American Design Schools

American Design Schools Are a Mess, and Produce Weak Graduates

Wow! That is rough to read. I am not sure how I feel about that article. It is very critical could be consider overly critical without much in the way of a solution to the problem. Not sure it is wrong just maybe the tone is hard to hear. Hopefully this will create some conversation about the subject. Very interested to know what others think/feel.

I think it’s totally fair. As design education expands in the US I think it makes the problem worse. There are a small # of programs that are getting better, and a large # of programs adding to the pool of extremely weak candidates.

Couple that with the fact that many design schools don’t have the luxury of kicking out students. Students pay the bills, so ultimately many professors have no choice but to graduate classes where 2/3rds of the class is not fit for real world consumption.

Having attended many portfolio reviews as a young professional (who even looking at my own student portfolio from years ago sees a hodgepodge of weak skills in many areas) I can tell you that some students just have no concept of where they need to be. I’ve seen senior thesis projects that were 15 weeks in length that flat out looked like 3 nights of amatuer photoshop exercises. Even trying to give positive but constructive feedback can be hard. I think the one valuable aspect of design education is understanding how to have someone cut you down and how to learn and build yourself back up as a better designer. That does not happen nearly enough it seems and students are some how able to make it through 4 years of school with a garbage portfolio, mediocre set of skills, and no real value to the job market.

The only positive flip side I see to that is that there are some shining stars out there. I had the pleasure of judging last years IDSA student merit award winners and I can tell you that some of the students coming out have phenomenal skillsets that rival or exceed some professionals that I’ve worked with.

In reality I don’t think much has changed. When I graduated my teacher broke down the ratio of students that would get ID jobs as about 1/3rd the class, 1/3rd would get design “Related” jobs (print making, web, etc) and 1/3rd would be waiting tables. That statistic held true to a fairly high degree, and my belief is that much more of it has to do with the quality of the student and their desire to learn and work, not just the education.

remember this is one persons opinion reflecting the needs of his consultancy/clients. doesn’t mean everything sucks
that said, teaching dosn’t pay well so there’s a bit of “those who can’t, teach” going on.

But, in the internet era, the notion that students aren’t aware of what they need to do to be employable isn’t valid…

It shouldn’t be valid, but in my experience there are still plenty of students out there who think that they’re competing with their classmates, not the world. I base that on my own experiences in school, intern candidate portfolios, and IDSA por
tfolio reviews.
In fact, the fact that some of the IDSA portfolio reviews (and conferences in general) are so under attended is worrying. That’s the best way I can think of of getting your work in front of live professionals and many people choose not to do it. When paying tens of thousands of dollars for college it’s silly student’s dont realize the value of spending a couple hundred bucks on a conference.

The fact that some students actually stood there with a straight face and a belief that some of this work was good enough to get them an internship was frankly frightening. I think that has a lot to do with a lot of these smaller and younger programs popping up that just don’t have the breadth of what’s involved in a solid design education. A lot also just has to do with the students.

There is always going to be a bell curve for everything in life. That goes for quality of design education WORLDWIDE and the quality of students.

you make a couple great points.
First, is that if the author wants good talent cheap (right out of school) he’s got to step up to the plate and start mentoring interns. and if he personally can’t, then hire a senior designer who can. It comes with the territory.
(we run a steady stream of students through here, half the current employees started out as co-ops or interns)

Second, Design will soon be a commodity.
China has doubled is number of Universities and quadrupled the number of students in the last decade. design curriculums in the states are currently in the process of being benchmarked. Fundamental skills can easily be reproduced, and will be the first to go offshore…

Third, Getting more portfolio review participation: pro’s and students is a good first step.

I thought it was a great call to arms.

Design doesn’t have to be a commodity. It is our job to communicate its value beyond a skin.

Can we talk about the fact that Design has continued to try to pack more and more into a degree instead of accepting the fact that there may have to be some specialization in different areas and teams of different specialists to cover everything. being about the same age as Gadi, I have to admit that while I have gained a holistic outlook on design I know I did not have it in the beginning (none of us did). I agree that Design Education has a problem in the world, not just US, and it is the fact that we are trying to pack 10 lbs of sugar into a 5 lb sack. This is giving us a student that has lightly touched on each piece but never delved deeply into any specific area.

I do however totally agree with the overconfident nature of students today.

Good points Timf on all fronts.

“Much of the work that students show me in their portfolios is broken into two categories: skills work (3D CAD) and process work (research, model-making). Only a few show projects showcasing the applicant’s ability to integrate seamlessly all levels of creativity.”

I hope this isn’t a horrid question. But could someone elaborate a bit on what he means by ‘ability to integrate seamlessly all levels of creativity.’?

