Rethinking Design Education

In spite of all the world’s love for design and user experience, design education has had hard time keeping up. Human-computer interaction (HCI) has existed as a field since the 1970s, but today’s UX and HCI programs have not produced the design leaders that we need. Design bootcamps — short intensive programs designed to get you a design job in months — have risen to meet this challenge, offering a more affordable and more focused avenue for learning user-centered design. While I believe this has launched many successful design careers, I find that many graduates of formal design programs lack certain key skills and feel that it is time to revisit how we train designers.

What’s wrong with design education today

Design education has been good at teaching methods like wireframing, user research, personas, and prototyping, but has not been good at teaching the critical thinking that should be underlying the whole practice. Design is more more than the sum of its methods. The basic building block of design is not a rectangle, but an idea. Design graduates need to be able to formulate ideas, visualize them, and rationalize them, and not just in a corner by themselves, but in collaboration with others. A design curriculum should include the following five things.

Critical Thinking

Articulating meaning and purpose needs to happen at the beginning of design process — Erika Hall

This is the difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to make a great meal out of any ingredient in your fridge. Rather than starting with methods, we need to teach design students how to love the problem, articulate how a product idea fits into the story (e.g. people couldn’t do this, now this product helps them by…), and what the intended outcome is. Without that essential thread, the methods by themselves are meaningless.

Clearer Roles

To be fair, this is more of a problem with the design field as a whole. A design program needs to offer clearly delineated career tracks (e.g. visual design, user research, content strategy, product management, etc.) so that graduates can clearly articulate what role they are equipped to play. Everyone has their own idea of what a UX designer is, and it leads to a wide pool of designers with no clarity on how they fit into a team.

Writing

As a technology, writing has many merits. It complements verbal and visual communication. It’s sturdy and can stay put. It’s cheap. It’s easy to change or reproduce. And it moves faster than ships or airplanes. Writing makes it possible to propel knowledge and intent forward through time — Nicole Fenton, Words as Material

The boxes in your Sketch file are meaningless unless they are grounded by a deeper product vision. At the end of the day, designers are working with ideas and there is no purer way of manipulating ideas than to write. Designers should be able to design a product using only their words.

Qualifications

If medical students have to take MCATs, and art students have to submit portfolios, I think we need to figure out some baseline qualifications for designers. To start, I would consider:

  • Craftsmanship: If you’re going to pursue a visual track, then you should have visual design experience. For other tracks, you should at least have some experience with a creative craft, or be able to articulate an accomplishment in creative problem-solving terms.
  • Verbal communication: You should be able to articulate thoughts clearly

User Research the Right Way

Like UX design, user research is often perceived as a sum of its methods (A/B testing, card sorting, focus groups, etc.) when it is simply about learning who you are designing for. Isn’t it only natural to know who will be using your product? The point is not to gather feedback for its own sake, but to ask good questions and properly interpret the responses to construct a story of the world you are designing for and your product’s place in it. It should not be one step in your process, but a mindset that governs your approach.

What do you think about the design programs that are out there today? How would you design your own curriculum for a 12-week bootcamp or a longer graduate program?