Pixel Roller project from RCA graduates
This is the postscript of the 6-part series from Ziba's Industrial Design Director, Paul Backett, on rethinking design education. Read the Introduction to the series, Teach Less, Integrate More here
Bringing Industrial Design education in line with the needs of the profession will require raising standards across the globe. The majority of graduating students I've seen are ill-prepared for real world design practice and the responsibility for this lapse falls heavily on teachers and course administrators.
It's not enough to just put good designers in front of a classroom. The best schools create a culture of rigor and excellence that outlives the tenure of any one instructor. An established culture lets students know what's expected of them and pushes them to push each other beyond simply adequate to exceptional. Too many programs are missing that.
Yet here at Ziba, we still manage to find good graduates to hire. There are courses that get it half right and a handful that reliably produce designers that studios fight over. Perhaps the best way to improve design education is not to point out what's wrong but to highlight what's right.
What follows is a list of schools that I really respect. It's by no means exhaustive, but among the portfolios I've reviewed, classrooms I've visited and online work I've seen over the years, these are the courses I'd pick as examples for the global design education community to learn from.
Northumbria University - Newcastle, UK
The fraction of working British designers who studied at Northumbria is incredibly high (though I'm not among them). Apple's Jony Ive is the most famous, but it's a rare UK studio that doesn't have at least one graduate from this institution in the northeast of England.
What sets Northumbria apart is its rigor, in both research and technical execution. Students produce dense, thoughtful multipage documents that explain their target user, context and project goals in depth. These are followed up with beautifully realized designs that leave no detail to chance. Nobody graduates from Northumbria without an impeccable portfolio and flawless final presentation models that immerse the viewer in the product story.
Royal College of Art - London, UK
Some of the most inspiring and creative people I've ever met, graduates of the RCA have a unique capacity for thoughtful viewpoints that can be 180 degrees removed from everyone else in the room.
The RCA is renowned for pushing its students to tear down the design process and build it back from the ground up, so every project is a reinvention. And unlike many ID schools, it expects most students to produce fully working prototypes by course's end. I vividly remember seeing the "Magic Pixel Roller" in action at a student show a few years back and being truly astonished.
Umea Institute of Design - Umea, Sweden
A tiny ID-focused school seven hours north of Stockholm, Umea produces graduates with a great blend of artistry and technical skills, who manage to win at least one IDEA award nearly every year.
Umea's isolation and small size work in its favor, bringing together students from around the world and mixing them in an intense, concentrated environment. The school's strong ties with industry, especially European transportation manufacturers, mean the work is both pragmatic and boundary-pushing.
Design Academy Eindhoven - Eindhoven, Netherlands
Every good design school tells good stories, but Eindhoven's mastery of narrative is legendary. The identity of the school is steeped in a particularly Dutch playful inventiveness, and this manifests in the work of every student they graduate.
To the outside viewer, Eindhoven does an equally great job promoting itself and its students. Especially around graduation time, design blogs and magazines everywhere start filling up with images of clever final projects from the course, that manage to feel both individual to the student and unmistakably Eindhoven. Joep Verhoeven's lace fence from 2005 is an excellent example: thought-provoking, beautifully finished and smile-inducing.
University of Cincinnati - Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
UC's undergraduate Industrial Design program, more than any other course in the United States, is producing graduates that can go straight into the design industry.
Cincinnati's ID co-op program is justly famous. Extensive connections to industry and top design consultancies means UC students typically graduate with 18 months worth of work experience under their belts, allowing them to hit the ground running right out of school. More than that, the fact that they come back together after each co-op to compare experiences and share skills makes them incredibly well-rounded. That UC students sketch more beautifully than just about anyone else is an added bonus.
Brigham Young University - Provo, Utah, USA
Less well-known than many American design programs, BYU continually impresses with solid, unflashy but well-considered design work that solves real problems and addresses human needs.
The school is distinguished by a remarkably passionate teaching staff who instill that passion in their students. They also inspire an incredible level of user empathy; students here, more than almost any other school, are clearly not designing for themselves. The BYU work ethic is one of the strongest I've encountered, with students tenacious enough to make short work of obstacles that would completely frustrate the typical ID grad.
