The state of design education

Something interesting has happened in design education. There’s been a revolution, and the old order has been reversed. What do I mean by this? I mean that in many instances the students are now smarter than the employers.

You can see this most clearly in the way recent graduates are effortlessly absorbed into the new digital media landscape; students now emerging from design schools are the first generation of designers to be raised as digital natives. Anyone born in the early 1990s has grown up in a digital world – a world as natural to them as TV and newspapers were to previous generations.

You can also see how progressive many students are by their attitude to a world shaped by the global banking crisis, a world where the old idea of only doing something if it turns a profit is being questioned. In fact, many students are at the forefront of fresh thinking around the notion of design as a tool for social improvement, and also about finding an alternative role for design that is far superior to its traditional function of simply fuelling consumerism. Of course, not all students are enlightened visionaries, and not all studio bosses are blinkered. But in the smart stakes, the balance has tipped in favour of the students. The work produced by, say, the top 30 per cent in the leading design schools is superior to the majority of commercial work we see around us. The only thing that these students are unable to offer is experience: when I mentioned recently to a senior design educator that many of the students I meet know stuff that I don’t know and have a wider set of skills than I can ever hope to possess, he said, “Ah, yes, but they don’t have your experience.” And in truth, it’s often only experience that separates design students from design professionals.

Studio bosses have traditionally moaned about design schools failing to equip graduates for the ‘real world’ – a patronising term, since what could be more ‘real world’ than paying £9,000 per year for an education? Many employers view education as a playground for young designers, and complain about students graduating with inadequate professional skills, possessing only a shallow view of what it means to be a designer.

There is inevitably some truth in this: there are plenty of self-indulgent students. Yet perhaps it’s the professional designers who are behind the times, as they pursue outdated ideas of what it means to be a designer in a networked age where expertise and knowledge are shared and not imposed. Perhaps it’s the students and the design schools who are ahead of the game.

The fact is, design students are emerging from three or four years of study and many of them are simply too advanced for the positions that are open to them. Put bluntly, the design industry is not ready for them, with the result that good quality graduates are forced to take poor quality jobs, at poor quality wages, with only limited opportunities for growth in an industry that hasn’t yet learned to deal with an environment where the role of the traditional designer is changing – and indeed in many cases vanishing. But more on that topic later.

So for anyone contemplating a design education, there are three questions worth asking: What is the value of a design education? What is the state of the industry that graduates are entering? And what does the future look like – inviting or scary?

The value of education

There are many reasons why this is a good time to be considering the value of a design education. For a start, design is a subject that is changing so fast that skills learned today might be redundant tomorrow. Even after three or four years of study, most jobs open to design graduates are either unpaid, or at best poorly paid internships. And why should anyone contemplate a future of indebtedness for the sake of a design degree when our Robin-Hood-in-reverse UK government (it robs the poor and makes the rich richer), has made higher education punitively expensive?

But fortunately, there are a lot of smart people thinking about these matters. I recently attended a D&AD President’s Lecture entitled ‘A Future for Creative Education?’ devoted to to the subject. The panel, which included Lord David Puttnam, D&AD President Neville Brody, Emily Campbell of the Creative Education Trust and David Erixon from Hyper Island, was unanimous in supporting the value of a good creative education, both for the individual practitioner and for the nation as a whole.

Brody was especially critical of the government’s Neanderthal policy towards creative education – a point he elaborated on in a recent Guardian interview: “The bottom line is that we need to be producing a nation of creative thinkers, not creative objects. It’s not about developing clichéd craft; it’s about building on an extraordinary legacy, but combining that with our ability to take creative risks. That’s what we’re supposed to be developing: people who will change and lead in global industries. Not people who will become professional clones. We’re not a nation of vocationals; we’re not a factory turning out glazed clay china versions of ourselves.”

During the D&AD event, David Erixon, co-founder of digital school Hyper Island, made the point that education always comes at the wrong time in a creative person’s career: if only we could learn continuously, he argued, then perhaps we could stay abreast of developments in a world of accelerating change. He also noted that the practical value of an MBA (Master of Business Administration) degree – widely regarded as the essential qualification for anyone considering a career in business – is now being called into question. People who want to know what’s new in business thinking, Erixon noted, go onto YouTube and check out TED Talks and other free sources of up-to-the-minute information.

The Hyper Island philosophy embraces this new world of integrated and constant learning. Rather than having a traditional monologue-based, teacher-to-student methodology, Hyper Island offers dialogue-based, participative programmes, and thanks to its philosophy of ‘learning by doing’, the school is thriving. Hyper Island is independent; it is not part of any national educational curriculum, so it is free to offer a flexible responsive programme of learning. A very different independent option is offered by Shillington College. It was established when its founder noted a gap in graphic design education, whereby new graduates were not being taught the necessary software skills needed to produce commercial work. The school offers a series of short courses, taught by working industry professionals, with the aim of fast-tracking graduates into the world of design.

Yet for most people contemplating a design education in the UK and Europe, the only option is the state regulated system, governed by academic conventions and university curricula. And yet, after spending time as an external examiner in four UK universities and visiting many schools at home and abroad, I’ve come to the firm belief that, despite its adherence to academic conventions that are often more suited to other disciplines, there is real value to be had from a design education in a good university.

This is mostly down to the quality of teaching. Where once design educators taught students how to design wine labels, a new generation of teachers – many of them radicalised by events in design in the 1990s and 2000s – has created courses that value practical skills but place a heightened emphasis on creative thinking. This, in my view, is the correct approach: craft and software skills are essential, but so too are acquiring new ways of thinking and acting that encompass research, autonomous practice and critical scrutiny. Without these ‘soft skills’, students are at the mercy of the marketplace, and dependent on a skill set that might become superfluous overnight. By producing thinkers, as well as makers, the risk of graduates becoming redundant (in the widest sense of that word) becomes lessened. And for the most part, this is exactly what the current generation of design schools is doing.

