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Blow Up the Design School! Part 2
Rah! Rah! Sis! Boom! Bah!

by DK Holland

Ric Grefé, a leader in the design profession and executive director of AIGA, says, “What is new for schools is the requirement that designers have competencies in understanding problems. The design education system has been geared towards technique and skill–not ‘How do I under-stand a complex problem?’”

The stagnation of salaries represents the low value generally placed on tradesmen. Higher salaries are reserved for the rare creative professional who commands it. Grefé says, “You have kids who come in as fetishists—you teach them how to use the tools but if you don't get a chance to teach them design in context of the real world, they will not become valued professionals. Globalism. Cultures. Authenticity. User empathy. Collaboration. Sustainability. Ethnographic research. All these are challenges, and none relate to the designer as tradesman.”

Louise Sandhaus teaches in the Graphic Design Program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and is also chair of the AIGA Design Educators Community steering committee. She says, “Graphic design is an essential competency for everyone in every discipline now. And, if everyone designs, education needs to consider the particular and distinct contributions a professional designer brings to the table.” She adds, “A major factor is that the conditions for engaging with information have changed. When I started my career in the 1970s, design was advertising, books, publications, annual reports. There were more known factors: limited audiences, limited sizes and limited means of reproduction. This was, of course, back before ubiquitous media. That’s what’s changed. The factors that designers now need to consider are so much broader, which means there are also many more possibilities for designers to bring value.” And that changes everything.

AIGA sensed this seismic shift was coming. Grefé says, “We negotiated a research program with Adobe in 1996 because we felt it was critical to define the designer of 2015, to guide the profession as well as education.”

Having assessed the situation, the AIGA Design Educators Community6 (made up of design educators from an array of schools across the country) is now asking, “How do we provoke change?” One way is to spell out what schools think designers should know upon graduation. An objective survey of experts and 2,500 members (conducted by Adobe with leadership from AIGA) shows that while the age-old skillsets of type, color, layout still top the list, a number of encouraging trends are surfacing that place the values of the future in front of the class of 2015.7

The Designer of 2015

The following core competencies were taken from current objective research surveyed/conducted by the AIGA Design Educators Community (in partnership with Adobe) based on the response they received from 2,500 members and other experts. Note: shown in descending order of importance.

1. Ability to create and develop visual response to communication problems, including understanding of hierarchy, typography, aesthetics, composition and construction of meaningful images.
2. Ability to solve communication problems including identifying the problem, researching, analysis, solution generating, prototyping, user testing and outcome evaluation.
3. Broad understanding of issues related to the cognitive, social, cultural, technological and economic contexts for design.
4. Ability to respond to audience contexts recognizing physical, cognitive, cultural and social human factors that shape design decisions.
5. Understanding of and ability to utilize tools and technology.
6. Ability to be flexible, nimble and dynamic in practice.
7. Management and communication skills necessary to function productively in large interdisciplinary teams and “flat” organizational structures.
8. Understanding of how systems behave and aspects that contribute to sustainable products, strategies and practices.
9. Ability to construct verbal arguments for solutions that address diverse users/audiences; lifespan issues; and business/organizational operations.
10. Ability to work in a global environment with understanding of cultural preservation.
11. Ability to collaborate productively in large interdisciplinary teams.
12. Understanding of ethics in practice. 13. Understanding of nested items including cause and effect; ability to develop project evaluation criteria that account for audience and context.

Are teachers rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic if they focus too much on type and layout? Are some schools stuck in a trench they can't get out of? Melissa Sydeman of the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco observes, “The first five competencies of AIGA’s survey seem more tangible and therefore verifiable. The last eight are more abstract and harder to teach or to determine if the students have mastered them.” The less tangible, the less important?

Do design schools teach to the test? Although the US Department of Education keeps track of accredited post secondary schools, accreditation is not a requirement. Regardless, schools generally work with accrediting agencies to confirm their integrity. In the case of design schools, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) often provides this evaluation. In the case of colleges and universities, either a national accrediting agency or a regional accreditor certifies schools. If a school loses its accreditation, it is in big trouble. The school and students may lose funding opportunities, or, worst case, the school’s status could plunge into oblivion as its degrees become worthless.

Accreditation (which, besides curricula, includes basic infrastructure questions like safety and facilities) for a design school is based mainly on the status quo. For instance, if most design schools were to offer basket weaving (and that were seen as normal), then NASAD might think that’s just dandy. So hypothetically, if only a few schools were to offer design thinking but not basket weaving, then the accrediting agency may question “Where’s the basket weaving course?”

Design education is a motley array of approximately 2,600 design programs in community colleges, colleges, art schools and universities in the United States. In any case, during evaluation, a team (which includes a topic expert typically a professor or official from another design school who volunteers to help) comes through and observes what is being taught in the school, reviews syllabi and teaching credentials, student work. Sydeman is the compliance officer for regional accreditation for AAU. She says, “Accrediting agencies don’t drive changes in what students learn. They are checking whether students are learning what the school thinks they should-since most schools are in agreement on what the necessary skills are—the accreditors are in fact reaffirming the general agreement, the status quo. If NASAD saw a change in outcomes in enough schools, they would expect to see it in all schools.” With all its flaws, at least NASAD provides a necessary system of checks and balances, some order to the chaos. Regardless, Irwin remarks, “Both the school of art and the school of design here at CMU are questioning the relevance of NASAD, especially in terms of their criteria for accreditation.” Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.