I belong to an AIGA Education online discussion group. It's a place where those of us involved with teaching design can ask questions and share answers about things like assignments, reading lists and accreditation. There have been some spirited exchanges, but none as spirited and sustained as a recent discussion on this subject: What's your policy on late student work?
I watched with interest the back and forth on this issue: strict, lenient, zero tolerance, open-ended, everything in between, with contributions from educators all over the country. And, honestly, I was astounded. This is only one of many classroom management issues that faculty deal with. It wouldn't be high on my own list of national problems, but there you have it. If the exchange provided some useful models for addressing immediate concerns, then it served its purpose.
What I think is below the water level of this iceberg, however, is the larger issue of the culture we establish in design schools. Design faculty point with great pride to the long hours and last minute rushes of adrenalin that characterize student performance in design; you don't get that kind of output from an English major. New students arrive at school already acculturated in the lore of the design studio; late nights, grueling schedules of deliverables, and stiff competition. We reminisce about our own lost sleep as students or professionals and defend this culture by saying that it matches the demands of practice.
Well, unfortunately, it does.
The expectations that we put on students carry over into the workplace. Before long, many designers burn out by promising unrealistic turnaround on projects, working at levels that don't accommodate a balanced life, and closing down any time for reflection on the work they're doing and on the world around them. Some professions reasonably respond to crises; I recently had an appendectomy and my surgeon had just finished dinner at 11:00 when he was called back to the hospital to perform the operation. I'm thankful he was willing to work overtime. But I would hardly call a logo or website design an emergency. As a profession, we have taken the concept of "service" to levels more typically accorded to trades; if my basement is flooding, I want that plumber NOW!
I believe as educators, we need to consider how we introduce students to reflective practice. How we actually slow down and pace the physical execution of work in order to design smart. How we teach students to find the intellectual challenge within the assignment that will sustain them when, as professionals, they think they just can't face one more 4 x 9 brochure. How we teach them and their clients to value the research component of a project just as they do the billable hours in form-making on the computer. How we ask them to connect what they're doing in design to things people really care about.
As I attend design conferences and speak with faculty around the country, the constant lament I hear is that there is just too much to teach in a four-year degree program; that the addition of software, strategy, theory, history, and professional practice have overloaded an already full curriculum. Having taught and practiced for more than 30 years, however, I can confirm that students produce a lot more stuff with technology than they ever did through traditional comping and mechanical production methods. But what we ask them to do with all that extra comping time that the computer eliminated is to make more of the same. And the response to all those new requirements (history, theory, etc.) is "curriculum by accrual;" we add new content to an existing structure and pedagogy that we're just not willing to let go of or even challenge. No wonder we feel overwhelmed by the content demands of a design education and no wonder students feel like they're churning out proof of some fictional mastery.
We have to teach smart. We have to look at trends whose trajectories are likely to define practice for students across a fifty-year career. We have to challenge traditional paradigms of design education and invent new ones. We have to integrate content across courses and scaffold experiences so that students don't start over with every project or every course. Not all new content requires its own turf. And we have to value the reflective component of design as much as we do the active one. There are some great models for doing this and where they are successful, life is less frenetic; students are engaged in producing a body of work, in understanding big ideas that are at the core of the discipline and the practice. In other words, they behave like students, not trainees, and their output and mastery build across time, not in some last minute rush to the finish.
This is not to say we need to disconnect from the demands of practice or that deadlines don't matter. Like it or not, there is an unforgiving world outside of school and changing the nature of practice is a long-term project. And I do believe that schools can model the successful kinds of existing practices in which we hope our students will be employed. But a pattern of late work is usually a symptom of something else and you don't fix the problem by simply treating the symptom with policies. Now there's a discussion we could have!