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Navigating a flat sea with more ports of call than ships: examining current dilemmas in the graphic design education jobs market

January 28, 2014 / Michael R. Gibson

This post may “look long” (comparatively), but if you can comfortably read a Sunday edition of the NY Times, you can read and digest what follows in between six and nine minutes.

Before I attempt to articulate the essential points of this piece, it is necessary to provide at least some contextual information about the current state of university-level, graphic, communication and interaction design hiring processes in North America.

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As of this writing in the late afternoon of January 27, 2014, I have been able to determine that there have been 106 total, university-level faculty positions in graphic, visual communication or interaction design posted publicly in the U.S. and Canada since November 1, 2013. In this context, “posted publicly” means that

one—
someone who has been officially authorized by a specific institution of higher learning to disseminate the fact that their employer is attempting to fill a full- or part-time faculty position in one of these areas has done so, and

two—
information about the particular requirements of the position was offered, such as years of accrued professional experience in one or more of these areas, level of academic degree earned (in 16 cases, the fact that this degree must have been earned from an institution of higher learning accredited by either one of six nationally recognized regional accreditors, or NASAD, or both, was specified), types of and number-per-semester or quarter of courses that the new hire would be expected to teach, whether the position was full- or part-time, and whether it was tenure-track or not.

As has been my habit as the coordinator of two graduate-level design research programs at a large, American public university for the last six years, I begin to track and analyze the academic job postings in graphic, communication and interaction design on or about September 15. Each year I log the e-mails that contain information about postings I receive from fellow design educators around North America, and, as of September 2009, in 11 countries outside of it. Beginning October 15, 2013 and ending at 2 pm CST January 25, 2014, I visited the website at “HigherEdJobs” and searched their list of “Graphic Design” full- and part-time faculty positions eleven (11) times. The URL for this site is listed as follows:

http://www.higheredjobs.com/faculty/search.cfm?JobCat=155

I also visited the AIGA Design Jobs website at:

http://designjobs.aiga.org/#keywords=Education

eight (8) times during this same time span and found a total of 23 university-level teaching positions listed there after I typed in the word “Education” in the leftmost search box at the top of this webpage.

The data articulated below reflects an amalgamation of the information about faculty teaching positions in graphic, visual communication or interaction design that I have gathered through the combined means of receiving notifications of position postings via e-mail and by documenting what I learned from the two websites listed above. I realize that the six categories of institutions that have posted teaching positions I present below is a generalized taxonomy—I’m “painting with a fairly broad brush” here—but it does provide a fairly accurate depiction of just how many teaching positions need to be filled in North America prior to the commencement of the 2014-15 academic year.

For Profit Institutions:
The Art Institutes™
Part-Time Positions: 10; Full-Time Positions: 1

For Profit Institutions not affiliated with the Art Institutes™
Part-Time Positions: 3; Full-Time Positions: 6; Full-Time, Tenure-Track or “Extended Contract” Positions: 3

Community and Junior Colleges:
Part-Time Positions: 18; Full-Time Positions: 5; Full-Time, Tenure-Track Positions or “Extended Contract” Positions: 3

Private Colleges/Universities and Specialized University-Level Art and Design Schools with Enrollments UNDER 10,000 students:
Part-Time Positions: 3; Full-Time Positions: 9; Full-Time, Tenure-Track Positions or “Extended Contract” Positions: 6

Private Colleges/Universities with Enrollments OVER 10,000 students:
Part-Time Positions: 1; Full-Time Positions: 3; Full-Time, Tenure-Track Positions or “Extended Contract” Positions: 2

Public Colleges/Universities with Enrollments UNDER 10,000 students:
Part-Time Positions: 3; Full-Time Positions: 24; Full-Time, Tenure-Track Positions: 19

Public Colleges/Universities with Enrollments OVER 10,000 students:
Part-Time Positions: 4; Full-Time Positions: 16; Full-Time, Tenure-Track Positions: 13

Total Part-Time Positions posted between October 15, 2013 and January 25, 2014: 42

Total Full-Time Positions (Tenure-Track/“Extended Contract” and all others) posted between October 15, 2013 and January 25, 2014: 64

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I have also purposefully not articulated an aspect of this academic year’s array of graphic, communication and interaction design teaching positions in a way that I routinely do for the benefit of the graduate students enrolled in our graduate programs: I have not attempted to rank the institutions that have posted open teaching positions in this piece in any way.

Each academic year at about this time I verbally share my feelings with our grad students about which positions at which institutions I think are “worth applying for,” which ones I think are “just OK,” and which ones I think “they should stay the heck away from,” and, of course, why I have formed these opinions. I factor in which positions at which programs I feel would be the “best fit” for particular soon-to-be MFA recipients, but I also try to impart a good deal of what I refer to as “[the] state of design education today” information as they begin to strategize about how they might begin to engage in their respective academic job searches. (The criteria I use to rank design graphic, communication and interaction design programs around North America on behalf of our graduate students is informed by several factors that the space of this post won’t permit me to articulate here, but that I will share later this year.)

