As baby boomers1 (former 1960s radicals, idealistic hippies) start slowing down, the hope is that the new boom generation, the millennials (18- to 28-year-olds, savvy optimists), will rev up and lead us to a bright, new future.
While baby boomers have achieved the highest level of volunteerism in US history, they are also dropping out of the workforce, often not by choice. This may be why a designer (an active member of the Revolutionary Communist Party while in design school) confided in me recently, “I sit in meetings with my younger colleagues and somebody brings up the ’60s. I want to jump in but I zip my lips.” She is not wary of revealing she’s an ex-Commie; she’s terrified to let them know she is over 60.
The experience that comes with age is not always valued in the workplace, especially since salaries have been flat for eight years and good design jobs are highly coveted.2 Research3 shows that the stress of rapid change has taken its toll on the calcified brains of baby boomers as they struggle to keep up with new technology (if in fact they try at all). Since boomers define themselves by their careers, all this has led to a conflicted relationship with the technology that now dominates, indeed has redefined, the professions of graphic design, illustration and photography.
Millennials, on the other hand, are tech-boom babies who cut their teeth on bytes and bits. But while technology is an essential in their design toolbox, they know it has limits. If there’s a ray of hope for us aging professionals, it’s that the wisdom we've gained (which only comes with a diploma from The School of Hard Knocks) is coming back into vogue.
EXIT AND REENTRY Terry Irwin was a senior designer when she left Landor Associates, perhaps then the largest branding agency in the world. The year was 1989. She went on to become a partner in MetaDesign, also a San Francisco-based international branding firm. Frustrated by the ethical compromises she faced in the world of business, 9/11 was the final straw for her, Irwin “sold everything” and left the country to pursue her master's degree in holistic science at Schumacher College in England, studying with revered physicists and deep ecologists as well as environmentalists including Fritjof Capra. But she continued to straddle the professional/academic world on two continents, serving on AIGA’s national board as well as organizing AIGA's 2003 Power of Design Conference4 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Power of Design was meant to start a dialogue with designers about their roles as agents of social change. Ahead of its time, this message was not well-received. For one thing, many established designers did not want to hear they needed to adapt to a changing world: They staked their futures on maintaining the profession's status quo. However, Irwin says, “At the end of every talk I gave, I was deluged with questions from young people wanting more information about how to design differently and about the changes in lifestyle that working this way implied.” This enthusiasm and courage from young designers–their gusto to tackle wicked problems—impressed Irwin.
Fast forward to 2009. Irwin was nestled away in a quaint cottage in the countryside of Scotland, happily married to a fellow professor and PhD researcher, when she was approached by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to become head of the design school. She knew and they knew that she could make a difference by implementing all she had learned and the wisdom she had gained. This opportunity was so unique and appealing, it lured her home.
Irwin’s study of living systems has prompted her to take a longer view. She observes, “Humans (and therefore designers) often rush head-long into solutions based upon new and/or powerful technologies without considering the ramifications: The focus instead is on quick, usually profit-related, results. Designing for society and the environment requires designers to take a longer view. This challenges educators to become co-learners along with their students. At CMU we are increasingly more focused on real-world, place-based solutions that incorporate both social and environmental concerns. Designing this way requires students and faculty to develop: trans-disciplinary collaborative skills, a commitment to lifelong learning, a fundamental understanding of eco-literacy, place-based knowledge as well as a deep understanding of living systems' principles such as emergence, self-organization and diversity.” She adds, “Each course adds elements relevant to the school's new mission.”
CMU design students have helped develop business plans and models that lead to actual implementation. Students work with various museums, community groups–developing new thinking in broad areas. For instance, FitWits5 was developed by a CMU faculty-led student team to strategically communicate the importance of nutrition to disadvantaged families in Pittsburgh’s schools, and online, in a very graphic, engaging way.
Irwin says, “Students are always working on two or three reality-based projects, sponsored by, for instance, Motorola, Microsoft, Nissan.”
Since it’s a university, the tuition is steeper than a design school's ($44,000 a year for a BFA versus $30,000). But CMU grads are highly sought after and Irwin says, “Our job fair, Confluence, is a big event. Starting salary offers range from the mid $40s to $90K for a grad with BFA or masters.” CMU graduates are known for striking a good balance between theory and process and form giving.
DESIGNING SOMETHING BETTERIrwin observes, “As Einstein famously said, ‘You cannot solve problems from within the same mindset that created them.’ And I believe there are two meta-level challenges that we as design educators face: to incorporate knowledge from outside the design disciplines into design curricula (as part of the challenge to re-skill society) and to develop a new ethos, i.e., a more mindful way of being in the world.”
SEISMIC SHIFT Seemingly design students and professors pick projects on a whim, develop it to some degree, present it and then move on, tossing it into ye ole landfill or, at best, filing it away. We need to get away from the dilettante mentality. (Which, like masturbation, is a lot of fun but what are you left with?)
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 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.
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?
NO DESIGNER LEFT BEHINDDo 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.”
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.”
FOR PROFIT OR NOT FOR PROFIT? THAT IS THE QUESTIONIf 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?
UN-AMERICAN?“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.”
REVOLUTION FROM WITHINThe 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. designeducators.aiga.org
8 Malcolm Gladwell, "The Order of Things," New Yorker, Feb 14, 2011.