• Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again

    It’s that time of year when Adaptive Path wades through stacks of design school students’ resumes, looking for summer interns and potential hires. As I was doing this, a trend that that I had suspected became clear to me: quite a few design schools no longer teach design. Instead, they teach “design thinking” and expect that that will be enough.

    Frankly, it isn’t.

    I was taught that design has three components: thinking, making, and doing. (Doing is the synthesis, presentation, and evaluation of a design; the bridge between thinking and making.) If all design schools are teaching is the thinking, well, they are missing the other two thirds of the equation. They have abandoned craft for craze. Thinking without the making and doing is almost useless in the job market, unless you want to work at Accenture or some other big consulting firm. It probably won’t help you get a job as a designer in a studio environment. You’d be better off getting a degree in Humanities; at least you would be well-rounded.

    D schools are doing a serious disservice to their students by only teaching them “design thinking” when a class in typography or mechanics or drawing might not only give them a valuable skill, but also teach them thinking and making and doing — all at the same time. For design to be truly useful as a profession and as a discipline, designers can’t just use “design thinking” to come up with strategies and concepts. Dare I suggest that those are much easier than building a product? Some notes on a whiteboard and a pretty concept movie or storyboard pales in comparison to the messy world of prototyping, development, and manufacturing. It’s harder to execute an idea than to have one, genius being 99% perspiration and all.

    What gets lost without the making is the detail work that makes us designers in the first place, the small parts where we earn our paychecks. Details are also where we earn the respect of the developers, businesspeople, and manufacturers who make what we prototype real(er). Details often get overlooked in just “thinking” projects, as do constraints. Constraints are somehow less solid in the world of thought than they are in the world of making.

    What we’re going to end up with is a generation of “innovators” who are MBAs in MFAs’ clothing, who can neither create or run businesses like entrepreneurs can, nor design products and services like designers can. It’s the worst of both worlds. What we as employers are searching for are people who can do as well as think. This isn’t to say that we’re looking for glossy stylists either: we want designers who create thoughtful, meaningful designs: designs that pay attention to details, and have emotion and craft in them, as well as reason and cleverness. The world desperately needs those designers. Start making them again.

    There are 90 thoughts on this idea

    1. Todd

      Sounds like a pretty good business opportunity to me. When’s AP going to open a design school?

    2. Keith

      I agree with you 100%. I’ve had quite a few discussions over the years about “head” vs. “hands” and I usually advocate that in order to have good “design thinking” you have to know how to design — you know? Get in there and “do” design. I’m not sure you can really be a good design thinker without knowing how to do. Maybe you can, but I think the best designers (thinkers or otherwise) use their head and hands.

      I’d also take it a step further and say that people (like myself) who are moving on in their career and learning toward more strategy/thinking/etc. still need to stay in touch and practice the craft of design.

    3. Henning Fischer

      I think the vulnerability in design school education that you point out is based, in large part, on the assumption that students either have the required making and doing skills or can be taught them in a year or so via a crash course. That appears to be the position of the Institute of Design in Chicago, my alma mater. However, I have hope. Those that approach the d-schools with significant experience (and a dose of humility) in the making and the doing part are graduating with a skill set that will serve them well over time, regardless of whether the twin manias of design thinking and innovation continue.

    4. Shane Updyke

      This is so true. In fact a few years back while teaching a graphic design class, I encouraged my students to take as many fine arts classes as they can to help them become better designers, not just code crunchers. What I experienced was a huge push back and lack of understanding why they should focus on something the computer does for them. Pretty scary, I to hope that the design schools pull things back a bit and really focus on the all aspects of design, not just theory.

    5. Nathan

      You’re barely out of “d school” yourself… would you lodge the same complaint against CMU?

      Also, graduate schools, especially in the design fields, are justifiably light on technical courses such as typography. You have but 2 years to learn how to be a designer.

      To be a legitimate “master” in design should be accompanied by 4 years foundation and core design courses either via a full BFA or equivalent course work.

    6. Michael Carpentier » Blog Archive » De

      […] Très bon article sur l’apprentissage du design publié ce matin par les gens d’Adaptive Path. Comme référence dans le monde du Web et comme expérience de travail pertinente auprès d’un tas de client, on trouve difficilement mieux. […]

    7. Dan

      I had nearly 10 years of work in the field before I went back to graduate school–specifically to improve both my making and thinking skills. I chose very well: CMU, with its deep roots in industrial design and generally as a trade school, spends a lot of time on craft, as do many other schools I should add. At CMU, I enjoyed excellent classes in typography, sketching, modeling, programming, and diagramming and I am a much better designer for knowing those things. CMU also has an excellent theory portion of its program as well, that I have been deeply influenced by. But even while I was in school the trend towards design thinking had started, and it has only gotten worse since then.

      I don’t believe you need a BFA followed by a MFA/M.Des. to be a skilled designer. It doesn’t hurt, of course, but one of my design idols, Tibor Kalman, had no design training whatsoever. Adaptive Path has excellent designers who have never stepped foot in a design class; it also has some with only BFAs, some like myself with only a Master’s, some with BFAs and Master’s, and one (Brandon) with a BFA, M.Des. and MBA. I’d say the measure of legitimacy of a “master” designer is masterful designs, regardless of school credentials. Schools can (and should) help you learn how to make better designs, but they aren’t the only way to become a great designer.

    8. Kim

      I agree with Dan that the D schools seem to be missing the studio practice portion of the education equation. This is a tough dilemma that businesses need to be more involved in. The separation between academia and industry is too extreme for the educational institutions to be delivering what we in the industry need from new grads. This is why I’ve always advocated for internships. Each of my careers started as internships. My first job in multimedia edutainment started as an internship 3 years after completing my BFA. It was a crash course in thinking, making and doing on the computer rather than with my hands, but I leveraged my 6 years of undergraduate skills in the form of problem solving, collaboration, creative thinking, visual aesthetics and design critiques.

