8 evidences that design undergraduate programs are outdated

In Brazil, we have 336 design undergraduate programs, which prepare 12,000+ designers per year to live in the past. That’s exactly what you’ve read. (And before you look for “a” single culprit, there is no one. The whole educational system is the cause of this problem).

PS: This text is based on Brazilian reality but it also applies to the American design teaching landscape.

The reasons

Undergraduate design programs are out of date for the following reasons:

  1. OUTDATED PRINCIPLES: The design principles taught in many universities repeat theories that look more like “scientific romanticism” (eg, golden ratio, gestalt, etc.)
  2. PRODUCTION WORK: The approach to graphic production and final artwork is outdated;
  3. INTERFACE DESIGN = FOLDER ONLINE: The interface design discipline treats websites as if they were a digital folder;
  4. TYPOGRAPHY IGNORES WEB: Courses do not apply typography on the web;
  5. DEVICE APPS: Little or almost nothing is taught about interface design for applications;
  6. ILLUSTRATION IGNORES DIGITAL CONTEXT: The practice of illustration is primarily analog;
  7. REIFICATION: The focus is on the production of physical objects and graphic materials, not on value design;
  8. SELF-REFERENCE: Designers learn how to design to please themselves.

While society and the market are experiencing numerous changes, many courses still prepare students to live in the past. For example, while the market already explores a lot of videos and device applications, since many colleges students have to learn about it practically on their own. Of course, learning a necessary content on your own would not be a problem in itself. What does not make sense is to spend time on skills needed 15 years ago, not today.

Below I comment on each of the points that design colleges have played in the past.

1. OUTDATED PRINCIPLES – Classes are based on outdated content such as golden ratio, gestalt etc.

Many over repeated classroom contents were created one hundred or more years ago, at a time when there was no electronic microscope (it was invented in 1933), psychology was still crawling, and studies of human behavior had not yet influenced design as today. Ideas such as golden proportion, Gestalt, Gutenberg diagram considered human beings as being equal to each other and did not take into account previous experience in the perception process (I wrote an article to explain this further).

2. PRODUCTION WORK – The approach to graphic production is outdated

Today we live in a era of strong technological evolution:

  • variable data publishing is now possible;
  • digital printing can replace the texts and images on the run according to a database;
  • we have the Direct-to-Plate replacing the Computer-to-Film;
  • the image banks were integrated into the software;
  • we can print directly on fabric by sublimation;
  • color proofs almost perfectly simulate print outputs;
  • we have large format digital printers that also cut, apply relief, hot stamp and varnish.

And I ask you: how many of these technologies are taught or explored in undergraduate courses? Almost none. The point here is not to think that designers are mere slaves of technology or merely off-set printer operators. It’s about understanding that society changes, technology changes, and designers need to adapt unless they prefer to stay behind (like those linotype operators who had not updated their skills).

3. DIGITAL INCUNABULUM: Interface design treats websites as if they were a digital folder

Not too long ago colleges included content on interface design for the web platform in their curricula. This content took time to show up at the colleges, and apparently, it will take time to get out. Other, much more sophisticated forms for producing websites such as WordPress customizable templates, AI data-driven layouts, javascript frameworks etc. And students continue to learn how to do websites as if they were just drawing a layout in Photoshop, slicing and praying for someone to turn those ideas into real interaction with users. Exactly as it did in the year 2000. I will not even talk about responsive sites, otherwise, we will start to cry.

4. TYPOGRAPHY: Courses do not apply typography for web

I was in 2010 in Los Angeles, giving a lecture on typography at the TypeCon convention when I first heard the term Web Fonts. It was the salvation of the crop: we would finally get rid of the Verdanas, Tahomas and Arials, and we could have a decent font library to use on websites! Today there are thousands of available webfonts. Now I ask again: how many colleges does the study of typography applied in the context of the web or information systems?

5. DEVICE APPS: Little or almost nothing is said about interface design for applications

In a time when the number of smartphones has already outpaced the sale of desktop computers, design colleges still treat interface design as being primarily targeted for websites. What about the huge amount of applications being launched, that do need an interface as well?

6. NO DIGITAL: Illustration process is primarily analogical

I see many students who are very talented illustrators. We know, a student who is an illustrator, draws even with a pastel chalk on the asphalt, with coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. But when it comes to bringing that skill to the digital world, it looks like they’ve lost their hands in an accident. They cannot use a tablet, they do not understand the vector world, they can not deliver an illustration to a size suitable for large printing, and that ends up by underutilizing its potential. A minimum of adequacy of illustration work in the digital world should be done, but faculties understand that this would require expensive equipment, that there is no money, etc.

7. REIFICATION: The focus is on the production of physical objects and graphic materials, not on the offer of value

Simply put, colleges prepare students to make objects. A folder, a business card, a poster, a lamp, a backpack, a pedagogical toy. It turns out that solving a problem does not always mean throwing more junk in nature. What does the person need? A car or a transportation? A washing machine or a laundry? A business card or a way to contact the person in the future? That’s the difference between designing things and designing value. How many faculties teach dematerialization as a design responsible practice?

8. GUESSWORK: User research is underused

Lastly, many courses form crystal ball designers. It serves as a magical instrument: it makes you guess the thoughts and desires of people! You’ve never talked to a user, never noticed the behavior of a consumer, and, voila! You mysteriously understand how he thinks, behaves and feels, and manages to design what will meet all your needs! This is amazing! Some colleges now teach students to do pseudo-research using google forms, after all, to do serious research means just to drop 10 questions in an online form, send them to as many friends as possible, and that will be enough to uncover the truth of the universe! For some years we have known the importance of considering the needs of stakeholders, but some design courses did not realize that yet.

Conclusion

In summary, these eight points demonstrate how many courses offered by design colleges still prepare designers to live in the past, teaching outdated content, ignoring changes in the digital and online universe, preparing designers to make objects and to guess about users’ needs. Who knows, in 15 years the design education will evolve. But then, society will be in another age, and again we will be late.

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