More on the sorry state of web design education | December 2, 2009

Yesterday I documented my thoughts and observations on the standard of digital design education. From talking to current and recent students I’ve shared their frustrations as they bemoan being taught out-of-date technologies by lecturers far removed from the daily practices of design. Through visiting degree show I’ve witnessed a slew of substandard work caused by an over reliance of tool based education and a lack of design thinking ( If I witness one more Flash portfolio in the shape of a designers studio I think I’m going to cry.) So where does this problem arise from and what can be done?

It’s true that the web is still in it’s infancy and the profession doesn’t have the heritage of architecture or product design. However the web isn’t as young as it used to be and change happens a lot slower than we’d like to think. I’ve been pushing web standards for nearly a decade, yet we’re only now starting to see wide spread adoption. Sure, HTML5 and CSS3 are bleeding edge at the moment, but it’s going to take a good 3-5 years before they gain widespread adoption in the industry, so there’s plenty of time for Universities and Colleges to adapt.

I think one of the biggest problems stems from the faculty members themselves. In the early days people didn’t know what to do with web courses so gave them to the departments that resembled them best; computer science, graphic design, library sciences or HCI. Each department bought their own spin and their own set of prejudices and pre-conceptions. If you want to teach front end development, don’t give the course to a Java developer. Similarly, if you want to teach web design, don’t run the course out of the graphic design department. They may share similar DNA, but the differences are a lot stronger than they may first appear.

We need design courses to be taught by web designers. It’s as simple as that. So we need to remove these courses from the auspices of other departments and give them the room they need to breath. Much like architecture or product design, It’s a multi-disciplinary subject that needs to be taught my multi-disciplinary teams; interaction designer, front end developers and usability specialists.

For this to work we need buy-in from the Universities and a strong, charismatic course director to drive their vision through. A fantastic example of such a person is Liz Dansico, the force behind the new Interaction Design MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I had the honour of speaking to some of Liz’s students last week and I have to say that I was truly impressed. Liz has managed to pull together an amazing faculty which includes Jeffrey Zeldman, Robert Fabricant, Jason Santa Maria, Christopher Fahey and Khoi Vinh to name just a few. The week I was there she had Matt Mullenweg and Scott Berkin present to her class while the week before Jason Fried gave a talk. This is a line-up worthy of any industry conference. To have these people as your lecturers is outstanding.

What we need to do is encourage more practitioners into design education and encourage more design educators to continue their practice. Rather than having their own education stall at the point they enter the teaching profession, we need to encourage lecturers to keep up-to-date with the latest trends and techniques. This can be done by keeping abreast of books and blogs, by going to community events and by securing enough budget to attend industry conferences. We also need to encourage some of the great designers in our industry to take up teaching posts. In short, we need educators who are leaders rather than followers.

A great example of this are Web Standardistas Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson. These guys lecture on interaction design at the University of Ulster in Belfast. As well as writing a best selling book on standards based design they speak at conferences, organise community events and generally act as part of the glue that keeps our web community together.

Similar inspirational educators do exist, but they’re often poorly supported by their institutions and fairly thin on the ground. People I know doing good work include Dan Dixon at the Bristol Institute of Technology who I first met at London BarCamp and who regularly organises a web design conference for the students on his course. Or you have people like Leslie Jensen Inman from the University of Tennessee who is one of the driving forces behind the WASP Educational Task Force. We even have a few people from the school system like David Smith from St Paul’s School, London, who we first met at Reboot and who teaches his 14 year olds how to hardware hack on Arduino.

So what can be done?

In the medium term (2-3years) what I’d like to see is an inspirational course director get the backing of a respected University and given the remit (and budget) to put together a world leading curriculum. I’d like to see them assemble an amazing faculty passionate lecturers and industry experts in an amazing location and attract some of the most promising students around. Due to the density of local talent I think London is a logical place, although Brighton and Bristol run a close second. With a model to follow and something to strive for I imagine this would encourage other establishments to follow, in order to gain the respect and kudos this kind of excellence brings.

In the shorter term, I think we need to bring together some of these pockets of excellence and open up a discussion on the subject. It’s early days yet but I’ve already starting talking to the web standardistas about the possibility of arranging some kind of meet-up. We’d need facilities and preferably some sponsorship. But most of all we’d need a small but passionate group of people who are interested in changing the quality of design education in the UK for the better. I’d be interested to hear what you think and whether you feel that you fall into this category.

Over to you!

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The Sorry State of Web Design Education | December 2, 2009

A couple of weeks ago Wired Sussex invited me to a debate on the standard of design education in the UK. Being a topic incredibly close to my heart I literally jumped at the chance to participate. In order to create a sense of drama, the event pitted three designers against three educators in a heated and passionate discussion on the quality of design education in our industry.

I started by citing the recent ALA survey which showed that only half of the people polled felt that education was relevant to their work. For such a highly skilled profession, this is pretty shocking. However it’s understandable when you consider that most mid-to-senior level practitioners don’t hold a relevant degree as such things didn’t exist when they entered the profession. What really struck me was the response from those aged 19 and younger, 75% of whom felt education had little or no value. The statistics would seem to indicate that the education system is failing people at the point of their lives when it matters the most. From my own anecdotal experience I’d have to agree.

For the last 18 months Clearleft has been running an internship program to give young designers the practical experience they need. During that time I’ve interviewed dozens of people and the stories are almost always the same. Passionate designers and developers trapped in outdated courses where they often end up knowing more than their lecturers. One such student writes…

“The course is mainly just covering everything I have already taught myself. I’ve talked to my lecturers about this but none of them have worked in the industry, (worryingly) some are teaching themselves the stuff we are meant to be learning as they go so that they can teach us. “

Sadly, rather than being an anomaly, these type of comments have become par for the course. Consequently I’m seeing more and more young people eschew higher education in favour of the workplace. As somebody who understands the value of good education and looks back on their University times fondly, I think this is a sorry state of affairs.

So what has gone wrong? Well, for a start I see a lot of generic “web design” courses placing too much attention on tools and technology. Rather than teaching people Flash, Photoshop and Dreamweaver, we need to teach design fundamentals like grid layouts, typography and colour theory. We need to create students that are connected to the medium and have an understanding of the provenance of their craft; students who are schooled in critical thinking, who can deconstruct ideas, analyse briefs, solve problems and critique solutions. Just because you’re a digital designer doesn’t mean everything has to be digital, so we need people who can sketch out concepts, articulate their reasoning and defend their decisions both written and verbally.

In short we need to create good, well rounded designers.

Now I know we can do this as I’ve seen it happen in other areas. The UK has some of the top fashion schools in the world, producing graduates of outstanding calibre. We’ve got graphic design schools staffed by some of the top names in the industry, and product design schools creating our next generation of innovators. So why don’t we seem able to do the same for the world of interaction design?

More on this and other subjects soon.

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