      My point: The D schools need to include studio practice in their curriculum, combined with hands on internships. And industry needs to work more closely with academia to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of the industry.

      Additionally, I see that part of the problem is in allowing undergrads to stick around for an extra year or often less to achieve their masters degree. Without time in the industry, the masters program cannot deliver on the promise. I considered getting my masters right out of undergrad and all of my advisors demanded that if I did, I must go to a different art school, but what they recommended was that I leave the academic world and come back. 15 years later, I still haven’t found a masters program that can give me more ROI than my continued on-the-job-training.

      What I’ve learned over the years is that you don’t need an art/design degree to be a good designer. I’ve worked with many talented designers over the years, many of whom had liberal arts degrees or even engineering/science degrees. I’ve come to respect people for what they can deliver, not on where they came from.

    9. Nathan

      I absolutely agree with what you are saying. But (the inevitable but) what you describe is if you had the highest quality mentors and in-job teachers for 10 years.

      I do not doubt your skill and this post is in no way a personal slant, let’s get that out of the way.

      Most designers with 10 years on the job training would be trained in something very different than what you would get with a 4 year bachelor degree in design. That bachelor degree, if taken after 10 yrs exp., would be somewhat an exercise in un-training you in bad habits of skill, design, and creativity that job probably encouraged. That’s the obvious counter point.

      It is entirely easy to cite Tibor Kalman as a formally untrained designer as an example… I mean seriously – how many portfolios have come across Adaptive Path’s collective desk that are Tibor Kalman quality? Nevermind the exercise of defining what a Tibor Kalman UX designer portfolio would even look like =) Besides, was Kalman known for his adept skills? or his concepts of design and scope of design? Okay, nevermind, that’s getting even more off topic.

      What was the point? ahh, that “design thinking” is being focused on too much in master degrees. I will go ahead and translate this to “design theory” since thinking is less formal than theory which is bound to some amount of rigor.

      A two year master in my opinion, is simply too short to include substantial form and function design course work. Therefore we get to the sticky problem of not requiring entering master candidates to a regimented foundation but requiring some fuzzy logic of equivalent experience. Therefore the proposed root of the problem here is that the entrance requirements for a d school is so variable, that some/most school’s requirements are missing a very important aspect of basic design skill to be accepted into the masters program.

    10. jz

      I don’t disagree, Dan, but design education has long been broken. I think you’re just pointing out the over correction. All but a few undergraduate design programs fail to teach students to really read and write, focusing only on making without thinking or doing. Some masters programs are a year and a half of learning how to pretty up your portfolio.

      It’s a broken system. Admission standards aren’t high enough for design to be equivalent to other graduate professional programs like law or medicine. But the profession demands more than the vocational training available in most programs. So the place to get useful design training isn’t in design school. Better to seek self-directed courses of study through strong inter-disciplinary university programs and patient and wise mentors in the field.

    11. Dan

      I certainly didn’t have an amazing design background before I went to CMU. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have gone. I went back to school to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, to balance what I’d learned haphazardly through just doing design professionally (sometimes well, sometimes poorly), with formal training and mentoring. You are absolutely right that my 10 years experience was nothing compared to the undergraduate meatgrinder that is four years of studio training. Most of the CMU undergrads were far more talented than I was–in (form) making. Where I was more talented was in the thinking and doing. Some of that certainly was age–I was 10+ years older than even the oldest undergrad–but some of it was–dare I say it–talent. (I should note I worked with several undergrads who were extremely talented in all areas of design.)

      The question then becomes: what do you do with people like me? The type of design I do wasn’t a subject one could learn in design school when I was an undergrad. Hell, it’s barely a type that is taught in most schools now. Would you have me go back and get a BFA before a MFA? That’s simply untenable. ID makes some students take a year of studio classes, which is one solution. But I have to say: even a single year of graduate school is a financial hardship, much less two, much less three.

      BTW, I don’t equate “design thinking” with design theory. Design theory is thinking about design in a critical manner. Design thinking is something else: applying some of the tools of design to what have traditionally not been design problems, such as business problems.

    12. Suzanne Holman

      Education of any kind is certainly a delicate balance.

      The focus can be so off target for what is needed in the real world.

      It really takes someone in any industry to be a support when the curriculum is

      being designed.

      Suzanne Holman

      Exuberant Productivity Expert and Coach


    13. Nathan

      Yep – two important points you make: a bit about talent, and that thinking is not theory. I’ve always held the idea that graduate work is for theory.

      So design thinking is by definition – extending the design process and perspective to fields outside of traditional design fields. I do think (heh, totally meant it) that design thinking applied to… business strategy is shallow at best. Sure we designers absolutely believe in the design process and its benefits as a general process (in life, in work, etc), but we also tend to have mastery over applying design skill and method to create an interface for a product. We do not have mastery over business skills to ultimately create a real business. That’s why designers aren’t CEO’s and vice versa. There’s just a fundamental difference in skills and talent. Other designers cum business strategists seem to be barking up the wrong tree. Design does not equal business. No one says design equals banking.

      That “talent” to me is really silo’d. Only exceedingly rare individuals are truly multi-talented. Having a talent for design almost requires you not have a talent for finance. I think we will see more and more people having a talent for design and a talent for programming: as design becomes more the design of systems and programming becomes more natural they become closer cousins. Having a “talent for design” is very difficult to discern in a portfolio but very easy in an hour conversation. That is where the interview portion of the entrance requirements comes in to play, and talented folks like Dan shine.

      ok, off my soapbox.

    14. links for 2007-03-09 (Leapfroglog)

      […] adaptive path » blog » blog archive » Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again Saffer bemoans the level of current design school students. The can think, but they can’t make or do. Is Dan getting old, or are US design schools indeed loosing their way? (tags: schools design thinking making doing criticism idealism trends) […]

    15. Rachel Hinman

      What do you *really* have against the d-school and design thinking?

