Photo by Andy Langager on Flickr

No, digital design education is not broken

Jonathan Baldwin
Feb 16, 2016 · 11 min read

“There’s small choice in rotten apples”, The Taming of the Shrew, Act 1 Scene 1

It’s common to hear people employ the ‘bad apple’ argument when trying to make a general point. The idea is to find an example of poor practices or shady dealings and imply, or leave it to inference, that this means the whole batch is rotten. A politician takes a bribe, therefore all politicians are corrupt. A doctor misdiagnoses a patient, therefore all doctors are incompetent. A social worker fails to spot a problem, therefore all social workers are uncaring. Employed by politicians or newspaper editors it becomes the key tool to make the case for some sort of regulation or reform, or to warn us against something. It’s effective because it appeals to emotion and personal experience, but it’s flawed logic.

We recently saw the bad apple argument employed here on Medium: an author saying that some courses he’s familiar with aren’t doing what he thinks they should be doing, therefore all of ‘digital design education is broken’.

There’s little in the way of evidence to back up this declaration beyond some emails from students complaining about their courses, but without quotes we don’t know what those complaints are. The writer laments the teaching of outdated practices but doesn’t tell us what they might be. Without the detail it’s difficult to engage with the argument. And as there are no constructive suggestions offered, we’re left in the dark.

Unfortunately, this type of criticism is a regular occurrence and tends to happen after someone in industry has spoken to someone fresh out of college and found them wanting. The result is usually something along the lines of ‘you lot in academia don’t know anything about The Real World’ followed by, if we’re lucky, a list of what we should be doing. Almost without fail, they’re things we are doing (and where we’re not, usually things we wouldn’t dream of doing). Thankfully these interactions are vastly outnumbered by the many constructive discussions we have with partners in industry, but those don’t happen publicly via blogs so no one gets to hear about them.

I’d like to use this article to correct a few misconceptions about the role universities play in Britain (I think what’s true here is probably true elsewhere), the challenge we face in keeping our courses and our teaching up to date, the role of the student in all of this and then, finally, a look at the numbers. I think you’ll find that far from being broken, digital design education in the UK is making a solid contribution to a growing sector.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

It’s worth spending a bit of time explaining the way industry and academia relate to one another because we’re not just degree factories. Universities are the nation’s R&D department. Wherever there is a university, jobs and businesses are created.

As a sector we contribute over £73 billion to the UK economy and £10.7bn to the global economy. Most of the technology you use every day has its roots in universities either directly, through the research that academics undertake, or indirectly through the scientists, engineers and designers who put their degrees and PhDs to use in the private sector. If you’ve ever been treated for diabetes, depression or cancer you’ll have benefitted from that. If you’ve ever used a website you’re benefitting from publicly funded research. If you or someone in your family has used an assistive device to carry out everyday activities, that’s a benefit from universities. Superconductors, virtual reality, driverless cars, web accessibility, prosthetic limbs, 3D printing… all things currently being researched in British universities and globally. To put it more bluntly: if you’ve ever been treated by a doctor, lived in a house, been taught in a school, you’re a direct beneficiary of universities.

But apart from all that, ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’

What is digital design education?

Clearly, universities are full of people who know what they’re doing. Let’s bring it back to digital design education. Unfortunately, the original article doesn’t define ‘digital design’ but seems certain that it shouldn’t include anything from lecturers in ‘engineering, graphic design or HCI departments’ who have been drafted in ‘because … it’s all just computers’. My guess is that the suggestion is that digital design courses should teach subjects defined elsewhere on the author’s excellent blog: ‘research, strategy, prototyping and testing’. I agree that those are important things, but expertise in those areas comes from everywhere, and can be applied everywhere. I’ve been teaching these things for years, including to jewellery and textile students (hardly ‘digital’), and I’m far from alone. I know there are design courses out there that don’t teach these areas yet but I also know that there are many employers and clients who simply don’t value them, and that heavily influences the curriculum of some courses. In fact there is a UK set of industry-developed National Occupational Standards (NOS), but they’re hardly inspiring. For example (and I quote):

· basic syntax of hypertext mark-up language (HTML)

· web animation concepts including masking, layers and morphing

· different quality issues that may occur and how to deal with them

Remember, these are ‘statements of effective performance which have been agreed by a representative sample of employers and other key stakeholders’. Research, strategy, prototyping and testing don’t feature at all. The critic of our courses says, rightly, that he spent years educating clients of the need for these. As it happens, so have many of us in academia. We’re on the same page here.

