The problem with design education today

Horrible mistakes can be better than successful formulas

Horrible mistakes can be better than successful formulas

David MacGregor


“Cs get degrees.” I kid you not—one of my students looked me square in the eye and said it. “Cs get degrees.” Welcome to slackademia.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked. My observations had, in the main, led me to a belief that most of my class was coasting. Perhaps it’s because I taught papers they were obliged to take: inconceivably dull things like Design Research Methods and Marketing Communications, rather than Postmodernism and Play Doh.

At the beginning of each semester, students received a package of articles and extracts that supported the paper. Good, stout, learned material, some of it very interesting, some comically written in academese. Halfway through the semester another of my brood asked which of the articles she should read. My inclination was to tell her not to bother reading any, as it would be a shame to allow the habits of a lifetime to lapse for something as insignificant as academic inquiry. I have a feeling that had I gone through each copy highlighting random passages, then that would be the sum of their immersion in the topic.

I should say that I have canvassed many creative directors in advertising agencies and design firms about their requirements and expectations of the students who graduate from universities with freshly-minted degrees. Common themes are an ability to collaborate and fit into a team and a willingness to work hard. Few CDs require virtuoso creativity or design genius. Those skills will be acquired in time. All that most ask is that the graduate show promise.

More than one grilled me about the standards at Massey University, where I was teaching. “Are you failing enough?” Now that is an excellent question and one that I would ask of all universities and technical institutes in New Zealand. Are our standards high enough? Should everyone who wants to enter a degree programme be admitted? I think not. I get the feeling the disastrous bums-on-seats policies of tertiary institutions may be on the wane.

I visited the graduation shows for most of the design schools. There was plenty of ‘nice’, loads of copycat orthodoxy, but little to inspire. I can imagine yawning my way through the portfolios of fledgling graduates like choosing wallpaper

This year, there were several areas where students failed—and I’m not referring to conferring a grade on a project or assignment. One of the most prominent was a general lack of enquiry. This alarms me. Most students want to be spoon-fed a purée of information which they will then be able to regurgitate in some form. There was little intellectual exchange between students and me, and little between themselves, partly because they had not equipped themselves with any alternative perspective with which to challenge my view—or anyone else’s.

This doesn’t bode well for the future of design in New Zealand. The problem is that a lack of energetic curiosity leads to dull, dogmatic decoration purporting to be design.

I don’t think this phenomenon is confined to Massey University in Auckland—I visited the graduation shows for most of the design schools. There was plenty of ‘nice’, loads of copycat orthodoxy, but very little to inspire. I can imagine yawning my way through the portfolios of fledgling graduates like choosing wallpaper.

I realise this won’t make me very popular. But I would rather have a smaller, more vibrant group of design graduates who take chances, explore their craft to its limits, make horrible mistakes (and learn something from them) than design poseurs, imitating the latest trend and expecting to be feted for it.

Let’s make our design schools rich rivers that carry nutrients downstream with them to enrich industry. There is no point in reverse-engineering what has already been done in the work world—especially if what is being aped is itself a pastiche. As design educators and evangelists, we have to take up the cudgels and drive students into new challenging areas instead of rewarding pleasantness.

In the words of the late, great Jay Chiat: “Good enough isn’t good enough”. Must try harder.

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