      What strikes me about the tone of this conversation is how it kinda under minds the inherent inclusiveness of the design industry. It sounds to me that you are advocating that there is a “right” way or at least a couple of “right” ways to approach becoming a professional designer. Sounds to me like you want to hire and be around designers who reinforce your own ideas and approach to design. How much fun is that? More importantly, how much are you gonna grow as a designer if you do that?

      One of the things that makes the design industry special is that unlike other professions such as law or medicine, there is no rigid system everyone must follow in order to become a working design professional. People come to the profession with varied backgrounds and experiences. The upside is that our industry is dynamic and diverse. The downside is that it makes reading through a pile of resumes tough.

      I like/want to be around/hire people who are passionate about design and want to push the discipline ahead. While my professional experience and education have influenced me, I don’t believe they *define* me.

      I am sure there are folks out there who are hopping on the “design thinking” bandwagon because it is the trendy thing to do right now – and yes, that is annoying. How much will they contribute to moving the industry ahead? Not sure. Is it a valid approach to design? Time will tell. What gives us the right to have such harsh judgements? Do any of really have it all figured out?

      At the very least, doesn’t everybody interested in exploring and pursuing the design profession have the right to make their own path?

      That path may take them to greatness.

      Tibor’s did. And maybe a kid from the d-school’s will too.

    16. cbaum

      I have to agree with Dan, jz, and Nathan: design education is broken, and “design thinking” doesn’t translate to the entirety of business stragety.

      What the designer can bring to the business conversation is a far better understanding of what customers need and how they think about the things that cross where that business wants to be. Marketing research and broadcast advertising methods do not provide the right interfaces to the customers.

      Designers are trained to jump these synapses, and therein lies the value and perspective that design thinking can provide. The interesting part of this is that it not only applies to the org-customer relationship, but also to cross-organizational communications and system/process design so desperately in need of innovation.

      Just like a great design team, great organizational leadership is a collection of talents and acumen. Well-trained, experienced designers can provide a special perspective that benefits everyone involved — only if the designers can execute their brilliant ideas.

    17. Dan

      I think you are misreading this, Rachel. I don’t think there is any one way to become a designer, nor am I advocating you have to go to design school to be a designer. “Design is like California,” Dick Buchanan once said, “Nobody is born there.” And as you know, I work with designers every day who challenge my ideas about what design is (and everything else too). And I’m sure it is possible, even probable, that some of these design thinkers will become good designers. But their education isn’t exactly helping them by neglecting to give them skills that are going to prove valuable no matter what sort of design role they end up in, even design strategy or design research. I wouldn’t trade my understanding of typography for anything, and I bet you wouldn’t either.

      Some of the formal design training teaches you more than just the skill itself: it teaches you a way of working and, yes, a way of thinking that you don’t only learn by thinking alone. “I Think with My Hands”said Fred Collopy. I do too. And I’d like to see more design schools teaching that than just concepting.

    18. Mobimeet » Blog Archive » Why Can&#821

      […] Now I’m not saying that I expect every IMD student to become a programmer – I realize that this is primarily a design school – but the objective is still the same.  For those of you with design inclination, can you turn a photograph into a “Lichtenstein”-style pop art image?  Or how about how to create a tilable background image from a downloaded graphic?  Just like scripting languages, graphic applications have an incredible wealth of tools available, most of which you probably have never touched or may not be aware of it’s capabilities.  An interesting article – “Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again“. […]

    19. designswarm thoughts » Blog Archive »

      […] adaptive path » blog » blog archive » Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again In the academic rant section of the web, excellent discussions happening around the values of designers as thinking, does or both and how they becomes one of those by going to which schools (tags: school trends design) […]

    20. Lewis

      I think this concept is a statement of our educational systems that can be applied to a lot of school disciplines and not just design. Insititutions are so focused on the turn over rate and cutting costs while increasing the number of students which leads to the supplies and real teaching that needs to occur just not being able to happen. I am a bioengineer and it is the exact same scenario,any of us that have a bachelors in an engineering can’t really “be” an engineer without a lot of real training after the fact or grad school where we are left to our own devices to learn how te develop research and technical based skills as is the case in the design world. There are too many fluff classes, that are meant to disguise the lack of education that we are receiving and not enough “this is what the real world is like” and this is how you will need to work within the real world.

    21. Ben Arent

      I have been forwarded from Core77, I have read you artical and most of the comments. I agree with you in many factors, but as 3rd year undergraduate of Middlsex BA Product Design degree currently on a years internship in Seattle. I have a couple of problems with your arguement.

      Firstly, as a Product designer I’m a jack of all trades these are the skills I’m currently learning and working on

      CAD (Surface modeling, Solid Modeling, Drafting), Sketching, Hand Rendering, Computer Rendering, Graphic Design, Webdesign (CSS, Ajax, PHP, Flash and Html), Electronics with simple computer programing, Woodwork skills, Metal skills (turning , Welding, casting), Human Factors (Anthropology, Ergonomics), Interaction Design, Material Science, Green Design and Sustainability, Idea creation and business planning. all of these are tools, and are only a means to great end. Although I’m expected to be as refined in any area as a specialist would be, As other university are closing down there workshops ours are getting larger grants, (http://www.benarent.co.uk/about/myuni.htm)

      As far as I see it I’m doing all of the work, at only 21 there is no way you can accept me to come out and be able to run in the world of design. Its a lifelong quest, that only really gets masted around 60 (so I hear) Yet, I will accept there are plenty of people studying BA Product Design because they think its a easy degree… Ow. How wrong they were! (I also agree about lack of reading in the field of design)

