Is design education a better business than design itself?

In the industry, those who practise design have to sell their skills to an incredible extent and put up an enormous fight just to get a client. Basically, if you look at the large picture from average point of view, you have to fight for a client.

However, in education it’s a different picture. There’s massive competition for some design-related college courses, which means that even more learning places could be allocated and probably more money could be earned from the students. Also, the demand for design education is high. A lot of people are asking how to get into a design school - you can see that from the “education” sub-forum. In this situation, the clients, who are the wannabe students, are fighting for your service.

For example, in Ireland there are almost as many design college courses as there are design offices in every area except user experience. Even some established designers took up short-term teaching jobs in colleges in order to take a break from the industry and get some steady income.

I was following a few companies that started out as a way of offering a creative service bridge between manufacturers and inventors/entrepreneurs. Some of them have recently turned to giving design lessons to various businesses, instead of doing actual design work.

Is there a similar trend in USA or does the situation over there favour practitioners rather than educational institutions?

And finally, I would like to hear your thoughts to my original question : is design education a better business than design work? I mean better in terms of operational aspects such as profits, long term stability, paying back its stakeholders, etc.

Well, if I were to be a full time tenured design educator I would be making a small fraction of what I make now, so personally I would say no, education is not a better business. Hopefully fill time instructors teach because they are passionate about it and not because they couldn’t make a go of being a practitioner.

If you think design education is a better business than design itself, it certainly puts you into an ethical dilemma. Doesn’t seem very ethical to charge a bunch of people to educate them to do something they can not make money doing. Of course buyer beware, but I couldn’t sleep at night if that is the way I felt and I continued to take these people’s money. It would make me feel like a snake oil salesman.

slight tangent:
When I was at frog I had a few clients ask me to give workshops on how to internalize “design thinking” and “innovation intra-preneurship”. I was always super upfront explaining you don’t go to a workshop for three days and come out a designer, you don’t even go to school for 4-5 years and come out a designer. Either you are one, and some tools and polishing will help you to be a better one, or you aren’t. I know that flies in the face of the ‘everyone is a designer’ mentality that is popular, but in my experience it just isn’t true. Good ideas can come from anyone, in fact they rarely come directly from me, but recognizing them, exploring them, combining them, editing them, refining them into concepts that can be developed and productized… that is not work anyone can do, no more than I could be an amazing tax accountant.

Excellent tangent, Michael.

I’m right with you with regards to this trend of business looking to assimilate Design Thinking into their business plan. I’m currently finishing up my graduate degree and have taken a few business courses that introduce MBAs and engineers to designers and the design process. But I believe there’s something critical missing from what the students are being taught and what the’re taking away from those classes.

Their conclusions shouldn’t be, "“W0w, that was fun. I think I’ll apply Design Thinking to my next project or job.”

It should be, “Dude, we need to hire a designer.”

Teach non-designers what design is, how it adds value and how to integrate designers into your team. That’s what we should be teaching.

Happy Holidays,


You are really comparing apples to oranges, they are different business models.

But at a university (the practitioner), they charge the student (the client) about $300-$1,000 per credit hour, depending on the university. Assuming 1 credit hour is 1 hour a week from the university, that equates for the student paying about $25-$80 per hour of instruction. A consultant will charge their clients $75-$300 per hour.

Sure, there are many students per instructor, but private industry doesn’t offer freebies like “office hours”. Everything done for the client is billable, not so at the university. For every hour of instruction a professor provides, how many “non-billable” hours are there?

This I don’t understand. "… design college course…'?

Yes, there are a lot of courses to take, but how many accredited institutions does Ireland have create industrial designers. Here in the US there are dozens, if not hundreds, of consultants and corporate design groups per teaching institution.

Is design education a better business than design itself?..This obviously depends on your options.

If you have followed the tuition increases in the past decade, then you have also seen design departments increase their capacity to teach more and more students who are interested in design as well as hire those to teach them.

More and more the argument that education is for “learning” is being outmoded by the argument that education is for earning credentials. Credentials are increasingly becoming more and more important to landing a job in both teaching design and design practice. You might not find this as such in the US yet, but the rest of the world is much more vociferous on vetting credentials. Credentials can only be earned from educational institutions. Experience can only be granted by practicing institutions. There are hybrid coop models out there that combine both, and are in my opinion the best programs available.