However, it’s not only the lecturers and tutors that take the credit for the new breed of super-student. Just as David Erixon points out that the equivalent of an MBA degree can be gained from YouTube, so too can the modern design student turn to the internet, magazines, books and conferences to gain an insider’s view of what it means to be a designer. The abundance of design knowledge – everything from books on design theory to eye-candy Tumblr sites – is staggering, and far greater than ever before. And it’s this as much as progressive design education programmes that has contributed to the creation of a savvy generation of undergraduates that are as familiar with the minutiae of design as the steely-eyed professionals.

The state of the industry

The second issue that should be considered is the state of the industry that graduates are entering into. The design industry has avoided the worst effects of the economic recession of the past few years. Most studios remain busy, even if fees have dropped and competition has increased. But it is not immune from other various cultural and technological changes. As with other professions, the era of the all-knowing expert is now largely over. Designers have traditionally said to clients who questioned their work, “You wouldn’t tell your doctor what to do, would you?”

Well, today, that’s exactly what people do. Patients visit their local GP armed with printouts from the internet, and if they doubt their doctor’s advice, they tell them so. The same is true with design; the omnipotent designer is no longer omnipotent. Thanks to the internet, everyone is now a designer – or at least has a view on what good design is. This has changed the design landscape profoundly. Smart designers have worked this out and now function as partners rather than suppliers, often working alongside experts in other fields – sharing expertise rather than imposing it.

But there are other, darker forces at work: just as the internet has changed entire industries (music, film, publishing) so it has also changed the way design is bought and sold. I used to think design was something that could never be internet-ised – in the way music distribution has, for example – but I was wrong. Our newly-networked world means that designers can often be bypassed. Today, businesses can launch without going near a designer – all they need is a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a website downloaded as an editable template. Even the clients know that they can go straight to social media to speak to their audiences.

According to the blog Business Insider, the world’s largest marketer Proctor & Gamble has said it would “lay off 1,600 staffers, including marketers, as part of a cost-cutting exercise.” The P&G boss told analysts that he would have to “moderate his ad budget because Facebook and Google can be more efficient than the traditional media that usually eats the lion’s share of P&G’s ad budget.”

It is now routine to see adverts on prime-time TV offering fully designed and functioning websites direct to the public. The company 1+1 promises to have your website online in minutes, with just a few clicks, and with no technical knowledge required: “Choose from over 120 business sectors,” their ads say, “all of which include flexible layouts, customisable text, images and applications relevant to your business.”

And what about companies like 99 Designs, a newish online service that allows clients to host ‘design contests’, where thousands of designers compete to create a design at a fraction of the cost of hiring a design firm? Clients only have to pay the winner and a small fee to 99 for hosting the competition. Or, a website that “wants every entrepreneur to be able to get great design and print – and be in control of how their business looks.” This is basically design as ready-meals. It provides a ‘complete design solution in a web browser’ and is sold as the ‘democratising of design and print’. It promises to do away with the need to ‘pander’ to designers: “You’re creative and in control,” it shouts.

Designers can complain about this ‘democratising’ of design and point out its poor quality, but for many business people starting companies at a time of austerity, the attractiveness of these new online design providers is hard to resist. And who knows, over time, these services might become the established way that the majority of design work is delivered. Instead of complaining, designers will have to accept that the world of design is undergoing a change – think, for example, of product designers and 3D printers. If you are smart, these progressions don’t pose a threat. Design has always changed, and designers have always adapted.

The future

The final question prospective design students should be considering is what the future looks like. For designers, the future has always appeared simultaneously inviting and scary. It is an insecure business driven by fashion, technology, economics and culture. But there are some things that we can be sure about.

The first is that the nature of design practice will change. Whatever we think we will be doing in five years time is almost certainly wrong. Secondly, as the world becomes more complex, the ability to work collaboratively is essential. If you can’t pool your skills and share your knowledge, you won’t be functioning effectively. And lastly, graduates need to prepare for a world where they will have to be more entrepreneurial than previous generations. Where once starting a studio or an independent practice was something designers did after a long spell of working professionally, now it often happens as soon as students have graduated.

Any institution offering to prepare students for a career in design must teach three things: flexibility, transference of skills and a certain degree of entrepreneurial autonomy. Perhaps this can be summed up as: institutions must teach students how to learn. And not just for the three or four years that they are enrolled on a course. Learning how to learn has to become a lifetime obligation. For students, education must be continuous; it can never stop.

Finally, both institutions and students have to view design as a life skill rather than a professional trade. All good designers posses the ability for ‘what if’ thinking. It is a valuable skill, and well suited to a world of change. In fact, it’s the designer’s greatest asset. In the future, artificial intelligence might be able to think like a designer – but that’s a long way off. Until then, we’re safe.

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The Creative Bloq team is made up of a group of design fans, and has changed and evolved since Creative Bloq began back in 2012. The current website team consists of seven full-time members of staff: Editor Georgia Coggan, Deputy Editor Rosie Hilder, Deals Editor Beren Neale, Senior News Editor Daniel Piper, Digital Arts and Design Editor Ian Dean, Tech Reviews Editor Erlingur Einarsson and Ecommerce Writer Abi Le Guilcher, as well as a roster of freelancers from around the world. The 3D World and ImagineFX magazine teams also pitch in, ensuring that content from 3D World and ImagineFX is represented on Creative Bloq.