Design Schools: Please start Teaching again.

This was reposted on the c77 front page and I thought I would drop it in here to see if anyone wanted to discuss it:

Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again
Posted by: BigElvis on Friday, March 23 2007

Dan Saffer over at Adaptive Path posted a short, absolutely perfect piece a couple weeks ago on the state of design education. With Dan’s permission, we’re reposting the entire piece here. Required reading. The original AP link is here. Dan’s site is here. His book, Designing For Interaction is here.

[No blockquote on this one–we need the pixels!]

Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again
It’s that time of year when Adaptive Path wades through stacks of design school students’ resumes, looking for summer interns and potential hires. As I was doing this, a trend that that I had suspected became clear to me: quite a few design schools no longer teach design. Instead, they teach “design thinking” and expect that that will be enough.

Frankly, it isn’t.

I was taught that design has three components: thinking, making, and doing. (Doing is the synthesis, presentation, and evaluation of a design; the bridge between thinking and making.) If all design schools are teaching is the thinking, well, they are missing the other two thirds of the equation. They have abandoned craft for craze. Thinking without the making and doing is almost useless in the job market, unless you want to work at Accenture or some other big consulting firm. It probably won’t help you get a job as a designer in a studio environment. You’d be better off getting a degree in Humanities; at least you would be well-rounded.

D schools are doing a serious disservice to their students by only teaching them “design thinking” when a class in typography or mechanics or drawing might not only give them a valuable skill, but also teach them thinking and making and doing–all at the same time. For design to be truly useful as a profession and as a discipline, designers can’t just use “design thinking” to come up with strategies and concepts. Dare I suggest that those are much easier than building a product? Some notes on a whiteboard and a pretty concept movie or storyboard pales in comparison to the messy world of prototyping, development, and manufacturing. It’s harder to execute an idea than to have one, genius being 99% perspiration and all.

What gets lost without the making is the detail work that makes us designers in the first place, the small parts where we earn our paychecks. Details are also where we earn the respect of the developers, businesspeople, and manufacturers who make what we prototype real(er). Details often get overlooked in just “thinking” projects, as do constraints. Constraints are somehow less solid in the world of thought than they are in the world of making.

What we’re going to end up with is a generation of “innovators” who are MBAs in MFAs’ clothing, who can neither create or run businesses like entrepreneurs can, nor design products and services like designers can. It’s the worst of both worlds. What we as employers are searching for are people who can do as well as think. This isn’t to say that we’re looking for glossy stylists either: we want designers who create thoughtful, meaningful designs: designs that pay attention to details, and have emotion and craft in them, as well as reason and cleverness. The world desperately needs those designers. Start making them again.

I think he’s misdiagnosed the symptoms.

The disease is that there’s more need than ever for design, but the supply remains anemic. I think the cure to that is more “design thinking” in general (like public schools.) Korea and China are getting the message.

Yes the MFA programs are generating a lot of “design thinking” noise, but I’ve only seen benefits. True, that Nurse who got a D-school degree might not be very good at ‘doing’ design, but if you were designing products for nurses, wouldn’t you want to hire her? I would, because design-thinking is the most valuable trait I look for in the designers I hire.

The undergrad programs are still there teaching foundations. But until the undergrad talent pool expands, they’ll just look like smaller fish in a fast-expanding pond. That’s where I think the misdiagnosis is coming from.

Good points CG.

I also think that since Design has grown so quickly beyond it’s original bounds it is time for schools to start specializing in certain areas, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

In other professions there are schools that are known to be better at certain parts so why can’t schools be the same way.

Examples (with about 5 minutes worth of thought):
School A - Known for designers who are very strong in Design Research.
School B - Known for designers who are very strong in Product Development.
School C - Known for designers who are very strong in Design Business.
School D - Known for designers who are very strong in Concept Generation.
School E - Known for designers who are very strong in Design Teaching.
And on and on…

Either this needs to be found more in the bachelor level or we will need to require a Master’s Degree for most design jobs in one of the above specialties.

Many companies are already known to be specialists in certain areas, again because of the growth of design. Why should we not expect this to trickle down to the Schools (yes I know it is happening at master’s level already). I am currently getting my Masters of Design - Strategies at hong Kong Polytechnic University. It is for people who have been working a minimum of 5 years and classes are on weekends.

