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Industrial Design Education:

Does it meet professional standards?

by Carroll Gantz, FIDSA

Many professionals would respond with a resounding "no!" While there are always outstanding students who excel, the majority are ill-prepared, both technically and motivationally, to perform adequately in the field for which they have been trained. They often find it difficult or impossible to find a position. If they do, they often require several years of re-training and experience to achieve minimal productivity. Few have a sense of the business world at all, let alone the ability to establish their own independent firm. In a market where computer-aided design skills are highly valued, few graduates are proficient. Verbal and written presentation skills are often non-existent. Most sadly of all, many are unrealistic in their own expectations and oblivious to the expectations of their employers or prospective clients.

For students and parents paying over $100,000 to programs recommended by the profession and accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), with the tacit understanding that such a degree is not only a career entry, but one with prestige and respect; the job market reality is demoralizing, to say the least. At worst, they feel cheated. Practitioners in the field should feel outraged.

While education is always complex, the general problem is fairly obvious. The profession of industrial design has changed radically over the last 50 years. Downsizing has reduced available positions, thus increasing the need to be entrepreneural. Manual skills of drawing and modeling have been replaced by computer technology. Individual expression needs to be tempered with multidisciplinary teamwork and understanding of business practices. At the end of the century, design is no longer art, and there are no more patrons. Design is business.

Yet after the same 50 years, industrial design education has remained virtually unchanged. Applicants are still selected on the basis of their potential "artistic" skills, attitudes and motivations. Several years of artistic study are still often required before "real" design education begins. Esthetics and design theory are valued far beyond technical or business essentials.

Some things in education have changed, but not for the better. Tuition-driven enrollment policies breed quantity rather than quality, and rampant grade inflation allows even poor performers to graduate with high grades.

Tenured faculty, most educated in the 1960s, often instill in students their own self-indulgent and anti-business attitudes. They are, by and large, not practitioners, but theorists.

Why has design education failed to keep pace with the changed needs of the profession? Why are there so many graduates who cannot perform at entry level? Answers lie in several specific and endemic inadequacies of the system itself, some of them intractable.

First is the terminal disease of tenure. Most non-academics simply cannot imagine the union-like power of tenured faculty over university administrations. Their defense against change is to award tenure to the politically obedient, rather than those innovating new skills, ideas or curricula, thus rewarding mediocrity and the status quo. Bottom line is: tenured faculty, no matter how incompetent, outmoded and/or extraneous, simply cannot be fired. Many department budgets consist mostly of inflated tenured faculty salaries, in spite of low teaching loads. So, many junior faculty are needed to carry the actual load, while little remains for equipment, supplies or facilities. On top of this, tenured faculty initiate costly graduate programs, not because they are of interest to the profession, but because they produce new junior faculty, are prestigious in academia, and of course, employ tenured faculty. This is why tuition is so high, and why downsizing, the key to productivity, is not feasible. With this anachronistic tenure system, educational change is unlikely.

Second, there is no internal mechanism to measure the effective performance of graduates in the profession. NASAD focuses on criteria such as facilities, faculty salaries, budgets, and credit hours; not student performance. NASAD evaluation teams are primarily educators chosen by educators. The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), which from 1970 to 1984 operated its own independent School Recognition Program with practitioner evaluation as part of it, no longer does so. With no internal criteria or measurement of professional performance, educational change is unlikely.

Third, there now exists no external market influence on academic programs, such as in the business world, which might force curriculum change, more competitive faculty and student performance, or cost reductions. Many programs pay lip-service to practitioner inputs through advisory panels, who review programs and prepare exhaustive recommendations, only to see them gather dust without implementation.

But here there is some hope. If the industrial design profession could exert genuine market pressure on schools, change would occur. What is needed is courageous and dramatic action by practitioners.

