The State of Design Education

May 3, 2016 • 

I’ve been focusing a lot lately on the education of non-Designers wanting to be Designers, new Designers, transitioning Designers and old creaky Designers. Mostly, the problem is there isn’t any education. Compounded, the field is so new mature Product Design practices don’t really exist so we’re all kind of heading into a dark cave but at least we’re holding hands.

Formal education

It’s not very popular to stand in favour of formal education. For this I don’t apologize because if you thought going to college or university was for the degree or job then you have missed the point entirely.

What formal education has, and what teaching practitioners haven’t figured out, is how to translate the useful knowledge in those dusty old textbooks to a generation of TLDRs. Although a background in Graphic Design history probably isn’t necessary to your survival as a Product Designer, it can certainly provide some clarity on how to choose a typeface and why we use grids and what colours are all about. I can use a colour that isn’t blue?

What formal education has, and what teaching practioners still really haven’t figured out, is how to nurture critical thinking. They do this in an environment which is condusive to being completely off the mark. If you want to wax poetic about how that poem is a commentary about the heartbreaking torture of unrequited love, you can, but it’s probably just about STDs.[1] Writing an essay about a singular topic isn’t very encouraged these days although we could all benefit from just a bit more structured thinking.

So what does formal education lack? Practical skills. Dealing with decisions between idealistic or pragmatic solutions. Encouragement of initiative and resourcefulness.

Ebooks, bootcamps, and interactive apps

Having dog-fooded this myself, it’s still not very clear exactly what is being achieved with these resources.

If we insist that Design Thinking is the most important part of our jobs (and it is) and Product Designers are more than people who create pretty things then why are we still emphasizing coding lessons and ‘design this app the course creator created?’ They’re important skills, but why are we calling them UX Design courses?

We teach bootcampers skills and practices which may or may not be used in every project and never explain when and why they’re best used. The most frequent question asked by every level of Designer, “what does your process look like?” Frankly, there isn’t one across the industry because being a Product Designer is nothing like that. We ain’t got no handbook because puzzles don’t come with handbooks.

One of my most recent experiences with testing out a very popular ebook was defined by the author being unable to explain why we were doing things. Not refusing to. Literally, unable. You’re not going to raise or develop a good Product Designer by never explaining, “Why?”

So what do these sources lack? Critical thinking. Breadth of knowledge. Ability to understand large complex systems.

Where are we?

We understand there is huge demand and there are enough training camps to teach you something that is relatable to Product Design, but probably not really. As with anything when there is high demand, there’s going to be a huge increase of people who are really interested in filling that demand for you. Quality be damned because let me roll in my pile of money.

We also know this gap is still not being closed. There’s still way too many candidates who go through the pipeline and are missing key aspects of a strong Product Designer. And this is when time is an unfortunate part of the equation: if your team is in growth mode, it’s unlikely you can support a Junior Designer through what they need in order to grow.

Something non-heroic

There’s a very clear need to merge these two worlds together and provide a better foundation for the ideal Product Designer. It’s easier to just continue on with how we’ve been treating this. It’s currently a secret treehouse club in which if you spent years trying to find the password you can come in but this isn’t scalable long-term.

I’m not using this post to announce some sort of educational product so we can all breathe a sigh of relief. I’m thinking about all of this though as this is what has been keeping me up at night.[2]


↩︎ [1] I've witnessed this before and it was hilarious.

↩︎ [2] Some people have taken this as an attack on the company I used to work for, Bloc↗︎ Just to clarify, it's not.

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