Education in the age of rising fees and speed learning
In a controversial essay published on the Core 77 website in 2010 (‘Why Design Education Must Change’), the author and design commentator Don Norman wrote: ‘New skills are required, especially for such areas as interaction, experience, and service design. Classical industrial design is a form of applied art, requiring deep knowledge of forms and materials and skills in sketching, drawing, and rendering. The new areas are more like applied social and behavioral sciences and 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.’
Norman’s post drew a heated response. There was plenty of support for his view that designers need to be trained in more rigorous modes of practice. But he was also attacked for denying the benefits that an imaginative designer, free from the need to ‘prove everything’, can bring to the problems of modern life.
These two positions result in the tension at the heart of modern design education. Is design a discipline that must be taught with the rigour of science, engineering and computing, or is it an intuitive craft that is learned by ‘doing’, and encouraging and stimulating the visual awareness and critical mentality (the ‘what if’ gene) that most designers possess?
If this was the only question that design educators faced, we might have some hope of coming up with a solution. But it’s not. The elephant in the academy is the rising cost of study. Thanks to a government that wants to reduce public spending regardless of social and cultural impact, design education – like all other forms of education – has become hugely expensive.
One of the many side effects of this is that it is prompting the rise of cheaper alternatives to universities and other established places of academic learning. The other day I was sent an email by Amazon Local offering me an ‘online web design training package with 23 courses including Dreamweaver, SEO and Photoshop for £79 (regular price £959.98).’ Or consider Shillington College, an Australian based operation, now in London and New York, offering three month and one-year courses in graphic design. They don’t list fees on their website, but they state their aims: ‘…to create a positive and inspirational learning environment where students are taught relevant industry skills, ensuring they have the best possible chance of employment as a graphic designer or to further the careers of those already in the industry.’
It’s easy to see why these industry-focused, fast-track approaches would appeal to students daunted by the cost of three or four years study with no guarantee of work at the end of it. Seen as retrogressive by many, cheap skills-based education systems receive tacit encouragement from employers who demand technical skills above conceptual skills – particularly amongst the young designers they hire.
Faced with this sort of competition, and the need to raise fees, universities need to concentrate on what matters most in a world of change. Three considerations predominate. The first is the need for collaboration: rather than teach designers engineering and science, as Don Norman advocates, teach the art of collaboration. The second is the need to promote critical thinking: passive acceptance of the status quo produces nothing of value. And thirdly, the importance of teaching the art of learning. The only thing we can be sure about when we contemplate an uncertain future is that most of us will have to learn new skills and abilities. If we know how to learn, we stand a better chance of surviving.
Adrian Shaughnessy is a designer, writer and senior tutor in graphic design at the Royal College of Art.