I feel like I see too many people, practicing designers, students, recent grads, design managers etc, just trying to out-think the given project. All of the high level thinking is great but I’m seeing a trend towards delaying the pen to paper part, in an effort to ensure that everyone’s “New Thinking, New Ideas” are all forced together to form something. I’m not really clear on what I’m trying to say…I guess I just haven’t seen enough craft and skill lately, and I’ve seen too much high level “thinking” and gibberish.

My experience teaching blended with a bit of my own personal $0.02 is this:

School is for teaching the skills needed to execute the thinking. In other words, I agree 100% with the article posted in this thread.

It is my belief that everyone is born with the innate ability to innovate. Its the chromosome sitting next to your opposable thumb chromosome. Humans are hardwired for designing and innovating. Its our survival skill.

I have seen a class full of students who can all think. They all have the ability to come up with an idea. Virtually every single idea worth further discussion or exploration. The ability to think and design, and integrate new ideas is NOT a skill lacking from any student I have come across. The ability to COMMUNICATE those ideas is the problem . Whether that’s sketching, 3D CAD, hand waving, or puppet shows…there are a relative few who are good at it.

My take is that “Design Thinking”, besides being an hugely overused buzzword, is a philosophy. Its the integration of multiple disciplines and ideas into a process that has a specific goal or outcome (a product, of some form or another). “Design Thinking” is a philosophy that is needed for a team to successfully integrate their ideas without getting bogged down in territorial pissing matches… It is a philosophy that allows you to speak with, or to, your team in a truly collaborative manner. Whether that team is the team that is reporting to you with all the information (aka research) that needs to be assimilated into (or weeded out of) the product or your management team you need to sell the product to.

Undergrads should have a class or two on “Design Thinking”, sure. But it isn’t something that they will be using to any significant degree untill they have progressed in their career that they are needing to sell/defend the product to mangagement, etc.

Back to my students…they could all think, but most of them couldn’t design. They couldn’t iterate. They couldn’t filter their own ideas well enough to allow others to evaluate whether or not it is a good idea.

I have to apologize first off, I’m a relative newcomer in terms of the design profession- so if I’m a bit off… sorry.

But I do have plenty of education experience, as a student and as a teacher. I have struggled over issues like this for sometime, even when I was in design school - and before that as a teacher.

I think one of the main topics here really… is HOW to teach these design processes and HOW to teach them to execute it. My design school(when I was there) had the lowest tuition in the country for an ID program. What this meant was VERY VERY OLD equipment, and little to nothing in regards to rapid prototyping and ZERO comp-controlled CNC anything. I used to wonder how I would do the class differently as I was in it- but had to focus on the doing what I needed for my grades. After I left the classroom though I immediately wondered HOW to make it better (not just a profound statement that my classes were lame).

After a few years in the industry I think one thing I would do as a professor- would be to use a mystery ball that I could commune with my students and let the ball decide if certain designs hold up… and what needs to be re-worked for better thresholds. Lets face it- no ones designs work the first time without bench and field testing.

I know this sounds cheezy, and part of the educational experience is producing under little sourcing capabilities. And I want to point out as nearly a mattter of fact- that professional sourcing abilities are greater than the student sourcing.

I think that briefs like the statement this topic covers are nice and all- but the champ in me has to ask why there aren’t more actionables in the statement. It does however, make for a great conversation about how to help get things right though. Next would be to help get through to those same people that taught me… that things need to change, and should quickly- not over a span of 10 years.

i agree with the article and with ip. designers need to learn better collaboration, integration and execution.

i’m in this 8 years now and i’m sick of listening to designers talk about solutions, but offer few details and interest in execution. put your mouth and “thinking” where your pen should be. roll up your sleeves, ask questions and start looking at realistic solutions. i have little time to chase another designer’s rainbow, only to find out at the end, it’s a pot of shit.

Only if she was a good designer CG, otherwise, NO. Great athletes do not make great sports footwear designers, objective problem solvers however do.

I also disagree with some points of the article, but overall I think he is onto something. For me, part of being a designer is being a generalist. It’s about doing great design, no matter what the task is, from going big on innovating new business, to making sure a drawing is laid out and mounted properly, it’s all design, it’s all important.

When I do get to teach, I try to hammer that home. I won’t grade a project if all the tacks aren’t the same color. If they are not white, clear or aluminum, there better be a reason. I stole that one from Al Decredico if there are any other RISD kids in here… the point of the exercise is to consider everything.

