Educating Designers to a T

The scope of design education, like design itself, is continually evolving to encompass more responsibilities and professional attributes. Design has begun to embrace a new role within business and management and is being recognized as a key driver for innovation — and if designers are to be prepared for these new demands, various models, techniques, and methodologies will have to become part of design education.

However, as much as it may be evolving and taking on significance for other disciplines, design will always be based on the creative merits with which it began. This article reasons that there are two distinct paths a designer should be able to pursue, and posits that educational programs should be able to facilitate both of them. It will also point out current happenings and future trends within the design discipline, and make suggestions about how to prepare designers for their chosen professional practice through both academics and continuing professional education.

A fork (or rather a T) in the road

Truth be told, there are two roads a designer can and should be able to pursue — one in which the designer seeks to be a highly regarded styling expert and craftsman with a keen focus on aesthetics that truly create customer desire; the other in which the designer is a cross-functional generalist, contributing across the triple bottom line and integrated within business, brand, marketing, production, and logistics. The more traditional styling artist (often in pursuit of fortune and fame as a rock star designer) should spend his or her educational investments in pursuit of learning and perfecting the craft of creating highly desirable products.

These designers should indeed focus on learning the design craft and not be subject to comprehending business language and innovation methodologies. They are the people on whom dedicated styling programs (usually in pursuit of a BFA or an MFA) should be focused. Those choosing this path can be highly successful in design once they reach star status, either internal (for example, Apple’s Jonathan Ives) or external (for example, Philippe Starck). The drawback, of course, is that although this path may be highly fulfilling both emotionally and financially, there is little room at the top.

Consequently, styling artists are somewhat limited in significantly advancing in this profession and thus should arguably have some additional, non-craft skills incorporated into their repertoire, such as design language, design briefing, and even design research, to better prepare them for working with other disciplines. The up-and-coming role of the design generalist, also known as the design manager (leading to more senior roles, such as creative director or VP of design, for example) is most suitable for those who have a widespread curiosity and interest in other disciplines and can imagine the role design may play in supporting them.

The design manager needs to be a good communicator, able to speak the languages of business, as well as design, while having the interests of both in mind. Although there are more design management programs now than there have been in the past, the education of students coming out of such programs tends to be theoretical in nature and fails to inculcate a true understanding of the complexities and inevitable corporate politics that hinder design’s ability to truly integrate and contribute across the organization. These students also often fall short in the area of general communication skills — a fundamental attribute of any professional. Indeed, designers are notorious for not being able to effectively communicate outside their own community. It would be beneficial to make a point of incorporating communication and presentation skills into curricula to better help them articulate their works and themselves.

Incorporating a course such as design presentation into general design education would be beneficial in professional, as well as social, settings. With regard to educating either type of designer, specialized or general, there should be some common ground in didactic modules that prepare both to know the fundamental platforms of design, such as design language, design DNA, design briefing, and design processes. Evidence of these distinct career paths can be witnessed within the LEGO Group, one of the leading global organizations leveraging and integrating design into daily practice. LEGO embraces its highly regarded design talent, yet offers two equally rewarding career paths, allowing designers to choose between becoming a specialist (internal rock star) or a generalist (design manager).

LEGO supports both paths by enabling all designers to grow into director positions. Those choosing to have direct contribution to the product lines by virtue of their functional expertise, but who wish to have minimal responsibility for other employees, may grow from senior designer into manager specialist and then into director specialist. Those choosing to contribute to the business’s success through managing other designers’ work may grow from senior designer into design manager and then into creative director. These generalists form part of a core team comprised of a creative director, marketing director, and project manager who together are accountable for aligning business objectives with creative output.

To enable the growth of designers into generalists, LEGO invests heavily in the continuing education and advancement of their designers through their LEGO Design Academy. This 40-week program, which is integrated into daily work and available only to selected designers working within the LEGO Group, teaches fundamental design management modules to designers seeking to follow the generalist path. In 1993, Marco Iansiti first described1 what he called “the T-shaped professional”: a person who possesses a broad general (lateral) understanding across many sectors and a deep specific (vertical) understanding in one discipline. Further building on this notion and adapting it to the design community, Tim Brown of IDEO suggested2 that the T-shaped designer possesses a principal skill of, let’s say, industrial design, as well as an empathic or inquisitive nature that encourages branching out into other skills, such as anthropology.

The generalist designers of tomorrow will increasingly have new responsibilities bestowed upon them. As T-shaped designers, they will have to understand how to draw from broad influences and how to incorporate design practices and methodologies effectively into business thinking. This means learning business terminology, appreciating market factors, and working harmoniously with other disciplines — just another reason for more integrated programs that can help these “knowledge workers.” You may be surprised to find that I also consider the specialized designer to be a T-shaped professional. These designers should possess broad (lateral) knowledge across many facets of design disciplines, such as research, prototyping, and ethnography, as well as their deep specific (vertical) skills in one discipline — fashion, perhaps, or model-building. (Most traditional design programs, whether product, graphic, or interior, produce these kinds of designers.) Both designer types have the potential to play instrumental roles in brand and innovation strategies, but the generalist designer is more likely to play an influential part in business strategy and even sit at corporate boards as chief design officer and the like.