    22. aumneo » Design Schools: Please Start Teachi

      […] positions. Required Reading for All Students and Education Institutes. Check out the responses at Adaptive afterward too. Below is the whole post. It’s that time of year when Adaptive Path wades […]

    23. Bruce Nussbaum

      Dan, I’m in the design thinking camp so I don’t get the bipolar, either-or-point of view. To me, visualizing ideas for products, services, experiences via prototypes or videos is an important component of design thinking–of any design. So positing the education of form AGAINST the education of design thinking makes no sense. Apple’s success is in large point due to its obsession with materials and form making. We made that point in the cover on Jonathon Ive in Inside Innovation. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_39/b4002414.htm?chan=search

      So if design schools are beginning to just jump the teaching of form making to only deal with concept, Dan has a point. Then again, there are thousands of Chinese designers pouring out of hundreds of schools who know how to do form. There are thousands of Koreans who know how to do form. A career built on form-making will soon be in jeapordy in the US and Europe.

      Design thinking merely takes the core components of design–its human factors focus, its empathetic anthropoligical viewpoint, its iteration and speed and other core concepts, abstracts and formalizes them and applies them to a broad array of spaces, including the business process itself. It is a very powerful methodology, a strategic methodology. Why would anyone turn away from using design thinking? Why should design schools deny themselves and their students this power–and opportunity?

      As for Dan’s comments about the design of real things being much harder than JUST design thinking, well that’s argument by ignorance and attitude. The graduates of Patrick Whitney’s Institute of Design in Chicago are heavy hitters doing big things.

      This is a civil war not worth fighting.

    24. David Armano

      I think the spirit here is the right one, but not realistic in terms of how the businessworld actually functions. In order to get to the “making stuff” you need to be able to persuade people that it’s worth making it. Sure this can come in the form of a prototype—but that’s not the only tool that designers should have in order to make their case to do something great. Sometimes it does take visuals, narratives etc. to do this.

      I too do not think this should be an either or scenerio. Both have their place in the design world. Both are important—and to some extent co-dependant.

    25. Dan

      It’s funny to be thought of as a traditionalist given my age and that the design discipline I practice (interaction design) didn’t formally exist twenty years ago.

      Design Thinking vs. Design isn’t an either-or for me: Thinking is part of Design. As I’ve said elsewhere, separating thinking from design is like separating oxygen from air. Design is thinking–thinking given form. Thinking is a crucial (but not the only) part of the practice of design. Teaching Design Thinking by itself will create only lopsided designers.

      Aside from concepts (which are of course useful), very little can be created using only Design Thinking. At some point the rest of the design work has to be done. Who will make the form factor? Who will create the visual language? Who will define how the product behaves? These are all design decisions that cannot simply be made at manufacturing, and shouldn’t just be passed on to designers in Asia as an afterthought. (No disrespect meant to the many fine Asian designers.) Apple certainly doesn’t do this. They understand that it’s usually the little details that make or break a design, and those design decisions are often made at the craft/prototyping level of design. It is easier to envision the iPod than to make it. Just ask the Zune team.

      And as for the heavy hitters of ID, I work alongside some of them every day, and all of them practice design thinking within the context of design. While they are strategists at heart and by training, they can still take the next, crucial steps into creating products based on those strategies. I will also note without comment that many of them had experience and/or formal design training in either industrial or graphic design before they went to ID.

    26. The Raft

      Well I am inclined to agree with what is being stated in the above piece, I am also inclined to think that if a design school can teach you to think like a designer thinks, you naturally begin to think, in a way, as a design as a design problem.

      Just by thinking you can realise what it is you have to do ( Making,doing).I suppose in a way if we are all taught to design and make in the same way we will end up in a world of ideas that work but are rather plain.

      I suppose what I am getting at is that becoming unique as a designer is down to the dedication of the individual designer as much as it born out of them finding their own interests. Which I think falls on the shoulders of the individual designer not the design teacher.

    27. JW Kim


      I do not know much about the general state of design education today so I cannot be a critic but I can see that most of academia in other fields today is focused on the theoretical and conceptual things vs doing or experiential, and I think we need a shift as you suggested for not only design, if what you say is true but for other disciplines as well. However, I feel that you have to use another term rather than ‘design thinking’ since the term ‘design thinking’ nowadays is used to denote the process of the designer, part of which is as you said doing and making. So, in essence the term ‘design thinking’ encompasses all three things. ‘design thinking’ is the core methodology taught here at Stanford, which heavily involves prototyping and iterating and as you may well know the same process is practiced by firms like ideo and envagelized by folks like Bruce Nussbaum at Businessweek. Anyway, just wanted to point out that it caused some confusion for me.

    28. Andy Malhan

      You know, the opposite is also a problem. In India, where I work, ‘design schools’ teach almost no design thinking, but only doing. As a result they’re churning out computer operators by the thousands, with very few having any idea of what design is about and what they’re trying to accomplish, other than making a letterhead look pretty.

    29. Dan

      I don’t even know where to begin responding to the claim that design thinking encompasses all design, except to say: Look at your coursework. Does it consist of courses like Typography, Digital Prototyping, and Information Design, or are they named things like Creating Infectious Action and Experiences in Innovation? If it is the latter, I’m going to suggest that perhaps you aren’t getting the entirety of a design education.

    30. DP

      The quality of the applicant often reflects that of the company they are applying to work for or interview with.

      Rather than sweeping all design programs into one pile (including many good ones), you might first look at your own work and connections to the community that produces the people that apply.

      Also, it is not so much that design education has changed but rather so many more people are studying it and many new programs of questionable quality are graduating the fruits of their labors.

      Stick with programs with local or national reputations founded on fact not rumor or laurels.

