The landscape of design education changed. Over the last decade, as a rejection to a tired model of higher education, new educational programs and structures have emerged.
Many of these are in the fields of design, digital product development, and programming. The new models of education take many forms. Some are short day-long or week-long workshops. Some are meetups and brownbags. Some are online, some offline, and some hybrid. What connects many of these models is their immediate vocational emphasis. The majority intend to train practitioners, not academics. The focus is on preparing people to do design and get jobs.
I think this is fantastic. One of my favorite quotes is “you can’t eat lifelong learning.” (I wish I could remember the source – it may be Dan Saffer or Alan Cooper – anyone want to claim it?) Ideally, knowledge acquisition as an end-in-itself would be socioeconomically equitable, but the pursuit of knowing as an end in itself is mostly a tool of the privileged. The reality is that people need a job to make money to survive, and any path out of a service job and into a creative role is a good path.
Because these educational programs are hoping to train design students to enter the workforce and immediately function as designers, the education they provide is pragmatic, practical, and applicable. And, the majority of these programs are compelling to attendees because they are relatively affordable (by comparison to traditional bachelor’s or master’s degrees), short, and promise a clear path to employment.
This value proposition – save money, save time, and get a job as a designer – is a problem.
To deliver on this value promise of cheap, fast, and aimed at employment, something’s got to give. And I’m worried that the “something” is quality.
To be clear, I don’t mean quality of instruction. The instructors at these emergent programs are my peers. They are, by and large, competent designers. Many are competent teachers. They do not treat their role lightly. The people I know who teach in these programs put their heart and soul into their teaching, just like great teachers at any other academic program.
And I don’t mean the quality of the student work that emerges from these programs. Anyone who teaches design has (I hope) come to terms with the fact that student work is pretty bad. Student portfolios do not show good work; at best, they show good thinking. This is not unique to these types of programs, and it’s not actually a problem. The point of a design school is not to produce great design artifacts. It’s to teach students.
The quality I mean is about preparedness: being prepared to tackle real design problems. I’m worried that students emerging from these programs are not ready to act as functioning designers because they have not started developing a pattern language for design problems. This failing is a direct result of fast education. And it’s built into the model: speed is literally the value proposition of these programs.
In the almost 20 years I’ve been teaching, and in observing the seven or eight hundred students I’ve taught, I’ve identified some qualities of design education that are fundamental to growth. These are Process, Method, Humility, and Craftsmanship. In addition to these, there’s another prime topic: patterning. It’s my goal here to explain what I mean by patterning, which is the core of my argument about what I see as a broken teaching model.
I’ll take a side-trip here, for anyone who has actually read this far. I make a point to avoid hedging on my posts. I believe in forming opinions, sharing them definitively to provoke meaningful conversation, and then refining my own beliefs over time. But I want to tread as lightly as I’m able because I understand my biases in this space as an educator and a program founder, and because so much is at stake with this topic. I’ve formed my opinions based on my experiences and observations interacting with graduates from the programs I’m describing – looking at their portfolios, interviewing them for jobs, watching them solve problems, and discussing their experiences with them. I’ve informed these opinions with discussions with other practitioners about this topic, and their experiences and observations. There are exceptions to any rule, and I recognize the flaws in any inductive, non-empirical model of opinion-forming.
What is a pattern?
A design problem waivers between being well-formed and ill-defined. We create models to frame problems and put boundaries around them so the problems become tractable. The models are torn down through critique and reflection, often in the moment of creation, as creativity leads to new ideas and the exploration breaks. Constraints emerge from within the problem and from outside of the problem. The constraints change. People – important people, who make decisions – influence the constraints, and change them, often seemingly at their whim. Limits are placed and removed, inspiration comes and goes, and all the while, we are limited not just by logical constraints like time, but also highly emotional limits like passion, confidence, and inspiration.
Throughout all of this, patterns are the backbone of how a professional, well-practiced designer reacts to a situation. Simply, a more experienced designer has “seen something kind of like this before.” They’ve been tasked with an impossible interaction problem focused on the dreaded three state grey checkbox, or asked to build navigation structures around incomplete or incongruous taxonomies. They’ve produced detailed specifications that were ignored by developers. They’ve presented strategic work to their boss’s boss’s boss, and had the meeting go sideways to the point of shouting. They’ve been told by leadership to remove the Opt Out button. They’ve had clients walk out.
Of course, not all of the experiences are bad. This experienced designer has sat next to developers through the night, making design changes on the fly, to ship on time. They’ve run participatory design sessions in complex environments, like airports, or doctor’s offices, or power plants. They’ve gone to China to see their work coming off the line.
Their experience has led them to develop ways of conceptualizing and framing problems, and pieces of problems, while simultaneously working to solve those problems. These are patterns, and we can think about them in two conceptual spaces. One is in the actual solving of the design problem – patterning in the problem. The other is in the context of the exploration – patterning around the problem.
Patterning in the problem
When designers work on solving problems, they continually move back and forth between doing things, reflecting on their actions, and making adjustments. Throughout this process, the work artifact “talks back” to them: it presents back their drawing, making it real, so that they can then respond to it.
