The threat of ‘ignorant’ designers

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

“Ignorant designers have been singled out as one of the biggest obstacles facing design last week by one of the leading commentators on design and innovation in the US, Bruce Nussbaum.

In a keynote speech given at the Royal College of Art’s annual Innovation Night on Tuesday last week, the assistant managing editor of Business Week concluded by saying, ‘The two biggest barriers to innovation are ignorant chief executives and ignorant designers’.
Nussbaum suggested that undergraduate designers need to expose themselves to the tangible, everyday challenges facing the outside world, rather than rely solely on abstract, college-based learning.

He went on to say that design, innovation and technology are merging at such speed that it is pointless to try to classify disciplines.

‘You may as well call [the phenomenon] a banana,’ Nussbaum says.

Speaking to an audience comprising design practitioners, academics, students and the media, Nussbaum reiterated some of the prominent issues affecting design and innovation, as well as social trends that influence global business, including sustainability and social networking.

The US business community, he says, still associates design with cosmetic change, rather than practical problem-solving, technology and innovation.

‘This is something that needs to change. Design is ‘the’ way of reaching the consumer populace,’ he says.

(Via Design Week.)

The irony is, I think most design ‘academics’ have been pushing to diversify courses beyond the simple studio aesthetic approach for years, but ‘industry’ pushes us back to it. So long as cultural studies and ‘theory’ are separated out and given a 20% weighting against ‘practical’ work, we’re never going to produce the sort of designers we need. So long as students only get an hour and a half a week of teaching about the issues surrounding design, but no opportunity to develop their understanding in the studio, we will continue to produce ‘ignorant’ designers.

A little aside: last year I was invited to give a talk to students at a well-known university that did very well at last week’s D&AD Awards. In it I said designers need to be polymaths, and that design students need to stop reading Creative Review (designers’ porn) and start reading a decent newspaper. I posed a question – this was November last year, just before the US midterms:

“The art director at The Guardian calls you up and says he needs a graphic to accompany a story on the US midterms. Do you a) say ‘the what?’, b) say ‘OK’ then go look it up on Wikipedia or c) say ‘No problem, I know exactly what’s going on’.”

Half the students put their hands up to option a. The other half put their hands up to option b. Only one student put his hand up to option c, but when challenged actually didn’t know what the midterms were.

Given that these were graphic design students at one of the leading graphic design schools in the world (according to its reputation), never mind the UK, it was a little embarrassing.

This isn’t ‘abstract knowledge’ – it’s bread and butter to graphic designers. And it isn’t even knowledge that has to be taught – I’m not advocating weekly lectures on the world’s news. I simply think design students should read newspapers, watch the news, think about the world and how design operates in it beyond the shallow way it’s represented in most of the design press.

It’s a state of mind – the idea that being interested in the world is ‘a good thing’ should be a core value of any degree level course. It should permeate every aspect of it. And I don’t think it does in many design courses. We don’t reward students who know stuff, we reward those who can do stuff. If anyone says that’s okay then I’ve got a folder full of Photoshop Actions that are all due degrees.

Reading some of the early documents from Creative and Cultural Skills, for example, it’s clear that there’s a suspicion of ‘academic’ learning in the industry that sees colleges as employee producers. Academics are seen as ‘out of touch’ and there’s a call for more practitioners to teach (more? The vast majority of teachers in design are practitioners!). But surely that just turns courses into critique-based masterclasses focused on art direction? When Nussbaum says “undergraduate designers need to expose themselves to the tangible, everyday challenges facing the outside world, rather than rely solely on abstract, college-based learning” does he mean more social studies, more ‘theory’, more cultural and political awareness, more ecology, and less skills-based learning?

I suspect he does and I agree with him. After all, there are plenty of step-by-step books and magazines available if you want to learn Photoshop. You don’t need a degree to be an artworker. (And you shouldn’t employ a graduate if all you need is an artworker. The role of industry in encouraging an unnecessary growth in design degrees is something they fail to acknowledge.)

We need to be clearer about what we mean when we call design education ‘degree level’ and not be ashamed to ramp up the ‘academic’ content of courses. ‘Academic’ does not equal ‘abstract’.

But Nussbaum needs to know that he isn’t the first to say these things and that some of us are trying. I wish someone would give a speech praising some design education rather than lumping it all together and calling it crap. It really pisses me off to be labelled like that.

Reading his comments, and those in C&CS publications among others, it’s obvious that the problematic term is ‘academics’ which seems to take in everyone from technicians to researchers. This is not one homogenous group but a collection of tribes, each with their own territory and traditions (just like the design industry, in fact!) Debates like this need to be clearer in their terminology because one group will read the criticism of ‘abstract, college-based learning’ as a call for less theory and more ‘real-world experience’ (i.e. an industry, skills-based focus), while another (including me) will read it as a call for less of an industry focus and more of an industry changing focus.

It’s a subtle difference when you write it down – a major difference philosphically.

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