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The vibrant street life in Hong Kong is just one of the reasons Yale graphic design professor Sheila Levrant de Bretteville is drawn to the city.

She has, for the second time, arrived as a visiting scholar at the Hong Kong Design Institute where she will remain until the end of the year. Her first visit to the institute, which is run by the Vocational Training Council, was in 2010.

With studios, classrooms and gallery lining the wide passageway - called the design boulevard - leading to the main entrance in Tiu Keng Leng, the school runs higher diploma programmes for various specialities, including architectural, visual communication, product, interior and exhibition design.

Levrant de Bretteville founded the first design programme for women at the California Institute of the Arts in 1971, and in 1990 she became the first woman to receive tenure at the Yale school of art, when she was named director of graduate studies in graphic design.

Known these days as the "Street Professor", as in the name of her endowed professorship at Yale, Levrant de Bretteville became fond of the hustle and bustle of life in Hong Kong and the protests staged by people from all walks of life. One of her goals while she is here is to alert students to the what is happening around them.

That was the motivation behind her invitation of long-time friend Wyss Wai-shu Yim, an adjunct professor at Chinese University's Institute of Space and Earth Information Science, to give a lecture on a topic seemingly unrelated to design education - sea level changes and future coastal development of Hong Kong.

"Design education is not only about the transfer of knowledge; I am not here for that. I am here to help them learn by them doing things, researching things, finding things and paying attention to what they see," says Levrant de Bretteville.

"I am interested in process; teaching people that they can make a work [from] almost anything that they see. The entire world out there is offering you possibilities of building work in ways you have not seen before."

During her first stint as a visiting professor she sought to encourage students to take risks and to try out ideas. Seeing students sitting on the floor during their free time on campus, she asked Victor Tsang, then principal of the institute, to create a room for them to hang out in. Eventually she got approval to create a room with special lighting. "It was like a nightclub," she says. "I thought you had to have a kind of hang-out feeling to take a risk."

So, what does she expect from students? Although they are enrolled in sub-degree courses ( that's all the institute offers), she has no doubt they can learn just as much as their degree-level contemporaries. "Their faces lit up when I showed them images of overseas photographers, video makers or typographers," she says of her attempt to inspire the students. "There are many ways of learning; people learn differently. There are full professors who did not do so well in elementary and secondary schooling."

In the weeks ahead, she plans to ask students to visit several coastal sites in Hong Kong and return with a map and stories or pictures as a record of what they hear or see.

This task is based on her recent experience in Tolo Harbour where she saw a bird flying and a helicopter scooping up water. "There is a lot happening between the ground and sky," she recalls. "I can do a project about ways in which people are trying to bridge sky and water. This kind of study is not only about gathering information but also about the way you see that information [and] being attentive to what you see."

Clearly, Levrant de Bretteville relishes her role as one of affirming youngsters' beliefs in their own ability and the unique contributions they are capable of making.

"Students need more help with being more clear about what it is that is of interest to them, [and] not expect someone else to define it for them," she says. "Not their parents [or] teachers but themselves. Every person is full of experiences and they are not the same as everyone else in their family; that is the unique part. You can use the difference that is peculiar to you to express that difference in your work. Developing that uniqueness is what I am trying to do here."


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