Friday, 25 July 2014
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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.’

Adrian Shaughnessy

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.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I broadly agree, but with some qualifications.

    If universities are going to "compete" against cheap alternatives there needs to be a serious market justification for turning out so many graphic designers each year.
    Do British universities need to train so many graphic designers in the first place, if as we know, the oversupply only leads to precarious conditions and low pay? Are we not just defending the right to sustain universities in the model that we were lucky enough to be educated in, at the cost of the poor students?

    The only way the universities can develop intelligent education programmes is by abolishing fees. That is a necessary pre-requisite. Otherwise, quite rightly the customer will shop for the best deal delivering the best return for the investment, and no amount of insistence on the quality of the art school experience will sustain the current system. Importantly, the pressures to act like commercial suppliers means the art schools can not stop to consider or develop or adjust to new circumstances.

    The collaborative, critical and learning skills you suggest as an alternative to scientific skills all sound good, but they would not fire me up to put my 27 grand plus on the table, because I would not see what there, is specific to the visual education as opposed to any other university education. For this kind of money, (or, even, for the three years or so of my life) I think I would want to get really excited about the experience, visual, social experimental, tactile, at art school, and I would want my learning to be relevant to the world beyond the commercial, otherwise, why not just take that online course delivering the skills that apparently employers are looking for? Rather than train students for the proverbial real world, wouldn’t it be exciting to think you might be creating that world?
    I am sure this is what you envisage too.

    I had not come across the Don Norman essay but these discussions are those which have been vexing designers and craftspeople ever since the industrial revolution ¬– and which is currently the focus of my work, so forgive me. What has essentially changed since Gropius came up with the winning formula "a new unity of art and technology"? Graphic designers will probably experience the same kind of dilemmas that craftspeople had to face in the 20th century, knocking back and forth between "ideas, inspiration, expression" and "skills", between the desire to find one's originality and the need to create something economically viable. Technology is not the opposite of art, and nor are even those behavioural science studies – they might be quite creative too – but we should not lose sight of the visual, nor the pleasure in thinking we might be able to have some influence in all this.

    Nonetheless, I suspect increased automation and "user input" means we probably will not need so many designers as we are educating today, no matter what good arguments we can find for the art school education. In the future, some designers will use design for critical reflection, with no direct economic return, some will supply the mass market, thus producing economic return, some will supply the social sector, thus producing social value paid for through other channels, and some will supply a more elite market, producing low product run objects – I could imagine most of print coming in to this category eventually. What is important is that we take the market out of the education equation altogether to allow art schools to develop appropriately, without passing the financial risk onto the students.

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