The problem with design education

A recent report by designer and university lecturer Lara Furniss highlights the gap between design education and design practice. Here, for CR, she lays out the problems she discovered and what some solutions might be.

Seif AlHasani

Furniss has spoken to key designers and figures in the design world including Thomas Heatherwick, Ron Arad, Punchdrunk, Jason Bruges Studio, Assemble, Nat Hunter, Tim Lindsay, and Lynda Relph-Knight to gauge how design practice and design education are evolving.

In the following text, she identifies a certain set of skills common to all successful studios – including agility, iteration, collaboration, embracing failure, taking risks, and having transferable skills – which are currently all difficult to experience within design courses at university. She then suggests how universities can better embrace these skills – and also explains why it is vital to the industry that they do. But to open, she lays out the case in bald terms of why UK design education is currently failing.

Why is undergraduate design education not working?

Government policy on creative education is a key driver in why undergraduate education is not working, writes Lara Furniss. Negative impact on creative education, particularly at secondary level, is already being seen, with creative subjects either being cut or regarded as inferior. This then impacts on students entering higher education. With less exposure to creative subjects before higher education, new students have less design knowledge, while still being expected to choose one specific discipline and career path.

The introduction of higher fees has turned universities into financial institutions, with many knock-on effects. The biggest challenge within studios is how to maintain a unique creative process and grow at the same time. Yet universities are insisting on growth of student numbers to meet financial targets, which restricts creative teaching methods. When students face taking on such debt they, understandably, want reassurance that they will get a job at the end. The easiest way to give this reassurance is to clearly label the ‘tin’ that they are buying. This perpetuates the one-discipline structure, when there is no guarantee that the ‘tin’ will even exist in five years time.

University systems are another driver in why undergraduate education is not working. It is difficult to teach an ever-evolving practice within a rigid university system that is more likely designed for health or law. Use of space is a key example. Space plays a major role in the studios, with the workshop always at the heart. To work in a truly agile, iterative, collaborative way, universities need to replicate this by physically bringing students together. The easiest way to break down disciplinary barriers and encourage transferrable skills is to place architects next to fashion designers next to metal workers next to computer illustrators. But space in universities is usually segregated and at a premium, with departments fighting for room bookings and students hot-desking.

The need for agility

Working in an agile way is a key characteristic of all the studios I spoke to. They are not pinned down by rules or conventions and are flexible and fluid in their methods. For studio members, breaking the rules during their time in education was also a key driver. Members describe creating the education they wanted for themselves rather than accepting what was on offer. For example, going on long periods of work placement when they were supposed to be in university, or taking on ten roles in a project when they were expected to only choose one and were only assessed for one.

Universities revolve around outdated prescriptive rules which make student agility difficult. Because students are paying so much for their education, they have little confidence to break rules. Also, when degree courses are only revalidated and redesigned once every four years, it is almost impossible for them to be agile and keep up with industry’s constant role re-definition, process re-invention, and evolution.

If at first you don’t succeed

Rigorous questioning and iteration, going back to the beginning again and again to perfect the end result, is another common part of the creative process of design studios. It requires a considerable amount of extra time, which is worked into schedules. With restricted university deadlines and modular structures, students can only iterate for so long before having to fix on a solution and move on to the next project. Rigorous questioning, reworking and testing are also more difficult when students don’t have a real client or audience.

Collaboration

Real design studios simply cannot function without intense, constant internal and external collaboration. Collaboration happens at university, but it is usually confined to the same course or department. Challenges include meeting the assessment criteria and restricted timetabling.

Embracing failure and taking risks

Research and development plays a critical role in studios, enabling exploration of new ideas, taking risks and making mistakes. They see the value in failure and believe making mistakes is how you learn best. Students see no value in failing and making mistakes as their prior education has been all about succeeding. When fees are so high, breaking down that inherent pressure to succeed is a challenge.

Not being defined by discipline

Ask design studio members to define themselves and their studios and most will take a deep breath, as what they do is not easy to define. Their work is not neatly compartmentalised into one clearly defined discipline. Our undergraduate education system is based on restrictive siloes, and the dividing walls are both physically and psychologically difficult to break down.

Transferrable skills

No two projects are ever the same in studios, and members’ skills are constantly shifting from one creative challenge to another. It is vital for students to understand that their developing creative skills and design thinking can transfer not only between disciplines, but also beyond design into other sectors. To achieve this the goals set within universities need to break the silo walls with briefs posing issues-based problems rather than discipline-focused solutions.

So what are best ways into the industry for students who eventually want to work in design?

Life in the 21st century is dependent on young people choosing design education, as creative people are needed to solve life’s problems. To enter the industry, apply for courses with broad ranging models that better reflect the skills and processes needed to meet the challenges of the coming decades. Independent art schools are more agile and not constrained by rigid university systems. Europe offers cheaper university fees for many courses that better reflect 21st century design practice. Explore alternative creative opportunities, join local creative groups or workshops, volunteer with creative studios, makers and organisations.