As the world becomes more and more populated and modernized, the credential methodology in economic development presents a easy to apply tool to evaluate the potential of a new hire. This is troublesome as it gives rise to all sorts of academic fraud cases and does not address the potential of a designer who has potential to perform in a position given the right opportunity.

Really interesting question. I’d tend to agree that trying to define what is a “better business” is the issue. On sole salaries/money to be made—design as a profession would likely succeed due to sheer volume.

This actually caught my eye, if only because it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. On purely anecdotal evidence alone, I would genuinely question the overlap of design professionals with design educators, and wonder if it was in-fact ‘easier’ to be a design educator that a practicing industrial designer? One can always go back to school for higher credentials, but I think it’s notably more challenging to reinvent oneself as a designer, professionally speaking, through new skills and a portfolio.

Again, very subjective… but I’ve certainly experienced quite a few design educators who had minimal professional experience, but relatively high credentials (Masters or Doctorates). Most often, those with the highest education often had the least experience, and we’re least beneficial as a student. Some of the best mentors to me have been those with wonderful real-world experience and a disregard for academic inflation.


I always preferred the professors that split their time between education and professional design work. I always trusted them to bring the real information to the table. When dealing with full time educators I sometimes found that their answers were either somewhat outdated or just an interpretation of something they read or heard about from another source. I think you can get away with it when dealing with the fundamental skills courses, but theres definitely a disconnect when dealing with the upper level studio courses.

I think there was a benefit to the professors that split their time between being a design professional and educator. Schools can act as a sort of design community center in some ways because designers and people needing designers often gravitate towards them. Over time I noticed that the school was also a way for professors to network to expand their client list and resources.

As a recent graduate, I’ve noticed a few things over the past few years. Some new studios might offer education as a means to supplement their income until their business gains some traction. Some design professionals/educators do it because they just want to give back. In terms of full time professors, I’ve always felt it’s for those seeking a situation with limited risk for whatever reason or designers that have spent so much time in higher education they may be unwilling to enter a junior position.

Is design education a better business than design itself? I think this relies partly on the school/program in question. In my own experience I graduated from a small program that was underfunded, did not require portfolio entrance reviews, and passed students who clearly had no hope for a career in design. I realize that’s harsh, but looking back the professors were very genuinely passionate about design and had a tough job to do in keeping the program alive amidst university politics, it ultimately was cancelled. I think the university basically kept it running bare bones to make a profit rather than legitimately investing in it to do so, which is unfortunate because my school was located near many design driven companies who they themselves offered internships, coops, and joint projects to our program. I started to realize all of this around my sophomore year after visiting a few other schools on IDSA conference trips and wanted to switch schools, but I stuck with it and got my degree and an internship.

On the flip side, after graduating I went to a prestigious design school for some classes to polish my skills and be more marketable as a designer, this had a direct impact on my chances in landing my first gig. There was a stark difference in the program and how it was funded vs. university, but I cannot say that the professors were any more or less passionate about design, they just had backing by the school and were very very well funded by local businesses. They did conduct portfolio entry reviews and I was nervous that I would not get accepted, consequently the caliber of the student’s talent and dedication was higher adding to the value of the tuition, which was higher. You could say that this school was so selective as to maintain their prestige, but I also like to think that in being so selective they were also saving students from wasting time and money to pursue a career that they would not be successful in.

So, two business models ultimately driven by the school’s dedication to the profession where one was better than the other at the operational aspects, and one failed.

I think the “design lessons” or “design thinking” seminars are mostly snake oil honestly, and I believe if that is all your business model is based on then you are more likely to hurt, rather than help design as profession (verb) because you’re selling it as a noun, without actually proving any real value to your customers beyond warm fuzzies that make non-designers feel like they can design, rather than hire actual designers.

Ideally I think that it would be great if design/creative thinking (not art) became more integral in education before the college level. Is it logical that someone who chooses a career in the sciences, or math, gets a head start on that path in like 2nd grade? I don’t think so.

