interactions magazine

This is from 2011 | 9 minute read

The Conflicting Rhetoric of Design Education

As design has categorically emerged as a necessity for companies and cultures facing massive change, design education has come under increasing scrutiny. What do these designers—who, if you believe the rhetoric, are capable of driving massive innovation, concocting magical experiences, and changing the fundamental rules of the game of business—learn, how do they learn it, and how can these skills be appropriated by other disciplines? As the discussion evolves, it becomes clear that there are multiple dimensions to design education, and all seem to be simultaneously under fire. I have my own perspective on what's right—and, mostly, wrong—with design education in the United States and Europe, but my intent here is to simply summarize the evolving discussion of how we teach design, to whom, and in what manner. Below, please find the three major conflicts I see in the ongoing debate of design education.

We must train generalists. We must train specialists.

The Bauhaus—the historic root of much of today's design education—emphasized a generalist approach. Students learned craft-training in a specific discipline, such as cabinetmaking or etching, while simultaneously training in drawing, painting, lettering, material science, color chemistry, and even basic accounting and contract negotiations. As described in the original manifesto penned by Walter Gropius, "The Bauhaus strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art—sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts—as inseparable components of a new architecture. The ultimate, if distant, aim of the Bauhaus is the unified work of art—the great structure—in which there is no distinction between monumental and decorative art.Gropius, Walter. Program of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar, trans. W. Jabs and B. Gilbert, in Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, ed. H. Wingler. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969"

The conversation is not just one of historic precedence. It takes an important theoretical turn when considered in light of the provocative maxim offered by educator Richard Buchanan: "Design eludes reduction... design is fundamentally concerned with the particular, and there is no science of the particular. Buchanan, R. Wicked problems in design thinking, in The Idea of Design, ed. V. Margolin and R. Buchanan, 3-16. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996" This implies that it cannot be broken into specializations, and by definition, that designers bring only a generalizable process and series of methods to problems that are uniquely specialized within other disciplines entirely.

But today's design consultancies and corporations demand from potential employees highly focused, specialized courses of study, and schools—eager to expand their course offerings, which, in turn, expands their financial potential—now offer undergraduate degrees in service design, interaction design, graphic design, industrial design, game design, fashion design, Web design, production design, and so on. A designer is typically judged on a portfolio of work, and woe is the bright-eyed 20-year-old who applies to Google's UI group with a portfolio full of flashlight or toaster designs. Although the designer may have a generic and broadly applicable process, the lack of narrative in their portfolio indicates an unfortunate disconnect between applicant and recruiter; they'll never make it to an interview.

And so we find the first major conflict in design education: A designer needs to learn a clear, general, and broad process—one that can be applied in an infinite array of contexts. Yet the same designer is hired based on their specific demonstration of skills within a narrowly defined space. It is not until later in their career that this broad foundation of process becomes critical: when they are in a managerial position, responsible for scoping and driving a longer-term trajectory for a project, product, or engagement.

Skills of craft, building, and beauty are more important than theory or systems thinking. Theory and systems thinking are more important than craft, building, and beauty.

Designers make things. These things don't need to be—and increasingly aren't—physical, but implicit in the act of making is a competency of craft, building, and aesthetics. Craft has a strange connotation. The AIGA includes it in their mission statement ("AIGA's mission is to advance designing as a professional craft..." AIGA's mission statement and the roots of the word—in the Arts and Crafts Movement—imply an anti-industrial, anti-consumptive, and anti-mass-production approach to design. This thinking has enjoyed a resurgence of late, due to a confluence of DIY culture, methodical movements like slow food, and the notion of provenance in products, physical goods, and local services.

Craft is typically taught and learned over time, through a form of apprenticeship that builds up both "muscle memory" through procedural learning and deep tacit knowledge of a given material. I remember the dreaded striped shirt drawing in my freshman year of college. Using a Prismacolor pencil, we were to re-create, at actual size, a striped shirt (Hint: The stripes add a level of highlight and shadow that's both technically complicated and visually confusing). It took hours—close to 100, I think—and demanded a high level of craft related to seeing and drawing.

