My Dream Design Curriculum

If I had to do college over again, this is what I’d take

Last week, we hosted a panel at Facebook for design interns.

Now, without fail, one of the most common questions that comes up in panels like these is: what skills should I acquire/classes should I take if I want to be a product designer in the future?

Generally the answer I (and most other panelists) tend to give is that it’s not really worth stressing about this. Most of the skills that you need, you’ll learn on the job. Really, the point of going to school is getting good at the skill of learning how to learn. Technologies change. Photoshop won’t be the tool of choice forever. Programming languages and platforms fall in and out of fashion like flannel and thick-rimmed glasses. Be curious, be diligent, and don’t be afraid to read/watch/listen and make. Learning how to learn is the meta-skill that reaps rewards forever.

But. It strikes me that this probably isn’t the answer the person who was asking the question was looking for. When someone asks what skills or classes they should take to learn to be a product designer, it’s a safe assumption that what they’d like is, you know, a practical list of skills and classes.

So here goes. If I had a time machine and could travel back to when I was in college, knowing what I know today, here’s what I’d whisper in Young Julie’s ear when she sat down with the hefty course guide and the program sheet full of obscurely numbered classes to best prepare her for the future task of designing software for people.

The Basics

Fundamentals of graphic design: Appreciating, understanding, and creating things that are clearly presented, simple to understand and look good gets much easier when you know the basics, i.e. form, hierarchy, color, composition, typography, etc. The classes here should ideally include a number of creative projects with structured group critique.

Computer science: You don’t need to know the merits of Quicksort vs. Mergesort or how to write an operating system, but mastering the basics of coding (which is probably 1 year of fundamentals, plus a big project class or two) goes a long way. You will likely not go through a designer-in-tech career without wishing you had coding skills at some point.

Interaction design: Classes in this domain should focus in particular on “design thinking” and building a good process for identifying and understanding what people need, including different techniques for how to conduct user research. Ideally, classes here will have a series of group projects and a large final project that involves an end-to-end process of identifying a problem followed by researching, designing, prototyping and iterating on a solution.

Materials and 3-D form: Not moving past 2-D limits what one can design in terms of physical devices, which I’d bet good money will become a bigger and bigger space in the future. If I could go back in time, I’d love to learn more about the world of tangible objects, and how one thinks about what it takes to make something feel great to hold, carry, wear, and use.

Context is King

History of design: what are the movements, events, and historical contexts that have shaped our current understanding of design? How does it differ from age to age, and culture to culture? Some of this should be in a “fundamentals of graphic design” class, but the deeper your understanding of design throughout history, the better your grasp of what “good” design really means and how that evolves.

Psychology — perception and cognition: if you design, you’re probably designing for people, so additional context around cognition and perception—how the brain works, how we humans understand the world around us, how we learn and remember—is not only relevant, but also pretty fascinating stuff.

Psychology — social psychology: how do people affect the emotions and behaviors of other people? Clearly relevant if you want to design anything social, where you need to optimize both for an individual’s experience but also the health of an entire social ecosystem. One of the first things I learned at Facebook was that the most impactful work one can do is going beyond designing a single match to designing the rules of the game.

Statistics: at some point, if you design or build anything at scale, making decisions that are informed with data becomes incredibly valuable. Enter statistics, the study of collecting, organizing, interpreting, and presenting data. Having a solid understanding of probability, correlation versus causation, confidence intervals, inference, as well as some insight into how to build models and make predictions based on data is super useful in the practical day-to-day of making decisions based on understanding how people actually use your product.

Visualizations: knowing how to interpret and communicate complex topics through visualizations is powerful, particularly if you end up designing products in the health, finance or business space, or want to convey a ton of dense information in an elegant manner. In fact, at any given time, my inbox contains a healthy number of infographics, charts, posters or presentations containing visualizations of things like “Today’s smartphone ecosystem” or “What does the advertising market look like in its entirety?”

Marketing/Communication: how do you pitch a compelling product or service to people? How do you figure out which audience to target, what the messaging should look like, which price to set, and how to ultimately attract them to what you’re building?

The Softer Side of Skills

Public speaking & communication: as a designer, there’s no getting around the fact that you’re going to need to talk about and present your designs. Every top-notch designer I know is also a master of crisp, clear, and compelling communication. I cannot stress how important this skill is. If you can take a class, join a club (like Toastmasters), or otherwise put yourself in situations where you can practice being ever more succinct, clear, and engaging, it will pay dividends for your design career.

Sketching design ideas: adeptness at translating an abstract or early idea into clear and simple conceptual sketches or storyboards will help your process—you will think better and communicate more easily with others.

Working well with others: it’s pretty unlikely that as a designer, you’re going to be working by yourself a majority of the time. So much of the design profession is collaborating with others to identify and solve problems. How do you divide up work amongst yourselves? How do you decide what to do if there are differing opinions around the room? How do you deal with different styles and personalities? How can you work off each other’s strengths so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

Critique/giving feedback to others: the goal here is to be honest, critical, and helpful, but not come across as a dick. Practice makes perfect.

Entrepreneurship/identifying opportunities for impact: how do you know what to work on that’s going to make the biggest difference for the people you’re targeting? How do you size a market? How do you prioritize between a dozen ideas that look good on paper? How do you take the technologies, people skills and resources and make something meaningful out of them?

In a classroom setting, short of there being an actual course offered for the above (I’ve seen them at certain universities, though they tend to be rare) big project-type classes tend to be the best venue for exercising the above soft skills. In your junior or senior year, look for project classes that are super open-ended and requires you to work with a group of people, ideally doing something like the below:

  • conceiving of and building an app from start to finish
  • partnering with a non-profit or some other organization to solve a problem that they have
  • designing something (a website, a product, a service) that’s aiming to be successful in the marketplace
  • redesigning an existing process to be better or more efficient

In Pursuit of Creativity

Many of my favorite college classes weren’t always related to design or technology, but were still valuable for utilizing the right brain and developing better creative processes (like critique). So take whatever strikes your fancy and has you making things, including but not limited to:

  • creative writing
  • poetry
  • studio art
  • filmmaking
  • photography
  • calligraphy
  • interior design
  • architecture
  • that class where you make a video game
  • that introduction to mechanical engineering class where you make catapults and compete to see whose catapult launches eggs the furthest
  • …you get the idea

So there you have it, my dream design curriculum. To my knowledge, there’s no single program out that that actually contains all of the above, so don’t stress if this exact formula isn’t possible. (I didn’t take about 70% of it myself, in case you’re wondering.)

Good thing learning isn’t something that ends when you leave school. And good thing there are books. And online courses. And Youtube videos. And people out there who can teach you these things if you only ask.

(P.S: If you do end up putting together a program with most of the above, shoot me a note. I’d love to know how it went for you ☺)

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