If you look at the amount of student enrollment vs. people actually getting design jobs (with “Designer” in their title), then I’d say that’s proof positive that design education is better business than actual design - but that ties into a lot of sociological issues with our education system.

Hi everyone, it’s been a long time since I posted anything on this, but this one caught my eye.

I would argue that design education is not a business in the same sense that design education is so that makes it difficult to compare.

A designer at a firm or in-house department has the responsibility to practice design, while a professor (like myself) has a responsibility to advance the field of design through research into design, about design, or otherwise relating to design. This advancement of the field through systematic inquiry is, in fact, the primary responsibility of most design professors. Educating design students is often at the very most of equal responsibility or even less at a research university.

So as far as whether design education is a better business model than design practice, I would say no because advancing a field and doing research into the study of a discipline is rarely going to be self supporting especially in a non-science field. Educating students also fits the mission of advancing the field because design educators are responsible for giving them a foundation on which their first job builds to make them a professional. Granted some educators do a better job than others, but I think that actually the blame for poor design education lies equally at the feet of full time professors who spent a lot of time in school learning to do research in design, something that is a relatively new endeavor and is still being defined, and at the feet of design professionals who believe they can take a break from work impart some much needed wisdom on students.

The problem with professors might be that we often lack real world experience, I’ve spent much of my career learning about design and learning to articulate that knowledge, and I, like many colleagues, am very passionate about design. My wife recently mandated that I start ice fishing because all I talk about is design, all day, and in my sleep apparently, so if I’m on a frozen lake no one can hear me. So it’s not that I don’t care about design, or that I couldn’t make a go of it as a designer, but in fact, I like college, and I like talking about design, I also enjoy researching in and about design and HCI. This research is actually what landed me my position.

The problem with practitioners might be that they have spent so much time doing design that many of you really suck at talking about it, especially communicating the steps to people who are new at it. I’m not trying to be a jerk here, there is psychology that backs that assertion up. It takes a while of practicing explanation to get back to where you can explain really well, so design practitioners who come back for a year or two tend to rely on telling stories, and anecdotes, which students love because their professors don’t have any.

A few parting comments based on things I read in the other posts:

More and more the argument that education is for “learning” is being outmoded by the argument that education is for earning credentials.

IMHO University education is not actually for either of these things, in fact it is for learning to teach yourself.

Most often, those with the highest education often had the least experience, and were least beneficial as a student.

I thought this was a little rough, students sometimes say experienced professionals are beneficial because it sounds exciting hearing about battles with clients and deadlines that you almost didn’t make. That’s what a design action movie would have, not whatever I do in my lab when student’s are not around.

In terms of full time professors, I’ve always felt it’s for those seeking a situation with limited risk for whatever reason or designers that have spent so much time in higher education they may be unwilling to enter a junior position.

It is not any more likely you will become a professor because you have an MFA or PhD than it is that you will become a designer because you have a BFA. I don’t know what the risk is regarding each, I bet an economist could answer that question. I went into higher and higher levels of education because I wanted to do research and be a professor, not because I couldn’t get a job and doubled down. I think many people who pursue MFA’s understand what they degree is really for, similarly PhD students understand the implications of that course of study.

This has been an interesting conversation to watch. I see significantly less contempt of educators than usual, which is nice. In Graphic and Interaction design, the practitioner don’t see to feel as betrayed by educators than it has seemed Industrial designers have in the past for some reason.

I think that if I had written a response in this thread 10 or 15 years ago it would have been pretty harsh towards my professors at university, I placed a lot of blame on them due to the state of our facilities, our funding, and the type of education that I thought they were supposed to be providing, mainly competitive core visual communication skills. In the end it was the university (which was run as a “business”, as many are) that dropped the ball for the students by not investing in the program and set entrance standards. As it turns out, it is the process, design appreciation, and manufacturing/model making knowledge that has proven more useful in my career in the long term, however the ID illustration courses that I took at the specialty school certainly helped me get started. I found your commentary as a professor really insightful.

We’ve strayed a bit from which is a more fruitful profession, but I think you have a good point in the discussion of: are good educators necessarily successful designers?

