For the hopeful design student, selecting the right program is no easy task. There are many factors that will guide your choice of school, and not all of them are as obvious as the school's location, size and cost. In fact, many of the most crucial traits of a design program are things that won't show up in the guidebook at all: the department's focus, its record on placing graduates into good careers, and details about the faculty. Such details can often be learned only by visiting the school in person and conversing with faculty, and current and former students.
But most important of all is for you, the student, to understand your own interests as much as possible, so that as you discover each department you'll be able to know whether it's the right place for you. Your design education is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you want to get the most out of it. Matching your interests to a program's strengths is crucial.
Some schools offer part-time and evening courses, or--even better--a "pre-college" program that runs for a few weeks over the summer, giving you a taste of the ID program before applying. Once you've assembled your top ten list of schools, you should inquire to see if any of them host such programs.
While there are too many aspects of design education to describe them all, here's a short list of some of the most important ones for a potential student to understand before committing:
Different programs have different emphases. Some are more skills oriented, others more conceptual. Some educate graduates more suited to a corporate design office, others train designers more suited to consultancy work (not to say the skills are mutually exclusive, but consultancies often have different needs). Some programs really work the engineering and manufacturing end of the design process, while others have a focus on environmental sustainability. While none of these is necessarily right or wrong, it's important to know what you're looking for, and make sure the program fits.
A design school needs to have a good post-graduation network to help you find a job. Ask the program head or placement advisor about how many of their graduates go on to successful design careers--go ahead and get specific, about what companies, how soon after graduation, and in what capacity. How connected is the program with the local if professional design community (if there is one -- there are some excellent schools out in the middle of nowhere)? Do working designers come in for critiques? Does the school sponsor projects with outside companies, studios, or nonprofits?
Find out what requirements the school has for internships. Many employers strongly prefer even freshly-minted graduates to have work experience in a design studio, so a program that requires at least one internship before graduation can be a real boon. You should also find out how much support the school offers students to help them find internships. This is related to point #2: is the school well connected? If it's not and doesn't have local design firms that regularly bring on interns from within its program, you will be left to your own devices and will have to relocate temporarily to do the internship (typically over summer break). All of these things are workable, and living in different parts of the country to work can be great fun, but it's often expensive and requires initiative on your part.
Faculty make or break a program, and some of the most important questions have to do with their abilities and qualifications. How many of them are experienced professional designers, for instance? How capable and engaging are they as teachers? Some schools--universities in particular--will have a large proportion of tenured faculty that haven't set foot in a design office in 15 years or more, and a handful of part-time professors who are also working designers. Other schools reverse this ratio. Again, ask for specifics: which members of the faculty have worked recently, at which firms, for how long, on what types of projects? Even requesting resumes isn't out of line--you're the customer in this case, and you have a right to know. This is not to say that tenured faculty are bad, but the design world changes rapidly; a good program needs to be timely, and bring real-world experience into the classroom.
As much as you can, once you've got your list narrowed down, ask around in the professional design community about the reputations of your top schools. It's good to hear from others that the program you are interested in is worth attending. Accreditation is another big issue, and absolutely essential in the US, especially if you decide later you want to go for a graduate degree. The IDSA has a list of accredited ID programs, and if your program's not on it you should put some real thought in before investing yourself there.
Don't take this for granted! All programs should give you an understanding of the basics of the profession, and provide access to facilities that allow you to explore them. Learning how products work, how they are made, how to make them work better, what makes them look right, and how to present ideas are all core requirements in this field. Easy access to libraries with relevant industrial design materials, as well as to wood-working, metal-working, and plastics shops, is essential to your studies.
At a recent design conference, I heard hiring designers reviewing student portfolios remark "If I were some of these students, I'd demand my money back from the school. They just aren't prepared." Don't let yourself be one of these students. By doing your homework before you start your education, you'll be prepared to take advantage of every opportunity the program has to offer, and enter the professional world ready to succeed.
Adam Richardson is a Senior Designer in the Innovation Process Group at frog design, inc., and teaches at California College of Art.