Hong Ik University - Seoul, Korea
The name "Hong Ik", translates literally as "service to mankind", suggesting a refreshing change from the rockstar mentality that sometimes comes with a top-notch design program.
Korean designers are gently revolutionizing the modern design world, and Hong Ik is doing more than any other school to define the modern Korean approach to design. By combining impeccable technical skills with a clear desire to build a national design identity, they're equipping their graduates with that rarest of qualities: a fresh perspective.
Surveying these successes and the priorities laid out in the previous five posts, I'm going to finish this series with a list of steps that any design program could take to make its course more relevant. There's more to good design education than these five, of course, but they make a strong starting point.
1. Design for the Real World. Really.
In an excellent design program, your peers are as important as your teachers. As the co-op programs at Cincinnati and Northumbria show, sending students into the real world then gathering them together to share experiences and knowledge can do wonders to link classroom learning with professional practice.
Professors have an obligation to bring real world design challenges into the curriculum as well. While not every project needs to be torn from this morning's headlines, most design courses slouch toward theory more often than necessary, and could use more input from future employers. The challenges of design change from year to year; the challenges of design school should too.
2. Minimum Qualifications that Mean Something.
Because design is a professional degree, the best teachers can sometimes be hard to come by, since they're so often fully engaged doing design work. But that's no excuse for hiring teachers who haven't mastered their craft.
A design teacher must first and foremost be a master designer, with her own portfolio of well-researched and well-executed projects. Students are paying for a service when they go to school, and they have every right to expect highly qualified vendors, even if those vendors are going to be assigning them homework.
3. It Takes a Professional Community.
Even more than traditional academics, no design program can afford to be an ivory tower. Successful design schools have strong ties to their local design community and national professional organizations, as sources of guest critique and information, and to help students kickstart their networking process. Nobody should graduate from an ID course without being on a first name basis with at least a dozen working designers.
4. A Studio That Students Work In.
The shared studio space is just as essential to design education as the lecture and the crit. Schools that send students home to work on their projects are doing them a tremendous disservice.
My studio experience as a student in Glasgow began with a tremendous sense of ownership. Our first task as studiomates was to come together and "brand" our space, determining its layout, policies—even the color scheme and name. This set the stage for an incredibly productive few years. We built a learning community, shared in each other's successes (and failures), and became each other's toughest critics. This kind of communal environment is essential to the design process, allowing projects and ideas to cross-pollinate and encouraging students to help each other and share expertise.
5. A Shop Where Things Get Made.
If making and exploring in 3D are to be as natural and comfortable as sketching, the shop needs to be as accessible as the studio. Students must feel that they "own" both spaces.
Practically, this means a shop that's open late—ideally 24 hours a day. Safety dictates that certain power tools will be off limits during off hours, but basic hand tools and work tables must be available when the need strikes. Some schools hold classes in the shop to encourage familiarity, and this is often a good idea. But as with any other design skill, there's hardly a better way to get students using tools fluently than to combine abundant resources with high expectations.
Rethinking Design Education Series
Download a full .pdf of this series from Ziba's Perspetives page here.
» Introduction: Teach Less, Integrate More
» Research: Learning Extreme Empathy
» Sketching: Approaching the Paper with Purpose
» Prototyping: Learning to Think and Make with Your Hands
» Collaboration: No Rockstars Please
» Presentation: The Three Stories Every Designer Must Tell
About Paul Backett
Paul leads industrial design teams at Ziba on a variety of strategic and tactical design programs ranging from medical devices to consumer electronics, apparel and footwear. He is responsible for the design intent for all industrial design products, and a mentor to the Ziba ID team. His diverse experience, coupled with the desire to immerse himself fully in the target consumers' world, has helped Paul deliver innovative brand building solutions for clients such as Nike, P&G, Respironics and Dell. Paul enjoys uncovering solutions to problems of all sizes and particularly finds the prototyping process to be an inherently rewarding part of the design process.
Prior to joining Ziba, Paul was a designer at Seymour Powell in London, where he was involved in programs for Nokia, Unilever, and Mission Speakers. Paul is a native of Edinburgh, Scotland; and holds a First Class Honors degree in Product Design from the Glasgow School of Art.