Deep or Wide
Between Education and the Design Profession
by Pete Zerillo
I tend to argue with myself. It usually ends peaceably unless it's
out loud on public transportation. As these last days of summer
fade into the school year, I find I am at odds with myself once
Educators serve two masters: to the student and the profession.
With limited time and budget, teachers struggle with the choice:
teach the person, or train employees. In schools of industrial design,
this issue is particularly relevant. The field has become so broad
that schools struggle to provide enough depth. The technical burden
of the software alone could fill a four-year course of study. Factors
like technology and globalization are changing the role of designer
at a break neck pace. Where design historically concerned itself
with manufactured things, today's designers are routinely employed
to also develop strategies, interactions, and experiences. Are design
programs teaching enough of the skills that designers really need,
or are we simply training the designers of tomorrow in the techniques
I teach design part time at an art college. Working with the students
for a semester is a short time, and we relate within mainly the
confines of the syllabus. It is difficult to know with certainty
that everyone in the classroom completed the assignment, let alone
learned the actual lesson. Are they prepared to enter the profession,
adding value to the process, or will the student be part of the
cost undertow of on-the-job training? And what about the transportation
design graduates who don't get jobs in the field? Is their education
wasted? I think about this because I believe it my duty to help
the student develop as a whole-precisely because of the uncertainty
of the profession.
Design is about order. It is a plan-a strategy. Leveraged by manufacturers'
costs, marketers' sell, and consumers' souls, design negotiates
constraints into useful and beautifully ordered forms. For my students,
I use the designer-as-a-lens metaphor. The many constraints and
needs on one side need to be focused into a beautiful solution on
the other side. It is said that good constraints drive good design,
and that's because good design cannot be realized with unclear goals.
Skills are a means of communication. A hand drawn sketch conveys
the designer's intent. Is consulting a materials engineer any different?
The expert is an asset to be leveraged just as a pencil is an asset
to facilitate communication. Verbal, written and visual communication
are the most important skills a designer can have. You can have
the best, most researched idea, but if you cannot communicate it,
explain it, or sell it-what good is it?
In Medicine, doctors spend a lot of time in school to understand
the complexities and intricacies of the human body. The doctor,
however, does not work alone. There are specialists that focus on
highly technical and segmented professions. The general practitioner
leverages the expertise of pharmacists, radiologists and lab technicians
to benefit the patient.
In the selfsame manner, the industrial designer works among a team
of different specialists. It becomes the designer's role to coordinate,
communicate with, and navigate through a myriad different disciplines.
The designers have a duty as the user-advocate in the product development
process-the core competency of the industrial designer being less
associated with the ability to style artifacts than to form connections
with the humans who use them.
The necessary skill set involved in this role of general practitioner
is different from that of the one-man show. To specialize is to
maintain a tight focus. Precise focus limits vision. Specific study
constrains creativity by nature. The generalist must constantly
change hats through different phases of the development cycle. As
the project gets passed from expert to expert, the designer maintains
the duty of user proxy. The ability to navigate this environment
necessitates a broad exposure to information, media and methodology.
Is it still important to be able to produce a realistic physical
appearance model? What about marker rendering? What about drafting?
These were important things when the hand had a monopoly as the
imagination's spokesperson, but to hang your hat on your pastel-rendering
prowess won't get you very far in today's marketplace. Technology
and methods come along faster than any can be mastered.
The skills taught should reflect the state of the art, but be general
enough to assist the student to be able to shift when necessary.
Exposure to an array of softwares and techniques should be emphasized,
rather than the dedication to the mastery of any one tool. Just
because a company decides to outsource it's ProE modeling to India
doesn't mean that designers shouldn't bother to learn the program.
We will always need to communicate, and we need to have common languages.
That language will change over time, and it's is impossible for
a school to anticipate what the next step is. Five years ago, did
Alias think its main competition (Rhino) would be an $800 former
AutoCAD plug in?
And why pay $600 a credit hour to learn a CAD package that you could
pick up through a tutorial and a "personal learning edition"
of the software? Will the consulting agencies and corporations still
use it in five years when the student graduates? With the limited
time that students are in school, their time would be better spent
working on documentation and communication skills so they can sell
themselves as masters of innovation and creative problem solvers
instead of "Cad Monkeys." Any school that focuses too
narrowly, be it on research, theory, or skills, does a disservice
to its students.
I also work for a design consultancy, and it is part of my job to
find the "talent." A good team is critical to success.
Sometimes it's easy-we don't stay up so late and the client is pleased.
Sometimes it takes more work.
Consultancies seek technical skill sets that can add value to the
team and produce billable hours of work. There is very little tolerance
for a learning curve or education on the company dime. It is myopic,
but that's business. Training people costs a lot, and by the time
you get new hires to be productive, they usually leave to get a
better job. Internships are critical to this exposure. More and
more programs are enforcing mandatory internships for their students.
Students coming out of the University of Cincinnati have already
been exposed to half a dozen professional design environments. Through
those co-op experiences, the graduate emerges with real world insights
into professional expectations.
I am generally looking for someone that can quickly plug into a
position on the team. If I have a project that needs 64 Photoshop
renderings tomorrow, that's what I'm looking for. It doesn't hurt
if the applicant has some category experience as well. If those
are 64 toaster concept renderings, I cannot afford for inexperience
to color the presentation. And I don't need to hear how fast a learner
someone is. If you're so fast, come back tomorrow when you are an
expert. Skills are a lever to open up the initial design experience.
It's that skill that gets you in the door. If the designer is good
at other things too, all the better.
I've seen some really good designers that I had to pass on because
they didn't have the experience in the right software package. Clients
are less impressed with handwork these days. The slick rendering
still sells, it's just that the rendering is MAYA instead of Prismacolor.
In a time when budgets are tight and timelines are tighter, I can't
afford to be a nurturer.
In today's dollars and cents world, technical experts are necessary
to leverage efficiencies in each item on the assembly line. In-depth
knowledge of production methods and market in each category are
pillars of appropriate design. Understanding the means of production
includes understanding how the client speaks to itself. I see the
move toward a global economy as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Companies still need to communicate the intent of their marketing
departments to their factories. Software standards serve as a method
of that communication. It's also nice to have a resource person,
or office expert, to rely on to help everyone get a little better.
It seems I am a hypocrite. I convey to my student the need to be
broad and focused outward on the world, yet I won't hire anyone
who can't model an organic form in Rhino or render chrome in Photoshop.
To be competitive in the world today, the designer can't afford
to be weak at anything. Schools can only do so much. Each design
program establishes its own place in the continuum. Different schools
are known for their different philosophies-theory, research, form,
etcetera. Professors impart their own unique interpretations. Schools
set the stage, but it's the students' responsibility to earn their
education through dedicated practice. And that education continues
through their professional lives. Maybe designers should be less
like doctors and more like the Marines, "Adapt and overcome."
And I continue argue with myself.
Now if anyone could teach work ethic
Pete Zerillo is a Chicago based designer and teacher.