What We Don’t Teach—But Should

By Annabelle Gould, Associate Professor, VCD University of Washington

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of ARCADE Magazine, a quarterly publication dedicated to architecture and design in the Northwest.

Every spring a new group of undergraduates exits the Visual Communication Design program at the University of Washington. Three years of study and approximately 20 classes covering many areas of practice usually amounts to a strong portfolio and optimistic job prospects. And yet, it’s around this time each year that Design faculty look at one another and say, “Hmmm, wish we could add ‘X’ to this particular class,” or “include more ‘Y’ in the curriculum.”

When I was in design school in the early 90s, there was no talk about user-centered research, content creation tools or interdisciplinary collaboration. Desktop publishing barely existed. Social media meant happy hour, and cell phones, if available, were the size of bricks. Foundation courses in graphic design were focused on teaching a rigorous process, and using form and type to solve problems. Students like myself graduated and headed into the world to make discrete artifacts, mostly in print: a poster, book or logo. Fast-forward to 2012 to what seems like a science fiction movie: technology abounds, we’re “plugged in” everywhere and audiences can affect communication in fundamentally different ways. Designers are working through new and multifaceted problems. Yet the fundamental structure of most graphic design programs hasn’t changed.

Some educators argue that teaching the same traditional foundation skills (as taught 20-plus years ago) is valid. That’s partially true. The essentials of visual form, process and typography are timeless. But that’s only one part of the equation. The tools that designers use to realize their ideas are now infinitely more complex, as well as the mediums in which they work.

Much has been written about what’s missing in current design education. In addition to being thoughtful problem solvers and excellent form-givers, today’s designers are expected to know and practice a whole host of things that we don’t specifically cover in school. With that in mind, here’s a brief list of things we should teach (more of) in school but don’t (yet):

Des1+1 (Collaboration)
A typical design project today involves complex problems that can’t be solved by one person. The lone “hero” designer model doesn’t work anymore. Yet most of the projects assigned in school are framed around the individual student. Some classes are set up for group projects, but the mentality is still “every man for himself” as grades come in.

DesABC (Writing for Designers)
There’s no denying that a practicing designer spends a good deal of their day writing: email correspondence, proposals, pitches and project briefs. In the case of recent graduates, writing also includes job applications and cover letters. As visual people, design students don’t spend a lot of time writing. But like anything, the more we do it, the better we get at it. We need to offer a class for designers that covers writing these and other kinds of materials.

Des$$$ (The Business of Design)
Business is clearly overlooked in most design programs. While we encourage our students to find jobs and mentors right out of school, the reality is many of them will end up freelancing somewhere along the way. On the more tactical side of business, schools rarely cover basic practices such as billing, estimating jobs or submitting proposals. I doubt if most students know what an RFP is. But a more fundamental problem is that design programs rarely draw a connection between the concerns of design (form, concept) and the concerns of a CEO or Chief Marketing Officer. Designers need to understand the language of business and the business goals of any project.

DesUmmLike (Communication)
Creatives have to “sell” ideas to groups of people all the time. We’ve all heard stories of brilliant ideas that didn’t go anywhere because someone blew the presentation. Everything from too many “uhs” or “likes” to failing to make direct eye contact, and most importantly, speak clearly and with confidence. Presentation skills take time to develop, of course, but by putting students in courses such as communications, public speaking, debate or even drama, they can practice (many times over) the art of speaking to a group of people.

Des007 (Design + Technology)
Most design degree programs are still heavily print-centric. Our students need to work across existing and emerging digital spaces (mobile apps, interfaces, video, the web—not dead yet!), as well as print spaces and even physical spaces. Increasingly “proof of concept” requires some sort of interactive mockup before the final work begins. This issue applies to most creative disciplines, not just visual communication. But many attempts to introduce coding and basic programming have yielded mixed results. It takes time to learn code, which, depending on how you look it, might be better spent developing stronger visuals or better concepts.

A different issue is that many students don’t see the value in learning code. After all, plenty of designers work with a developer who does the final programming. But our students need more exposure to coding to understand the constraints and opportunities related to technology. This will also give them an appreciation for the concerns/culture of developers.

Could some of these classes be taught within the confines of English, computer science and the business school? Absolutely. Experts in these subjects certainly have more knowledge of their core areas than design faculty. But aside from the logistics of managing access for non-majors within another department, the challenge really becomes connecting these subjects back to the practice of design. It’s difficult enough to help students see relationships between their design classes, let alone connecting across disciplines.

All of this calls for a more inclusive, multifaceted approach to teaching to design. In reality, we can’t possibly cover all that a designer needs to know in the timeframe of an undergraduate degree. School simply lays the groundwork for a lifetime of learning—and we can only hope that once students enter the professional world they continue to learn on the job. Of course, graduate school (at the master’s or doctoral level) is another opportunity for extended design education.

What do you think? What do you think should be taught in Design programs? Add your thoughts in the Comments section.

Published November 25, 2012
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