Donald Schön describes this with much more clarity than I can, so I quote here from his Problems, Frames and Perspectives on Designing:
The designer asks himself ‘What if I did this’, where ‘this’ is a move whose consequences and implications he traces in the virtual world of a drawing or model. Making a design move in a situation can serve, at once, to test a hypothesis, explore phenomena, and affirm or negate the move. In each function, the evaluation of the experiment depends upon what Geoffrey Vickers has called ‘the designer’s appreciative system.’
These “moves” are actions a designer is taking. In an interaction design problem, the move may be about detailed decisions, like where to put a button, how to structure a form interaction, what navigation paradigm to use in a hands-free context, how to handle voice inflections from accents, and so-on. The move is a decision, but not a fixed or permanent one.
But the “move” doesn’t even have to be about a drawn or visually represented design decision. It can be something more process or strategic oriented, like “ignore that particular requirement even though I was told it was immovable” or “hold this in mind over here, while working on this seemingly unrelated thing over there” or “tip the table over and start again.”
These moves are driven by pattern knowledge. They aren’t random trial and error, nor are they logically selected from a list of all possible moves. They are decisions made in the context of a problem, informed by other similar problems and solutions.
What’s unique, powerful, and fascinating about this way of thinking about design activities is that in the hands of a professional designer, the application of these patterned moves seems supernatural. They look intuitive: the designer is making these moves instantly, quietly, and with such a quick give and take reactiveness that the decisions seem thoughtless or carefree. Watch an experienced interaction designer build out wireframe flows or a visual designer produce a new brand identity, and it’s like watching, on one hand, a well-choregraphed play, and on the other hand, a flawless machine.
This expertise requires a set of experiences with similar, but not the same, problems being solved. No building, toaster, website, service, or policy is identical, but all toasters share toaster-ness, and what’s more, all designing-a-toaster-experiences have something in common with one-another, too. Patterning in the context of a problem means having a readily available set of “moves”, the “instinct” and muscle memory to select the most appropriate moves for the particular problem component, the competence to select a move effortlessly and in the context of the flow of problem solving, and the appreciative system to almost instantly see how that move has impacted the emergent design decision, and course-correct if the outcome isn’t desirable.
Patterning around the problem
Patterning exists outside of the subject of the problem itself, too: a pattern language is at work in the political, organizational, logistical, and cultural context of design.
“I’ve been on a few research programs now. We always have twenty participants, scheduled in one hour blocks, with 30 minutes in between. But this time, the lead researcher scheduled two hours in between. I asked her why. She told me that the content would be a lot harder to synthesize, so we were going to debrief in a coffee shop after each session for much longer than usual. I asked her how she knew since we hadn’t started yet; she said ‘I just know.’ And she was right!”
“I’ve noticed that my creative director will jump into a meeting and ad-lib, but over the last month with our new client, she’s been using slides. I asked her why, and she was surprised by my question – she hadn’t noticed she was doing it. When she thought about it for a few minutes, she explained that the client had a ‘Powerpoint culture’ – without slides, she wouldn’t have been taken seriously, so she adapted a new behavior in response.”
“I was pissed. I designed some flows, and they got shot down by the product manager. But my project lead told me not to worry; in a few weeks, she said, the PM would be asking for them. And she was right. How did she know?”
These scenarios point to a more senior practitioner “knowing” what would happen in the future. It’s not just that they have more information of visibility into where the project or company is headed; these people have seen experiences before where research topics were complex and needed more immediate synthesis, companies valued delivery style over content, and product management was heads-down focused on Now, instead of on Later. And it’s not just that they’ve seen these situations play out. They’ve seen approaches to solving them play out, too.
Just like patterning in the problem, patterning around the problem is about “moves” – just longer ones. Rather than changing a drawing, these patterns are about recognizing the need to change the actual project demeanor, cadence, or approach.
Pattern knowledge is tacit.
An expert has a hard time actually explaining their expertise around pattern usage. During one of my first projects working at frog, a creative director told us to redo work at the last minute, because, in his words, “It wasn’t going to work with the client.” When I asked why, he literally couldn’t explain it, and what’s more, he knew he couldn’t explain it. But he was right. Revisit that expert designer exploring an idea while using a tool like Sketch or Photoshop. They are moving so quickly that it’s impossible they are making focused, logical decisions, and if you ask them what they are doing, they often need to stop and actually think about it (and even then can rarely explain it). But what they are doing involves recalling situations that were similar, and leveraging models and concepts that worked, or didn’t work, in those other situations.
When we’re new, we have no patterns.
Without pattern knowledge, we’re left with several ways to approach problems. One is to simply follow a method or process step by step. If the method worked once, or if someone I respect told me the method is good, I have no reason to believe that it isn’t, and so I’ll use it. Another strategy is to copy what I see. If someone posted something on dribbble and it got a lot of positive comments, it’s probably a good idea, so I’ll just borrow it. And another is to just guess and do something – anything – and hope for the best.