I begin by telling them that if they’re willing to move about the continent, they’re likely to field more requests for job interviews than they can hope to facilitate during the traditional winter-to-spring hiring season due to the fact that only about half of this academic year’s 106 positions posted will be filled by so-called “viable” candidates. A viable candidate meets the following short list of the following “check-the-box” requirements:

– has an MFA (not an MA) or a Ph.D. with the word “design” in the degree title;

– has accrued three years of university-level, design education experience;

– has accrued at least three years of professional design experience;

– has scored 79 or higher on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

I then tell our graduate students that candidates who are “beyond viable”—in this context, that means candidates who can a. actually teach emerging designers to develop effective visual communications ideas and systems, and who can b. earn tenure and promotion at a university, college or art or design school worthy of awarding it—will likely fill only about a quarter of this year’s total of 64 full-time, and full-time + tenure-track/“extended contract” positions, and only about a quarter, if not less than that, of the remaining 42 part-time positions.

The short length of this piece doesn’t permit me to articulate a detailed analysis of the various reasons for this, but, I’ll briefly account for a few of them as follows:

01 | too many of this academic year’s posted positions pay too little and ask for too much (almost no one gets into design education for the money, but teaching three courses per term, in addition to regularly advising students, mentoring more than three graduate students over the course of their thesis, dissertation or applied or original long-term research or practicum projects, serving on Departmental and College committees, maintaining your “tech savvy,” all while sustaining client work and/or a research or scholarly agenda IS NO LONGER A COMPETITIVE OPTION FOR MANY MFA HOLDERS WHO ARE NOW BEING COURTED INTO DESIGN MANAGEMENT AND RESEARCH POSITIONS IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR);

02 | teaching design, which means understanding how to effectively implement and sustain its unique pedagogic approaches—from explaining gestalt theory in ways that students can understand it well enough to use it, to ensuring that emerging designers emerge equipped with the array of competencies they need to maintain viable career paths, to understanding how to foster learning situations within which the ability to generate effective visual communications ideas and systems develops—is not an easy thing to do consistently. Many practicing professionals who attempt to teach design do NOT understand the fundamental differences between art direction and design education;

03 | teaching design has a long history in North America—less so in Europe and Australasia—of being pooh-poohed by many practicing professionals, who still can only seem to acknowledge the affect of design education on what they do (and how they go about doing what they do is rapidly changing…) in passing. Lots of people don’t want to acknowledge the fact of global warming either, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it IS occurring, and that our window of opportunity to do something to curb its disastrous effect on our natural environment is rapidly closing;

04 | there simply AREN’T enough MFA recipients emerging from graduate programs in North America now who are “beyond merely viable” candidates for the array of teaching positions that have been posted during the current academic year, and people who have accrued years of academic experience are either staying in their existing positions, retiring or being lured away from sometimes long-stints (10 years or more) in design education by private sector opportunities that pay more and tend to allow for more weekend and evening time off than do many full-time teaching positions;

05 | the idea that people who possess MFAs or Ph.D.s who have more than three years of university-level design education experience, have well-established records of scholarship and/or research, or who have accrued significant professional design experience (and who have had their work recognized via awards, publication or positive critical reviews), AND who can teach Interaction Design/User experience Design/New Media Design, both grad and undergrad courses—which also mean planning and operating curricula—all the while seeking, landing and servicing funding opportunities is so absurd that it would be laughable if so many of this year’s position postings weren’t currently calling for this combination of abilities;

06 | according to my research, which is still in progress as of this writing, there are only a small fraction of the roughly 1,800 institutions of higher learning in the U.S. that are being administrated by people who have even small semblances of the diverse bases of knowledge required to facilitate effective design education, which at minimum requires understanding design processes and what is required to teach them well enough to support the people who are called upon to make this happen. Knowing “ABOUT” design education is a far cry from knowing “OF” it. Point of emphasis: “roughly 1,800” U.S.-based graphic, communication and interaction design programs is NOT a mis-print, and only about 300 of these are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). (A conservative estimate places the number of two- to four-year design education programs facilitated by Community Colleges, Junior Colleges and online, often “for-profit” programs in North America at well over 800.)

SO—for those of you reading this who are involved in design education, especially if you’re helping to facilitate a faculty search this winter and spring, be forewarned that, for all but a few design programs in North America, your pools of viable applicants for these positions will be relatively thin. If you can constitute pools of more than 10 viable candidates for them, you have amassed a robust selection from which to choose. For those of you “in the hunt” for positions, know that it’s a proverbial buyer’s market this year, which is good for you but is ultimately very bad for the discipline, or, if your prefer, the profession, of design.

This piece must end here. It is intended less as a call-to-action, although much of the data presented here could fuel one, and more as an attempt to make those who read it aware of the broad array of contextual factors that now affect who gets hired where and how they do (and don’t) in the worlds of graphic, communication and interaction design education, and how so many of these factors now threaten the fabric of its effective existence.

COMMENTS
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  • Natacha Poggio

    Great article, Michael. You have articulated very clearly why design academia is failing to elevate the profession to the reputation it deserves. Design Education needs to change, or else the temptations for corporate/nonprofit ventures where our work is better valued will be too hard to resist –even if love teaching and dedicate ourselves to educate the next generation of change-makers.