Editor’s note: This article has been edited from the original post, “Teach Slower to Teach Better” and republished with permission.
Over the last decade, as a rejection to a tired model of traditional higher education, new educational programs and structures have emerged.
Many of these are in the fields of design, digital product development and programming. The new models of education take many forms. Some are day-long or week-long workshops. Some are meetups and brownbags. Some are online, some offline, and some hybrid. What connects many of these models is their immediate vocational emphasis. The majority intend to train practitioners, not academics. The focus is on preparing people to get jobs.
I think this is fantastic. Ideally, knowledge acquisition as an end in itself would be socioeconomically equitable, but the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself is mostly a tool of the privileged. The reality is that people need a job to make money to survive.
Because these educational programs aim to train design students to enter the workforce, the education they provide is pragmatic, practical and applicable. And most of these programs are compelling because they are relatively affordable (by comparison to traditional degrees), short, and promise a clear path to employment.
But this value proposition—save money, save time and get a job as a designer—is a problem. To deliver on this value promise of cheap, fast, and aimed at employment, something’s got to give. And I’m worried that the “something” is quality.
To be clear, I don’t mean quality of instruction. The instructors at these emergent programs are my peers. They are, by and large, competent designers. Many are competent teachers. They do not treat their role lightly. The people I know who teach in these programs put their heart and soul into their teaching, just like great teachers at any other academic program.
Students need the space to develop problem solving strategies. Speed is not in our favor here.
And I don’t mean the quality of the student work that emerges from these programs. Anyone who teaches design has (I hope) come to terms with the fact that student work is pretty bad. Student portfolios do not show good work; at best, they show good thinking. This is not unique to these types of programs, and it’s not actually a problem. The point of a design school is not to produce great design artifacts. It’s to teach students.
The quality problem I’m referring to is about preparedness: being prepared to tackle real design problems. I’m worried that students emerging from these programs are not ready to act as functioning designers because they have not started developing a pattern language for design problems. This failing is a direct result of fast education. And it’s built into the model: speed is literally the value proposition of these programs.
In the almost 20 years I’ve been teaching, and in observing roughly 800 students I’ve taught, I’ve identified some qualities of design education that are fundamental to growth. These are process, method, humility, and craftsmanship. In addition to these, there’s another prime topic: patterning.
What is a pattern?
A design problem waivers between being well-formed and ill-defined. We create models to frame problems and put boundaries around them so the problems become tractable. The models are torn down through critique and reflection, often in the moment of creation, as creativity leads to new ideas. Constraints emerge from within the problem and from outside of the problem. People influence the constraints, and change them, often seemingly at their whim. All the while, we are limited not just by logical constraints like time, but also highly emotional ones like passion, confidence and inspiration.
Throughout all of this, patterns are the backbone of how a professional, well-practiced designer reacts to a situation. More experienced designers have “seen something kind of like this before.” They’ve been tasked with an impossible interaction problem focused on the dreaded three-state grey checkbox, or asked to build navigation structures around incomplete or incongruous taxonomies. They’ve produced detailed specifications that were ignored by developers. They’ve presented strategic work to their boss’s boss’s boss, and had the meeting go sideways to the point of shouting. They’ve been told by leadership to remove the Opt Out button. They’ve had clients walk out.
Of course, not all experiences are bad. This experienced designer has sat next to developers through the night, making design changes on the fly, to ship on time. They’ve run participatory design sessions in complex environments, like airports, or doctor’s offices, or power plants. They’ve gone to China to see their work coming off the line.
These experiences have led them to develop ways of conceptualizing and framing problems, and pieces of problems, while simultaneously working to solve those problems. These are patterns.
When we’re new, we have no patterns.
Without pattern knowledge built on experience, we’re left with several ways to approach problems. One is to simply follow a method or process step by step. If the method worked once, or if someone I respect told me the method is good, I have no reason to believe that it isn’t, and so I’ll use it.
Another strategy is to copy what I see. If someone posted something on dribbble and it got a lot of positive comments, it’s probably a good idea, so I’ll just borrow it. And another is to just guess and do something—anything—and hope for the best.
