Joining forces to better equip the next generation of designers

The world is changing. Problems are changing. Design is changing. Design education has been changing too. One of the main changes has focused on helping designers move into management positions to lead problems that are unframed and whose solutions are unknown. Some of these changes are reflected in the creation of new types of courses and programs, and non-design schools offering design programs. These changes have also generated confusion among students to the extent that some of them struggle to decide which path to take. Understanding the similarities and differences of each approach is important to choose the one that best aligns with your goals. This understanding is also essential to identify gaps in current offerings, and determine what is needed to fill those gaps and better prepare students.

Today, many higher education design programs are moving away from traditional pedagogical models rooted in “a one-size-fits-all experience”. For example, after more than four decades, current design curriculum includes courses on process, methods and research (the importance of focusing on these topics was initially stated by Bruce Archer and Tomas Maldonado at the Ulm School of Design in the 1960s!). These courses have contributed to the development of more theoretical programs, and moving instruction away from personal taste and subjective assessment. This newer focus has also opened the door to other institutions to offer design education, often, with a stronger focus on the thinking than on the doing. Liberal Arts Colleges are an example.

If a student is interested in pursing a design career in higher education, these are two main paths:

Path 1. Design School

The major focus of Design Schools is on preparing students to join design professional practice. In many schools, the pedagogical model is a much less traditional than before and they offer a broad set of skills. However, they do not offer a strong leadership foundation or prepare students to successfully work on transdisciplinary settings. Interestingly, creativity is not taught in explicit ways; rather it is learned by doing as students develop a design mindset and process skills.


Overview of core skills a student would learn in design schools.

Path 2. Liberal Arts College

Liberal Arts colleges approach design education from a different angle. The main focus is on the business and leadership side of the journey rather than on the creation and development of professional-looking solutions. Design programs in this context are positioned as having a stronger emphasis on leadership rather than on problem solving. To help develop design mindset, creativity courses are common in these programs. Students work closer with students majoring in other domains which helps them develop transdisciplinary competences.


Overview of core skills a student would learn in a design program taught at a liberal arts college.

To me, none of these approaches fully equips the next generation of designers because they don’t offer a balanced curriculum. While leading teams is needed and design skills can greatly help, designers should be able to do both: lead and solve problems, not only coming up with the ideas.

A third path 

I suggest a third path that combines skills from both current approaches. This path would equip designers with a broader and more complete tool kit to address current needs. Designers would master conceptual and technical design skills, as current design education teaches, and expand them with skills in systems and strategic thinking, leadership and business. The goal would not be to overwhelm students filling up their days with more courses, but to develop a curriculum that teaches both sets of core competencies in a more balanced way. This path would not be a short one either; students would have the skills but they would not become leaders as soon as they graduate. They would need to put their acquired knowledge and skills into practice and gain real life experience first.

This path would prepare designers to:

  • confidently deal with ambiguous and ill-defined problems
  • tackle a wider range of problems
  • feel comfortable not knowing from where to start
  • reframe the problem to make it more manageable
  • lead transdisciplinary collaboration by using design skills
  • look at the problem from different perspectives
  • be open to unconventional and novel ideas
  • leverage the strengthens from professionals with other backgrounds
  • execute ideas and build solutions
  • create sophisticated and professional design solutions

Creating this kind of path would call for educators and professionals from different practices and domains to work together. This would also need a different pedagogical approach to help students develop a proactive, creative and forward thinking mindset.

Changing design education to make it more in line with the needs of external transformations is not easy task. This is a joint effort that would take time, but the benefits would surpass the amount of work needed.

– Davis, M. (2017) Teaching Design. Allworth Press
– Selingo, J. (2015) College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. Las Vegas, NV: Amazon Publishing, xxiii.


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