On the state of graphic design education

There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional

As a supplement to my graduate school experience, I’ll be entering the classroom in the spring, for the first time, in a part-time teaching role. To prepare for this experience I took some time to research and reflect on the state of graphic design education as follows.

After a few years experience working with graphic design students in a professional setting, primarily through internships, it’s become clear to me that traditional graphic design programs are not properly preparing students to enter the workforce. The vast majority of graphic design programs, regardless of location, are in concept vocational training programs—a contemporary model that was inspired primarily by the Bauhaus, which also stressed intuitive solutions to design problems—in which it is essential that upon completion of training one would posses the proper technical skills to succeed in the design profession. And by technical skills, for the sake of this post, I’m referring to a depth of knowledge about the suite of software that print designers rely on, primarily Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. In addition, knowledge and understanding outside the field of graphic design is becoming more essential to a design student’s education as well.

Design programs often stress creativity and creative problem solving skills over teaching students the proper way to go about creating the solution once that problem is solved. Now, I understand that graphic design professors are paid to teach creativity, typography, theory, etc., and not software—an entire semester could be spent teaching Photoshop alone—but something has to change. The addition of regular software training courses to the curriculum, or the requirement that students spend extra lab time with online training resources, would be a start, but likely not the best solution.

For example: At my office we interview 4-5 graphic design students each year for potential internships, and our first question to candidates is typically “Do you know how to use InDesign?” We rarely receive a “yes” in response, and if we do it’s likely to be a reluctant answer. With a vast majority of the graphic design business still focusing on print, mastery of the page layout software is essential. More times than I can count an intern has turned in a text-heavy page layout for a flier or poster and I’ve commented, “it looks good, now recreate it in InDesign.” But the student can’t be blamed as often their professors are instructing them to use whatever software they prefer to work with, with more concern on the student’s creative process and not their technique, and page layout software isn’t likely to be the most appealing option to a student unfamiliar with the program.

Students take typography classes and learn the history of mechanical type and create beautiful and creative typography projects, but they don’t know how to kern letterspaces, or set indents without using the Tab key, or the difference between a typeface and a font. The first two of the aforementioned issues are prime examples of basic software knowledge that designer’s must have. They create posters that incorporate their own photography, but don’t learn how to color correct photos for printing. They learn what CMYK stands for, but aren’t taught why the color separation exists and have likely never seen a printing press at work. But again, this is not the student’s fault, it is merely an issue with the state of graphic design education, and it’s not the only problem.

Graphic design is an art that is based on the foundations of visual communication, and as designers we are becoming more responsible for interpreting cultural, historical, and societal messages into our work. Knowledge in multiple disciplines is becoming necessary for a designer to successfully achieve higher levels of function in message communication. The past couple decades have witnessed a rise in the academic field of Visual Culture and emphasis on multidisciplinary education, but the relevancy of these disciplines has yet to be incorporated into most graphic design curriculum.

A broader view of knowledge outside the realm of graphic design is just as important to a student’s education as creativity and software training. In fact, it is a supplement to the creative process. If multidisciplinary strategies are not encouraged or fostered in the design classroom, students often fail to see how they can apply knowledge gained from their outside courses into their design work. As a result, students often don’t understand when they are communicating incorrect messages or how their product fits into the larger context of society, often resulting in an inappropriate visual narrative. Graphic design students often enter the workforce with little other than a portfolio full of student work, and this missing level of understanding in both the product message and non-understanding of how to discuss their work can lead to lost job opportunities or failure to meet or communicate client needs.

In Teaching Graphic Design, Steven Heller proposes that graphic design programs should be designed to give students the tools they need to “decipher the various and often conflicting trends in our culture, and understand how they impact the way we think about design,” stressing that historical, social, economic, and political issues are all an integral part of the design practice. However, few of these themes seem to be at the forefront of most undergraduate graphic design programs.

Graphic design began as a trade activity, closely connected to the emergence of mass communication, and therefore this is the way that most design education is viewed. Further adding to this misconception is the public view on our “trade.” The abundance of software available to the public for designing layouts has caused an “anyone can do it” attitude towards our field to those uneducated in graphic design, and has spawned what my coworkers and I like to refer to as “Piano Mover Syndrome” in a number of clients. “Lets try it over here. Now let’s see what it looks like over here?” A solid education that prepares designers to enter the workforce with not only technical knowledge, but confidence and expertise in their craft, is necessary to convince clients that we are more than mere desktop publishers, but instead authorities in our field. Like any other trade, we must strive to become well-rounded experts at our craft.

To competently communicate in the changing society, designers will need to be equipped with much more than the technical skills that institutions are providing. In the words of design author Rick Poynor, what graphic design educations need now more than ever “is to establish new grounds for making assessments of effectiveness and value.” In an essay from Looking Closer 2: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Blauvelt and Davis assert that the changing climate of design requires expertise outside the design field; a multitude of knowledge that is absent from current day graphic design classrooms. They argue that this knowledge can only be gained through means outside of the design discipline. And several more scholars are in favor of the multidisciplinary graphic design education, particularly a liberal arts graphic design model.

Design scholar Richard Buchanan argues that, while basic, technical skills are still necessary, we must supplement these skills with other elements of learning that contribute to the formation of a liberally educated professional graphic designer. To accomplish this, Buchanan believes educators need to more consciously seek the advice of practicing professional graphic designers regarding what should be taught in the classroom. Instead of following the old model of design education, new conditions of practice must be anticipated and instructed in the classroom. According to Buchanan, when properly studied and understood, “design provides a powerful connective link with many bodies of knowledge. Design integrates knowledge from many other disciplines and makes that knowledge effective in practical life.”

Many institutions pride themselves on the availability of diverse course selections and requirements that students take, with little encouragement from graphic design programs to incorporate this outside knowledge in the design process. As the world becomes more diverse, design education will need to address these methods of integration. Connecting subjects and people across disciplines will be necessary in working toward a liberal arts formula for design education in the future, as long as educators can find ways to supplement technical skills training as well. It’s a tricky, but necessary road that graphic design education must take to enhance our working professionals.

Additional links
Steven Heller books


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