The problem with design education

On the About.com GD forum we’ve been tossing around issues like certification and professional design standards and while we agree and disagree on various points with respect to each issue, one thing I think none of us will argue with is that design education MUST improve.As the design needs of the business world continue to rise and as we designers lobby to be included earlier in the process and take on more value-added, less commoditized roles in business communications, the state of design education continues to decline.Don’t get me wrong, there are still very many top flight design schools out there wo are helping to train, shape and mold the future design stars of tomorrow. But I also fear that for the most part, design schools and design educators are falling out of touch with the demands of design in today’s marketplace and are thus unable to properly challenge young minds to meet those demands.

The end of innovation?It wasn’t that long ago that among the most innovative, edgy, risk-taking and explorative work was being done in our design schools. Many professionals would interview recent grads from Pratt, RISD, UArts, Art Center, Cincinnati, etc. just to see what the art schools were up to. Simply to treat themselves to those beautiful portfolios and work.Of course, that’s how it should be. In many fields like science, medicine, engineering, technology, etc., universities provide fertile ground for the most ground-breaking research and experimentation. Private business funds and endows these efforts and reaps the rewards as the graduates of these institutions enter the job market. They invest in their future and in return, gradutate class after class of professionals who studied in this world of innovation. Our field was no different.What happened? Today, few would argue that among the more innovative, edgy, risk-taking and explorative work is being done in our design schools. Part of the problem may be with the instructors themselves. When I was in college in the 80’s, the computer revolution was in full swing. Rather than rise to these challenges, analyze the potential benefits the computer could bring to our industry, and willfully incorporate digital media techniques into their curricula, design instructors eschewed computers. Many within the most prestigious design schools openly refused to allow them into their studios. The few who did, merely tolerated the computer.Over time and after increasing pressure from students, administrators and professionals, many of these instructors caved and allowed computers into their studios and into their curricula. But the problem was that they never truly EMBRACED the computer. Again, rather than exploring the potential of the computer and what it could possibly add to the design field, they restricted its use to merely setting type. Later, promoting it to merely replacing the T-Square and illustration board for layout. That’s it. “The computer is only a tool” they would repeat.That all changed in the early to mid 90’s.While we were sleeping, the computer became far more than a tool. The convergence of telecommuncatiions advances and the explosion of the Internet onto the scene converted our “tool” into a medium that transformed and disrupted business as we knew it and altered the landscape like nothing we had ever seen before. Yet we were STILL only using it for typesetting and layout!In an eerie sort of deja vu, as the entire world simultaneously saw the explosive power of the Internet and entire industries were transformed overnight, the design industry in general — and design educators specifically — ESCHEWED the Internet! Once again, design educators refused to incorporate interactive design techniques into their overall design theory. Design schools who wanted to teach web design as a discipline were forced to setup parallel departments OUTSIDE of their existing GD departments.I can actually remember attending a design seminar and sitting in on a roundtable discussion 10 years ago where many on the panel shared their opinions that the web was simply a “fad” and that the Internet would go the way of the CB Radio craze. Dismissed as irrelevant, we allowed programmers and coders to fill our shoes in trying to lead the way into the design future on the Internet. Not a shinging moment for our industry and not a ringing endorsement for our reigning leaders of design education.Today, while I hear that things have improved, I’m sorry to report that not a whole lot has changed. While design educators now acknowledge the computer and the Internet and have slowly begun to incorporate it into their design theory, few have the experience, knowledge, proficiency or understanding of the Internet and what it’s potential is for our industry. Instead of eschewing the Internet altogether, they have now taken to teaching how to essentially creat print pages on the web.Granted, the Internet is still in it’s infancy and we are only now just beginning to learn ways in which users interact with the web and how to truly craft unique experiences online for them. But this type of exploration and experimentation — which is happening on the professional level — MUST happen on the educational level as well!Now I’ll dream a bitWhy don’t we have a “Zen Garden” at the university level? Imagine if students from RISD, Pratt, SCAD, Art Center, Cooper Union, etc. each spent 5-6 weeks creating a Zen Garden-like layout. Why aren’t design schools taking advantage of the ability to communicate, to collaborate, to compete, to explore?Why don’t Pratt students collaborate with MIT students to create a study on design usability? Why don’t Art Center students collaborate with Cal Arts students to study the potential in design for mobile devices?Why isn’t it among the first assignments in sophomore design studio for each student to setup their own blog on the university’s server?I’m not coming down on the kids. I still think that despite the efforts of myopic administrators and educators, kids do an ADMIRABLE job of teaching themselves technology and jumping into the technological waters and learning on their own how to swim.That said, there needs to be DESIGN THEORY along with technological proficiency. Students need to learn HOW to use the computer. They need to learn work flows that include, harnass and exploit the computer for all if it’s benefits.These are our industy’s first round draft picks. The future stars and leaders of our industry. We’ll be passing the baton to them when we’re ready to retire. They deserve better in the way of design education. A LOT better..chris{}

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