These are all strategies that are effective in an educational context. But they are not effective ways to work in practice. No matter their level, and no matter how junior they are, I don’t want people on my team who are blindly following a process, mindlessly copying what they see, or shooting darts at a board. And so I expect even the most junior talent I hire to have established some rudimentary form of approaching a problem that goes beyond these techniques. I expect them to have developed a small but useful patterning language for when they experience a certain kind of design problem, and to use that pattern language effectively.
To meet these expectations, and to have learned a tiny subset of patterning, a designer needs to have worked through enough problems to start to see similarities and differences. They need a body of work from which to see the overlap of examples.
This experience doesn’t have to come from a formal educational program. But a good pattern is established with guidance and critique, and that’s hard to get on your own. Posting work on social media is a disaster for real problem solving strategy development, as the echo chamber of “good job!” reinforces cosmetic patterning and features; and so every product needs a dashboard, and every button a gradient, and every app a point system, and every website a parallax scroll. Education – good education – builds patterning skills through an ongoing set of master/apprentice experiences, and implicit in the patterning is the critical thinking about the pattern selection, use, and most importantly, adaptation. A pattern is not a template. It’s a way to approach solving a problem.
Design students should be learning ways to think about solving problems.
A design curriculum needs to provide students with enough discrete experiences that they can start to build muscle memory around problems – so they can start to say to themselves, “I’ve previously experienced a problem that was kind of like this, and I tried to solve it.”
When those experiences start to build, it doesn’t mean that a student is magically a job-ready designer. It means they are starting to develop a grammar of design abilities.
How many experiences are enough? I don’t know. But I know the answer isn’t one, or two, or five or ten. And I know that these experiences don’t happen in days or weeks. They happen in months and years. They need to happen, and then be critiqued. The student needs time for introspection. They need to see the results of their approach and marinate on what worked and what didn’t. And then they need to take on the same type and style project, or exploration, or interaction, again and again.
And so my biggest concern with workshops and bootcamps and hack days and the majority of the non-traditional learning programs that have emerged in our creative fields is that they are just too short. And the unfortunate reality is that the people who need the vocational training and want the jobs and should be employable and are transitioning to a design career aren’t given enough time to learn because they don’t have the time to give. They don’t have the economic luxury to take a year or two off for a longer program. And even if they did, the economic logistics of running a school means that a one-year program simply has to cost more – a lot more – than a ten week program. The finances don’t make sense.
So, there’s the crux of the problem I see with the landscape of non-traditional design education. The value proposition promises speed, low cost, and employability. It is impossible for it to consistently deliver on all three fronts. It is disingenuous, even with best intentions, to claim that someone can become a designer in ten weeks, and claims like this are harmful to the profession.
What IS the answer?
I have no purely entrepreneurial answer to this problem. I don’t know how to make a new company, or product, or service to teach design that is fast, cheap, and effective. I ran a school for seven years, and constantly struggled with the balance of this issue. We have not solved it on a local, institutional level. Our grads are very good and highly employable (or “well patterened”). But our program is too expensive and too long, and it results in a poor socioeconomic mix of students, and it’s a huge problem.
But I have two systemic suggestions, the first likely a pipe dream and the other very achievable.
First, let’s work to make non-accredited vocational education free to students, and shift the burden of cost to taxpayers or corporations. If these programs are fully funded through work-study or outright grants (like many graduate programs in the US) students can afford to attend them for a longer duration without feeling pressure to jump into a job as quickly as possible.
This already exists for accredited programs. it should be true for non-accredited programs, too. By non-accredited, I don’t mean to imply that education should have no oversight. A school can be regulated and managed for quality and against predatory practices, without being forced to comply with static and dated guidelines, burdened with accreditation and assessment paperwork, or forced into a rote and cookie-cutter model.
The regulation of these vocational programs should mandate a length of study – not in credit hours, but in actual in-class and out-of-class duration – and assess the follow-through on placement promises. A longer course of study gives more time for practice and time for patterns to build. And a regulated set of promises means that schools can continue to receive subsidized educational tuition only if their students get the jobs that were promised to them. Identify a minimum salary requirement for these programs, and a timeline to achieve it. Hold the school to the same outcome-based expectations as public universities, but remove the oversight on the actual content. Do this all in the name of affordability – making these programs inexpensive or free.
Next, let’s stop hiring designers if they can’t demonstrate more than a set of methods or a rote process. I have seen so, so many companies turning to these quick programs for volume, simply because they are scaling their teams quickly. As leaders, we can control growth. We can push back on our business as they ask for more, faster. We can grow carefully and methodically. We can interview with more precision. We can question portfolio decisions in-depth. We can push the educational market to change their offerings to match placement needs. If there’s demand for a designer who has a certain set of skills, then vocational programs will educate students to have those skills. Industry should drive these skill-based programs, not the other way around, and when we look around, “we” are “industry.”
We need educational innovation, but not at the expense of quality. Students need the space to develop problem solving strategies. Speed is not in our favor here. Let’s all slow down.