Keep being creative.

Lara Furniss’s report, titled Beyond Discipline: Design Practice and Design Education in the 21st Century, can be read in full online here.

Illustration by Seif AlHasani, seifalhasani.com

  • noel douglas

    A good piece, and what looks like an interesting report thanks Lara. We currently are in a very worrying situation for art and design in this country because of the perfect storm the Tories have created of privatised students and the undermining of the arts at school and foundation level.

  • Graham Wood
  • Very good piece to summarize the wrong about the educational system. I believe the creative areas are the first to feel this need of rupture with the traditional system but soon every other area of knowledge will follow.

    The key problem here is to try to teach a student to be creative and prepare himself for a past-pacing ever-changing world, while resourcing to a system that dates back to the industrial revolution. We do not need to format minds anymore but rather to make them adaptable and permeable.

  • Cameron

    My 3 year bachelors in visual communications could have been self taught using a platform like skillshare or youtube.
    The main problem for me is that you are not prepared for the ‘real world’. Graduation feels like the point where you are left out to pasture, and if you’re not pro-active enough, or experienced enough to build your own network, you’re lost.

    After my studies in England, I moved to Sweden and studied the interactive art director programme at Hyper Island in Stockholm. This is what made me real-world-ready. Modules are tailored and mentored by leaders in industry, allowing you to build connections and work on real briefs for clients such as spotify, skype, hyundai etc. As well as the end of the course being a mandatory three month internship, to get some experience in a real-world setting.

    With importance not being placed just on craft, but other valuables skills such as collaboration, feedback, presentation techniques, body language workshops, you receive a much more holistic experience.

  • georgia

    I left school and I went straight into work, doing a creative and digital media apprenticeship at an established media agency (Starcom MediaVest Group) rather than going to university. Almost everyone who has spoken to me about my progress in the workplace has told me that I have made a more impactful decision as I am getting real-world experience.

    I have always believed that the education system with regards to university has become saturated and this article proves exactly why.
    There are certain jobs where yes, a degree is necessary, however for those who want to work in the creative sector, a degree is not vital and experience is much more valuable.
    Setting up courses at universities which cater to everyone’s ability is purely a way for the government to make money and these courses will not make it easier for creative uni graduates to get a job at the end of their degree.

  • Graham Wood

    conceptual), and people like Vaughn Oliver and Peter Saville, as well as a commitment to a sense of personal expression . . . at the very least, the feeling of a thing; this didn’t/doesn’t eschew analysis, reasoning, but the point is it doesn’t stop there. College was a fantastic, heart opening experiences, and the sheer energy of that experience stays with me.

    Now, however: my impression is that, at this moment in commercial arts education, the well has run dry, mainly because everyone is visiting the same well. ‘Smart’ decisions, strategically cogent, with a firm eye on economics and a thorough understanding of one’s place in the pecking order. A sort of desperate symbiosis with Industry as it is now, rather than a self-sufficient invention of now and the future. Aesthetics and emotion are a layer, if present at all. No sense of the past, present or future, just a kind of ultra-conservative stasis. MIred in slick. Moan a bit, but only at lunch or down the pub. External competitions. Do all of the D&AD briefs. This is possibly one of the single most damaging aspects of education—the subtle enforcement of homgenisation by industry. Dangling the carrot while the lobotomy is carried out. An excuse for colleges to absolve themselves of responsiblity . . . no, even worse, of personality. At a point when students ought to pursuing their own tangents, journeys, wanderings comes the leaden drear of the D&AD brief. The sound of the bucket rattling at the bottom of the dry well. Believe the buzz and the words. But most of all don’t rock the boat. That’s my impression of the main ‘skill’ being taught at the moment—don’t rock the boat. “They told me.” “We had to . . .” Toe the line.

    i mention this stuff because it seems to be about alienation, but a kind of autonomously sought and deliberate alienation, unlike that of the punks, for example, who felt and were rejected by society but were most certainly not victims and with a remit to create even though they said ‘destroy’: this contemporary alienation is a perverse one—a childish refusal rather than a rejection by an atrophied state. an alienation by becoming wilfully bland, voiceless, disappearing whilst simultaneously exuding a cloying, demanding need . . . i remember it clearly: a drawing class on foundation course. previously we had been introduced to grids. the greyscale. hand rendering. the drawing class was a little looser, to do with landscape. one class had us drawing layers of soil, undergrowth. this time, the tutor asked us to look at the window, at the view outside, at the room surrounding the window, but to imagine what we were seeing as flat, not dimensional. this changed the way i saw the world. from one moment to the next, i went from being an observer of the things around—outside—me, passively looking: to seeing. suddenly i could see the interrelationship of things. lines intersecting. shapes overlapping, interrupting. shapes and shade. structure, pattern, form. the drama of form. in the world. in myself. no longer just outside. everywhere. the expressive world. tension. drift. emotion. light. i remember other moments.

