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.

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

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