Kenneth FitzGerald | Essays

Learn by Numbers: Eleven Lessons Taught Only in Design School

Dear Design Student,

Though no connoisseur of clickbait, I’ll admit these “Ten Things They Don’t Teach You About X” lists are attractive. They’re absolutely abundant. Name the field and there’s a decalog of lessons untaught by thousands of teachers—yet breezily impartible by one (un)humble guide. You don’t even have to specialize; there are even lists of ten things they don’t teach you in “school.”

However, the issue that arises from this bevy of lists is the notion that clueless and/or mendacious teachers are ubiquitous and deliberately holding out on students. I’m certain that the list compliers are working off their own (apparently unpleasant) experience but unfortunately, anecdote isn’t evidence of much beyond being in the hands of a skilled raconteur.

With two decades of design education experience behind me (and a reader of the popular design press for even longer), I’ve picked through the bulging bin of designers’ opinions about school enough to compile my own eleven spot of advice (no tenner tyranny!) on what practitioners aren’t apprehending about education. In some particular order:

1. It’s not that tough to get a design job.
This is usually the entirety of students’ motivation: I want to get a design job. Truth is, that’s low-hanging fruit (like mocking listicles). While every grad isn’t assured a cubicle, if you’re not too choosy, you can likely claim some kind of design job. But the good ones? Well, that’s a more complicated and subtle story. Be sure you’re not aspiring to the lowest common denominator. Or mediocrity.

2. Design is not an industry, it has an industry.
For most designers, design and the design profession are synonymous. Design as a discipline extends well beyond practitioners engaging the activity as a career. Myriad one-off and occasional design artifacts, from logos to posters to signage to books, have been and are designed by individuals that don’t participate in the activity beyond that specific job. On-demand printing has expanded and accelerated this reality. Like design, music and the music industry is primarily put to applied, commercial uses. It’s prevalent and lucrative—but not definitive. However you think of music, replace the term with “design.” Still works.

3. School should not replicate the work environment.
That’s what internships and part-time jobs are for. Even if we accept the premise, which work environment are we talking about? It’s different to labor on design for IDEO as opposed to UDEO (Utah Dance Education Organization), with each equally valid. More importantly, will that work environment even be around in ten years—or even five? School provides the ability to understand and guide those changes. Unless the program is too busy aping the design shops of yesterday.

4. Design professionals know the design profession, not education.
As a design educator, I attend design education conferences to be informed about my profession. I also attend design conferences to be informed about design activity (which is also covered in education conferences). While I see many of my academic colleagues at conferences aimed at practitioners, the inverse is almost unheard of despite the fact that many designers teach part-time. The design education described by practitioners is one I rarely recognize—and students should be wary of.

5. School serves learning, not the profession.
What university is or should be is a complicated question. But we can say what it isn’t—trade school. As a product of trade school myself (a college of art), I’m not running that down—just making a real distinction. Mistaking college as vocational training is easy to do, as education has been fashioned as another commodity with students as its customers. For many, school is to serve the design industry by churning out more upstart designers—but that isn’t school’s purpose.

6. Education shouldn’t give you what you expect.
Attending school is a declaration that there’s knowledge you don’t already possess and lack the ability to gain on your own. Otherwise, you’d just go and do it. And while introducing the unexpected—beyond assigning “real world” projects like punching out brochures—doesn’t play well with most students, education is the time and place to indulge unexpected ideas and unanticipated actions.

7. You don’t want the real world experience.
As fervently as some students clamor for a “real world” simulation, I know if I built some of my actual work experiences into class, students would revolt. Such as: the sprung surprise of a dramatically shortened deadline, acres of extra text with no increase in page count, copy arriving in dribs and drabs up to the last minute, or servers crashing with all data lost yet a firm due date. I can do that. But students, be careful what you wish for. School is totally unlike the job experience—it’s regular, predictable, and controlled.

8. Professionals have their own interests at heart, not yours.
There are many generous and genuine practitioners providing worthy advice and mentorship to aspiring designers. They’re a valuable resource students should take advantage of at every opportunity. This doesn’t, however, preclude the pro acting in their interest first when offering guidance. That interest is maximizing the supply of suitable junior designers. For a while, your interests and tastes may align and it’s win-win. But someone else needs to be thinking of and providing for your broader educational needs—and future beyond that first job. Which may not involve design. Enter the teacher.

9. Design is not “problem solving.”
This conceit is a historical artifact from the mid-20th century when design adopted the science/rational speak infecting all parts of society, particularly business. Shrewdly, design recognized a change in rhetoric was necessary to appear like sober “designocrats” and not a batch of graphic beatniks. It’s a clumsy distancing from “making art,” which binary-minded designers regard as the opposite.

Though we’re way past that era, the problem-solving trope still rolls right off designers’ collective tongues. Problems are found in math, where, unlike design, there’s one solution. If you’re a reductio ad absurdum aficionado, all design is definable as problem solving. So are most pursuits. Design education offers relevant, practical, and inspiring alternatives models for design activity.

10. Not everyone studying design may want to be a designer.
This may be the most incomprehensible reality for some students and design practitioners to confront. Someone may want to study design in the same way other students do English—without the intention of being a writer. So drilling in design firm exigencies may not be the best course—even for the dedicated design aspirants. Again, there’s trade school for that. In my experience, a determination to design hasn’t been a sure-fire indicator of facility or success.

11. There is no one “design”
The Modern movement gave it the old college try but couldn’t homogenize design. As with the varieties of work processes mentioned above, these lists masticate a wide array of sensibilities into a bland bolus of “design.” If these lists confront design’s variety, it’s the hoary and wrong-headed instruction that students must become chameleons. Design’s essence is variety in form, intention, context, and process.

What (or who) is a student to believe?
Sadly, there seems a special estrangement that the design profession has from its professional educators. It’s odd considering the dedication and passion educators must have for a subject to teach it. We’re design’s biggest fans—and usually practitioners too!

So whom do you trust? What’s the real story? It isn’t necessarily an either/or. What you need to do is cultivate a critical sensibility about everything you’re taught or advised. And where can you learn this critical sensibility? Funny you should ask...

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