The thing is, there’s really no national curriculum for design. Maybe there’s a case to be made for that but I can’t see it myself, particularly if the NOS are an example of what we would end up with. But there are hundreds of design courses out there and if they all taught the same thing, the profession would be all the worse for it. We depend on diversity; it’s how we learn and evolve. Few designers I know only work in one medium or one way. Most design projects don’t just involve one set of skills. A web app may need expertise on user experience, interface design, coding, client liaison. Can one course cover all those things well? Or should a team be comprised of individual specialists, including non-designers? For a long time now we’ve been talking about T-shaped designers, those with a broad range of knowledge and a narrow set of deep expertise so they can shift between roles and not only lead at certain points but teach at those points when they’re in charge, and learn from others when they’re not. And that is what the best design courses attempt to produce: fearless polymaths who can make connections, offer valuable contributions all along a project’s life, but take on specialist roles when they need to, and always be learning. The specialisms will vary from person to person, so if you meet a graduate who doesn’t know about something you value, don’t assume it wasn’t on the course. Education isn’t a production line and variation is a feature, not a flaw.

Unfortunately, in the past twenty years the popular conception of Higher Education in the UK has changed from being the place future leaders are created to being the place where future employees are trained. The demand from industry is for ‘oven ready’ graduates, or people who they can recruit to fill roles without any further training and who are ‘experienced’. The problem with that is it’s not really possible. The laws of physics aside (a graduate can’t really come out of college with five years experience), it creates a downward spiral as we stop looking to the future, producing adaptable graduates, and instead focus on the present, producing well-trained but inflexible ‘staff’.

Remember that a student beginning their course in September 2016 will graduate in summer 2019. What will be required knowledge then? Is it even around today? Just think how quickly Flash appeared and then disappeared. How recently did smartphones come on the scene? Where are virtual reality and smart watches going to be in 2019?

You see the problem. And we tackle this every day in Higher Education. We’re not doggedly ignoring the needs of industry. At best we’re helping to define the future needs of industry.

We have to teach to where the puck is going.

Maybe the three-year undergraduate model doesn’t suit a fast paced ever-changing discipline. Maybe there are other ways to do this? One model suggested to me is that seen in the School of Communication Arts. This offers an 18-month experience in which a small number of participants work long hours under instruction from industry experts. It’s like the first year of employment but rather than being paid, participants are paying £15,000 a a year (plus living costs). That’s an interesting business model, but it’s not scalable. It would be great if we got hundreds of hours of free teaching from industry experts, and all our students could give up their part-time jobs and live in London for 18 months, never mind afford the fees. But it’s not realistic, and it’s hardly accessible to those from poorer backgrounds. Education, remember, isn’t a place for companies to outsource their staff development, it has a vital social and cultural role. Degrees don’t take three years because we want to squeeze money out of the system, they take three years because there’s a lot more than teaching and learning involved.

What is good teaching—and learning?

One of the more specific complaints in that original article is that students shouldn’t be teaching other students, seeing it as compensation for the lack of expert teaching. Actually, peer-based learning is good practice. There is an extensive literature on this, and a national scheme to which many universities subscribe. Given that the top skills demanded by employers are working in teams and learning new things, it’s obvious that peer learning is a good thing. Remember the point I made earlier about the T-shaped designer teaching and learning on each project? They’re unlikely to be able to do that if they’ve come from a didactic ‘expert-led’ sitting-with-nellie education.

Put together with the myth that all students get in return for their £9,000 a year is ‘six hours of teaching’, we see a common misunderstanding of what a university is: it’s a community of scholars of which students are members, not customers. Compare it with membership of a gym: your fee gets you access to all that equipment, to the help and support of fellow members, and expert tuition from trainers, some of whom specialize in different areas. But if you pay your fee and only turn up to one spin class a week, you’re probably not going to see great results. But it’s your choice. The people that get ‘value for money’ (if that’s how you want to work it out) are the ones who use their membership to the full.

