Design Education Sucks (and How to Fix It)

Here’s my thesis: Design education sucks.

Shocking?  not hardly. Not to me. Not to Don Norman, the grand-papa of user-centered design and one half of the Nielsen/Norman group.  His seminal design book, THE DESIGN OF EVERYDAY THINGS, opened my eyes to the impact designers have.  The video above open my eyes to a serious problem with how we train designers and the ‘cult of the expert’.

His main point is that overly specialized designers require a broader skill set (and mind set) to solve today’s complex and multidisciplinary problems.  It made me think of this children’s story about some blind dudes and an elephant. I love the part when they fight at the end – It seems schools only foster this type of thing.

Next point: There are many types of designers.  Papa Norman is talking about Design engineers. And, many people think of a graphic artists when you say ‘designer’ without adjective.  Let me offer up Tim Brown’s “Design Thinking” article from the Harvard Business Review and the idea of a designer as a ‘design thinker’.

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb... and much more.

Design Thinking – Harvard Business Review

Edison’s approach was an early example of what is now called “design thinking”—a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.

Many people believe that Edison’s greatest invention was the modern R&D laboratory and methods of experimental investigation. Edison wasn’t a narrowly specialized scientist but a broad generalist with a shrewd business sense. In his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory he surrounded himself with gifted tinkerers, improvisers, and experimenters. Indeed, he broke the mold of the “lone genius inventor” by creating a team-based approach to innovation.

In this light, designers are innovators focused on solving problems.  Our school system churns out ‘narrowly specialized scientists’, but what about the ‘broad generalist’, ‘gifted tinkerers, improvisers, and experimenters.’  These skills aren’t taught. And, are only learned in spite of the dominant  institutions of society.

How to fix it

Brown talks about the personality traits of a design thinker and I would optimize my school to produce these traits:

  • Empathy: able to see the world from multiple perspectives.  You don’t have to go overseas to get this.  5th graders should serve at a soup kitchen.  I did and I remember it to this day.
  • Integrative thinking: able to problem solve in a creative way.
  • Optimism: able to deal with challenges and maintain a positive outlook
  • Experimentation: able to test and explore problems.  The focus should be on questions and vision, rather than answers and compliance.
  • Collaboration: able to thrive as a member of a diverse team.

People with these skills and traits are the people I want to work with and I want building my stuff.  Schools COULD do more to nurture these qualities.  I just wish they would STOP doing things to stamp them out.

Read Seth Godin’s ‘Stop stealing dreams’ if you are interested in defining the general problems with school and Paul Boag’s post “Web Design Education Sucks” gives some practical advice for fixing design education.


There you have it. A short post about design and education without me becoming enraged or using curse words.  Sadly, this is an emotional topic for me.  My schooling was crazy beautiful, but far from typical.  Yep, I’ve been in school for 20 of my 40 years.  I’ve got some scars (cough Bonnie Helgate 10th grade English teacher cough B@#$@ cough) and I’ve got some badges of honor ( too many to choose one)

I’d be interested to know about your design education experience.

  • What experiences do you have with Tim Brown’s Design Thinkers traits?
  • What would your design school look like?
  • How would you defend design schools?
  • What are the signs of improvement?

Let me know in the comments below.

One comment on “Design Education Sucks (and How to Fix It)

  1. Hi there! This blog post couldn’t be written much better! Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept preaching about this. I’ll forward this
    article to him. Fairly certain he will have a great read. Many thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply