Designing Design Education: What the Best Schools Do

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Daniel Johnston, design partner at the brand strategy and design firm Lippincott in New York, draws upon his recruiting experience. Johnston explains, from his perspective, what a strong design education does for a candidate and what the best schools have in common.

What everyone expects from school is the acquisition of a skill set. Higher order education stresses problem-solving, or the ability to synthesize different types of skills based on context. But what about personality? How do you teach the same thing to all kinds of different people in a way that doesn’t end up making them the same person? This is an especially important consideration in the field of design.

Through my work, I’ve looked at hundreds of portfolios and met dozens of candidates from various programs around the world. It’s telling to see how mature graduates are on a spectrum, from technical capability, to aesthetic judgment, to confidence in communicating a unique perspective across a range of projects—and how that may reflect on their education.


Photo from Shutterstock

The word “design” is too often used simplistically, referring to styling of an existing object through “graphics.” Graphic embellishment can be a wonderful and additive thing, but this is called illustration. The true definition of design is a plan to move forward. Seminal digital typographers Emigre came up with a fantastic double-entendre summation: “Design is a good idea.”

So, ideas are more important than aesthetics. Simple. Or maybe not. For all the “problem solving” designers need to do, the dirty (gorgeous) secret is that the ability to make something beautiful is a crucial piece of the puzzle—but just that. Too many design education programs overvalue aesthetics and fail to stretch students’ abilities to think critically (usually, assigned projects are just too basic or too completely defined, so the only chance for individuals to stand out is through styling). On the other end are programs (mostly post-grad) that are so disdainful of any association with beauty (or even problem-solving in some cases) that portfolios end up being fascinating journeys into designers’ souls, with little reality to show for it.

So, what do the best design programs have in common?

They build curriculum along an evolving narrative.

College is an intensely transitional period, and great programs follow an arc that enables the necessary growth of its students. Especially in a field as open to interpretation as design, pupils need some walls to lean up against at first, but should be pushed to carve out their own niches by the time they exit. Early fundamentals may be fairly prescriptively taught, but graduates should be comfortable creating their own projects and communicating about them confidently. The time and concentration required to make this transition effectively cannot be overstated.

They’re future-focused, not technology-dependent.

Students are the future and should be prepared to represent it upon graduation. Recent graduates, in particular, should have a keen understanding of the technological zeitgeist, and the proficiency to manipulate a good deal of it. But the best design programs may not teach any technology at all, as their mandates are far larger: to instill “future-proof” design thinking that can be applied across channels.

They’re grounded in an ethos, but offer diversity of professors and programming.

Having a range of perspectives isn’t only useful in terms of bestowing a broad skill set, but also in fostering confidence in uniqueness. It’s ok—perhaps even preferable—if students aren’t universally drawn to every class or professor. Design is a rare field in which one’s area of focus—a deliverable, an industry or a culture—may change dramatically from day to day.

No matter their official job description, designers are often only limited in what they do professionally by that with which they’re comfortable, so it’s important that they’re exposed to as many different types of projects as possible in an environment that allows them to experiment. A variety of passionate—even eccentric—professors can actually be a great asset in drawing out those aspects of students’ own personalities in their work output.

They embed meaningful collaboration.

Design is an intrinsically collaborative process (even solo practitioners have to interact effectively with clients) and students should be put in scenarios in which they must work with others, but these need to be balanced with intense personal responsibility. Group work can be very valuable, but should be based on assignments significantly more complex than individual projects, forcing students to add unique value to others’ strengths, as opposed to just sharing the load. If different groups were created from the same class to tackle the same project, the differences in outcome should be primarily in affect as opposed to quality.


Photo from Shutterstock


They consider any integration of professional practice very carefully.

There are aspects of design practice that can only be taught through experience in the good old “real world”—client relationships, billable hours, integration with different specialties, set schedules and so on—and there are opportunities and access that only business may be able to offer. Having some exposure to these aspects can strengthen a budding designer.

But school is a precious and brief experience in which carefully crafted curricula should enable students to experiment with their own ideas and methods in a context devoted to growth rather than raw productivity. Being surrounded by peers also allows for students to build valuable relationships and the opportunity to develop productive criticism skill. Many internships and special programs are additive and synthesize well with the educational arc. The danger is that the arc is broken to instead throw students ill-equipped into an environment that may exploit their basic skills without offering opportunity to learn anything new.

They teach students to value their own perspectives.

Graduating several students from the same program with the same approach to any project devalues the students and the program. Some design programs rely heavily on so-called “famous” designers as guest lecturers, a practice that I found hit-and-miss in the results of graduates. Although there aren’t really any “household name” designers, the industry props up some to such a degree that their pupils often seem to focus too much on the value of the guests’ personalities (which often get misinterpreted as “style”), rather than developing their own. Because designers (should) pride themselves on versatility, being pinned to any “style” is bad, but being pinned to someone else’s style is worse, particularly if it’s “famous.”

The need to control outbursts, cajole unification and grease squeaky wheels through formative years can de-saturate youth to such a degree that, by the time they reach college, they just want to fit in, right at the time when they really need to start standing out. Great programs and educators know how to not only teach skills but coax out individual value in all kinds of different students.

design is a good idea

Image from Emigre

The best candidates coming out of school are the ones that are well enough educated that they don’t have school residue stuck to them. They come out of the cocoon clean, ready to fly their own path. They have a portfolio of substantial projects, built on interesting ideas, beautifully crafted and uniquely expressed. They know how to articulate the value of their work in the context of the world around them. They have a facility with technology without needing it to define them.

They have a unique perspective on life, outside the craft of their career, and some enlightenment to back that up (but need not have traveled the world over and/or saved all its people). They act like professionals (whether they have done a lick of prior client work or not). They have found what it means to be a designer without losing themselves.

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Daniel Johnston is a design partner in the New York office of Lippincott where he works on identity, interactive, retail and environmental design projects for clients. His work has been recognized in Communication ArtsGraphis and Print, among many others.