    31. adam denker

      I am currently a student of industrial design at cleveland institute of art and I totally agree with what you are saying Dan. And this might come as a suprise but cia does exactly what you are talking about, industrial design students here take drawing classes and graphic design classes. Also we have material classes and ergonomics classes and can take electives outside of design. so please dont lose hope, there are schools that still teach all aspects of design. One last thing, not to sound blunt but, if anyone that has replied here needs proof of design being taught, any designer is welcome in cia with open arms to see what the school puts out.

    32. Christian


      first of all, thank you for your great post and the very insightful discussion in the comments. It seems that you are facing a problem in design education that we Germans definitely do not have. We are suffering from the opposite: a lack of skilled “thinking” designers.

      I do strongly agree with you saying design is more than thinking. The “making” is the crucial point where thoughts “get real”. Without the visual expression, a thought has no “shape”, or as we say, “Gestalt”. Gestalt encloses explicitly the visual form of a thing (or person). In Germany, designers are also called “Gestalter”.

      But where does the work of a designer end and where does the “manufacturing” begin?

      I do agree with you that “attention to detail” must be part of design. A detail can be very important to a thing’s Gestalt. Think of the human face. Some tiny details can shape the appearance of the whole person. But not all details are important. For a designer, it is key skill to know where to put emphasis on.

      I do not agree when it comes to “craft”. Crafting includes “producing” the object till it’s finished, and that would include e.g. coding HTML when it comes to web interfaces. This kind of crafting is often called “webdesign”. I guess you know what i mean, you are not searching for a webdesigner. That’s why i say crafts are not part of design.

      Looking at the discussion thread, i think a lot of the confusion and irritation is caused by the lack of a common sense: what is design? Not only design education, design in general needs this so desperately. I’m so sick of explaining people what i am doing…


      I like the “Design is like California – nobody is born there.”

    33. christian jung beta » Blog Archive » D

      […] of all, thank you for your great post and the very insightful discussion in the comments. It seems that you are facing a problem that we […]

    34. Dan

      I am certainly not saying that ALL design schools are not teaching design. Assuredly, there are many who still have a dedication to craft. One of Adaptive Path’s recent hires (Alexa) seemingly got an excellent, well-rounded design education from Ohio State. When it comes to hiring, especially younger designers, what matters the most is two things: talent and training. If a designer is talented and well-trained, it doesn’t matter much to me where they got the training. I’m happy to see candidates from lesser-known schools, especially if those schools are the ones keeping craft alive.

    35. B

      Are you sure that the stack of portfolios that inspired this article wasn’t just the same pile of largely bad work that usually gets sent out? It sounds to me like you saw the a crop of half-baked, poorly implemented, and aesthetically assaulting design that always comes out of D-schools and decided to blame it on schools trying to teach thinking over traditional design skills. I don’t know if I buy the argument that fundamental design skills are decreasing in quality because of pedagogical shifts that are occurring in design education towards a more thought and process driven practice. There are other factors to consider like the fact that design schools are growing at an incredible rate and that the quality of work has not kept pace. Every year there are more and more students entering the feild, and that does not necessarily translate into an increase in quality. Of coarse, schools must teach strong fundamentals, but design thinking is just another layer that needs to taught to form a complete designer. I would argue that those schools that do have a strong focus on design thinking are in a much better position over the next decade, as the industry and responds and transitions to value the new ideas that are generated from these minds.

    36. DT

      Oh my D-School ranting, one of my favourite topics.

      This article provides a great insight and is very well written, and is something I have been experiencing myself when I interview or receive portfolios. But to me this D-School issue is the perennial problem the business world always has. Managers who manage only vs. managers who rose from the ranks. Tell me which one gets more respect or can do the job better?

      The problem here is the same in any profession, engineering, medical, accountancy, and marketing etc. You get people who are just another pair of hands or a tool or you get those that can think outside of the box. Case in point, is my constant argument with my designers. If you are suppose to be creative with your design solutions, why can’t you be equally creative with your life and job? But I digress, only slightly.

      The ability and how of design and the process or theory of doing it, is a huge and complex problem. Designers have been arguing “what is design” for many years, without any hard conclusion. Basically my point is it is very difficult to manage design if you do not have a feeling for it. And the only way to get it is to have classical design training. That’s where my problems with D-Schools come in. By focusing on design thinking only, really is all talk. And they say talk is cheap. The moment you have a manger or design leader who really knows what it takes to create a good design it all suddenly becomes a whole different story.

      I’ll close this short post with this. With regards to education it all amounts to positioning and industry relevance. Schools struggle to find their niche in a really competitive market, as well as to produce graduates that can find jobs or are employable. With all this design thinking excitment going on, it throws a spanner in the works and makes things even more confusing in a school’s bid towards of proper market positioning. The worry for me is not so much the graduates, but for students ENTERING a program and then find out its not really what he/she wants to do with design.

    37. Design Sojourn » Have Design Schools Stop Te

      […] over at his Adaptive path blog, has written a interesting rant on the quality of graduates today. He bemoans the lost of thinking designers, and blames the […]

    38. Jon

      With all due respect, I call bullshit, particularly on the sweeping accusation that “quite a few design schools no longer teach design”. I can speak to two data points in depth – my alma mater Carnegie Mellon, and my employer The Savannah College of Art and Design – and both teach (at an undergraduate level) the particulars of design theory and practice.

      Specifically with regard to the latter: I wrote the majority of the undergraduate curriculum and sequencing at SCAD’s Industrial Design program three years ago, and the emphasis was purposely structured around five core competencies of ID: Development of Form, User Centered Design, Production & Fabrication, Communication & Presentation, and Commercial Practice. The students work a great deal with industry in their undergraduate experience, and these sponsored projects and corporate engagements require the production of actual design deliverables, not just theoretical or strategic design deliverables. All of these components, and a great many of our classes, have both a “thinking” component and a “doing” component.

      Our undergraduates are happily placed at consultancies and corporations like Otto Bock, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Cooper, IDEO, Ziba, Xplane, Target, Motorola, etc – and they are doing thoughtful design work at these jobs.