I think I’m with you here Brett. A lot of work at both ends of the spectrum, but there are not a lot of people connecting the dots. In practice their are researchers, engineers, model makers, number crunchers, marketing guys to specialize, part of the beauty of design in my view is the ability to talk to all these people, bob in and out, synthesize all kinds of information… to actually design something and bring it to people.

Nicely put IP, I agree. In some people the ability to think freely may have been hampered by years of conditioning that their ideas are not valid, but deep in there, the cylinders are probably still firing.

NICE! I love it.

True, I’m pumped about the discussion this has generated. I’ve thought a few time how I would organize a program given a blank slate, and last year I sketched out a rough draft… it looked a lot like the Bauhaus meets Taliesin … I’m sure many of us have gone through the same exercise.

I wrote about it in my blog,

But the gist of it is really about we need to get our minds away from the fact that D-School grads are not DESGINERS nor should they be considered as such. They have their own skills and abilities that probably have strong applications (IMHO) in project management, innovation management, or in large organisations with change management departments like GE, P&G, HP etc.

Probably thats why its called D-School not Design School?

If you look at the curriculm, D-School grands will not be able to find too much work in design organizations such as Dan’s AP. My issue is why are D-schools grads even applying jobs to companies that need designers with classical training in the first place? Wheather this is made clear to the students when they applied is the saddest thing.

Of course D-School grads are designers.

Don’t look at the curriculum, look at the employment. The fact is that D-School grads are much more employable than undergrad designers. After rejecting dozens of undergrad applicants, I hired two D-School grads (IIT Institute of Design), so I guess that pokes a hole in your theory. I find these individuals far more valuable for their analytical skills than a classic (second-era industrial designer) who would sketch the wrong stuff all day.

I agree that being a nurse doesn’t make you a designer. You have to have aptitude and training.

D-Schools are actively seeking people from non-design backgrounds because they offer more value when they intersect a specialty with design. That doesn’t mean they accept anybody–you have to show aptitude.

Yes, this produces specialists vs. generalists, but let’s face it, the world is full of specialists, and you and I are no different.

Would Nike hire a designer who have no interest in fitness?

Sorry, I didn’t intend that to be as snipey as it was on the re-read.

An interest in sports, fitness, active lifestyles, human achievement is not an apples to apples comparison with someone with a nursing degree and experience however.

My point is only that being a skilled designer comes first, honestly I would rather have an objective extremely skilled designer, than an informed mediocre.

I know that is what the schools say, but I don’t believe it based on my own experience. I think they are excepting more people to fill the tuition coffers IMO, I hate to be so blunt about it… I’ve seen some pretty low aptitude bars.

But to level it out. Skills being totally equal, open mindedness (however you judge that), personality, energy being equal, if it was down to two candidates and the only thing that separated them was tertiary experience in the given field, I think that person would be better for the job.

I agree 100%. Its something that for some reason even those in the profession dont seem to realize.

Most design education is about the process of design thinking and problem solving. How to define a problem, set up the right questions, speak to users, go through a methodlogy of concepts, modelling, etc.

There is very rarely a design course for a specific design problem. Its not as if you need to take a “Spoon Design” course to design a spoon, and if you do, cant design a fork…

Of course there are specific skills and knowledge in any industry. Footwear, injection molded consumer products, transportation, etc.

But basic thinking and designing processes are pretty much equal.

I agree with Yo’s comments about experience/interest in an industry vs. design skills. I, for instance, had pretty much zero knowledge about football (soccer) footwear before becoming the Footwear Department Manager for hummel (more than 50% of our footwear was in the performance soccer cateogry), but with my training in design problem solving (and experience in other footwear categories) was able to quickly find out “what i didn’t know”, ask the right questions, and find appropriate solutions…

…I still cant play soccer for beans, but I can design good soccer shoes that the pros accept, beacuse its more a matter of asking and listening than doing (playing soccer). An active interest helps, but…

…That being said, I have actually seen more problems with young designers who ARE active in a particular sport/industry they are designing for. Too often direct experience with “how things are done” can limit a designer to being open to new solutions and methods. Not always, but Ive seen it before.

sorry if this is a little off the original topic of the article. but i feel its an important issue.

