Some thoughts on thoughts on design school

Last week, a current student at the school where I teach wrote a thoughtful blog post about her perspective on the design school experience entitled 'A glimpse into what it’s like in a classroom at design school'. It was thought-provoking, well reasoned and reflective.

Though Femke is clear her post focuses on the parts of her design school experience that could be improved upon, I'll admit to a knee-jerk 'that's not how I see it' reaction. In the few seconds it took me to get over that, I thought it might be helpful to offer a different perspective.

Before I start, as John Oliver (and my esteemed colleague Karl), are fond of saying: there are hats. In this case, metaphorical ones, and I myself have several. I have my newly official position as a lecturer at Massey hat; my Senior Designer at Open Lab hat; my own experience from the undergraduate and Masters programmes at Massey hat; and I have my 'life before design' hat (or collection thereof). To be clear, this post is firmly about the latter. It doesn't reflect the views of Massey or Open Lab, their staff, or their policies. It's a personal hat, and I'll gladly wear it to have face-to-face conversations with anyone who's interested in hearing more on my perspective (just tweet me).

On a university education: what's the point?

Like Femke, I had an academic life before design school. I have a degree in geography, and came to design school after a meandering career in the not-for-profit sector. I had found myself managing websites and information, and I was interested in how design could facilitate better access to knowledge. This led me to Massey's design school, from which I graduated with an MDes last year, having sat papers in the very same programme as Femke a few years ago. So my experience on the student side of the fence is pretty recent.

Unlike Femke though, it's well over a decade since I left university for the first time, and since then I have thought about the purpose of a university education a lot. With a few years of reflection, some of the things that seemed a little pointless at the time have proved to be the most enduring. For instance, I took a paper on the philosophy of science, and at the time I regarded it in the same way as I know many students at Massey see the theory papers they sit (trust me, it is worth getting your head around Modernism and Postmodernism!).

In hindsight though, theoretical frameworks for understanding matter a lot. The historical context of why and how we do what we do are profoundly important (when you mimic a historical design, it helps to know the backstory!). It took me a while to realise the value of university, and it colours my perspective on a few of Femke's points. University is not polytech. It's not about preparing you for the workplace. It's about building your ability to think critically, laterally, dynamically; to build empathy for other perspectives. About how to solve problems, and work things out for yourself. That goes for all academic study (or should), but above everything else I learned at design school, the process of design thinking is the fundamental point of difference – not just the 'how' of using Photoshop and family, but a design methodology with the 'why?' questions of design as well. OK, now I've laboured my point on the importance of university, let me consider it in relation to Femke's points:

1. None of the briefs are real

Apart from the fact that some of them are (more on that in a moment), design school is a 'safe space' to develop ideas, unencumbered by having to address client needs. All those fundamental design principles you learn – the posters employing metaphor, rhetorical devices, persuasive visual techniques – I needed to do that within a classroom setting so I could unselfconsciously experiment. Sometimes, you have to suspend your disbelief and roll with it, reflect on it, and take what learnings you can. My partner is in architecture school. Did he start on day one with designing buildings that could actually work in the real world? No way. He started by learning fundamental creative skills that sometimes feel stupid (especially to a highly rational engineer), but give it a while, and it will make sense why you went through the process.

Designing an app to help in the aftermath of a disaster might sound bonkers, but frequently we see digital communication providing a vital link after a disaster (and yes, barring the apocalypse, mobile networks can be resurrected reasonably quickly. There are countless examples of this being the case with Christchurch). And anyway, just because the scenario is hypothetical, doesn't mean the skills you'll be developing (UX, user journey mapping, rhetorically appropriate aesthetics, and above all building empathy for users) are any less valuable.

In terms of 'real' briefs, Femke raises the point that sometimes there are real clients, and they get a load of work for free. But it's not as simple as the client getting a big freebie from the students. Take the Creative Enterprise paper as an example. The clients take the time to come in to explain their need, to provide critique and feedback, to mentor students. They do this regardless of whether they get a usable outcome. It's a very carefully managed process. I know we've had projects developed through Creative Enterprise that have become 'real' via transitioning to Open Lab where students have developed their ideas, and have been paid. As an undergrad, Open Lab put me in the room with real clients for the first time, and man, it was different. I value that experience hugely.

Oh and if in doubt, take Jessica Hische's advice...

2. The school encourages 'working for free' or 'working for exposure'

'Don't work for anyone who doesn't value your skills, full stop. You always have the autonomy to say 'thanks, but no thanks' wherever you see the job advertised or whoever suggested it.

But, don't rule out the value of working for practice, exposure or experience with small or no monetary compensation. Even big law firms run pro-bono programmes to support causes they believe in (or because they know the exposure will reap rewards in the long run). It is perfectly legitimate to work for free for a cause you want to support or donate to, a relationship you want to build (that may in turn become a 'paying gig') or because you want to add something unique to your portfolio. There's a huge difference between doing a freebie for a community group, versus working for free for a company that can afford to pay. I think most staff know the difference and would draw the line at giving advertising to a spurious 'design competition', but if something is inappropriate, put your hand up and question it. Deciding where your ethical boundaries are on the 'working for free, and for whom' question are valuable skills.

Part of the reason Massey established Open Lab was to offer students a bridge between the theoretical briefs of the classroom and the real world of client briefs. Central to the philosophy is that design has value, and students get paid for the hours they work (or occasionally a fixed amount for a project). Personally, as a student I found it a hugely valuable experience to be mentored through my first few 'real' design jobs. Any Massey students who are interested, definitely stick your head round the door of Studio C in Te Ara Hihiko! ([note: subsequently Open Lab have moved to BizDojo on Tory Street].

3. Students don’t refine their skills outside of the classroom

Yup, some truth to this. You may as well work as hard as you can while you have the facilities and staff available to you. Equally though, it's not all about design, and definitely not all about becoming a Photoshop god. University is a time to become informed more generally. Read the news, read Naomi Klein, read outside our design-world bubble. And seriously, don't pull all-nighters! Have a life beyond. You'll be a better designer for it, and you might spot a problem you think design can fix and make a real difference.

4. Many of my peers don’t keep up with the design industry in the real world

Sure, it pays to stay abreast of technology. But it isn't everything. Platforms come and go (who uses Freehand and Flash now?). Nail the fundamentals. Be a great thinker. Get stuck in. The rest will follow.

5. Agencies aren’t necessarily the end goal, despite them constantly telling you it is

You'll get no argument from me here, nor any of the staff I work with closely. Some of the brightest and best I've seen as peers and students have gone off to work in-house at companies, for social enterprises, into higher study, to work for themselves, or into design within government departments and museums. Don't forget staff are human and we all default to talking about the environments we know and have experienced. 'In the real world' doesn't just mean in an agency. Design and design thinking are applicable way beyond, and most staff appreciate that. I don't think anyone ever said to me I should go work in agency-land. In fact the perception I got from staff was that world was on the wane and I should keep an open mind.

In conclusion...

Femke's final paragraph says: 'I only wish that design school would foster and nurture the passion and love for design by helping us grow, instilling good design values in us and encouraging us to set bigger goals'.

For me, those boxes were ticked, and some. My horizons were expanded (and views challenged) by many thoughtful and brilliant staff. Did I think when I started my design education I would find myself working on projects for local government to make environmental data available and accessible to the public? Designing books for our national museum? Writing a masters thesis on 'good' design? Nope. I probably thought I'd work for an agency. How wrong I was!

I'd like to thank Femke for writing her post. It challenged me to think about the education system I am a part of, and that's a great thing. I look forward to catching up with her (and anyone else) for suggestions about how we can do better.

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