Eight Insights from Two Days at Design School

Edit: It was pointed out that there are eight points, not seven as in this post’s original title. I’ve numbered them now -GV]


I recently had the opportunity to sit in on several classes in the Industrial design program at California State University Long Beach.  As a graduate of the program, I admit to being biased in favor of the school formally known by the 49ers, nevertheless I came away impressed with the thoughtfulness and creativity of the students, as well as the dedication and candor of the faculty. The opportunity to engage with students is something that should be as enriching for professionals as it is for students; how students think, and the type of student that design programs create is something that designers today have a stake in.  In addition to being our colleagues of tomorrow, today’s students will be inheriting a world in need of creative, thoughtful, and responsible designers. So, following are eight insights from two days at design school: 

1. Students are thinking big about big issues

From capturing greenhouse gasses to developing deployable flood control measures, students are thinking big about transformative global issues.  That issues such as global warming and disaster preparedness are in people’s minds at this time is both an unfortunate validation of the anxiety of the current moment, as well as a hopeful indicator that the designers of tomorrow will be better equipped to take on these issues.  We’ve suggested in the past that designers should lead on climate change, and it’s encouraging to see such creativity, passion, and purpose in young designers.


2. Students are savvy about methodology.

Let’s pause and consider just how long design thinking has been a thing.  It’s been almost twenty years since David Kelley brought design thinking mainstream on Dateline.  Long enough that the term itself has now gone through several cycles of celebration and criticism.  It’s also engrained enough that students seem comfortable thinking and discussing both creative methodologies as well as more strategic and abstract frameworks.


3. Students are working more fluidly across design categories.

As one would expect, there is greater cross category awareness amongst students today, and more literacy in the principles and practices of other design disciplines.  During the visits, students demonstrated an understanding of design disciplines outside of the traditional ID skillset that was reassuring.  As boundaries in design continue to blur, it will be important for designers – even siloed ones – to have at least an awareness of other workflows and disciplines.


4. The gender imbalance is improving.

When I completed my degree, the graduating design class was 80% male; it appears that this imbalance is correcting. We already know that organizations with greater diversity are more profitable, and have improved outcomes generally.  Like all industries with such an imbalance, design will only be improved by greater inclusivity. Indeed, the problems of the future cannot and will not be solved by teams dominated by men.  It’s also worth noting that in any industry with such a gender/power imbalance the potential for abusive practices is greatly magnified, and misogyny in the arts and design is well documented.  We are encouraged by signs of progress in gender parity, and encourage educators to consider that if a curriculum is not attracting and retaining female students in equal numbers as male students, then the program itself is designed incorrectly.


5. Job preparedness is more important as ever.

While we certainly don’t believe that education generally (or even design specifically) should be purely vocational in focus – we are, after all, big believers in the social sciences – design as an applied art has qualities that make it more practically aligned with specific jobs or roles.  There are three reasons to encourage more direct engagement with professional practice: 1) to improve understanding of day-to-day tasks, workflows, and responsibilities for a professional designer; 2) help students create connections that can help establish their career; 3) give students narrative context for thinking about how they will design their own careers.


6. Adapting to competing priorities is a challenge.

Education in general can suffer from institutional lag.  As the design industry continues to change faster than ever, it seems clear that there should be an assessment of what skills are emphasized, and what are deemphasized.  A typical industrial Design education involves balancing a wide variety of creative, cognitive, technical, and professional skills.  From sketching and rendering, CAD and prototyping, to model making and design research techniques, designers must gain some level of proficiency in a wide variety of tools in a limited time.  How these are balanced needs be thoughtful and informed by contemporary practices.  While we aren’t suggesting that we ditch the canson renders entirely, embracing time saving techniques such as automation and scripts and prioritizing what skills are developed should be thoughtfully considered.


7. Design education needs to prepare for the economy of tomorrow.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that design jobs will be vulnerable in the future due to economic and technological shifts.  From automation to offshoring, there are a number of forces that may redefine how and where designers work. Indeed, large parts of the design process can accurately be described as tasks – precisely the types of efforts AI is best suited for. The designers of the future are going to work in different ways than the designers of today, and design education should be thinking about how programs will prepare students for such a future.  Collaboration with engineering and business is a great start – and one that many programs have embraced – but what about collaboration with sociologists, ethicists, or philosophers?


8. More empathy is better.

Design school is tough, and in some ways necessarily competitive.  It is important that designers can take and give criticism, and students must undergo a level of discipline in their skill development in order to make them competitive for employment.  But the way in which these activities are conducted, including major milestones such as portfolio critiques seem to encourage less healthy forms of competition.  These structural approaches may suffer from some of the same types of issues that other traditional education approaches also exhibit, including selection bias and encouraging unhealthy work habits.  Indeed, such structures have the potential to reinforce character qualities such as egoism, and ruthlessness, that are ultimately detrimental to the cultivation of design’s greatest asset: empathy. 

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on design education (including your own). Find us on Linkedin, or say hello.

Greg VanderPol