Through this focus on craft comes an appreciation of materials and an understanding of how materials can be provoked, manipulated, or otherwise tamed into particular forms. The emphasis on craft thus leads to a focus on beauty, and that aesthetic can be critiqued, admired, described, and appreciated. This focus on aesthetics, driven by an appreciation of form through craft, has been (and continues to be, in many circumstances) the substance of design education at schools like Pratt or Art Center.

But now that design has been appropriated by circles of innovation and corporate organizations, each with a particular goal of solving large-scale problems through systems thinking, the conversation has shifted. The material is no longer physical, or even digital, as the Things To Be Manipulated in organizations and systems are processes, policies, theories, emotions, and people. Conversations of craft are abandoned in favor of more complicated topics: ethnography, organizational behavior, divergent thinking, disruptive innovation, and theories of complexity.

In 2007, Dan Saffer (then at Adaptive Path) blogged "... quite a few design schools no longer teach design. Instead, they teach 'design thinking' and expect that that will be enough. Frankly, it isn't. Saffer, Dan. Design schools: please start teaching design again. Mar 6, 2007" When I discussed this with Dan, he mentioned that he had briefly discussed teaching design at Stanford's; the response was "We don't teach design at the We teach design thinking." And so we find the second major conflict in design education. Design schools are teaching design thinking as a way to elevate the role and earning power of their alumni within organizations but are generally focusing on the theory rather than the craft.

We must focus more on ethnography, anthropology, and the social sciences. We must focus more on science, cognitive psychology, math, and engineering.

As designers have taken on larger, more complicated, and more technically challenging projects, it's become obvious that they need a larger understanding of how things and people work. This is true at a broad level (how culture works, how people act, how infrastructure works) as well as at an acute level (how perception works, how working memory works, how an actuator or a circuit board works). Unfortunately, both the large and the small of human behavior and technical complexity are difficult to fit into an existing curriculum, and both are typically excluded in favor of traditional "design specific" skills (typography, color theory, two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design). In many ways, this issue mirrors the generalist/specialist discussion, but at a much more gross level; it is argued that a designer should be a generalist of the world, knowing a bit about everything.

Don Norman argues just this:

"New skills are required, especially for such areas as interaction, experience, and service design... [These] require understanding of human cognition and emotion, sensory and motor systems, and sufficient knowledge of the scientific method, statistics, and experimental design so that designers can perform valid, legitimate tests of their ideas before deploying them... Designers need to deploy microprocessors and displays, actuators and sensors... The old skills of drawing and sketching, forming and molding must be supplemented and in many cases, replaced, by skills in programming, interaction, and human cognition. Rapid prototyping and user testing are required, which also means some knowledge of the social and behavior sciences, of statistics, and of experimental design.Norman, Don. Why design education must change. Core 77. Nov 26, 2010"

That's a wholesale-different curriculum from what many design schools are currently prepared to teach. Thus, we find the third major conflict of design education: between what employers want students to know and what educators are prepared to teach. For the majority of those employed in tenure positions at leading schools of art and design simply aren't prepared to teach any of the items Norman mentions above. They learned typography, and branding, and color, and those who haven't practiced in years may be entirely unaware of the major shifts described above, not to mention ill-prepared to change their entire curriculum.


It's clear that a change is needed in design education, and it's equally clear that the discourse of this change must advance beyond simply calling well-intentioned designers to action. Please see below for a list of additional resources related to the changing qualities of our curricula and pedagogy. I hope the conversation will yield action, and I hope we will learn from our neighboring disciplines—who generally have a longer history than us but have bested nearly the same problems of identity, advancement, and change.


  1. Gropius, Walter. Program of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar, trans. W. Jabs and B. Gilbert, in Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, ed. H. Wingler. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969.
  2. Buchanan, R. Wicked problems in design thinking, in The Idea of Design, ed. V. Margolin and R. Buchanan, 3-16. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996.
  3. AIGA's mission statement;
  4. Saffer, Dan. Design schools: please start teaching design again. Mar 6, 2007;
  5. Norman, Don. Why design education must change. Core 77. Nov 26, 2010;

Kolko, Jon (2011), "The Conflicting Rhetoric of Design Education". In interactions magazine, July/August, 2011.
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