpose of the project to ensure students worked toward common goals. The project was implemented in Hatch’s ARTZ 332: Intermediate Ceramics course and in my GDSN 377: Design & Society: Packaging course.

Logistics and Requirements

We paired together each ceramics student with a graphic-design student. In merging the two disciplines, the teams worked collaboratively to define conceptual ideas and determine visual direction.

From the ceramics side of the project, students were required to design and slip cast a series of cups. They were required to produce six finished pieces, explore three surface options, and were encouraged to use any medium and process to create their prototypes.

The graphic-design students were required to create a poster zine that provided an in-depth look into their ceramic-artist partner to create a connection between artist and audience as well as create surface design ideas to share with their partner. Lastly, they had to design and produce packaging that would structurally support and hold three of the six cups and include visuals on the outside of the package that related to the slip-cast cups.

4 Jason Strand’s slip-cast cups, 6 1/2 in. (17 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln. Ian Markus’ packaging system, laser-cut cardboard, paint.


During the 4-week project, graphic-design students followed the steps outlined below:

Initial research: GDSN students interviewed their ceramic partner to understand their process, medium, and method of making slip-cast cups.

Surface collaboration: GDSN students presented multiple sketches for the cups’ surfaces based on their research and communication with their partner. The prototype sketches initiated final decisions about surface solutions.

Packaging prototype: GDSN students defined design context for the package whose form correlated with the cup’s shape and/or surface, then followed an intense iterative process, where they presented package ideas in multiple forms. They started with three different package solutions as sketches, then moved on to two physical package prototypes with cups, and finally produced the final package.

Design publication: Students started designing the poster zine at one-to-one size, transitioned these to digital format, and finally printed multiple iterations using a large-format inkjet printer to understand color and typography treatment.

5 Dominick Vanderlip’s slip-cast cups, porcelain, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln. Nick Ryan’s packaging, laser-cut 1/8-inch plywood, paint.

The ceramics students followed these steps:

  • Initial research: Students gathered relevant information on existing cup design as well as visual examples for precedent studies. They also watched Pete Pinnell’s video Thoughts on Cups and discussed inspirational ideas and techniques.
  • Sketch ideation: Students sketched 10–50 cups exploring surface, shape, size, etc. Considerations included: Is the design unique, personal, or innovative? How well would it work as a set? How well does the cup stand alone? How functional or usable is the cup? Did you successfully alter the cup from any found objects that were incorporated?
  • Mold prototypes: Students created molds for their slip-cast porcelain cups from everyday found objects that would be used to replicate their prototype with incredible precision.
  • Alterations: Students were encouraged to explore changes to their original cast form to create unique final forms by altering, cutting, assembling, and combining slip-cast forms.
  • Collaboration: Students defined the final form through communication and iteration with GDSN students. The student pairs explored solutions for surface and packaging.

Some of the challenges that the students encountered included communication problems that would have been alleviated by running the project between classes that met on the same days. They would have also benefited from attending both courses’ workshops or critiques to help enrich the collaborative process and expand knowledge of materiality and making.

6 Students’ packaging, cups, and poster zines were displayed in the Dean’s Gallery at Montana State University. Left to right: Jenna Patrick and Ophelia Easton, Liam Grundler and Colby Allred, Mo Easterby and Garrett Carter.

Student and Instructor Reflections

When students were asked about the benefit of working with another creative, replies focused on understanding someone on a deeper level through the creative process. Ceramics student Carlos Palmer reflected on his experience with graphic design student Daniel Miller, “I have never put too much thought into graphic design, so to get feedback and themes from somebody whose focus is graphics provided me with a different perspective. Ideas that would have never crossed my mind came to Daniel with ease. Any communication between disciplines creates dialog for what we do in art school. This project opened my mind to many potential ways to safely package ceramics, communicate with my consumer, and explain my process.”

Students found they were able to branch out of a stereotypical style or routine conceptual undertakings they were accustomed to.

In total, sixteen ceramic students and sixteen GDSN students came together and designed sixteen unique takes on cups and their containers. The project brought together students who would have otherwise never worked together. It introduced interdisciplinary collaboration, expanding their understanding of making and designing. The project culminated in a collaborative gallery display in the summer of 2019.

the author Ashley Fuchs is a designer and assistant professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Currently she is exploring conceptual work and pedagogy in letterpress printing.


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