Most of which comes down to how you define the purpose of design education. Is it to create more industrial designers (in the professional sense) or to further the ‘idea’ of design (which would include academic research, as well as creating “design citizens”). Of course this depends on where you teach, and where you went to school. Like you, I went to a heavily “researched focused” program that did a good job of creating academic designers, who would work in the academic field for a very long time. For those of us that intended on being solely in the professional world, it was quite a challenge and as a result I’d guess only 20% of the program’s grads actually landed within the industry. With that in mind, I’m not sure how successful I’d say the program was?

Glad to have some educators in the discussion. Sometimes it’s all too easy to bash on design education.

You could also ask the reverse question: Do good designers make good educators? Some do and some… maybe not so much.

I think the key to a successful ID program is to have a good mix of full-time instructors and practitioners who teach as adjuncts or visiting lecturers. Having been taught by both, I can tell you that the full-time faculty members are much better focused on the learning outcomes for the programs. This is in contrast to the visiting practitioner stepping in to teach the occasional class who may not have the same deep understanding of the program’s curriculum and how that specific class fits into the student’s experience. The perspective of the practitioner may help add some “real-world” perspective, but you really want that full-time faculty looking out for the students.

By the way, we should be careful not to make the assumption that full-time ID educators are not designers. Many do design consulting on the side or between semesters and some are accomplished designers with many years of professional experience that have made teaching their second career. Plus, design education IS design. It requires design thinking, research, problem solving and an intimate understanding of this profession to be successful.

How do you quantify this?

Simple question, and I not that I am picking on you, but I’ll bet you can’t answer it. It is really get’s to the heart of the matter of why professional/academic is apples to oranges. But it is also why I, rightly or wrongly, view academia as limited.

Let me give you a case study.

I have, a couple of times, attended a symposium called Transform. It is held by the Mayo clinic and in a nutshell, it is about the design process and Healthcare. I capitalized Healthcare for a reason. Anyhow, they have speakers, private and public, giving case studies about the design process and Healthcare. It will also have break outs teaching the design process.

This is sponsored by Mayo’s Center for Innovation. This group within Mayo is essentially an academic-based design consultancy. They are charged to use the design process to solve problems at Mayo. I interviewed there when it was first starting out. And in full disclosure, I was not a good fit.

The definition of success is where private industry and academia split. At the Center of Innovation, I asked for the definition during the interview process. Their answer was really just the research and nothing else. Did they have a “problem” and did they produce a poster or paper about it. At Transform, the definition of success is to have a giant love-fest about how the design process will save Healthcare, it is essentially only a marketing tool. While many of the case studies and break-out sessions validate the value of design, it is really only valuable to people ignorant of design, it does little for anyone well-versed in the design process. Educating those outside of design about design does “advance” the field of design, but shouldn’t it also advance the field of design for those in design? Any other symposium I attend, the posters and papers advance the knowledge within the field, not outside of it.

If you ask to define success in private industry, they will have many quantitative measurements. It could be sales numbers, market share, new users, conversions and other quantifiable outcomes. It is very black and white compared to the nebulousness of the academic definition.

Back to capitalizing Healthcare. Things like Transform want to “fix” the grand issues. Which is a commendable objective. But it is literally too much to bite. It is too complicated, the design process, any process, cannot comprehend all of the moving parts. The design process is best suited to solving individual problems. And actually, defining the problem is typically the crux of the process that will lead you to the successful solution. That is my gripe, academia likes to go big picture really fast because they are really only responsible to investigate “a” problem and not necessarily refining it to the right problem. They are not on the hook for a quantifiable solution which leads to a lot of side-stepping “the” problem. Is what they researched really “the” problem"? I don’t know if you can’t quantify the solution.

Also, I found the Center of Innovation to be ironic. I have a simple definition of innovation - it is something new that has impact. Without impact, it is only new, it doesn’t solve a person’s problem. When I asked about the definition of success, they didn’t care about implementation. I was expecting things like improvements to preventing infections, patient falls, patient compliance to medication and device usage, professional compliance to device usage and procedures, and other quantifiable outcomes. They only cared about the research. That was their “impact”. When I pushed them as to why, it became apparent on both ends that it was not going to work.