These are all strategies that can be effective in an educational context. But they are not effective ways to work in practice. No matter their level, and no matter how junior they are, I don’t want people on my team who are blindly following a process, mindlessly copying what they see, or shooting darts at a board. And so I expect even the most junior talent I hire to have established some rudimentary form of approaching a problem that goes beyond these techniques. I expect them to have developed a small but useful patterning language for when they experience a certain kind of design problem, and to use that pattern language effectively.
To meet these expectations, and to have learned a tiny subset of patterning, a designer needs to have worked through enough problems to start to see similarities and differences. They need a body of work from which to see the overlap of examples.
This experience doesn’t have to come from a formal educational program. But a good pattern is established with guidance and critique, and that’s hard to get on your own. Posting work on social media is a disaster for real problem-solving strategy development, as the echo chamber of “good job!” reinforces cosmetic patterning and features; and so every product needs a dashboard, and every button a gradient, and every app a point system, and every website a parallax scroll.
Education—good education—builds patterning skills through an ongoing set of master-apprentice experiences, and implicit in the patterning is the critical thinking about the pattern selection, use, and most importantly, adaptation. A pattern is not a template. It’s a way to approach solving a problem.
Design students should be learning ways to think about solving problems.
A design curriculum needs to provide students with enough discrete experiences that they can start to build muscle memory around problems—so they can start to say to themselves, “I’ve previously experienced a problem that was kind of like this, and I tried to solve it.”
To deliver on this value promise of cheap, fast, and aimed at employment, something’s got to give.
When those experiences start to build, it doesn’t mean that a student is magically a job-ready designer. It means they are starting to develop a grammar of design abilities.
How many experiences are enough? I don’t know. But the answer isn’t one, or two, or five or 10. And these experiences don’t happen in days or weeks. They happen in months and years. They need to be critiqued. The student needs time for introspection. They need to see the results of their approach and marinate on what worked and what didn’t. And then they need to take on the same type and style of project, or exploration, or interaction, again and again.
And so my biggest concern with workshops, bootcamps and the majority of the non-traditional learning programs that have emerged in our creative fields is that they are just too short. And the unfortunate reality is that the people who need the vocational training and want the jobs and should be employable and are transitioning to a design career aren’t given enough time to learn. They don’t have the economic luxury to take a year or two off for a longer program. And even if they did, the economic logistics of running a school means that a one-year program simply has to cost more—a lot more—than a 10-week program. The finances don’t make sense.
So, there’s the crux of the problem I see with the landscape of non-traditional design education. The value proposition promises speed, low cost, and employability. It is impossible for it to consistently deliver on all three fronts. It is disingenuous, even with the best of intentions, to claim that someone can become a designer in 10 weeks, and claims like this are harmful to the profession.
What is the answer?
I have no purely entrepreneurial answer to this problem. I don’t know how to make a new company, or product, or service to teach design that is fast, cheap, and effective. I ran a school for seven years, and constantly struggled with the balance of this issue.
But I have two systemic suggestions: the first likely a pipe dream, and the other very achievable.
First, let’s work to make non-accredited vocational education free to students, or shift the burden of cost to taxpayers or corporations. If these programs are fully funded through work-study or outright grants (like many graduate programs in the U.S.) students can afford to attend them for a longer duration without feeling pressure to jump into a job as quickly as possible. A longer course of study gives more time for practice and time for patterns to build.
This already exists for accredited programs. it should be true for non-accredited programs, too. By non-accredited, I don’t mean to imply that education should have no oversight. A school can be regulated and managed for quality and against predatory practices, without being forced to comply with static and dated guidelines, burdened with accreditation and assessment paperwork, or forced into a rote and cookie-cutter model.
Next, let’s stop hiring designers if they can’t demonstrate more than a set of methods or a rote process. I have seen so, so many companies turning to these quick programs for volume, simply because they are scaling their teams quickly. As leaders, we can control growth. We can push back on our business as they ask for more, faster. We can grow carefully and methodically. We can interview with more precision. We can question portfolio decisions in-depth.
We can push the educational market to change their offerings to match placement needs. If there’s demand for a designer who has a certain set of skills, then vocational programs will educate students to have those skills. The industry should drive these skill-based programs, not the other way around.
We need educational innovation, but not at the expense of quality. Students need the space to develop problem solving strategies. Speed is not in our favor here. Let’s all slow down.