      If you are seeing a dramatic lack of doing-based talent in portfolios you are reviewing (I assume this is where your original post is grounded?), you may want to consider looking at other academic institutions.


    39. Loyd

      As a working professional since pre-computer-aided design, and a person who regularly hires new talent, I’ve seen applicant after applicant without the slightest knowledge of practical design. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of “graphic designers” who have no clue about how their work will translate into print or be applied to an envoronmental application. Since I went to school before the Mac (learning it on my own when the first ones came out in the dark ages of 1984-1985), I’ve often wondered what exactly is being taught now.

    40. Jonathan

      “Talented, well-trained designers can apply their skills in a number of areas, and not just the ones Adaptive Path works in.”

      But degrees are not intended for specific vocations – that’s part of the definition (at least here in the UK, but I suspect elsewhere too). And all the evidence (this is a very well-researched area, believe me) shows that the narrower the vocational focus, the less adaptable and flexible people become as they filter the content of the curriculum in to ‘what will get me a job?’ – so out goes letterpress if it’s not seen as ‘relevant’, out goes business strategy if it’s not contributing directly to the portfolio, out goes ‘understanding the audience’ if it gets in the way of ‘the designer knows best’ and so on. The things you’re complaining about are the result, as I said before, of a lack of ‘thinking’ and too much ‘doing’.

      There’s a comment earlier on about how this shows you need people from industry to teach design – but over 80% of faculty on UK courses and, I suspect a similar figure in other countries, are designers who practice, the remainder largely being former practitioners.

      But the problem is that some people who practice design, indeed who practice any discipline, are often the worst people to teach it because they find it difficult to think beyond their own experience. (i.e. someone decides to teach something the way they do it in their company, consequently producing someone who will do fine in their company but who is completely unsuitable for anyone else’s). People may think otherwise, there is no one way to design, and no two companies look for the same thing or do things the same way. The graduate you rejected is the one the next guy was looking for.

      Creating a course and focussing on the techniques of production (or worse – just one technique, one approach) produces students who are more likely to be inflexible in their understanding – we call it ‘surface learning’, while those who look further are more likely to engage in ‘deep learning’.

      You’ve taken a few bad experiences and extrapolated to suggest that all design courses are crap. Hardly scientific, and hardly true. What pisses me off about this post and some of the responses to it is the idea that those of us who teach design sit around licking our arses, don’t know what we’re doing, and that we just don’t care.

      You say “But, umm, yes, I would hope that those people spending their time and money studying design would want to become designers”

      What, you don’t want to deal with clients who understand design? It’s okay to deal with a client whose degree is in history or literature but not design? You don’t want to produce designs that will be used by informed consumers? It’s okay to produce designs for graduates of politics or medicine, but not for graduates of design? And why should people who study design only become designers? Not teachers or politicians or writers or entrepreneurs? Do you not think your business would be better if kids at school were being taught by design graduates as well as those of other disciplines? You don’t think congress or parliament would benefit from having a few more designers and far fewer lawyers in them?

      The only people who should study design are would-be designers? That’s the way to kill a discipline. That’s the way to ensure that every meeting you have with a client is met with the response that ‘my kid can do that on their computer’.

      Design is sometimes applied. Only sometimes, and it is only applied by the people that do it. But to the vast majority of people it is experienced and the curriculum model you seem to be advocating runs the risk of viewing design in vastly reduced terms, and restricting knowledge of it to an ever-smaller group of people.

      A broad curriculum still produces designers, and more besides. The curriculum you’re calling for will only produce designers. Actually I take that back, it will produce artworkers. The designers, the ‘creatives’, will come – as they long have – from other academic backgrounds. You only need to look at the advertising industry to see the truth of that.

    41. Dan

      You have severely twisted my meaning. If you think that I am saying all design courses (and teachers of design) are crap, you are seriously mistaken. The purpose of the article was to encourage a balanced design curriculum, that provides students with tools for thinking, making, and doing. I am suggesting that design school keep their focus broad, not narrow, to focus not just on one thing–either thinking OR making. Both lead to poorly trained designers.

    42. Jennifer Ramsey

      As a design student I find this discussion very interesting. Actually, since starting design school I have found it heavily slanted toward thinking. I’m a think-first, make-later person, so I love it, but I’ve worried that my practical skills aren’t going to be up to snuff when I look for a job after graduation. In a think-heavy school, students need to work extra hard to make sure their projects are not just conceptually tight but are also as polished as possible. I’m wondering if you could give specific examples of what you find lacking from student portfolios. The great thing about school is that if you ask questions you can learn more than the prescribed curriculum.

    43. Dan

      I think you are exactly right, Jennifer. On projects, you need to get as far as you can on polishing them as time allows. I want to see more than slick concepts–I want to ideally see an attention to detail and the thinking behind the detail. I’m greedy: I want to see examples that look great, work well, and are well-reasoned. I want to see that you can think through a problem, come up with multiple solutions to the problem, then refine one of those solutions to something nifty. Granted, you are not going to be able to do this for every project, especially in school. But I want to see at least one project like that–your senior project or master’s thesis or a long studio project. (Or, for those out of school, a client problem like this.) It’s important to see how you deal with real, challenging constraints. How you work with and around those constraints–where a lot of the detail work really gets done–says a lot about your skills and talents.

    44. » Too Much Design Thinking

      […] thinking…the creative people over at Adaptive Path are thinking the exact opposite.  Read this interesting article about how AP believes students are learning too much thinking, and not enough about the […]

    45. Jonathan

      Why are you looking at graduates if you clearly don’t want a graduate?

      You’re making the incorrect assumption that a) the only reason someone would study design is to be a designer and b) the only reason colleges teach design is to produce employees for you.

