Changes in Design Education

Andrew Maier recently posted a thoughtful essay on the changing nature of design education. It’s similar in criticism as a piece I ran a year ago in interactions magazine by Meredith Davis, who speaks of the need to reinvent design education; unlike Meredith, however, Andrew comes to the conclusion that designers need to take responsibility for their own career. Implicit in his article is that a graduate program isn’t going to build a career for you – and that money spent in grad school may be better spent on books with similar content.

For students who have a background in design, experience in design, and raw skills, Andrew’s totally right: they can drive their career any direction they choose. One soon realizes that a career is a narrative, and it’s one that can be completely designed and controlled. Want to do the speaking circuit? It’s easy – find a compelling story to tell, and practice the speaking skills to support it. Looking for the corporate job driving brand resonance? It’s an easy position to get, and there are pretty tactical ways to formulate a portfolio to attract the right recruiting efforts. And the content in the $70 textbook Andrew writes about [presumably Beyer and Holtzblatt’s Contextual Design]? Yeah, you can read the book and learn the “right process” [which is, of course, never actually done the way it’s written in the book].

But there’s two main contexts where a formal graduate program makes a ton of sense, is worth the money, and plays a critical role in the advancement of our profession.

The first is in attracting adult talent to the intellectual process of design. This talent likely already has “experience” in the world, and so a four year degree with foundations studies isn’t going to cut it. For people in the middle of their career, a structured set of classes and a rigorous process is necessary. The rigor of the engagement drives personal “realignment” and the formal structure – and the simple fact that there’s a substantial financial investment at stake – seems to make people take the education seriously, where reading a book might not be as quickly absorbed.

The second is in opening new doors to new opportunities, those that are too big to be studied in isolation and too complicated to be processed implicitly. These are the problems that are tackled at the HCII at CMU, and at Austin Center for Design, and at most graduate programs – and they are tackled through project work, in groups, with real stakeholders, in a supportive environment. I don’t think that one can fundamentally leapfrog these educational settings, as it’s tremendously difficult to simulate project-based design work.

I recently authored a piece for interactions that won’t get printed for a few months, but touches on this very issue. In the piece, I describe five predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education, and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift. I’ll share two of them here:

  • Reject the technical delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal [Blackboard, one of the most popular tool for online delivery, is described as a “a horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [], and as a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the control of the educator. During the educational revolution, we’ll see educators actively refuse to use subpar products, and we’ll witness an increase in hybrid approaches to teaching – models that combine a digital component with in-person, collaborative sessions augmented by traditional tools like whiteboards and post-it notes.
  • Create a safe environment for learning experiences to occur within. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: of creating an environment where failure can be explored, instead of simply trivialized, and where students can learn to be more effective learners. The educational revolution will bring a change of project-based learning, where the cycle of [rote memorization – test – pass/fail] is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

I think the point Andrew is making is sound – that education needs an overhaul. I’m pretty excited to be a part of that revolution.