How do you solve a problem like design education?

Simon Ellis | December 19, 2018

Time to read: 10 mins

Like the Woman In Black, in the shadows the designer lurks. Sinister and pale in the cold hued glow of their Mac screen. Knower of the unknown, they gnaw purposefully on an HB while gazing at you intently, seemingly understanding more about you than you know yourself. “So,” they say. “Tell me about your mother.”

“Sorry, I meant your brand. Tell me about your brand.”

Design is weirdly misunderstood, either as a black art that requires kid gloves to handle, or as a nice-to-have when something ‘needs a bit of jazz’.

The latter is easy to understand. There’s a good reason why people choose the term ‘jazz’. Whether you like jazz or not, anyone can recognise a situation where a bit of ‘jazz’ is called for. It’s shorthand for: ‘Something, I dunno, different. Creative. Play it and I’ll tell you when you’ve got it.’ It’s the shot-in-the-arm to liven things up. A bit of the unexpected. Like pulling out Cards Against Humanity after dinner, or suggesting everyone put their car keys in a bowl… OK, maybe not that, but something.

The former is less straightforward. Design is enormously powerful, if trusted and supported and bought into. There’s volumes of evidence to back this up – just look at the web sites of the Design Council or IDEO for instance, or read the case studies of design at PepsiCo or 3M. Design as a process is powerful because it deals with human truth. It solves problems by working with human nature, not by trying to govern it or constrain it. That’s why it’s such a beautiful field to work in. It assumes nothing about specific individuals, but studies the realities of humanity that are shared by us all.

Design as a process is powerful because it deals with human truth. It solves problems by working with human nature, not by trying to govern it or constrain it. That’s why it’s such a beautiful field to work in.

Still, as adults we seem to struggle to understand design and consequently seek it out as a solution provider. Businesses, for the most part, are unsure as to how to access it, work with its exponents, leverage it, or even what to expect from it. And I think it’s because of the way it is taught in school.

When I was at school, ‘graphic design’ wasn’t even mentioned in the curriculum. ‘Design’ was first mentioned as a technical discipline, applicable to product design, or mentioned as a by-word in art classes along the lines of: “Wow, you’re good at drawing, so you should consider being a designer (because there’s no money in being an artist).”

Hence, a young mind’s appreciation of design was either knocking up crude plywood toys or something tied closely to art, which some won’t be confident about because by the age of eight they already considered themselves to not be ‘creative’. In both cases, the actual process of design was never delivered, so, I would argue, ‘Design’ was never actually taught.

Things have improved a bit – Graphic Design is mentioned and covered in the art curriculum, but I have grave misgivings about what is taught and how schools go about that.

Graphic Design is mentioned and covered in the art curriculum, but I have grave misgivings about what is taught and how schools go about that.

A couple of years ago we had a terrific young man join us for a week’s work experience. He liked the idea of getting into design, but right from the get-go it was clear he really didn’t understand what a designer exists to do. This was not his fault. The brief he’d been given by his school was to design an album sleeve. It asked him to come up with a band name, decide what type of music the band produced, and design a logo and album cover to suit. Consequently, by day three he had yet to decide on the band name, and was bogged down in a mire of fictional track listings.

I was really frustrated on his behalf. He wasn’t being taught design, he was still being taught art under the guise of design. Art is a discipline I have huge respect for, but where art is expression – enabling people to engage with the very personal – design is analytical. Where art can draw our attention to a problem, design seeks to solve it. As designers, if we were asked to create branding for a band, we would need to understand the individuals and cumulative spirit of its members, and of course, we’d need to hear the music. We wouldn’t have a choice about that. Those would be our parameters, and our first job would be to get excited about it.

Where art can draw our attention to a problem, design seeks to solve it

You can solve the problem of how to teach design in schools by applying Design Thinking. Here’s my stab at it:

Establish the objective – what does good look like?: We’re trying to empower teenagers with the ability to use Design Thinking as a problem solving methodology. We’re not setting out to produce designers, we’re trying to nurture innovative thinkers that can improve the world around them. We want them to be confident that through Design as a process, they can be creative.

Empathise – what are these kids like?: They’re teenagers. They’re distracted by each other and worries of the future and the big bad world. They have enough awareness to be fearful, but not enough life experience to be wise. They have already identified themselves as ‘creative’ or not.

Define the problem – where’s it going wrong?: Somewhere earlier in their schooling. I was identified as good at art on my first day of school (‘Yellow Tipper Lorry’ in crayon and dribble, 1978) and was consequently considered as ‘creative’ thereafter. But that isn’t what makes me a good designer. So, the problem in schools is in the alignment of art and design.

Ideate – let’s have some ideas: Teach Problem Solving as part of Humanities. Teach Design Thinking as part of that curriculum. Teach Design as being applicable to all, not just those who have artistic flare – embed collaboration with diverse teams, working together through the conduit of design. Encourage teams of arty types, sporty types, eggheads and nerds. Remove Design from the Art curriculum. Get schools to reach out to designers and designers reach in to schools. Don’t leave it til kids are teenagers. Encourage schools to ask designers to write their briefs for them. And then get them in to help review the work.

Prototype – let’s try something out: My own son, who is actually doing a GSCE in Graphic Design, was given a pretty good brief recently. However, still so much of the basic elements were left to him to create, which bogged him down in indecision and prevarication right at the start when the design process is actually most exciting. So I wrote him a brief. It still aligned with what his teacher was trying to get him to do of course, but it established the parameters in which he had to deliver. Parameters are crucial to the designer.

Test – or in this case, a commitment: Today I’m going to draft a note to my sons’ school and hopefully open a dialogue about supporting their design teaching. I want to offer workshops, brief writing and work review sessions. Perhaps mentoring outreach for those at A-level who want to progress into the Design sector. I’ll let you know how we get on.

 

Design Thinking is where empathy drives strategy through human understanding. That’s why we love it so much. I hope you’ve found this article useful or at least interesting, despite me not getting it out on Thursday (again!)

All the best and thanks for reading

Si Ellis