Integrated or independent

As design has taken a seat in the spotlight within the business community, thanks to the rise (and fall) of design thinking, there still remain the questions: Where is the common ground? Should designers learn business lingo? Should businesspeople learn design methodologies? How integrated should educational programs become? I believe design students should be able to pursue and focus on what they truly believe will best fit their characters and personal goals.

Although I agree that many design methodologies would truly benefit business, forcing them into traditional business curriculums may not be the best way to do so. Students with a natural inclination toward the type of analytical thinking embodied in subjects such as economics and risk management, for example, will not acclimate naturally to integrated thinking. There are many great institutions that provide the opportunity for specialized learning, in all disciplines. In contrast, emerging “hybrid” programs that incorporate integrated thinking will naturally attract those who “think from both sides of their brains.” Milan’s Domus Academy is an institution that enables both specialized and integrated design education.

Domus offers a master’s program in a multitude of dedicated design disciplines, from industrial design to fashion, automotive, interaction, urban and architectural, and visual brand design. But Domus also offers a degree in business design — a program that draws on managerial skills, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit to develop the modern manager. During the course of this program, the business designer often plays the role of design manager working directly with the dedicated design disciples while at the same time contributing the business insight and strategy necessary to execute a successful commercial design.

Designing education

The best way to innovate design education, in my opinion, is to use design methodologies. As designers, we use tools such as ethnography, co-creation, and prototyping to create great products and services. Why not, then, use these same tools to innovate design education to meet changing and new demands? Evidence of this is already happening in academic curricula such as that of the renowned Umeå Institute of Design at Umeå University in Sweden, through the project Prototyping the Future. During this project, the faculty is accessed via crowdsourcing methodologies to identify current and developing areas in the design field.

Twenty of the most promising opportunities are then further defined and explored in week-long workshops facilitated by global experts and attended by staff, faculty, and students — all to define opportunities for the further development of new curricula. We are currently witnessing a movement in general education incorporating new methodologies such as open sourcing, crowdsourcing, and even the radical philosophy known as flipping the classroom, where students learn the material at home through video lectures and spend their time in the classroom doing “homework.” It’s a format that offers an opportunity for networking, group interaction, and collective problemsolving, where personal assistance can be given if needed. In some ways, this is more like life at work than life at school.

A great example of combining several of these emerging methodologies can be found at TED-Ed ( Developed by the creators of the TED lecture network and building upon their mission of spreading great ideas, TED-Ed supports teachers by hosting carefully curated educational videos. These videos are often paired with the work of talented animators on an open, crowd-sourced platform. This platform enables anyone to nominate lecturers they find inspiring, or to suggest lessons; it also allows anyone to use the videos for educational purposes. The platform also includes a flip-this-video button feature that allows users to create a customized lesson around each offering with context and follow-up questions. These custom lessons can be assigned directly to students.

We should encourage these new methodologies to infiltrate the design education and the design profession to better develop and define our practice. Such examples could include open learning (approaches that open up the classroom and allow for global sharing and interaction), adaptive paths (developing the ideal student by finding areas of personal interest and personalizing the learning experience based on attitude, skills, and knowledge), and using co-creation tools such as Wikipedia to co-develop definitions and terminology among the professional and academic community. At PARK, we embrace emerging education platforms and have started a Wikipedia page on design management. We encourage and welcome the design community at large to help define our profession as it evolves and is applied in different contexts and applications.

Developing design leaders

Designers can choose to become great designers, or they can choose to become great managers. It’s rare that they do both. Although there are many educational programs in place to foster either professional path, in most cases this is where it ends. As design continues to take on new responsibilities and professional status, it is natural to develop integrated programs aimed at design managers. However, there isn’t much being done toward developing design leaders. I believe that enabling the leap from management to leadership is the true next step to further develop management skills. Managing and leading people requires softer, more “humanistic,” skills, and these skills should be a mainstay of continuing education programs for designers seeking to become generalists. Unfortunately, they are overlooked in most design education programs. The pioneering work of Daniel Goleman identifies six leadership styles:3 coercive leaders, who demand immediate compliance; authoritative leaders, who mobilize people toward a vision; affiliative leaders, who create emotional bonds and harmony; democratic leaders, who build consensus through participation; pacesetting leaders, who expect excellence and self-direction; and coaching leaders, who develop people for the future. These leadership styles are not mutually exclusive, which means it is eminently possible to use a mix of styles depending on the situation and the hoped-for outcome.