The role of the student is not to be taught, it’s to learn and contribute to the learning of others. That means taking advantage of every opportunity they have, whether it be attending non-timetabled lectures and workshops including subjects other than the one they’re studying, evening talks by visiting speakers, social events, design jams and discussions, or just working and learning in the library or computer labs. It means organizing these things instead of waiting for someone else to do it, and not just doing the required reading but going further. Many campuses are open 24/7 and the difference between the best graduates and those that scrape through is the latter seem to think they only get six hours of teaching and blame everybody else when the results are disappointing.

That’s not to suggest that there aren’t legitimate complaints to be made about teaching. I’ve been involved in educational development for over 15 years and as well as a great deal of excellent practice, I’ve seen some bad and outdated practice. But I’ve seen plenty of professional designers turning out appalling apps, websites, and advertising campaigns and I don’t write articles telling the world that the design industry is broken. The truth is that in universities we do all we can to identify outdated practice and improve it. As well as being possibly the most regulated Higher Education system in the world, the UK university sector is also the most collaborative. Every course has at least one external examiner from another institution whose role is to act as a ‘critical friend’ and share good practice. On top of this we have the Higher Education Academy to which lecturers are expected to seek fellowship based on evidence of good teaching or a teaching qualification. And finally we have the annual National Student Survey which, while far from perfect, is a form of transparency that I haven’t seen in any other country’s university system. Students have more information about potential courses than they’ve ever had before to help them choose (note that private providers have none of this transparency or regulation). One of the reasons I became a university manager was to work on enhancing teaching and learning because I don’t think we should be satisfied with the status quo. If the complaint had been ‘there’s lots to improve in digital design education’ I would have agreed, and I don’t think many people would dissent. But broken? That’s simply wrong.

There was, coincidentally, a really good example of a contrasting take on this issue that came out around the same time as that article: a major bank ‘asking students and recent graduates to help it to crack some of the financial sector’s biggest digital challenges’. Clearly they don’t think education is broken.

Is digital design suffering because of ‘broken’ education?

There is a really simple test of whether British digital design education is broken: how is the British digital design industry doing?

According to the Design Council, digital design contributed £30 billion to the UK economy and £12 billion in exports in 2013. This grew 39.3% domestically and 58.3% globally from 2009–13. It the fastest growing design sector in the UK representing one in four design companies operating in the UK and employing 608,000 people (nearly 40% higher than in 2009). 68% of those working in digital design have a degree or higher — the largest proportion of all design disciplines.

Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t think that suggests education is ‘broken’. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to improve it.

Why we teach

I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years and when I started it was with much the same attitude as the one I described at the start: I’m from industry, let me tell you what you need to know because you’re doing it wrong. It didn’t take me long to realise that the purpose of higher education is not to train well-behaved employees, but to help develop the people who will create new ideas, new ways of doing things, and ultimately employ others. In my experience the majority of students are happy with their courses and when they’re not, I listen. I know most of my colleagues do too. We really don’t sit around thinking up ways of wasting people’s time.

I love teaching. If you think you’ve a better understanding of ‘the real world’ than an academic, try being a personal tutor for a year. I’ve learned more about life (and design) than I ever did sitting in an office turning out websites and brochures. You can’t design anything more fulfilling than a course that transforms people, and you can’t do a more rewarding job than teach. I’m proud of every graduate I’ve ever had a hand in producing, and delighted when they come back and contribute to developing the next generation. I wish we had more time and more resources to do what we do. We deserve it considering the contributions we make both to society and to the economy.

Can we do things better? Always. We’re designers too; we love solving problems.

We depend on, and enjoy, constructive interaction with industry. We’re your colleagues, not your suppliers. Talk to us, advise us, and work with us. But please don’t lecture us.

Interaction Design Education

Best posts regarding interaction design and general design…

Jonathan Baldwin

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Expert on Higher Education, Design, and Creativity. Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Interaction Design Education

Best posts regarding interaction design and general design education.

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