      The ratio of non-designer design graduates to those that become designers in the UK is about 3:1. That’s not because of ‘oversuplly’ or because those 3 out of 4 are crap, but because in the same way language grads don’t all go off and become translators, so design grads don’t all go off and become designers.

      So if we follow your line of thinking, we should stop teaching design as a subject in its own right and instead focus only on producing employees for you? Funnily enough, there are courses that provide the people you’re looking for, but they’re not called degrees.

      At the moment the biggest concern in the industry seems to be ‘why don’t people understand design?’ That’s not designers, but non-designers? Why don’t clients and potential clients understand what it can do for them? Why don’t the general public understand it?

      Given that, why do you think we need to ration design education to designers? To ignore the effects design has on people’s lives, people’s businesses, people’s day to day experiences? It doesn’t make any sense.

      Here in the UK we’ve got design students working with the local police to help reduce crime in deprived neighbourhoods using design (see Design Against Crime), or trying to use design to relieve pain and suffering in cancer patients amongst others. Hey, I’m sorry if some of those students will graduate without having the mouse skills you so clearly think they should have, but the world and its problems are bigger than you and your company.

      What we have seen in the past few years is an increase in the number of employers who no longer think they have any role in the development of their own industry – that they should provide no training, no ‘finishing’, nothing. And we see people who forget that they too graduated without knowing everything there is to know about design. Instead we are being told we have to provide ‘ready baked’ graduates who can slot in to any job, and get on with it, no thinking required. ‘Graduates aren’t experienced enough’, we’re told. Of course they’re not. You cannot teach experience – the word gives the game away: experience is, erm, experienced.

      I’m proud to produce ‘thinking’ designers. I don’t see undergraduate education as being about producing artworkers. If you’re looking to graduates to provide low-level skills, you’re looking in the wrong place: hire school leavers, hire Mac monkeys, but don’t hire graduates.

      I’ve researched this area for years and what marks out the ‘designers’ you seem to be interviewing is not that they’ve been taught too much thinking, but too little. Too focussed on learning how to use Photoshop, too focussed on learning to kern type, not enough focus on the bigger picture.

      If anyone signs up for a degree in design thinking it is just three or four years of learning how to ‘do’ design, think again. There are plenty of courses out there that do that. But if you want to learn how design works, how it improves or damages the world and people’s lives, then sign up. You may come out a great designer, you may come out a great thinker, but you will come out a different person. But if that idea worries you, and all you want to do is ‘make’ stuff that other people dream up, good luck to you on whatever course you do choose.

      A graduate should not reflect industry’s ‘needs’ but challenge industry’s needs. If you’re not prepared to hire people who will challenge you, but will happily sit and do as they’re told, don’t hire a graduate, hire a moron.

    46. Dan

      Ok, now people are clearly misreading this piece for their own poorly-written soapbox rants. Nothing in my piece suggests that I don’t want to hire people who think. Nothing in this piece suggests that I only want pixel monkies to create the designs others think up. Ridiculous. Read all the way to end of the article. “Designers” who only know Photoshop or who can only make pretty Flash animations are equally useless for our needs.

      But, umm, yes, I would hope that those people spending their time and money studying design would want to become designers. It’s an applied art, not a degree in Art History or English Literature. You are supposed to directly apply it. You can use it for creating products or you can use it for creating services like Design Against Crime. Talented, well-trained designers can apply their skills in a number of areas, and not just the ones Adaptive Path works in.

    47. Glenn Johnson


      you hit the nail on the head – but missed the point of why this has happened.

      Its simple:

      To be in charge of a Design School these days requires Ph.D.

      Ph.Ds are usually people without traditional design skills (or poor one at best).

      The students are in an environment that doesn’t know how to actually do the missing two thirds, or has very limited experience of it.

      Students are not given time and pressure to learn how to sketch and model sufficiently.

      Research consumes too much time.

    48. reBang weblog

      Design Is A Verb

      There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding a post titled, “Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again” (Link) by interaction designer Dan Saffer over on the adaptive path blog. Here are a few excerpts:

      D schools are doing …

    49. GS

      I agree wholeheartedly. I was hired recently to teach Professional Practices at a prominent design school reeling under just such a useless philosophy. Many of the graduating students are simply not hireable – while they may have been taught “Design-Thought”, they have not been taught the most fundamental, basic skills(drawings, rendering, mfg, tech drawings, prototyping, the list of basic skills goes on and on). Without that technical grounding in the various realities of making products, no-one will pay attention to their philosophies.

      It makes as much sense as going to Cooking school to only learn “Cook-thought”.

      – GS

    50. James Monsees

      The Stanford d.school (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) teaches design thinking as a discipline by creating interdisciplinary teams from all across the University to solve serious design problems in real life. Your point Dan is well taken, if directed at a program that aims to lead students to be great industrial designers, but to generalize and suggest that all “design institutions” should be teaching more core skills is a mistake that has been leading the IDSA in particular down the wrong path for a long time.

      I could not agree more with Bruce’s comment, in fact this should not be a fight at all. ID is a beautiful discipline, one that I practiced for a while before returning to grad school years ago to learn “design thinking”. There were others whom I have met who studied business, finance, education, computer science, philosophy, psychology, boat building, and hundreds of other pursuits. Pulling these people together to tackle difficult problems gives students the ability to think big, but also realistically and in ways that span professions and thinking from areas that a single person at a drafting table may never have time to explore.

      To know what can be accomplished when an interdisciplinary team solves a problem as opposed to a group of like-minded ID people is design thinking. ID is a powerful component of this process, but it has never encompassed it entirely. There should always be great places to go to become a killer ID person, and those are not “d.schools”. But if you are less of a CAD guru, modelmaker or hand renderer and more of a design thinker in your own particular area of interest then there is a fantastic new place for you.

      Design thinking may be a new term, but it’s been there the whole time. It’s what happens when you stop designing from ego, and start inviting non-designers to your table.