And why not? Industrial design practitioners, in fact, originated the current educational system, over 60 years ago. The first two programs were created by the first corporate design director at Westinghouse, Donald Dohner. In 1944, an ideal four-year curriculum was created by IDSA's predecessor, the Industrial Designers Institute (IDI), based on a poll of its members-- all practitioners. It became the model for most post-war education programs.

The purpose of these first educational programs was to prepare students for the immediate needs of post-war industry and design studio employment, or of independent practice in the field. They included a basic art education to produce effective two and three dimensional visual concepts, and a generalist education including verbal communication, physics, art history, business procedures, drafting, market research, production methods, and mathematics, among others.

Then, professional educators took over. By 1948, there were 22 programs teaching industrial design, which together, formed what would become the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), and implemented accreditation of all art and design programs. It continues to do so, and since 1984, publishes, but does not enforce, entry-level performance standards developed by IDSA.

So, why shouldn't IDSA, the only national organization representing the industrial design profession, assume the responsibility of additional action needed to produce a genuine market influence for educational change?

The most effective way to do this is through IDSA-granted certification of industrial designers through national testing. Such action, if taken, would follow the lead of other disciplines like engineering, architecture and interior design, which, for decades, have tested for minimum standards in their fields.

IDSA-granted certification is not a new idea. After years of comparing competing self-regulation options, including registration and licensing, IDSA concluded that certification was the most economical and effective. In 1979, IDSA developed fundamental entry-level qualifications and still publishes them in its annual directory. A plan for qualifying examinations for testing was prepared for intended implementation after the 1984 NASAD agreement, part of IDSA's long range plan, but no further action was taken.

More recently, an IDSA Task Force, appointed to review IDSA's role in design education, recommended in 1995, "that IDSA initiate a formal certification process that recognizes minimal standards for practice in the field of industrial design. IDSA certification would not be legally binding and would simply represent a standard for recognition by IDSA." Although accepted, two subsequent IDSA administrations have taken no action on this recommendation, possibly due to preoccupation with IDSA's excellence awards program, which, sadly, has little influence on educational programs.

Voluntary IDSA certification testing could be either connected to, or independent of, IDSA membership. The costs of administration and testing, done on a regional basis, could be borne solely by application fees. There already exists a national network of private testing facilities and personnel, which performs similar services to all sorts of professional organizations. IDSA need invest only its good name and approve the test itself, not administer the testing process. Contrary to conventional wisdom, no State or governmental involvement is required.

What could be the benefits of such an IDSA certification program?

For the first time, entry level practitioners could be tested for performance against professional standards and become " IDSA-certified industrial designers". Their success (or failure) would reflect directly against their schools, thus providing a real external market record, mechanism and competitive incentive for schools to meet actual professional standards.

Design employers, for the first time, could have evidence of candidates' professional performance. Of what use are inflated grades and a cookie-cutter portfolio more attuned to art school than the business world? Of what use are more graduates, if many are professionally incompetent? The pre-screening process of IDSA certification would reduce the risk of hiring and years of costly re-training by employers.

Design practitioners, for the first time, could earn a credential of professional meaning to clients. In an era where college degrees are 10 times more common than 50 years ago, and almost professionally meaningless, practitioners need more than a de-valued undergraduate degree to demonstrate superior qualifications.

Students, for the first time, could know exactly what the profession demands of them. More importantly, they would know whether or not they meet those requirements. IDSA certification would surely become an essential résumé credential, and a powerful incentive for students to demand that their program and faculty prepare them for it.

Best of all, educators would have a genuine market standard for professional competence. They would have genuine incentive to change their programs in order to enable students to meet it, and to enable their programs to survive competitively. It is certain that IDSA and all professionals would be delighted to assist in such changes. Just watch what happens when published statistics identify the annual percentage of each school's graduates who become certified!

By implementing certification, IDSA would be following its historical tradition and its commitment to national leadership of the design profession by not only setting educational standards, but by insuring that they are actually met by entry-level practitioners. Many would say, it's about time.

If not certification, what? If not IDSA, who? If not now, when?