Is design education broken?

For anyone that follows me on Twitter, you’ll know that I tend to retweet a lot of job listings. These sometimes come directly from the people I’m following or other retweets. I also try and read every job listing before sending it on just so I know what the job entails.

Now, for the most part the job listings are highly creative however over recent months I’ve noticed that more and more are asking for a degree or related qualification as a ‘required’ necessity. I’ve only seen one out of the past ten which has ‘OR Experience related’ attached to it. On top of that, within the last hour I came across another job listing via the Channel 4 website asking for a Visual Design Qualification (what the hell is that?).

I should quickly add in here that I didn’t study design at University, my highest qualification in design is a GCSE in Graphic Products which to be honest is and was completely useless. The web hadn’t even been in its first nappy when I was a part of that course. Design as I know it now was never taught. No theories, no knowledge and certainly no design history was passed across.

The broken bit

This is where I think something has gone wrong. Listing a job with ONLY an option for degree educated persons is not only discrimination albeit in a very light form but also annoys and disgruntles people who decided not to go to University for further education. I think employers need to take a good hard look at reality when looking to recruit and fill new roles. There are a couple of ways to look at the negative aspects of only recruiting degree educated persons for a design role.

  1. Many courses are out of date as soon as they’re taught and more often than not courses have the wrong people running them. They tend not to have practitioners on the course who have been in the industry and know how the land lies and usually have educated people in education with no real experience. I currently only know of two courses that I think understand what the industry needs and I’d love to hear from Christopher/Niklas (@standardistas) and (@libwella)
  2. If a person has a degree which is more than 2 years old, then you’d be right to think it is out of date due to the lack of core design education within it. Most focus on tools rather than the ‘it’. However, their experience should hopefully make up for it.

If you’re looking for fresh degree educated persons then you should make it clear that you’re looking for the above, degree educated with experience rather than just holding a degree.

Show of hands

After issuing the question “Did you study design at degree level?” and asking for a show of hands approximately 20 people replied. 12 people said they had or were currently studying design / web design / multimedia or other course. 2 of those said that it was a complete waste of time as they weren’t taught ‘design’. The other 8 said they hadn’t studied a design related course at degree level at all. A number of the 8 who hadn’t were people I would class as experienced design professionals.

The madness begins

After seeing those 20 something replies it dawned on me what kind of crazy world the design education system was turning into. The majority of the replies came from people who were currently on or had recently left a design course. The courses themselves had all manner of names, and if I asked if they had taught any core theory behind design, you’d find quickly that they hadn’t. Now, not to get all high and mighty, but what are they teaching? If you head over to Authentic Jobs (one of the most populated boards for design related jobs on the internet – probably) you will currently find jobs for,

  • Visual Designers
  • Interaction Designers
  • UX Designers
  • UI Designers
  • Product Designers
  • Interactive Designer
  • Sr. Visual Designer
  • Mobile Application Designer
  • Art Director
  • Hybrid Designer
  • Designer
  • Front-end Web Designer
  • Presentation Designer
  • Web and Print Graphic Designer
  • Applications Graphic Designer
  • Services Web Designer
  • Information Architect
  • Theme Designer
  • Graphic Artist
  • Editorial Web Designer
  • Infographic Designer.

21 different types of ‘designer’. I fell from my chair. The last time I checked we had various avenues that you could go down in design. If we specifically think about ‘web’, about 18 of the job titles above fit in with our current design eco-system. Getting out of control a bit do you think? I believe we need to pull on the reigns a bit and not let our industry and education system get out of hand with naming the types of jobs.

Earlier I mentioned the Channel 4 job which asked for a ‘Visual Design Qualification’. Both Mark Boulton and I can’t figure out what one of those is as I never knew there was such a thing. I’ve only noticed the title ‘Visual Designer’ cropping up over the last couple of months. The line from the job advertisement says it all,

Visual Design qualification  and/or extensive professional experience of interactive screen based design

A visual design qualification OR experience of interactive screen based design. Knowing that the job is advertised as an Interface Designer it would seem that Channel 4 do not know what they’re looking for. Something like a Visual, Interactive or Interface Designer if we look at the list above or in other words someone to maybe prettify things on the screen? By the way, that is not design. That is using the tools at your disposal. Channel 4 would have done better by understanding the role they wanted to fill as a Designer with a specialism in Interface Design. At least they may get someone who understands design.

It would seem that our industry is now playing a name game and forgetting about where and what design really is. It is certainly becoming fragmented and needs to start aligning itself down a more precise path otherwise we will lose control altogether.

Designer first

In the Army it is ingrained in you that you’re a soldier first and your trade second. I believe in our industry we should instill a sense that we’re all designers first and then have a specialism or specialisms like typography or IA.

Let us hopefully work towards a better education system, designed for our industry so that we can work pro-actively to teach ‘real design’ as a core skill behind all design related courses and let us not get complacent when advertising new design roles and making names up as we go along. I would hope this would better align with those who choose not to go on to University as more often they fall into a specialism once within a job.


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Lead Interaction Designer at DigitalDWP. Organiser of Industry, The Practical Web Conference..

10 thoughts on “Is design education broken?”

  1. I agree with there being too many names for what designers do, every corporation or company has it’s own naming conventions when it comes to graphic design, but I don’t see the connection your making with design schools.

