Mike Essl A'96

From Student to Educator Mike Essl

From Student to Educator Mike Essl

From Student to Educator Mike Essl 2

Painting by Joe Simko

When asked about ways that his graphic design practice influences his teaching, Mike Essl, dean of the School of Art and all-round pop culture savant, quotes a line from the autobiography of 1980’s television star, Mr. T: "I can't lead where I don't go, and I can't teach what I don't know."

In other words, to teach graphic design, he needs to be a practicing designer. “As a professor and now as dean, I've kept my design practice going because I wouldn't have much to say to my students without it. We're all in it together, and if I'm negotiating the same terrain they are, it's easier for me to be a guide.”

Essl, whose passion for the school runs so deep that he has a large and detailed drawing of the Foundation Building tattooed to his chest, has developed a practice when teaching that gives him direct knowledge of his students’ concerns and enthusiasms. “At the start of every class, I ask the students how they are doing, how the homework went, and how the workload is in their other courses. I've learned that Cooper Union can be a very demanding place and that the more I listen to my students, the better I can support their work.”

To a great extent, that comprehensive awareness of each art student’s passions results from the School of Art’s admissions process, in which faculty members play an unusually active role. First, the school’s home test helps identify incredibly talented students committed to making art. Then professors review every application, and if a student is accepted, it’s an indication that the faculty wants to work with that student. Essl recalls the sense of relief he felt on his arrival at Cooper: “As a first-year student in 1992, I realized I was finally with peers who took art and design as seriously as I did. We all pushed each other to improve, and I see that every semester in the classrooms of the School of Art.”

Critical to Essl’s teaching philosophy is the idea that successful examples of graphic design communicate independently with no need for explanation. So, in his class critiques, he asks each student designer not to speak about the work before the review or defend it during class discussion. It’s a method that lets students see first-hand if their ideas have been successfully conveyed in design. “Students see how their work is interpreted without context or preamble and can then address if their intent for the piece communicates to the audience.”


  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.