Tuesday, January 24th, 2006

The erosion of design education

The erosion of design education
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I disliked a large part of my art school experience. At many times, I found it very difficult to slug through. A six hour life-drawing session felt more exhausting than most would believe; furthermore, as a seventeen year old, the level of intimidation I felt during a group critique remains pretty memorable.

Additionally, the experience often felt as though it was slower than necessary. I couldn’t always grasp the importance of the assignments, and really just wanted to get out of there and do the work I so enjoyed; nevertheless, I spent those four years irritable, while growing a great deal.

For the many struggles over those years, I must say that the lessons I learned helped me work through many challenges which arose later in my professional practice. I was lucky to have instructors like Renee Van Halm, Sam Carter, and John Wertschek (alongside a number of others) who challenged me, and ensured that I was actually learning during my time at the Emily Carr Institute.

Today I’m frustrated. No, scratch that… I’m pissed off.

From week to week, I find more resumes in my inbox than I can sort through. Other than the occasional amazing talent (I’d say one in every fifty), I am bombarded by a large number of new designers who are desperately trying to break in to the industry they trained for. Some are just young, and need time to mature and build their portfolio. Others however have been hoodwinked by institutions that had no real means to offer a design program; yet, they chose to offer one anyway. I find that it is particularly difficult to respond to these people.

I would like to tell these applicants to just keep working, and that everything will come together; but, in most instances, this would be a lie. Quite often, they are further behind than they were before they began their (mis)education, armed with a portfolio of tragically misdirected work, having learned almost nothing that can actually be applied to any kind of professional practice.

In the past ten years, the proliferation of Design and New Media programs offered by institutions is both notable and distressing. It exposes the flagrance of these institutions that launch programs intended to leverage industry trends instead of actually educating students. I have to wonder what this mass “sell-out” of higher learning means for the future of education. More immediately however, I worry about a batch of students who are unknowingly squandering years of their life on programs that were stillborn.

The reason that this topic is so ripe for me today, leads back about eight to ten months. At that time, I was contacted by the community college in my hometown, to answer a series of questions regarding the New Media and Design program they were looking to restructure. I advised them to narrow the offering of the program, concentrate on fundamentals, and court a new faculty for the program. I felt that this would help them access the expertise needed to in fact deliver on their mandate.

I was particularly passionate about the topic, as we had turned so many of their past graduates away, due to their remarkably deficient portfolios. These were nice kids who really wanted to work, but frankly, would have to be deprogrammed to just become employable with any substantial firm.

Don’t blame me for this one

This morning, I stumbled upon the College’s redesigned offering. This revamped program was purportedly built around the feedback of people like me. It is a train-wreck. They have forgone the opportunity to carefully build a reputable program, and instead have tried to cram in every skill one might possibly require in a creative shop. It simply lacks any of the focus required to be useful to its future students.

The curriculum is scattered to say the best. In just two years, they will introduce their students to writing, publishing, creativity, illustration, interactive, multimedia design, technology, animation, video, sound, history, professional practices, and oh so much more!

I feel the offering is quite extensive, given that none of the listed faculty actually appear to have any experience in professional practice or background in much of what they are to offer. Certainly, they can infill with sessional staff; however, I ask, given that design is part of their core offering, shouldn’t one of their key faculty members actually have a substantial personal history in that discipline? I’m quite certain that those who do not practice or have a credible background in design quite simply have no right to teach it.

If you would like to peruse the program and offering for yourself, you will find the College of New Caledonia’s New Media Communication + Design program’s website here: www.cnc.bc.ca/nmcd/

Now, I think that we can all agree that a community college should be afforded some latitude in their level of offering. No one expects a small institution like this to compete with the Rhode Island School of Design; however, I feel that they do have a responsibility to those who trust in their ability to deliver a substantial education. The media relating to this particular program notes that they will ensure that graduates are “highly employable”, as a result of their new education model. I am left highly skeptical.

This is of course just one example; yet, I believe that it represents a systemic challenge faced by our industry. It seems that as a result of these haphazardly offered programs, our profession suffers from a glut of incapable designers who deserved a better indoctrination to the practice.

Now you too can be a graphix deziner!

These programs are everywhere, and the confusion surrounding them is growing. It cheapens our practice, and exhausts young people who could have a good shake at the industry, given the proper support and a sound education.

One of the most consternating thoughts I have heard on this topic was from a seventeen year old who was considering design colleges to attend. He felt that a one or two year program at VFS was in fact the equivalent of a four year program at the Emily Carr Institute. He had been led to believe that by paying five times the tuition, they would simply concentrate that much more learning in to the year.

There are no shortcuts here. Sure, there are intensive programs; however, as a new design student, you simply cannot condense this much learning in to a single year.

Students generally require time to explore, grow, and debate. That process cannot be compressed excessively. The logic is simply flawed. I would compare it to baking a cake faster by setting the oven to “broil”.

Many of these institutions tout the state-of-the-art software that they teach, as a key benefit of their curriculum. I would argue that the applications used in our industry are simply a means to an end, and should remain far from the focus of any design curriculum. An education in design has everything to do with process, craft, and critical thinking. (Photoshop comes pretty easy when you have those first points covered.)

To the trained eye, it’s easy to see the difference between the programs offered by varying institutions; however, the issue is that these new students often lack this critical ability to gauge the difference between programs. Isn’t it then someone’s responsibility to inform them?

Why so grumpy Eric?

I’m sure that the people at CNC’s NMCD program (and many others like it), will think I’m a real Mr. Stinky Pants for saying these less than flattering things about their programs, and I’m almost sorry about that. I suppose that what limits my apology is the number of times I’ve had to explain to one of their students that they picked a program that never should have been offered in its current state.

Firms like ours are the ones who have to let down these new graduates when their work isn’t up to par. More than that however, I find it deceitful to squander the energy and time of people who entrust these institutions with their welfare.

My advice to young students and parents is always the same. Look for the best institutions you can, visit the campuses of interest, discuss the programs with faculty and alumni, and rigorously research the credibility of the program, faculty, and institution.

As much as the responsibility for quality education should rest upon the institution offering the program, the onus sadly lies upon you, the applicant. I encourage you to do your homework. A career in design is rewarding and worthwhile. Don’t allow anyone to compromise your opportunity to do great work in this field.

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