Hi iab, I don’t feel picked on.

On the topic of quantification, I don’t know. I don’t always tend to associate quantitative data with design, in fact when I think of design research I associate qualitative data more. I deal with quantitative data more when I wear my human factors / human-computer interaction hat I guess. That’s not to say I won’t give it a try.

I do have a set of quantifiable guidelines for evaluation of my success as a professor I suppose, these are my requirements for tenure, they specify a percentage of time I am supposed to be dividing my time between scholarship (including research and creative production), my teaching and departmental service and governance. I have to be productive as a scholar of design, doing research, making design objects, somewhere in between those. I also have to be productive as an instructor, teaching courses, advising students, documenting positive student outcomes based on juried student shows they are in and jobs they get or whether they go to grad school. Finally, I have to help keep the department running, I am on a curriculum committee at the moment.

We talk a lot about knowing whether something contributes to the field, and basically the way we qualify is through juried exhibition, journals, conferences, shows, etc. The department generally ignores work I do that isn’t accepted by a small group of peers. I think I also believed it was all going to be academic with professors looking only at other professor’s work and saying yes we are all professors, but in fact I see more professionals on juries than professors.

If you ask to define success in private industry, they will have many quantitative measurements. It could be sales numbers, market share, new users, conversions and other quantifiable outcomes. It is very black and white compared to the nebulousness of the academic definition.

While you do a good job of defining success, though I would argue you missed a few qualifiers that are more important, those things are not necessarily caused by design. The relationship between design and sales is not a causal one, we can observe good design, and we can observe good sales, but we cannot say good design caused good sales especially because we have also observed good design with abysmal sales. We could also argue whether then in fact the design was in fact good if the sales were not, which I think further disassociates sales and design. Similarly to market share, users, conversions etc. That’s not to say I am suggesting that we ignore those things. I have quantifiable things like that too, such as class size, retention rates, classes taken by non majors, average grades, number of papers I publish, but I would hope you would argue those are equally as unrelated.

I think there is a more complex story, and I embrace complexity. Which it looks like you would disagree with based on your comments about the SPARC lab (if it’s still called that at Mayo).

I am glad you brought up framing the right problem. When I interviewed at the place I am at now, one of the things I said I would add is a focus on defining the problem in parallel with the solution. It’s a newer theme that is being embraced especially by people who associate with interaction design and HCI, and is discussed in the book Thoughtful Interaction Design by Lowgren. I like that idea and I think it fits with Cross’ Designerly Ways of Knowing, viewing design as a mode of inquiry at the same level of science. Instead of asking a question and testing an answer, like a scientist, we frame the question and answer additively in parallel arriving at both at the same time.

This is hard to teach, and to be honest, I lurk here for ideas. So if you can think of a good way to frame the problem and solution in parallel while iteratively zeroing in on the correct problem, let me know. I have some ideas, but like many people I know I just making an earnest effort like anyone else. I know there are some professors who don’t, but I also know there are some professionals who don’t too.

Again, thanks for the conversation, it’s nice to feel like I can contribute something meaningful to the discussion, hopefully…

Is it more important for a university to design a solution to a problem, or design a way of thinking that people can use to solve the problem?

And if they are designing ways of thinking that people can use to solve problems is that not taking into consideration the “comprehension of all of the moving parts” and putting forth a broader solution into the world? And if that is a possibility then would that not be what some would consider an ideal?

The notion that “success” is defined merely by quantitative data and financial returns may fundamentally be the root of the “problems” being addressed.

I’m sorry Greenman; could you add a semicolon in there? That sentence is a little rocky to read through. Could you perhaps rephrase?

I do agree that financial returns and quantitative data are not the only measures of success. Heck, my job relies on that.

Sure, I was riffing off of some of iab’s earlier comments about complexity, complicated problems, and the ideals behind “fixing” grand problems. Your comment got me thinking about how in teaching (or designing) a way of thinking about solutions is in fact a precursor to solving the actual granular problems that iab points out as tangible problems.

Ah, yes, I see what you mean. I agree. Can we design a better design process - or a pre-design process? :slight_smile: