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5 Dangerous Ideas for the Future of Design Education

Posted By Tom Berno, Monday, March 10, 2014
By Tom Berno—Professor of Communication Design, Texas State University and Founder of idea21
(Acknowledgement: The article title directly references noted author Scott Berkun’s presentation at the 2011 DMI Seattle conference Make it Happen.)

On August 20, 2013, DMI convened a workshop in Chicago to crystallize a future vision of design education. Conceived as a wide-ranging research initiative, DMI:futurED combined both quantitative and qualitative approaches to assess both the current state of design education in contexts relating to MBA, MFA and BFA programs and in professional environments.

This meeting of 50 dynamic figures included design and business program educators, prominent design leaders from firms such as frog and IDEO, design and business consultants and students. DMI President Michael Westcott addressed the gathering as “thought leaders” as he mapped out the goals and challenges for DMI:futurED.

FuturED promised to be an ongoing effort, and the discussions and debates from the workshop well represented the iterative aspect of design thinking. What emerged was not only the initial effort at building a roadmap to address many new realities, but also a number of ideas that each represented new challenges to the established order.  Here is an unordered list of 5 dangerous ideas discussed in depth at DMI:futurED:

The University is being disrupted— Sarah Stein Greenberg of the Stanford d School stated that the University is on the verge of being disrupted, and there is ample support for this notion in the broader press. The d School’s model of a non-degree granting program is disruptive in and of itself. Heather Fraser of the Rotman School of Business described the grass roots efforts of students in amplifying the focus on design and innovation at business schools (a trend seen in a number of prominent MBA programs). Craig Vogel of the University of Cincinnati focused on a lack of systems thinking within the University.

While online education receives much attention in this disruptive environment, Stein Greenberg stated that Stanford saw the opportunity to innovate around the on-campus experience. Other business leaders at futurED identified the opportunity to redefine universities as experiential design centers. Both approaches require university educators and administrators to pivot from a reactive posture to current challengers like the University of Phoenix or struggle to implement online learning strategies. Roger Martin echoed this sentiment in a recent article: “We need class experiences which are very interactive, that create something generative out of the minds of the class (Hurst, 2013).”

The University may be too late— Educators and professionals alike expressed concerns within the working groups that the current reality of university education limits opportunities to historically disadvantaged minority groups and immigrants. This is at a time when the need for more diverse experiences and perspectives has never been greater in the context of the global economy. 
Surya Vanka, a leader of Microsoft’s UX practice, focused on the need to connect students at the K–12 level to design and design thinking. He emphasized the need to illuminate alternate educational paths to the medical and legal fields that dominate consideration among high-achieving students in minority groups—an interest often reinforced by parents in those groups. 

Elevating design and innovation into competition with these traditionally high value fields is the best opportunity to grow a diverse community of design leaders, Vankya expressed. Gallup recently found that the current generation feels that “success…is less about getting the highest paying job and more about what (the individual) likes to do and does best (Busteed, 2013).” Connecting design with students ahead of the university experience is also a potentially disruptive challenge to the university system.

The new ideal hire is a team— Professionals such as Tonya Peck and Jason Severs from frog and Annette Diefenthaler from IDEO focused discussion within one group on a whole range of qualifications well beyond the traditional portfolio-centric view of talent evaluation. This increasing emphasis on intellectual and emotional intelligences identified by the working group led to a conclusion that few entry-level designers would possess such a broad set of capabilities. At the same time, the imperative for collaboration is advancing across the practice of design. 

Elite design programs produce organic teams of friends and collaborators, many of whom enter the profession as established partnerships as opposed to seeking entry-level employment. Innovative design organizations—particularly in the Bay Area—may find that group hires, or acquisitions of young design startups, provide a competitive advantage in the battle for talent along with improved performance benefits internally. Corporate concerns seem to be adopting a similar strategy; acquisition of creative design studios by non design-focused companies from Google to Accenture confirms that integrating established and effective teams offers compelling performance advantages.

