Why design education needs to change

March 8th, 2011

Most web design and “new media” schools teach tools, not design. Or to put it another way, they teach tools—not designers. This is something I’ve been mulling over for the past year or two and so I had a lot to spill in my comment on Les James’ post Pursuing the How Instead of the Why on Media Two Point Oh. Les’s post is one of a few recent readings* that put my dissatisfaction with my education into perspective. The following is basically the content of my comment:

I took a one year course that I now see as a waste of money I’m still paying for. The majority of the course materials were software manuals I didn’t even open. Anyway, I thought to get started working at an agency that I would need to have a paper saying I knew how to use all those programs they list as job requirements. After working at an agency for two years now I see that the paper might have got me in the door, but not as more than a production artist or a pixel pusher. I wasn’t happy in that role, so I’ve been trying to bring in my views about design and asking for more responsibility. The “great” agencies don’t even list software requirements in their job posts. They ask that you are able to solve problems and talk about design, explaining your solutions. At the school I went to, only lip service was paid to the fundamentals of design. I’d learned more about the principles of design and colour theory in high school art class where we used those concepts in doing self art critiques. Although I didn’t like doing art critiques at the time, now I’m seeing how important that kind of language and knowledge is when you are designing and presenting design to clients. When you know why you are doing something you have more confidence in your work and there is less guessing and wasting time. There is less “throwing things on the canvas and seeing what sticks” and more “seeking the best solution.” I think most designers who complain about their clients nitpicking the design aren’t able to offer solutions, just decorations. If the designer had no purpose for their choices and can’t back it up with good reasons then they either have to grumble and go along with the client’s every whim or stubbornly insist on their design and be seen as a difficult egoist. It would have been great to have an environment where design was taught and discussed so I would have had more experience explaining and selling design before being sent out into the wild.”

And so we have plenty of emerging “designers” who think they are doing well if they can just distract clients with pretty objects instead of really answering their needs. Maybe they need practice and experience or maybe they are happy with themselves and don’t see the need to offer anything more. And maybe they wonder why they can’t get a “good job” or great clients. But maybe they are perfectly fine and nothing needs to change. And nothing will change until design education and certification does.

*The UX Design Education Scam and its follow-up Education for Dummies by Andy Rutledge are two other related articles.


  1. I’ve been trying to write this comment for the last 20 minutes. Can’t. Breaking it up into bullet points instead.

    1. Absolutely, you need to know why you’re doing something to get to the root. If you can explain it and it relates to the project, then I think you’re on the right track.

    2. It’s the person. I sit in classes all day with people who just don’t get it. Yes, they have the ability to open an Adobe program, but when it comes to designing with a purpose, it’s just not there. Instructors and teachers may try to drill this idea with critiques and what not, but some people simply don’t get it (which is frustrating to watch, I might add).

    3. It depends of the school. I am currently on the tail end of a four year program, and I feel -very- prepared and understand this ‘why before how’ concept. If you’re attending a school that teaches you how to “distract” your client? GTFO.

    Comment by Chelsea — March 9, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

  2. I went to Architecture school instead of “design” school and it was a very theory based program. We learned the tools along the way, but they were the small percentage of the classes. We weren’t even allowed to use AutoCAD until Junior year. I learned print on old style paste-up in high school yearbook and newspaper, and I’m always fascinated that I interviewed designers who don’t know what a pica is.

    I think one of the big failures is that no one teaches usability. Good design creates _useable_ solutions. Often I see very pretty solutions that are complete failures. I also see a lot of portfolio from designers in their low 20s that are just awful. There should be some kind of understanding of presentation as a designer.

    Comment by John Athayde — March 9, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

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