Edit: May 11, 2021—corrected link to original source article.
As I made the transition from student to professional, I found myself returning to re-read a certain article, “The Main Failing Of Design School: Kids Can’t Think For Themselves,” by Michael Bierut (1988), perhaps as a way to reassure myself that I could, in fact, think for myself. Now that I’m in front of the classroom, I return to his article every semester as a lesson to my own students, and a reminder of why I wanted to teach in the first place.
In the essay, Bierut argues that design programs circa 1988 were producing designers that worked in silos: failing in the “real-world” because they were taught to place heavy emphasis on aesthetics—and not much else. Because designers didn’t understand the content, he figured, their designs lacked clarity or meaning and therefore suffered in quality. It was a prescient look at design education—perhaps education in general—and still feels apt today:
“Some designers fill in their educational gaps as they go along; some just fake it. But most of the mediocre design today comes from designers who are faithfully doing as they were taught in school: they worship at the altar of the visual.”
“Our clients usually are not other designers; they sell real estate, cure cancer, make forklift trucks. Nor are there many designers in the audiences our work eventually finds. They must be touched with communication that is genuinely resonant, not self-referential.”
[…]“Nowadays, the passion of design educators seems to be technology; they fear that computer illiteracy will handicap their graduates. But it’s the broader kind of illiteracy that’s more profoundly troubling. Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand. And designers, more and more, will end up talking to themselves.”
25 years later, I wholeheartedly agree with at least one point: “most of the mediocre design today comes from designers who […] worship at the altar of the visual.”
I’m just not sure this is the “failing of design school” anymore.
While some things haven’t changed in the quarter century since this essay was first published, there have been monumental shifts in our industry and it’s place in the world. And if the industry has made so much progress (it has), then why are we still failing as educators? At the end of the day, I think it comes down to this: what is the role of the educator, and what is the responsibility of the student?
Two monumental shifts: technology and design culture.
To be sure, some things have changed since Bierut wrote this essay. First, the tools we use to create designs have become easier to use and access. Second, design as a concept is something that more people are exposed to. Both of these underlying trends have changed design education, and have implications for design students today. The question of “expos[ing …] students to a meaningful range of culture” is still on the table, but we need to understand the shift in the industry to understand the shifting challenges that educators and students face.
Technology adoption: the “democratization” of creation
I don’t think educators fear that “computer illiteracy will handicap their graduates” anymore. Digital software tools are so natural to students that grow up with computers in their pockets that it’s often the students that are teaching the professor the ins and outs of the creative suite. (Whether or not there’s a different illiteracy handicap to contend with—do all designers need to code?—is another discussion entirely.)
In fact, the ease of use and relative easy access to these tools present yet another challenge to today’s design student. Since anyone can access these tools, more and more people are becoming creators and the marketplace is more crowded every year with more designers. This hasn’t really changed since Bierut’s article:
“Each year, more and more high school seniors decide that they have a bright future in “graphics,” often without much of an idea of what graphics is. This swelling tide of 18-year-old, would-be designers is swallowed up thirstily by more and more programs in graphic design at art schools, community colleges, and universities.”
Only these days, more (though not nearly all) of those high school seniors have a little better idea of what “graphics” actually is. It’s not just the increase in formal design students that today’s grads have to worry about—it’s the increase in people who claim the ability to design with no formal training. And I’m not saying it’s not possible to be a great designer without formal training—it certainly is.
But this “democratization” of design has increased the pressure on the professionals to be better. It means mediocre students are going to be increasingly competing for jobs with others that have little or no classroom experience in design.
So now, I’d argue, it’s actually more important than ever to focus on the fundamentals of what constitutes *good* design. Because so many people now claim design ability, it’s crucial that trained designers are producing design that is simply better, and that means producing design born of something more than an aesthetic.
Design in pop culture? The “democratization” of access
Something even bigger changed. *Design* (whether or not people really understand what that means), is now part of the public lexicon. We no longer “speak in languages only our classmates understand”, because the language of design has permeated popular culture.
As cliche as it may sound at this point, Apple has played the leading role in elevating the visibility and desirability of “design” over the past few decades. This has made design a selling point for consumers and a strategic asset for businesses.
Sure, you may hate the “know it all” client who pays lip service to understanding your “clean” layout, and even notes how “Swiss” you’re being with your typography (it is Helvetica, isn’t it?) But overall, the elevation of design to profession that is well known and respected can’t be bad for the profession, right?
Well it’s sort of like access to the tools—people generally have greater access and understanding of the concepts of design now. As this understanding increases, more people again claim ownership of the design process, and that’s all well and fine. But again, it puts an increased pressure on today’s students to really understand the value that design offers, and again, this cannot be a purely aesthetic offering.
Mediocre design students can no longer get by with a “good” portfolio, or even a “great” portfolio—they now have to demonstrate the creation of value by documenting problem-solving in the way forward-looking businesses want: the recently-coined concepts of design thinking or design strategy.
Design education, today.
So how does formal design education keep pace with changing technology and face the realities of increased competition?
In my own experiences, design programs have actually done a good job educating students to reach outside of the boundary of design. This is perhaps more a factor of a changing educational landscape than a concerted effort to push designers outside of the graphics realm—but more colleges and universities are making interdisciplinary programs.
At Northeastern, I think we do a pretty good job. I am, of course, biased, but the ethos of the entire university, being “interdisciplinary” and “experiential” with their famous co-op program really have done a good deal towards correcting these issues. This could perhaps serve as a model for other design curriculum.
The role of the educator
We need to teach the fundamentals faster, and make sure students understand the value the design process instead of simply going through the exercises. And we need to assign projects that force students to do their own research on non-design topics. While we’re at it, we may as well encourage cultural projects, or research for education’s sake—that is what college is all about.
Forcing students to do ad campaigns or identities for the next corporation may be a “real world” exercise, but those assignments miss a vital opportunity to have students expand their expertise outside of the design world. Some the big problems could use branding anyways, and they are usually harder problems to solve with greater complexity.
The responsibility of the student
I first read Beirut’s essay myself as a student in a senior-year class that had us thinking critically about the future of design, about what it meant to be a professional designer.
With the likes of MOOCs and Kahn Academy, today’s designers need to think critically about, and “sell” the impact that their design makes in order to do it to keep up with the wave of new designers.
I felt that my education exposed me to a wide range of topics, and I think many of my peers and now students have the same experience. But in almost all of those cases, it wasn’t because of a prescribed academic curricula. It came from wanting to learn more—a curiosity about the world. It’s true, schools can change their curriculum to force exposure to a wider range of topics, but it’s not just being in the right class…
You have to really focus on getting something meaningful out of your assignments. You have to challenge yourself to take the next hard studio or research course instead of the “easy A”. Those courses will always exist, lazy students and lazy professors will always exist.
The challenge is to take the time to do good work, and understand why you’re doing it. That will always be up to the individual.
So, are design schools still failing their students?
Maybe some are, but there are certainly choices out there for programs that are doing the right things. Design as a profession and design education are changing fast, and it’s up to individuals—educators and students alike—to keep challenging and keep evolving.
Lest we forfeit design to the lowest common denominator—design being relegated once again to “graphics” creation.