A Brief Guide To Design Education
by Adam Richardson
For potential design students, selecting the right program is no
easy task. There are many factors that will guide your choice of
school, not all as obvious as location, size and cost. What you
might not find in a guidebook are a description of the departments
focus, record on placing graduates and faculty details. Much of
this can only be learned from school visits and conversations with
faculty and current and former students. Most important is to understand
your own interests, as much as possible, so that as you learn about
each department you will know whether its 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, so selecting the right program
is crucial to your success.
Some schools offer a "pre-college" program that typically
runs for a few weeks over the summer, or part-time and evening courses,
that will give you a taste of the ID program before you apply. Once
you've got your top-ten list, you should inquire to see if participating
in a program like this is possible.
Following are some of the items that potential students should
understand before they commit to a program.
Different programs have different emphases. Some are more skills
oriented, others more conceptual. Some educate graduates who are
more suited to corporate design offices, others teach those who
are more suited to consultancy work (not to say these are mutually
exclusive, but consultancies often have somewhat different needs).
Some programs emphasize knowledge of engineering and manufacturing
more than others, while others have a focus on environmental sustainability.
None of these is necessarily right or wrong, you just have to think
about what you want.
A program needs to have a good post-graduation network to help you
find a job. Ask the head of the program about how many of their
graduates go on to successful design careers - ask for specifics
of when, and what companies, and in what capacity. How connected
is the program with the local (if there is one) professional design
community? Do outside designers come in for critiques? Does the
school sponsor projects with outside (local or other) companies?
Find out what requirements the school has for internships (in my
view it should require at least one before graduation, as many employers
strongly prefer even freshly-minted graduates to have work experience
in a design studio and how much support it provides to help students
find internships. This is related to point #2 - is the school well
connected? If it's not and doesn't have design firms locally that
can provide internships, you will be left to your own devices and
will have to relocate temporarily to do the internship (which will
need to be over summer break). All of these things are do-able,
and living in different parts of the country to work can be great
fun, but its good to be aware of options.
Faculty make or break a program. Some of the most important questions
have to do with them: what is their experience level as professional
designers? How good are they as teachers?. Some schools, particularly
universities, have a larger proportion of tenured faculty that might
not have set foot in a design office in 15 or 20 years, and relatively
few part-time professors who are also working designers; while other
schools have the reverse. Again, ask for specifics: which members
of the faculty have worked at which firm for how long, in what capacity,
and what kinds of projects did they work on? Ask to see resumes.
Not to say that tenured faculty are all bad, but the design world
is changing rapidly at the moment, and a good program needs to be
up-to-date 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 those schools. Its good to hear from others that the program
you are interested in is worth attending. And make sure the school
is accredited! This is 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 a program is not accredited
you should really think hard about investing yourself there.
Dont take this for granted! All programs should provide an
understanding of the basics of the profession and access to facilities
that will allow you to explore the design world. Learning how products
work, how to make them work better, how they are made, why they
look good or bad, 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."
Dont let yourself be one of these students. By doing your
homework before you start your education, youll be prepared
to take advantage of every opportunity the program has to offer,
and become a better designer as a result.
Adam Richardson is a Senior Designer in the
Innovation Process Group at frog design, inc., and teaches at California
College of Arts and Crafts.