Desirable skills are survival skills— There is a need to emphasize parallel tracks in educating designers. Current needs, including technical skills, must remain a focus of design education. But skills and capabilities that will address future needs are also an urgent need. Increasingly, skills and capabilities that support personal growth are the point of emphasis here. Gravity Tank’s Elizabeth Glenewinkel emphasized this point in discussion.

The traditional emphasis of design programs on portfolio development seems to fall well short of imparting a whole range of abilities geared towards expanding mental processes most desired by design organizations. Among those capabilities identified by a group that included leaders from frog and IDEO among others are curiosity, boldness, collaboration, defining problems, storytelling, improvisation, and agility. 

From the outset of the meeting, participants identified empathy as a prerequisite for designers to engage audiences and communities. Richard Buchanan of the Weatherford School of Management at Case Western Reserve emphatically stated that empathy was beyond a mere “skill” and initiated a lively debate concerning both the methods and the potential for instilling empathy via design education, and beyond. 

Design students lack cultural depth and awareness— Several representatives from leading design agencies expressed variations on this theme. Lack of curiosity and personal development were described as particular concerns. Jason Severs expressed a desire to see self-initiated projects in portfolios, while Adam Connor of Boston-based Mad*Pow emphasized that interpersonal skills and not canned answers made the biggest impression in interviews. 

In the broader context, participants encouraged the broadening of networks beyond design students’ own peers, and encouraged engagement with larger issues relating to government policy, social needs, and non-profit causes. Even noted designer and Pentagram partner Michael Beirut recently stated that “I would take someone who is able to read over someone who is able to draw any day” when asked about student qualifications (Butler, 2013). Design programs need to embrace a broader approach to address these new realities. 

FuturED illuminated a wealth of both challenges and opportunities. Design achieved an entirely new and elevated relevance as a means for competitive advantage and as driver of social change in the early 21st century. To truly realize the new potential of design to be “the liberal art of the 21st century” as described by Philadelphia University Provost Randy Swearer (2010), these 5 dangerous ideas must be addressed. DMI’s community has hopefully initiated not just a conversation, but also practical approaches for design education to address these, and other, emerging challenges.

Busteed, B. (2013) Is college worth it? Gallup Business Journal. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from [LINK]
Butler, A. (2013). Michael Beirut interview. DesignBoom. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from [LINK]
Hurst, N. (2013) Big corporations are buying design firms in droves. Wired. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from [LINK]
Liedtka, J., Podolny, J., & Swearer, R. (2010 June). Changes—in business and design education. In Re-thinking... the future of design. Symposium conducted at DMI Design/Management Thinking 22 2010 conference meeting, San Francisco, CA.
Ridgers, B. (2013). Disruption on the line. The Economist. Retrieved August 30, 2013, from [LINK]
Westcott, M., et. al. (2013 August). futurED. Symposium conducted at DMI futurED workshop, Chicago, IL. 

Tom Berno is founder of idea21, a design thinking and brand development practice based in Austin, Texas focused on integrating design-based strategies for competitive advantage. He is also a Professor of Communication Design at Texas State University. Throughout his career, Mr. Berno has enjoyed extensive recognition for excellence in design in trade publications, periodicals and exhibitions. Tom posts his thoughts on #designthinking and other topics on Twitter @tberno.

Tags:  design education  futurED  Tom Berno 

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RitaSue Siegel says...
Posted Wednesday, May 21, 2014
If has been many years that only the skills shown in a portfolio are the main criteria for whether or not a new grad or someone with experience is a prime candidate for a position. Glamour shots of solutions, if they happen to be hard products without a case history to describe content, action and result, do not constitute all that is necessary as a piece in a portfolio. The ability to explain and persuade are as important as are the stories about how the candidate was instrumental or a participant in "Getting things done" in an organization of some size.
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