The 4-Part Solution to Create Better Design Education For Students

While learning to be a designer I jumped around a lot. After dropping out of design school (twice) and now working in the industry for 5+ years I look back at my days in school and think we’re doing it all wrong…and I have a plan for how to fix it.


I always wanted to be a designer working for a top-notch creative company. How to get from being just a kid who knew how to wield photoshop to becoming a designer guru wasn’t very clear though. I started off by going to design school, felt bored with the pace and dropped out to join an in-house design team at a non-profit organization. The idea of ‘school being important’ kept coming back to me though so I eventually started taking online classes from RMCAD. After two years of spending my nights and weekends doing design homework while working full-time as a designer I once again dropped out, and despite the encouragement and anxiety of my poor mother, I still don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

I’ve now been around the block when it comes to design education (6 years of studying and still no degree) and I’ve gained a few insights along the way. I’m pretty confident now that I know why design education isn’t working and I also have an idea on what we can do to fix it.

The problem

Design schools are failing at training students to be successful in the modern workplace. Mention this to your designer pals at the water-cooler and they will all most likely agree. This is old news.

But how do we fix this? Improve curriculum? Hire more experienced teachers? Ditch art school all together? Maybe, but there is a deeper problem than simply lagging curriculum. The problem comes down to the learning environment.

Classroom vs workplace

Let me paint a picture of what a project looks like from start to finish at a design school like Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (where I attended for two years) and then I’ll compare it with the modern workplace and I think the problem with modern design education will become obvious.

Designer on a classroom project:

  1. A teacher presents a fictional business with a fictional problem. He/she also shows the students what their final product should look like and lays out a basic outline for how they are going to get there.
  2. The students follows the outline, carries out research, does classroom critiques, and of course stays up very late doing seemingly endless amounts of revisions.
  3. Finally when all is said and done the students present his/her work to the class and turns it in to the teacher for a grade.
  4. The student takes all of the pretty images they have created and organizes them in their portfolio so that someday they can impress a future employer and hopefully get a job.

Designer in the modern workplace:

  1. Businesses are fluid and often time problems are hard to define. A big role of the designer is coming to understand what the real problem is and what possible solutions (plural) there could be.
  2. Before going to deep into ‘designer mode’ a good designer understands what constraints he/she is dealing with (budget, timing, etc.) and defines what success will look like for the user and for the business so that the final solution is sure to be solving the problem.
  3. Through a series of sketches, mockups, and prototypes the designer explores possible solutions to the problem.
  4. He/she communicates their solutions to their design team and the stakeholders and is able to articulate why this particular solution will best solve the problem at hand.
  5. The designer takes feedback from the stakeholders and explores more solutions.
  6. This back-and-forth relationship between designers and stakeholders happens until they both agree on a particular solution.
  7. That solution is then implemented (engineered, printed, etc.) and the results are measured against the criteria that was originally defined at the very beginning for what success would mean.
  8. The designer then packages up the entire project and places it in his/her portfolio (along with the results) in order to leverage more opportunities for problem solving in the future.

When outlined like this it becomes apparent where school is falling short in preparing future designers. Design schools don’t teach effective problem solving, don’t allow for multiple solutions to be explored, don’t solve real problems, and lack and environment that has constraints and limitations that real businesses face. Classrooms also fail at fostering a client/designer relationship and don’t offer opportunities for students to find out if their designs were successful or not. Students are spending thousands and thousands of hours working on fictional projects that never see the light of day and that have no real world significance. They are graduating school with an incredibly expensive degree and a portfolio of work that only represents a tiny fraction of the kind of things they will need to be doing on a day-to-day basis at a future job.

Students need a new kind of learning environment.

The 4-part Solution

In order to effectively learn a student needs four things:

  1. Real clients
  2. Real problems
  3. Mentors (not professors)
  4. Results

Students need to work with real clients

Fictional problems don’t provide the needed context for design students to effectively problem solve. Students need clients. They need real people. They need to hear about the worries and stresses leaders of companies are facing and design solutions to help combat them. They need to be able to justify design decisions to people who don’t understand the value of design. They need real world clients.

Students need real problems

Students need to spend their time on projects that matter and that aren’t make believe. It’s impossible to do user research or to truly get in the mind of users and effectively empathize unless they are dealing with a real problem. Designing in a fictional environment for four years while earning a degree isn’t working.

Students need mentors

Students need to work with real clients who have real problems with the aid and guidance of a mentor. Lecturing professors are useless for learning design and should rather be mentors who are there to encourage and point the student in the right direction. The mentor should also be there to answer questions, and when needed, provide assurance to the client that the student’s work will be top notch. The mentor needs to be invested in the success of the project just as much as the client and student are.

Students needs results

If designers are being looked to as problem solvers then they need to be able to speak about the results from solving the problem. What good is a solution that doesn’t bring results? (Even if those result aren’t the desired ones.) Students need to design solutions for real problems that get real results.

But wait! I can already hear what you are asking, “Where in the world can we find clients that will want amateur students to create work them?”

Non-profits need designers

Thousands of causes around the globe are tackling some of the world’s biggest problems and need help from talented and passionate designers. Design is proving to be a game changer at the world’s best companies and non-profits and causes ought to take advantage of it as well. They often lack a large budget to afford design and would be thrilled at the opportunity to work with a student designer (accompanied by an experienced mentor).

“There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.” -Ed Catmul, CEO and Founder of Pixar

Let’s fix this: An environment where students learn by experience, not just by theory.

Right now I’m designing a platform that would pair non-profits with upcoming designers to foster a powerful learning environment. Students will gain real world experience by problem solving, collaborating, and prototyping. The student will also be paired with an experienced mentor who will guide the client/designer relationships and ensure the project designs are high-standard and are effectively problem solving.

Rather than wasting the thousands of hours that students spend laboring each year on fictional companies, we should redirect their efforts toward causes that matter. By doing so the student will fill even more motivated because they will be making a meaningful impact with their work and will be excited to learn from experienced mentors along the way who are dedicated to their success.

This will be the only place where upcoming designers can solely learn and gain experience by working with real world clients.

There is a long way to go as I flush out the idea more effectively and finish designing the curriculum and platform but it’s a start. Designers hold to ability to literally change companies, communities and even the world. Let’s start their training where they are needed most, and provide them with the experience that they actually need in order to succeed.

Let’s build a design school for the next generation of change-makers.


If you like this idea and would like to help out feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @kysondana . I’d love another dreamer on board :)