2.1 Design Education

Given the immense volume of skill and understanding a design professional must possess, education is paramount. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misunderstanding and wrong understanding as to what, specifically, that education should include and how one can best acquire it. Add to this the fact that academic education, by design, provides things other than professional preparation and you get, well, something akin to the state of today’s design profession.

Education is not something you’re given, but something you must steal. It’s not something you get, but something you pursue. Constantly. Whether one is a designer, an attorney, a senior chef, a young stage actor, or a practicing physician; there’s a word for professionals who have stopped pursuing an education: obsolete.

As a professional, your work is measured not merely by what you bring forth, but by what you bring forth in context. Every day some measure of contextual change occurs in the world in which you operate. Failure to habitually mark, measure, and respond to these contextual changes will leave you increasingly unfit to practice your profession.

Education should be a professional habit. If you want to be a responsible design professional, make it one of yours.

Design Education

A design professional must first be a competent designer, yet many today are not. Sadly, many of designers I question tell me that no one ever taught them the fundamentals of artistry. They tell me that their formal education in high school, college, or (most regrettably) design school failed to include any reference to the communicative basics for artistic vocabulary of line, form, color, and texture. I’m also told that the artistic grammar of contrast, harmony, balance, and distribution were only mildly referenced in their design studies.

To put this into perspective, this situation is very like practicing physicians saying that human anatomy and physiology were only mildly referenced in their studies if at all. In any other profession, an educational void such as this would be cause for serious alarm. In the design profession, however, it would seem to be considered merely an inconvenient but largely irrelevant issue. Only it’s not.

It is one thing to be professionally unprepared, but to lack foundational design understanding is to be incompetent. If you aspire toward a more professional practice, you must work to eliminate the voids in your education, especially those concerned with design’s foundation.

Acquiring Your Design Education

I don’t think it matters at all whether you initially pursue education in a formal program or on your own in self-driven study. I say this, however, with the caveat that only those with significant talent will get much from a self-directed education.

Given what I’ve learned about most formal academic programs, I would tend to suggest that universities and design schools are not the best places to find adequate curricula. But even if you do find a worthy program at a college or university, you mustn’t limit your education to what is taught. Oh, you should teach yourself everything your teachers present, but know that it accounts for only a small part of what you need to know.

The Academic Path

This is not to say that all academic web design programs are without merit; just that most of them are. There are, however, a few high-quality institutions with good programs. For instance, Hyper Island, SVA’s Interaction Design program and Carnegie Mellon’s Interaction Design program each offers a solid curriculum, but there aren’t too many others that do. If you look at what these institutions and programs offer and what they demand, you get the sense that they’re serious about delivering on the promise of their course descriptions.

You may have noticed that the few quality design programs are largely graduate programs. There is a good reason for this, and it indicates their importance as simply part of a good education: these programs are specialized, and as such do not constitute a foundation degree. I highly recommend that any aspiring designer interested in academic education first acquire a basic liberal arts degree or equivalent before pursuing one of these specialized programs. Education should initially be about preparing you as a responsible, competent human being. Skipping that in favor of specialized interest smacks of fetish, and it won’t prepare you for any profession.

The most important lesson an aspiring design professional can learn is to take responsibility for his or her own education. Your education is up to you. Your teachers and professors can’t “learn” you anything. You have to learn it, internalize it, and make it your own so that you apply your understanding intuitively in practice. What’s more, it is not your teachers’ job to prepare you for life or to give you the entire syllabus for what is required. Their job is to point the way toward the path you should follow. Period.

Each individual component or topic that your teacher/professor includes in a course syllabus is but the surface of great depths or the opening to a deep rabbit hole. What should be understood (and seldom is) is that your mandate is then to fully explore those depths on your own or with others outside of the classroom. The full lesson will not be spoon-fed to you!

Your education is not what you receive in class, but rather what you discover in further study. If you fail to recognize and act on this fact your education will be entirely inadequate. As one working to become a professional, an overall assumption of responsibility is the position from which all of your activities and choices must come; starting with the fact that your education is your responsibility.

The Self-Directed Path

You don’t need an institution in order to learn something. All you need is the desire to learn and the will to see it through. Self-teaching is, of course, involved in all education. A teacher might share information and point the way, but you must then take that material and teach it to yourself. Anyone who knows anything is self taught.

I should note here that a certain percentage of aspiring and practicing designers already have a leg up on their peers. These individuals, and perhaps you number among them, possess an intuitive grasp of the fundamentals of artistry and seem to innately understand how aesthetic communication works. They didn’t have to study for years to gain this understanding. Instead, God-given talent and/or childhood experiences coupled with exceptional discipline gave them insight others lack. Something just clicked inside them and they can just see how art and design works on the human psyche, and they find it easy to create designs that are fundamentally sound.

I’m not talking about superhuman specimens here, but rather ordinary people who just easily perceive the common foundational and communicative threads between arts of various media—poetry, dance, landscape painting, filmmaking, musical composition, sculpture, web design…and by extension all design, for design is in part an exercise in exploiting the fundamentals of artistry. I’m talking about talented people. But talent is wasted without hard work.

If you are one of these lucky, talented few, do not be lulled into complacency. You have something special to build upon. Unless you work hard to build on that foundation your gift is squandered. Self-directed education is no less arduous and often no less expensive than institutional education. However, if you’re not prepared to work just as hard on your own as as you would at an academic institution, you’re doomed. You’ll be culled to make room for your betters in the profession. That’s a good thing. Our profession doesn’t need any more dilettantes.

So far we’ve touched mainly on the design component of your education, but much more is required of a design professional. Next, we’ll examine the things that will help put you into and keep you in a position to successfully employ those design skills.