    1. Hi Ed, thanks for the comment. It was certainly difficult to put two points across in one article, maybe they would have been better being split in hindsight.

      In my head, the connection with designs schools is the following. Our education system, especially in the UK is lacking in teaching the correct course offering and curriculum and thus sprouting out into a broken system to cover too much thus creating the huge amount of naming conventions. But as I said, it also doesn’t stop with education when we have employers creating names themselves like the Channel 4 example I gave.

  2. I was enrolled in a web design course, though left before I completed it as I was offered a position within a company, so I have mixed feelings on the subject.

    I didn’t feel that the course itself taught me an awful lot which helps me in my day to day work now, however the time I had spare because I wasn’t working full time allowed me to brush up on skills in my own time, which I wouldn’t have had if I had been working full time.

    In my course there was very little “design” taught, it was mainly about the tools and teaching someone how to use Flash isn’t beneficial in the long term, who’s to say Flash won’t be obsolete several years down the line? Maybe some of us working in the industry should go along to our local university/colleges to speak to students about what it’s really like and how they should use their time outwith the course to learn on their own and guide them towards the things they should be learning about.

  3. Great article Gavin and thanks for the shout out!

    In regards to job adverts I feel a lot of it is down plain ignorance people who don’t understand what design means and presume
    that a person with a degree is somehow automatically better.

    As I run a Foundation Degree, its really frustrating that many jobs ‘require’ a BA Degree rather then focusing on real skills. Education within this industry should be vocational, so the graduates of that degree should leave with the ability to do the job they are being trained for, and many degrees just don’t do that. The reasons you mentioned: teaching staff who are outdated or have never even done the job they are trying to teach, the curriculum doesn’t support enough flexibility to keep up to date or the institution doesn’t ask people in industry what they want from graduates are far too common.

    Education, particularly web education, does get a bit of a battering so its worth noting that there are lots of degrees and courses out there that do a good job, but its the bad that stand out!

    I when I left education with two degrees, neither of them any real use to me, I got my first job (probably based on the fact I had two degrees) but realistically I couldn’t really do anything. So everything I know about web design is self taught and I learnt more in 6 months of working then I did in 4 years of education.

    This experience of education is what made me want to do my current job and try and do this differently. I don’t pretend I know everything (I don’t!) so I rely on people out there working in the jobs to tell me if I’m doing things right.

    Many students leaving mine and other well-run work-based courses are able to go straight into skilled jobs and in some cases they are employed even before leaving the course. Often a student like this will ask if they should do a top up year to make their qualification a BA degree. This is a really difficult question to answer because:

    a) no – I don’t think they should if they are good enough to do the job as that will teach them more then they’ll learn at uni and cost over 3k less to do.
    b) Yes – maybe you should get the BA as a safety next incase a future employer expects to see it.

    I’ve even had a web agency say they wouldn’t consider any of my students on a (unpaid) placement because they weren’t doing a ‘real’ degree – without even seeing what they can do.

    Its frustrating that many students are encouraged (by tutors and family members) to choose a degree course over work based education, purely because its a degree and “that’s what matters.” Students today can’t afford to have a wasteful education and soon most people won’t be able to afford Higher Education full stop.

    (These are my own personal thoughts and opinions and not of my employer)

  4. Hi Gavin. I read your article with great interest as I believe your observations reflects most aspects of British society.

    In truth the academics highjack subjects that are artistic, creative and require manual dexterity/craft skills and make them purely theory/academic. The reason being of course, is that theory is cheap, lectures are cheap as chips, Materials, electricity, cost of equipment etc all costs money.

    For eg. I know that many Uni grads studying Engineering who graduate without being proficient with basic tools, lathes, or the ability to weld? These people are of little use to modern Engineering businesses, who now favour candidates “That can do” rather than than the snobby, oh I have a degree in………..? Don’t you? This country scrapped Polytechnics, the real powerhouses of Vocational creativity and dumbed down the Technical colleges, much to Britains current detriment.

    One of the reasons perhaps that employers still seek candidates with a degree? is that they have one themselves and want to maintain its value for as long as possible, it simply would’t do to recruit people with up to date knowledge and skills and grater ability than your own, without a degree.

    1. Hi Andy, thanks for the comment. It’s a very interesting take on what could be a plausible explanation. It’s a shame also as for an employer it’s a very narrow minded view on educational progression. Let’s hope this isn’t the real reason for it.

  5. Hey Gavin,

    I graduated from higher education in 2007 with a HND in Media Publishing and a BA in Graphic Commincation. The HND included syllabus on information graphics, newspaper design, magazine design and typography. The BA was more about conceptual work, ideas, brainstorming but also magazine and newspaper work.

    All these subjects taught design principles like colour theory, typography, grid systems and layout. All elements that are essential to me doing my job as a web designer.

    My point is that my qualifications did not ‘expire’ and go out of date, when your in higher education you need to learn off your own back also, if you feel their is something you need to learn, learn it. A big part of this problem is the term web designer, on a typical web design course you seem to get taught tools and trends, not design. It almost seems ‘cooler’ to be a web designer than a web developer so why not call the courses that, attracts more students, makes more cash…

    The colleges and universities need to satisfy the employer, and employers all have a different outlook on what a web designer should be able to do. Its swings and roundabout and until universities, colleges, employers and design pros sit in a room and discuss it I don’t see this madness ending.

    cheers Phil

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