Image by Mitch Goldstein and Anne Jordan from walking.designcrit.com

The Long Lesson

The average undergraduate design education takes 4 years to complete. For many design students, the first year is a Foundation year — learning a wide array of topics from a general visual art and design curriculum. Students then go into their major of study for 3 more years to graduate with a BFA or a BA. Most schools teach on a semester basis, with each semester usually running 15 weeks. In only 120 weeks students are taught to go from zero to professionally capable designers able to go into the workforce and earn a living. The question that needs to be asked is both small and large: what are we teaching? This is a question that every design educator asks themselves and their colleagues constantly. Another important question we are asking all the time is: how are we teaching?

Design is taught in a predictable pattern: Here is an assignment. These are the requirements. This is when it is due. Here are some tools you will use to finish that assignment. When you are done, put it away and we will do something else. Educators teach design by looking to outcomes and expectations. We want to make sure that the final thing is both final, and a thing. The problem with this model is that design is not easily contained. It is not about just this and not that. There are not some gray areas — the whole thing is a massive, expansive field of gray. Design curriculum breaks down this field into component parts: Here we will learn type. There we will learn systems. When we break down design into blocks, we teach towards these blocks. We teach contained ideas that have clear endpoints and specific expectations of outcomes.

This is the short lesson — we are looking to where will you be at the end of the semester, as opposed to the end of your career. Since students do not come back after they retire to turn in their life’s work, there is a clear logic to teaching this way — how else could it be done? Design education has always defined the difference between “school” and “work” — you have heard this called “the real world” while at school. In school we do it like this, but when you get into “the real world” it will be done differently. This distinction has always existed because school is an environment that prepares students for professional practice. Here is a degree, now you can earn money as a designer.

I think there is another kind of education swimming underneath this. What I wonder about is something I am thinking of as the long lesson. What if the final project was not due in 5 weeks, but in 5 years? What if we looked at the final project not as final, but as a pause in the continuum? There is a liminal place for design that is between school and work, this is the place where your design education is less about outcomes and more about frameworks of discovery. This attitude towards design education could care little about the output you create in 15 weeks, and more about the curiosity you develop for your entire life. Sometimes, this happens to students. Often, this happens as a byproduct of teaching to outcomes.

I find this idea of the long lesson intriguing — can design school teach you something you are introduced to today, but you actually learn in 10 years? Can we embrace the continual grayness of design and teach towards that? This may not be the way to teach design, but maybe it is a way. We have all seen the students that care less about getting it “right” and care more about seeing what happens — they are learning the long lesson.