I agree with many of the things said so far. At the risk of sounding predictable to folks who’ve read any of my posts, I think it is extremely important for design schools to require students to spend a semester, maybe in the early to middle part of the program, learning about product development and how design fits into the bigger PD puzzle. Case studies - not analyses of the design , but real case studies of how the product was developed - starting with phase zero and concluding with the manufacturer’s response to product issues in the marketplace - would be invaluable to kids learning about what we do. Just like business school. On a related note, increased business coursework would be helpful since we essentially provide a business service. Should ID should be placed under the umbrella of the business school?

I like to think what we do is exactly the same as what any other professionals do except with a somewhat different skillset, and showing kids that the designer plays only a partial role in the creation of new product would do a lot to (1) humble the kids with lone visionary empath mindset, and (2) make sure kids end up on the right career path, whether it means they end up in design, marketing, human factors, design research, QA, engineering, or some other related field. That said, I also agree that programs need to do a better job with specialization. Some kids want to be killer stylists. Some want to be project managers. Some want to create IP and get VC funding for their ideas. Some want to develop medical devices. Each of these are very different career paths and each could be supported by different academic programs, but often I think kids don’t realize all the career choices available to them if they are interested in creating product.

I’ve been doing this ID thing for 8 years now, and I’m personally less sure than ever as to what the term “industrial designer” even means. What I do - my extemporaneous job description - varies so much from project to project that building an academic program to prepare me for it would have been extremely difficult. I’m grateful I went to a university, however, as my program required lab sciences, cog psy, HF, basic business and marketing coursework, and math through calc and statistics. For whatever weaknesses the program may have had in teaching me to be a great stylist, I learned a lot of language that made it much easier for me to communicate with people in all the ID-adjacent disciplines, and was able to pick up good enough styling/sketching skills on the job.

I agree bcpid that they should review case studies to get a feel for the process, but I disagree that what we do is the same as what other professionals do in the PD cycle with a different skill set. Their processes tend to be linear, more easily rationalized, and at least more objective. Ours can be heavily subjective, lateral, intuitive, and validated later. Seeing how the analytical works with the intuitive is very important, and how the most innovative things come from the collaboration (and friction) between different kinds of folks in the PD process.

I think you could take 10 examples of what each of us do on this board and you’d find theres such a wide range in our average day to day that trying to prepare a student for any particular area (corporate vs consultant, style jockey vs cad monkey, etc) that it’s going to be a challenge for any department even if schools did try to “Specialize”.

I do know that at least some of this is recognized. Having spoke to some of my former professors I believe they moved to a quarter based system instead of a semester based system to try and give students much quicker deep dives into very targeted areas which I think is a valid technique of responding to some of the criticisms.

Even then people we all know the person who graduates from Art Center probably won’t have a portfolio that looks much like someone from RISD. Someone from Cranbrook won’t look like someone from SCAD, etc.

What schools do need to be charged with is making sure their students put out a portfolio that is good enough for someone to say “hey this kid deserves a shot because their is some really great potential here that might fit with my company”. I’ve seen great work in the simplest of projects (a few SCAD grads stand out in recent memory) and I’ve seen crap work in overwhelmingly complex projects. I don’t agree with the article saying that a hire shouldn’t require training. They shouldn’t require hand holding, but you can’t expect to throw them into the fray and know what to expect unless they’ve already had enough internship experience to know the ropes.

If you went to me in college and said “In 3 years you’re going to spend most of your time arguing with engineers who barely speak english, get ready for it” I’m not sure I would have even known where to begin…maybe a minor in Chinese. :slight_smile:

the article mentions UC as a good example, I’ve recently heard they’re trying to create more of that specialization depth in thier graduates, but that’s a two edged sword.
I agree with Syd and believe the future will be less and less predictable. (How many of us are exactly where we planed when we graduated?) An NPR commentator has suggested the illiteracy of the 21’st century will not be the inablility to read, but rather the inability to learn.

Design can be commoditized to the same extent as Manufacturing, Accounting, Engineering, call centers, etc.
I’m not sure if the “…master of none” model will continue to work for undergraduate education. But will we force students to pick highly specific industries as Sophomores to work in after graduation? Will we follow Architecture and require a 6 year degree before they can get a degree? Here’s one I like: Do we start the design education in High School? I’m not sure.

Non liniar creativity is not the same as accounting. I think the kind of design that is 1+1=2 is already moving overseas. The kind of design with that added intangible value will remain. A lot of what i see coming out of schools is the first kind. It was probably always like this. I feel like I see a lot of projects that have the propped proccess, the research, the models, but not the moving result. This is a lofty goal for a student, but I think they cold be aware of it and aiming for it instead of being caught up with doing everything “right”. The most interesting, provocative, and memorable things tend to have an element of wrong.