To the original issue of design thinking vs. doing, I do concur pretty much to the article’s premise- that too often there is greater focus in concept than reality. For one, I very rarely see basic real-world economics or market reality thinking applied to a concept. Every school concept, perhaps except for blue sky high ones, I believe should go through a quick reality check of mass production scale, costing, and consumer and economic drivers.

This blindness to reality is another form of lack of “doing” perhaps more on the the thinking side, but just as relevant as someone designing a wicked hand held drill concept without ever making an ergo model (seen lots of those, too).

I wouldnt expect a complete CBD for a school concept, but I have seen too many students wasting time on something like a “disposable camera/cell phone” with $500 of electronics and every feature you can think of built in". Just doesnt pass the reality test and the concept suffers. Id give higher marks to a student working on something that tackles a real market need addressing the limitations of production/economics in a smart way than a “do everything” far-out brain-dump project.

Designing with no limitations (cost/user, etc.) is easy. Its the designing around restrictions that makes design (both thinking and doing) difficult/challenging/interesting.

thats my rant for now.


i was mulling over yo’s comments too. i think rk put it best. there needs to be a balance. i sometimes feel i’ve become too specialized that i need the energy of younger designers to break out of my paradigm. their unbridled restraints from inexperience helps me to see my objectives in a new manner.

meh. maybe i’m just getting old.

Comparing Adaptive Path’s original statement to my own experiences, I regularly see about 1 portfolio in 10 that’s worth following up. When reviewing student or recent grad work (or coroflot portfolios) to find coops and new teammates, its very easy to weed 90% of them out.

Reminded of this experience, I have to agree most strongly that communication is the biggest skill a designer must master. Whether that is through properly presenting your “design thinking,” or executing a fully detailed model - if you can’t communicate what *you do in an excellent way, then you’re not helping anyone.

Having been in school not that long ago I see it like this. 4-5 years of school is NOT that long to go from “Hey I think I would like to be a Industrial Designer” to " Holy SH!#, I’m a professional". You have roughly 8 semesters and at best you have 6 dedeicated classes to mock product design. the rest of the classes are fragmented parts of the whole (drawing, rendering, 3-D modeling, GD, etc.) typical you have one class a semster that does the full process summing up all the parts into one project. If you are a teacher with that limited amount of time to mold young minds into the innovative minds of the future which things are you going to spend your time on?

Yes the ability to communicate an idea effectively is how you can define a GOOD designer. I think the learning curve for effective idea communication has a finite limit. You can only get so good at the ability to communicate an idea, at which point all ideas will become equally valid on the bases of the presentation (sketches are tight, push pins are all the same color, rendering communiacte the idea, etc.)

But what begins to seperate the GOOD from the GREAT is what is the IDEA. If I am an educator that understands these principles and the limited amount of time that I really have, I might be tempted to let the student struggle and figure out how to communicate an idea on there own so that I can emphasis and teach how to define a good idea and how to properly align that idea with a user group or vise versa.

The solution to the problem of student project not having enough consideration for real world problems like mass production and price points is not better communication abilities; it is to teach them to dig deeper in there design process and method of thinking and evaluating concepts. If the project aren’t considering these things that means they need more “design thinking” classes not less.

The design world is a pretty one of cool sketches and hot rendering and designed presentation; once you pull down the fascade you have to have some real meat in order to actually have relevance. TEACH MORE MEAT

^^ exactly.

i’m a meat lover.

but what is meat without gravy and a side of mashed potatoes, maybe some chopped broccoli on the side, an appetizer before, some desert later…

Exactly, the point is that schools should do everything they can to get their students to that finite limit so when in discussions in the professional world, your audience is focused on your thinking, not on the fact its a bad visualization of that thinking… or that one tack is red… c’mon man, get on metric time.

I’ve seen presentations tank because a watch crown looked 2mm too big in a sketch, or because there were a few scratchy contour lines on rendering of a razor, or a toe looking 5mm too high. Did it matter that the watch featured a new digital/analog combination movement, the razor integrated new contours based on a bold new ergonomic study disproving conventional forms, or that the shoe challenged traditional constructions to build shoes in a new way… No, because one tack was red.

I think the point of the article is that schools tend to be focusing more on individual aspects of being a great designer, maybe in an attempt to differentiate themselves… but thinking, doing, and making are all important.

try driving your car with one wheel over inflated and the other 3 flat… not very good design thinking there…