On Design Education

The most important thing I do as a creative director is hire designers. Much like the best thing a movie director can do is focus on casting, hiring great designers makes everything else so much more enjoyable: “Management” time is reduced and the work quality is much, much higher.

A major source of designers is, naturally, design schools. I, and my counterparts at other design studios, agencies, corporations, and startups, rely on design schools to help shape, guide, and train the next generation of designers. So I — and the hundreds like me — have a vested interest in the state of design education.

And we’re concerned.

The crux of the matter is the feeling that many design schools are doing a disservice to their students by preparing them for careers they’re unlikely to have, at least right out of school. “No one wants to hire a 22-year-old strategist,” was how a colleague (perhaps indelicately) phrased it. Graduate schools focus on more and more specialized, baroque areas of design. Meanwhile, undergraduates are pointed towards areas like service and systems design, and social innovation, despite the fact that the job market for those is small. What most undergraduates in the design field will work on when they graduate are products: physical objects, printed materials, or (increasingly) hardware and software. Now certainly, most of these will be part of a service or system, and some (hopefully all) will have a benefit to society. And no one is arguing that an understanding of strategy, services and systems isn’t essential to understanding 21st century design. But too many graduates get out of school and become disillusioned when the work they’re doing is not at the system or service level, but at the product level, where their skills, at least initially, are needed the most. I’ve seen this first-hand.

I have a lot of sympathy for design schools. Design is not easy to teach. It’s a pastiche of methods, tools, theory, and principles, some of which take years to master. The field is evolving, with new tools and new areas to supply our skills towards. Professors have to prepare students for a future that’s uncertain, and I can see how having them study complexity and complex systems seems like a reasonable response. The unintended consequence is that the things in those systems that are begging for design are neglected or somehow seen as beneath doing.

Here’s the thing: professors pass along their values to students. What they care about, what they’re passionate about, is often what students get passionate about. Professors who look down on “pixel pushing” (as though that was easy — it’s not and if you don’t believe me, try it sometime) and the day-to-day, tactical work of product design will pass that attitude along to their students, who’ll see the most strategic/thinking aspects of design as somehow more valuable than the doing/making aspects of design. Untethered as schools are to the marketplace, it’s not difficult to teach what should be done (big system-wide changes) and not what needs to be done (small changes, with often tedious attention to detail). (And, consequently, what companies will pay for. In the era of ballooning student loans, this is not an inconsequential consideration.) From where I sit, there’s a lot that needs to be done, and usually only young designers have the energy and skills to get it done.

Now, I certainly agree that our world needs big, system-wide changes and that young designers can help bring those about. But my experience with those kinds of designers leads me to believe that if you’ve got that kind of fire in your belly, you’re going to pursue it no matter if you’ve taken a class in social innovation or not. And more power to them.

The “design thinking” wind that blew through the design community over the last decade has made its way into university curricula, so that thinking about the problem creatively has become equated with solving the problem. Journey Maps and conceptual models are fine, valuable tools — but only as a means to an end. If the designers you’re training can only do — or only want to do — process documents, they’re not as valuable as they could be. I’ve seen their portfolios.

There are those who say that education is not about making someone “industry-ready.” I agree that that is not the sole purpose of education, but I feel that one purpose of any education, whether it is through a school or self-taught, is to prepare one to meaningfully participate: in society, in personal relationships, in a career. You cannot meaningfully participate in your field if most of the work — arguably the most important work — you are unequipped to address and may even feel is beneath you to address.

It may be that I’m wrong. That in 10 years, all the design work will center around services and systems. That we’ll all be strategists and the detailed product design work will be done by algorithms and robots. But until then, there’s a great need and a great desire for designers who can craft the products we use every day, digital and physical. Keep making those.