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

by DK Holland

All US schools start out with a handicap, Sydeman says candidly, “The state of our high schools presents a major impediment for design schools: To get students to think critically in college is a huge challenge. It can require a somewhat remedial approach, especially in analytical thinking, grammar, etc.”

If you can get out of high school, you can get into an open admissions design school, many of which are for profit. The financial model: Huge enrollments allow for lower tuition and/or greater facilities. AAU, founded in 1929, has 18,000 students (by comparison, Pratt Institute in New York City has 4,700). It is a “for profit” school started, owned and still run by the Stephens family. Its tuition is almost half of many nonprofit design schools. Phil Hamlett, who is the graduate director of the school of graphic design, says the AAU philosophy is simple, “We feel if you want to get an education in design, we want to give you that chance.” Sydeman says the school’s reputation is: “It’s easy to get in, tough to graduate.” Hamlett adds, “We can be much more nimble and respond to the marketplace, to changes in the design field. If I want to alter my curriculum, I just do it. More conventionally run schools may require reviews, curriculum boards, it’s like getting a bill through Congress. We’re not invested in the way things are, we are invested in the way things are going to be.”

He adds, “Most of our students are AIGA members and so they know what’s going on. And our students are very vocal. We have town hall meetings every semester where we recalibrate what we're doing based on their feedback and the changing field. We’re also asking professionals what our students should be taught that they aren't. It’s pretty organic and it works.”

This all sounds great but “for profit” schools don’t have to disclose how they make or how they spend their money. So there’s less transparency than nonprofits (whose status protects against abuse) and so there are some bad actors just out to make a killing. The size of some “for profit” schools slap them with the pejorative label “factory schools.”

Regardless, in order to truly affect change, design schools themselves have to match or beat the standards of the workplace. That goes far beyond the role of accreditation.

There is no reliable ranking system for design schools or designers in the United States8, similarly, the profession has no licensing of designers. And design professors do not have education degrees. So a lot is left to chance: When determining if a designer is qualified to take on a project or if a school is worthy of a student, in a lot of ways, it’s a crapshoot. There is no Consumer Reports of design schools or designers anywhere. And, probably, that is a good thing since in America our inherent laissez-faire capitalist attitude is meant to nurture competition and innovation. So what causes design schools to conform and stagnate?

“Standards are a floor not a ceiling.” Grefé says, “There are grave concerns about the schools. AIGA, which works towards the highest and best use of the design mind, and has 12,000 student members, has to consider what future is being created for them.”

In Europe, the approach to education standards is much more uniform than the United States. The 1999 Bologna Accord, which 47 countries developed and ultimately signed onto, says design degrees should require a five-year program.

Cameron Tonkinwise, associate dean of sustainability at Parsons the New School for Design, says, “3 + 2 is replacing a four-year bachelor’s in the Accord, in that it declares that a bachelor’s is not sufficient to qualify anyone to be a professional, even if it is earned in four years. By implication, 3 + 2 is replacing 4 (BFA) + 2 (MFA) in that the Europeans (and Australians) are attaining what the Americans call a ‘terminal degree’ in only five years (though Bologna also standardizes a subsequent third-year PhD as the proper terminus). Then again, it is sometimes argued that given the comparative poverty of us high school education, in America the foundation year of design school should, in fact, be considered a repeat of the final year of high school, which would push the American terminus degree program back up to six years—1 + 3 + 2 (foundation + bachelor's + master's).”

Tonkinwise adds, “With globalization and the rise of BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), I would think it imperative that US design schools stop perpetuating erroneous neo-con US ‘exceptionalism’ attitudes and start to conform to international standards to facilitate cross-cultural learning. Type Bologna into NASAD’s search and you get ‘no results.’ Type Bologna into AIGA’s search and you get a list of designers from, or events in the town of.”

The goal of any prison is to maintain control. Prisons are therefore designed so that prisoners cannot see each other when they are in their cells. If they could see each other, they could blow up the prison and make a run for it. Until the Internet, we were all, to some degree, prisoners. Now we have Twitter, Facebook, endless blogs. Citizens in authoritarian countries organize sophisticated revolutions, change the course of history. No problem. Think Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Wisconsin and God only knows where else before this article is published.

Students, in the same vein, are ultimately disenfranchised citizens: They pay a lot but have little control or recourse over what they get.

Back in the late ’60s when I was a student at Parsons, we didn’t know what it was like at RISD, Art Center or even Pratt (just five miles away). We asked our teachers what we should do and they said, “It’s all the same. It’s all hopeless.” So we gave up hope. If you can’t be radical as a student, when can you be? Time to start a revolution. If you haven’t already, consider blowing up your design school. CA

Author’s note: Thanks to John Waters, chair of graphic design at SCAD for inviting me to attend Design Ethos last fall at SCAD, which inspired these two articles and more.

1    Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Millennials (born 1982–1992) each represent about one quarter of the total population of the United States.
2    AIGA Salary Survey.
3    Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory, 2003.
6    The Design Educators Community was developed by AIGA in the mid 1990s, after the National Design Educators Association and American Center for Design faltered.
8    Malcolm Gladwell, "The Order of Things," New Yorker, Feb 14, 2011. 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.