Are Design Students Getting A Proper Education?


Elissa Ebersold, our very helpful and talented college design intern, recently spoke of her design experiences in and out of the classroom. I found her perspective both informative and thought–provoking, especially as it pertains to what is being taught in the classroom and how it relates to real-world scenarios.

Or, more accurately, how it doesn’t.

Elissa has, on more than one occasion, mentioned practices that were either frowned upon or outright discouraged in her design education. One such example cited in her blog post is regarding the definitive use of classic, paid-for typefaces versus the free typefaces readily available on the Web. Elissa shares how her professors have discouraged her from non-vetted typefaces.

I think this topic needs to be explored more.

When students are discouraged from forming their own experiences or utilizing new techniques and technology, what kind of education are we giving them?

I’m a firm believe that a proper design education is an important asset to any future designer. It’s not that I haven’t seen incredible work done by those without a design degree, but I DO believe a design degree can be the difference between someone who is good and someone who is great. College-level design programs teach not only the fundamental hows and whys, but the equally important how NOTS and why NOTS.

Or at least they should.

Just as a painter studies the classics, so do design students. In Elissa’s, or any young designer’s case, learning about those classic typefaces, and the difference between a font and a typeface, is a necessary step in the education process. By learning about their history, the architecture of the letterforms and symbols, and then using them in her designs, it helps her to understand what makes up a good typeface. But that conversation should not stop there. In order to truly understand, we need to know not just why something is good, but why something is not.

If we can understand why something fails, we understand why it succeeds even better.

When you limit students to work with only those historic and educationally “sealed-with-approval” tools, you give them a counter-productive view of the design industry. Design is meant to communicate, to lead, to teach, to share concepts, ideas and experiences. It has the power to change thought and influence perception. All of these attributes are forward-thinking and require creativity and innovation. By limiting options you limit innovation. You force the designer, and their designs, to stand still.

We need to teach our students to fail.

Trying something new, and FAILING at it, will provoke more thought and teach a student more than blindly following the rule book. Not to be cliche, but how many times do you think the masters tried and failed before they became great? Failure is important.

For a young designer like Elissa, it’s important to understand what makes a poorly constructed typeface. And contrary to what you may or may not have heard, it’s not the price tag. The classic principals teach us about kerning, x heights, ascenders and descenders etc. By understanding these principals, a designer can recognize a well-constructed typeface.

What does that mean? A well-constructed typeface? Why does that matter?

It matters because a poorly constructed typeface that does not mind those principals affects legibility. It affects the very essence of what typography is. A tool of communication. By letting students use and experiment with unsuccessful typefaces and be able to determine why it doesn’t read well, it will instill those valued principals more effectively because they will have learned them for themselves. They will have their own experiences, resulting in a better designer, rather than just playing it safe and not taking risks.

I suppose I understand the sentiment of the college classroom steering young learning designers away from all the “fakes” to keep them on track, outputting higher levels of design (students robots?), but besides the fact that it just isn’t practical in an industry that is undeniably web saturated, it is not teaching them how to be the difference between good and great.

In no way am I solely putting any blame on professors themselves, but also on tardiness of design education as a whole to keep up with the industry. Every young designer I have interviewed, spoke to or reviewed in the past few years has shocked me at their lack of web work and overall knowledge of how design works with the web. These students are being taught the same antiquated print industry based design approaches that I myself was 10 years ago. Design and Web Design are no longer exclusive. So why does teaching our young minds otherwise make any sense? All that results is a vastly growing pool of unequipped and unhirable designers.

I believe design is something that you will always continue to learn. And again, I firmly believe that the foundations, history and classics are an extremely important part of that education. But instead of limiting our next generation of designers, we should be pushing them forward to success. As an older generation of designers teaching our experiences to those to come, we ourselves may need to reeducate so we can do our duty to our future designers. In an industry with a landscape that is changing all the time, how can we teach success without encouraging exploration and innovation. If we can’t, then we are in fact solidifying the argument that a proper design education is unnecessary and not as skilled as other industries.