Nowadays teaching design in non-design schools and to non-design students doesn’t seem as foreign as it may have been 10 or 15 years ago. However, this experience has given me a new understanding of what “being a designer” really means. Some people describe designers as artists or creative minds, and think that anyone could become a designer just by learning technical skills. While this may be true on paper, in practice, being a designer involves much more than just designing.
When design students attend design or art school, they learn a holistic view of design—history, fields, range of projects, skills, terminology, tools, etc. (knowledge)—, work with and are surrounded by peers that speak “the same language” (community), classrooms and spaces have been built in response to designers’ needs—big tables, empty walls, big spaces, nothing fancy (environment)—, and everyday is an opportunity to explore, start all over again and apply theories into practice (experience). Frequently, design students choose this path because they have passion for creating—objects, experiences, campaigns, services, etc.—, and would love to develop a visual language similar to that of one of their top 3 designers (motivation). And, although design is now a more trendy career path than it was 20 years ago, I really don’t think anyone would enroll in 4 or 5 years of design education just to become a millionaire. Above all, design students have an intrinsic interest for learning the profession (passion).
However, design education is tougher than many would think. Design students mostly learn by doing. Slowly, the word “theory” is finding its own space into the design curricula, but most of it is still heavily practice-led with little scientific explanation about why something works or doesn’t work. So, while it isn’t surprising that design students do have fewer books to read than law students, the amount of hours they often spend working on a project is stratospheric in comparison to what it takes to write a paper or study for an exam. Some design schools still follow a more traditional approach focused on giving students framed and well-defined projects, but increasingly many design schools are also adopting more socratic approaches to teaching and learning through unframed and ill-defined problems. This latter approach makes the amount of time needed to work on design problems to be highly unpredictable and extremely variable.
This is also related to the “always evolving” mindset of design. A difference from a Math exam that has right or wrong answers and it ends when students write down all answers to the questions; in design, there is always more the one possible solution, and to some extent, the final state of a project is never achieved. You can be changing and adjusting things forever. This is what makes design education inheritable subjective and challenging.
Designers’ Key Qualities
While not explicitly, throughout design education, students develop specific qualities that help them be better equipped to work with design problems. Five of them are:
- Patient. Yep, designers tend to be more patient than they even think they are. Sometimes ideas flow smoothly and a project is finished in a day. But more often than not, ideas don’t come on demand. Designers do learn how to deal with creative blocks. A usual way is creating one, two, three, four, five or more versions of something until something “clicks”.
- Explorers. Connected to the above quality, designers can spend hours and hours working on something. Either on notebooks or with digital tools, they try different options, starting all over again if necessary. Flow very accurately describes how designers work. Of course this is a generalization, but most designers don’t work on 9 to 5 shifts. It is hard to keep a rigid schedule when whatever you are working on isn’t evolving as you planned. This doesn’t mean that designers don’t follow a process, but they learn quite early on that the design process is all about cycles, and project planning has to be a flexible and evolving activity.
- Detail oriented. Designers can have messy closets, but when it comes to work, they can be very meticulous and pay attention to every aspect: spot misalignments, distinguish mismatching font sizes or weights, detect unsuccessful colour combinations, identify low res images.
- Appreciative. Perhaps because iterations, sketches and drafts are so common for designers, they have low attachment for work-in-progress but great appreciation for final products. Designers tend to keep at least one hard copy of everything they do.
- Motivated. This is to me the most important one. Designers love what they do; it is really hard to engage in creative work if you don’t enjoy it or are fully invested in what you are doing. Design students have passion for learning both the skills and the mindset, and be able to do whatever they “design heroes” have done.
Although these five qualities may seem pretty generic, they are not easy to acquire in a short amount of time, like one semester. Non-design students (like first year design students do during the first month of class) often want to “get it right” with their first option. The concepts of “draft quality” and “explorations” are hard to grasp. They either do nothing or bring a very polished and refined version of the work. It is also really hard to encourage students to explore more than one option, often having to quantify what the expected number of sketches is the “right” one. The lack of “recipes” is also a very disconcerting factor for non-design students (e.g. what is the best colour combination I can use?). Lastly, because non-design students enroll in short courses, they tend to have little motivation for learning the breadth and depth of the discipline. Their focus is on learning tools and shortcuts to quickly learn how to design.
By no means, designers are perfect or design education is the best one. I could easily put together another list of no-so positive qualities that also characterised designers. But it is important to acknowledge the real value of design education, and why it cannot be replaced by 6-month courses or 1 day workshops. Being a designer involves much more than just learning technical skills or design thinking; it encompasses a specific way of seeing the world, and above all passion for doing the work as good possible.