Opportunity for Change

Hector Silva and Dominic Montante
INNOVATION Summer 2020

Vol. 39 No. 2, p. 56

Designers graduating today are wholly unprepared for entering the workforce. That may seem like a bold claim; however, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence in its favor.

Recently, a designer straight out of school (who wishes to remain anonymous) was let go from their first job as a designer. The reason? Their skills were deemed insufficient to keep up with the rapid pace and demands of the industry. The company spent hours educating and coaching the designer, but in design, if you can’t hit the ground running, you become dead weight. This scenario is becoming far too common. Some companies have elected to not hire entry-level designers in favor of those who have at least a few years of experience—the skill set of the latter being more in-line with someone at the entry level. There is a gulf between design academia and the design profession, and it keeps widening.

Renowned design researcher Don Norman has made it clear that the current design education system is failing us. In an interview in the MIT Technology Review titled “The Problem with Design Education,” he says that the designers of tomorrow need to be generalists, that is, have a foundation in multiple disciplines and be able to wear different hats as the job necessitates. Design education needs to expand beyond the traditional definition of design and embrace fields such as the sciences, engineering, and psychology. The reality is, according to Norman, “designers have almost no formal training in these topics.” A designer with even a rudimentary computer science background in 2007 would have been prepared for the sudden integration of physical and digital experiences in the age of the iPhone.

The design industry is rapidly changing course. For example, hardware designers now need competency in UI/UX design as the two fields become more integrated, new materials and processes demand an understanding of chemistry, and user research has moved beyond a survey of generic personas toward a full-fledged profession in its own right. While these changes in industry reshape the definition of what it means to be an industrial designer, design education insists on maintaining the same trajectory without deviation.

Unless this course is altered, our students will continue to be unprepared for what the industry of the future will demand of them. 

The four-year higher education model simply doesn’t work for design. Students need to be exposed to real-world design experiences such as internships and collaborative or sponsored projects in schools in order to understand and design within the real-world parameters in which designers work. If they remain inside the padded environment of academia, they are at a disadvantage when searching for a job in our extremely competitive field. Schools that integrate internships directly into their program, such as the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) at the University of Cincinnati, graduate students with one to two years of work experience, experience that can’t be matched by one to two years of school alone. DAAP enjoys such a high job-placement rate because employers have trust in its graduates, who have honed their skills in the real world, rather than through simulated class projects. 

The recent global disruption in education has further exposed the flaws in the way design is taught. The silver lining is that we can utilize this moment to reflect and transition into a new phase of design education.

Online courses do not have to be a detriment to education, but can open the door to new experiences. We can bridge the gap between academia and industry by leveraging the online design community and connecting students to real-world professionals. Educators can bring active designers into their virtual classrooms, and student work can reach wider audiences than a traditional gallery setting can. We need educators who can foresee trends and be willing to quickly adapt to the changes that come with integrating new technology. We don’t have to abandon traditional design values and processes, but we can’t rely on the past to drive future success.  

Design isn’t a standard career in which you can be successful by having sat in a classroom for four years and learned one particular skill set. We need an education model that is more closely integrated with industry, where students gain experience through real-world practice. We need educators who can leverage industry professionals and connect students to a diversity of content. We need multidisciplinary students competent in skills and disciplines outside of just design so they can adapt to challenges that may not have even existed during the course of their education.

—Hector Silva and Dominic Montante
hello@advdes.org; dom@montante.design

Hector and Dominic will present on Advanced Design's new educational offering Offsite during the virtual International Design Conference 2020, Sept. 17-18! Register today.

Urgent Design