    i remember a 12 inch record label, the label for Pearly Dewdrops Drops by The Cocteau Twins. it felt like my glimpse was slipping; like i couldn’t see it because i didn’t know what it was. i didn’t know how to see it. i felt like i had been handed the means with which i could always make something: beyond ‘inspiration’, this was innate. it had become part of me. more, even, than reflex. as if some exchange had taken place. a change of state. because one person suggested i look out a window. Toe the line. What could be done? Simple things. Communality. Making the college studio the heart of things. Humanities. Bringing all of culture to bear as far as as possible on every situation, not just those elements of culture that have a seemingly ‘direct’ relationship to the thing at hand. This is how industry mostly works—go to the D&AD annual to make something—and it’s drinking its own piss. Independence/self-determination. Let the student and their work create the course (the path). Emphasise the importance of realising why one is at college, and work as hard as possible to gather the things one needs to create ones own space, thing, company, studio, collective etc when the time comes to leave college and keep on going (there is no real world—it’s what you make it). Practical. Using time and resources as working tools: limiting both, expanding both, changing both . . . Space. Spaces to think, spaces for chaos. And so on. Time. Ultimately, the one true thing college allows is time. Time to think, to play, to question, to experience, to understand, to make . . . continually impress this as the heart of the course. Interconnection.

    Work/life/play/art/college/studio/street/world/mind/heart/work . . . not student. (BIG FULL STOP). Real World. (SCARY BECAUSE WE SAY). Forget your dreams (because we said Real World.) This is so deeply dispiriting and is probably the single cause of the flat grey landscape of commercial arts today. Be a monster. Provoke. Fuck it up. Question. Subvert. Think. Express. Follow your own map. Most of all—make things. Never stop. It’s art school motherfuckers. Like inhaling a facefull of scalding imagination. Forever.

  • Sofa_Surfa

    My observation is the fact most designers can’t draw; and no doubt this is due to the fact art teachers can’t either, and HE lecturers avoid the subject completely and head for the keyboards. I was invited to oversee a life drawing class in a well known clerkenwell based furniture design company. Designers all sat around on nice posh designer chairs of various styles and sizes staring at the nude and produced some of the most shockingly poor figure drawings I have ever seen. Not even worthy of a GCSE students first term output. My brief was not to teach anything, just to ensure everyone had a good evening. It ended or course with said designers in a huddle over the nibbles in the kitchen afterwards…but I kept thinking of how far talent has gone backwards since the renaissance.

  • Karol Wilczynska

    Lara Furniss’s report describes the situation in the UK. In New Zealand AUT University is a place of change, and on the Communication Design undergraduate degree, academics and designers like myself are reviewing the relationship between education and the design industry. The areas mentioned by Lara, that of “including agility, iteration, collaboration, embracing failure, taking risks, and having transferable skills” are well developed and have been over the past 5 years within the School of Art and Design. Though industry elders may or may not necessarily agree with the timeframe within the academic year, course curriculum must work with industry to offer greater versatility that encourages change within education by staff, to enable students be confident when embarking on a creative career.

    It is not a simple task to change a course, it is a massive undertaking that requires dedicated academics who work in both education and different design fields. Communication Design is a creative process of visually communicating ideas and messages. This includes the analysis, organisation and presentation of visual solutions for clients’ communication problems and as one industry person has told me, “falling in love with the problem” – a process that requires wide-ranging intellectual, technical and creative input.

    How to encourage the reduction of distraction and grow the power of observation, build into any conversation to listen, for aspiring designers who must discover for themselves the client’s world of design, and falling in love with what is created, which allows the client to discover… “oh I would never think of doing that!” to the final ideas. Sometimes it is very simple, but takes time to develop. That is the aspect to remember…. it takes time.

  • Adam Procter

    Unfortunately this article is not really the same as the report, which is a series of interviews with design practitioners and some light recommendations on education but is instead (8months later) translated into a sweeping generalisation of UK Design Education with commentary that does not reflect the Higher Education I see. There are a few valid points on fees and commercialisation of education but they almost dont connect with the rest of the article. Those interviewed whom I hold in high regard are not directly involved with teaching HE Design education and so this and the report is unbalanced and thus poor journalism and certainly not in my mind rigorous research.

    I am pleased to say the concepts and recommendations in this article and the report have long been in place at Winchester School of Art. The Games Design & Art course I have been programme leader of for the last few years has set out to create an agile curricular that embraces failure, collaboration, cross disciplinary working practice and transferable skills. If the author or any of those interviewed would like to talk to colleagues or myself further and see this in action we have a number of events coming up in Winchester, Southampton and London from our BA students in May, June and July.