The job of design is to drive sales and create market gain for our clients. If there wasn’t an objective, measurable outcome to what we do who would hire us? Even when our job is to elicit an emotional response with customers and end users, that should be measurable.

This article nearly made me cry.
Throughout the last 10 years the whole of Europe gave it’s best to mimic
the American academic standards through the “Bologna” process.
Wich meant, that Germany had to give up the 5-7 year diploma curriculums in
favour of BS and MA courses that stack up in american manner.

De facto this meant, that the wholistic curriculum was broken down in 3 ! BS degrees.
Do not wonder, that over here BS sometimes is not translated as Bacheolor of Science,
but Bulls*…

These new BS degrees on the other side were pumped up with CAD and rendering
work. The hand scetching and sculpting courses went down in time and quality.
Nevertheless the students that leave my alma mata nowadays are very capable in
solving “real world” design agency tasks, as they were trained from day one to work
in interdisciplinary teams, to deliver results through processes, that were standardised
during the course.

What is striking though is the reduction in really surprising, brilliant new solutions.
I fear those youngsters are well trained to polish a turd, but they struggle to
distinguish a turd from a nugget…
What catched my attention during my professional tenure as a designer was the
unability of many fellow product (industrial) designers to set a stylistic goal and
to reach it. Often it looks like a hit and miss game with many redo loops.
But the dream of the marketeer is a design machine that amalgamates some phrase
like “futuristic” into form (effortlessly).


I agree with what you say-

There is respect to be had for all seasoned industrial designers, manager, heads, etc. -one thing that makes me cringe is when a designer thinks he is awesome enough to start preaching the same boring flavor of ‘the kids these days’

so lots of flaws in his logic : part to whole comparison flaws,
past to present comparison flaws,
appeal to authority flaws

lots of other ones too- no one should take these articles seriously because it really is just an opinion- and often opinions are loaded with self-serving biases. People have designed really great objects without following a standard process, to put too much emphasis on process over the result seems dubious.

There are plenty of excellent students coming out of American design schools. Yeah the youngins should respect their elders, but when the elders start with that ‘kids these days’ garbage is when they have peaked and are on the dinosaur path

Helping the bottom line is aspect of what we do, but not it is not the entirety of our focus. Building brand, building user relationships, impacting culture are also roles we play if we don’t want to be a commodity. The C level execs at the best brands tend to understand this. There are all the things you do right, and then that little extra that seems to come from nowhere… but I think you and I had this conversation before, and neither of us seems willing to budge. I accept that what you say as an part of the truth, but not the full truth.

Emotional response to specific input is not measurable with any kind of accuracy at any kind of scale… I don’t want to live in a world where that is measurable with any kind of accuracy! :slight_smile: Sales is not a measurement of emotional response… unless peoples hearts are beating out their chests for Camrys tract homes.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said that he felt part of his job was to inspire the people who lived in his homes to live the kinds of lives and be the kinds of people they truly aspired to be (I’m paraphrasing). I doubt I’ve done anything at that level yet, but it is something to push toward. I remember going to the store as a kid and just drooling over the latest pair of Nikes, the coolest Walkman, crawling all over cars at car shows, and just being in awe certain things.

You typically won’t see “create awe” or “emit wonder” on a business document. The funny thing is, if you pursue those things, the money typically follows… but if you start by pursuing money and sales targets, the awe and wonder parts seldom follow.

This topic seems to come up once a quarter and always provokes good discussion.

Our profession demands a lot. ID demands an exceptional level of creativity, analytical and critical thinking ability, as well as high physical skill (drawing, model making, etc) and technical skill (software). I have a difficult time thinking of ANY other profession that requires such a high level of contrasting competencies. Education is doing its best to get the 10lbs into the 5lbs sack (love that TimF) but the result is clearly that it’s not working all that well, except for a few gems. I don’t think the solution is to make school longer, or decrease breadth to increase depth. The most successful portfolios I’ve seen are the ones with maximum professional exposure. You have to see it and live it to really get and know where you need to be.

Yo’s point…
" I feel like I see a lot of projects that have the propped proccess, the research, the models, but not the moving result. "

…is the one that really breaks my heart. Styling seems to have become a naughty word and almost looked down on. The sway of education and right now is definitely more towards “process” and research and observation and justifying your object, and designing the experience, while the object’s physical beauty has been put on the back burner. For me, stuff has to look good. Some might argue that doing all that stuff will lead to a beautiful object, and yes it can help to inform the physicality of the thing, but in the end, you can’t analyze yourself into a having beautiful object. That skill needs to be nurtured and practiced like everything else. This phenomenon happens in the professional world too. So to bring this post full circle, I think design schools need to get back to the Thing. Process is great but the result is what matters. The best way to learn it is to see it in real professional settings.