Goleman derives his leadership styles from five components of emotional intelligence — being, selfawareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. These components comprise the soft skills of leadership, which Goleman believes are learnable and measurable. If continuing education programs for designers were able to teach some of those skills, designers would learn how to take a customized approach to leading based on a target audience and desired outcome — not unlike solving a design problem Some say leadership is an inherent skill, but I would argue that any skill can be learned and improved upon. We should also note that design leadership does not always need to come from persons technically trained in the design profession (consider, for instance, the late Steve Jobs of Apple).

Although management and leadership roles differ in their objectives, the approach, skills, and attitude they require share some traits and should play a more defined role in design management education. It is important to know when and how to apply which mindset and how to navigate between them appropriately. Learning about these characteristics and enabling the transition from design manager to design leader is essential for the future growth of design.

Learning by doing

There is a Chinese proverb that claims: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” At PARK, we believe that the professional practice can and should contribute significantly to education, and therefore we continually involve both ourselves and our associates. With the growing demand for design managers and design leaders and a current shortage of available knowledge workers in the workplace, companies often come up short when searching for qualified candidates, and many of them find they must train designers from within.

At PARK, we have been educating our clients’ personnel in design management and design-driven innovation for many years. Out of that demand emerged Grow (www.growdesignmanagement. com), a dedicated venture delivering a specialized professional design management education program. Focusing solely on continuing education for working professionals in design management functions, we provide several education platforms to meet various demands. For example, Grow offers a 40-week course in the fundamentals of design management — aimed at employees in internal design departments. This same 40- week program is available in a remote format that accommodates 8 to 12 design professionals from various non-competing companies. (We find that, in the right environment and through careful grouping of professionals within a company or within a cross-company setting, we can help knowledge transfer naturally and fluidly from professional to professional.

Despite the industry or project, the challenges are often the same, and participants help to devise solutions for one another.) The program format is structured in that the participants come together for live meetings every 8 to 10 weeks, and then return to their daily roles to absorb and apply the material before returning for the next live meetings. Between the live meetings, we offer online coaching to ensure the lessons were learned and are being applied effectively. In addition, tablet computers (that is, iPads) are included for each participant in the (full) program, making it possible to deliver the course material in an engaging, interactive, and convenient way.

Grow participants can watch informational videos and recordings of the workshops, read articles, make notes, and message one another on their personal iPads at their convenience and on the fly. Providing students byte-size information in the form of small articles or snippets of information on topics such as design briefing, design process, design teams, design research, design tools, and design leadership allows for plenty of in-depth discussion and direct application. By using a mix of inspiration across industries, as well as informative proprietary case studies, the program exposes participants to actual design management challenges. In preparation for offering our online education program globally, as we hope to do in the near future, PARK recently sponsored a worldwide investigation into the understanding and positioning of design across regions. In a six-month trip around the world in conjunction with their It’s Not Easy Being Green project, Aart van Bezooyen and Paula Raché, a professional design couple based in Hamburg, Germany, met with local creative individuals and organizations in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Japan.

Through their discussions and interactions in different ethnic regions, personas were developed for each region. These personas identified, for specific areas around design education, how individuals from each region could get the maximum benefit from participating in such a program, investigating preferred learning experiences in each region, as well as the financial investment individuals might be willing to make. Through this research, we were able to discover unmet educational needs and shortcomings in the field of design management education and develop a program that had a good chance of success. In addition to working with many design professionals across all industries, our European Student Program (, comprised of two students each from nine leading universities across Europe, helps students become involved in a realworld design management challenge presented by a company sponsor. Students get first-hand experience of the inner workings of a design function, the challenges they face, and how to provide desirable solutions.

This program and network enables us to maintain a close relationship with students to learn what resonates most with them and where they feel they may be falling short in their education. In addition, we are able to maintain a close relationship with the university program leaders and conduct periodic workshops to bring them together to benchmark best practices, as well as to forecast future trends in design education.


Although we have made progress in taking design beyond the common perception of a function that “makes things pretty” at the end of a project, designers will always need to be fundamentally trained in the role of styling. Established arts programs have been doing this well for a long time. As the role of design continues to evolve and the demands of designers continue to expand, the amount of integration one would like to achieve with other disciplines should remain an individual decision. Programs from academia to continuing education should consider how to best serve these individuals.

Existing and emerging programs should continuously evolve, invent, and integrate new methodologies. Because design provides both a process and an outcome, using design itself is one sure way to accomplish that. And educational organizations are not the only source of design education; the design profession itself can also play a significant role.




Managing Director of PARK USA and Grow USA, which endeavor to deliver on their shared mission to Empower Design Leaders through consulting & advanced education.

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Jay Peters

Jay Peters

Managing Director of PARK USA and Grow USA, which endeavor to deliver on their shared mission to Empower Design Leaders through consulting & advanced education.

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