    51. B. Witlin

      Hello everyone,

      A quick background: I graduated with a BS in Business and Econ, did full time classical art and design training, and graduated with a master of engineering and design. I have both taught and been a student of both rigorous formal skill training, and design thinking methodologies.

      I understand the argument being made, but there are two axis here…lets assign Y as depth and X as breadth. Formal art/design training (skills) has its place, nobody can argue that. Designers with strong skill sets in this area make beautiful things and can communicate visually – nobody can argue that. Design thinkers are trained and specialize in thinking laterally. I am not saying that traditional designers don’t think laterally, but like straight up design thinkers are not formally trained in art/drawing (skills), classical designers do not specialize in this type of thinking. Obviously I am oversimplifying because there are people with a balance (some people call these people T shaped people) with a strong depth in something (it could be anything) and a breadth to empathize with other disciplines.

      As you all know, innovation sometimes happens through the marriage of multiple disciplines. It takes mutual empathy of these artificial silos to work in harmony. This is where design thinking methodologies come in. It is thinking beyond the walls of your cad station… It is interfacing with other disciplines (departments), users, and the world to make truly innovative product solutions. Design thinking methodologies are the toolset to facilitate this marriage. For the best products, it is the insights of design thinking that inspire beautiful design.

      I think you are misrepresenting “design thinking” as just thinking and no doing. It is quite the contrary. Prototypes are built in many ways. Prototypes are not just beautiful concept renderings or foam studies…they can be quick and dirty (sometimes ugly) or even virtual. The end goal is the same….to answer a question you are trying to solve with the path of least resistance.

      If the true definition of design is enlightened problem solving, then design thinking is the tool set – this tool set can be given to anyone….not just designers. Yes, I agree…we need more formal training to create beautiful things, maintain the quality of the craft and discipline, and make more T shaped people….but this training is just one of many tools to be a great designer…and the depth can be anything…not necessarily formal art/design training.

      “Design thinking may be a new term, but it’s been there the whole time. It’s what happens when you stop designing from ego, and start inviting non-designers to your table.” – James Monsees from a previous post.

    52. csven

      If the true definition of design is enlightened problem solving, then design thinking is the tool set – this tool set can be given to anyone….not just designers.

      I suppose this is where I perceive a disconnect. I don’t consider Design as something that can exist without a toolset. Additionally, I believe the toolset to be seamlessly integrated into the design process itself. Thus, if the problem solving effort is unenlightened, I’d venture that’s because it’s lacking an appropriate one to start with.

      The problem we run into, in my opinion, is when we try to define a standardized, cross-functional “toolset” so that we can teach it or sell it to others. That’s an inherently left-brained, list-maker solution. I do not now believe there is a one-size-fits-all package for something that is, by its very nature, internalized; no matter how desperately the spreadsheet-retentive business world wants something with an associated set of bullet points and standardized metrics which can be used to improve their bottom line. You can hand someone a guitar, but that won’t make them a guitar player. You can teach them the chords, but that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to improvise. And good luck beyond that point, because true Masters aren’t even playing guitar… they’re singing.

      Design is not, in this way of thinking, limited to applied arts. In fact, it’s definition and integration of differing toolsets that allows Design to transcend disciplines and scope; to be as applicable to designing a business system as it is to designing a single piece of furniture. I’d submit that some corporate CEO’s are among the most obvious Designers in that they’ve integrated thought and action into the creation of a profitable organization; in many cases after many repeated failures (insert “fail early, fail often” quote here).

      If there were a perfect blueprint for becoming a successful CEO, the author would be both famous and wealthy. There isn’t. If there were failsafe post-grad courses for being the next Steve Jobs or Michael Dell, we’d all be attending. There aren’t. Some things can’t taught; they can only be explained.

      As the applied “design” profession becomes increasingly viewed as a potential solution to commoditization woes, I guess it’s no surprise that businesses are trying to (finally) figure out how “Designers” work and think (or more: “Read our mainstream business publication telling you how to act like, dress like and be cool like a designer!“). But in the end, all they’ll likely achieve is teaching workers a few chords. The rest is – as it’s always been – left to the Individual.

    53. B. Witlin

      I would agree with you Csven. There is no cookie cutter methodology that works for everyone. It is, however, always enlightening to see the process of others and learn frameworks. After that, it comes back to personal interpretation, modification, and execution methods. I think it is the subtle differences that separates the “greats” (in whatever metric you so choose), and everyone else.

      It’s funny…I think of blues music on the other hand….the same 12 bar chord progression with a magnificent variety of interpretation. Still underneath a viable framework to create.

    54. JT

      Dan, I couldn’t agree with you more. As a graduate of one of those “design thinking” schools, I’ve found that I don’t have the drawing skills necessary for most design jobs, I don’t have a sufficient engineering background to land most engineering jobs, and I don’t have the managerial experience to get an administrative job. And as far as real world experience, most employers I’ve spoken with want to hear about that latest electronic gizmo I’ve worked on instead of what I did in design school.

      For example, no one wants to hear about the inter-disciplinary team of students that I worked with to create a low cost water pump for rural farmers in Myanmar. Most people don’t really care that one design student, two business students, and one mechanical engineer took ten weeks to design a product that currently accounts for over 40% of a company’s sales. (http://www.ide-international.org/work/myanmar.php) People don’t really want to see pictures of starving Myanmar kids in my portfolio; they don’t want to hear about how their families make less than $2/day and how our pump we designed can increase their crop yield, and thus income, by 300 percent. I tell potential employers that the project I worked on is SAVING LIVES and is being sold to thousands of rural farmers; but they’re usually more interested in the classes listed on my transcript. Most companies would rather have someone work on the next PDA instead of ending poverty.

      So, I agree; “design thinking” doesn’t prepare students adequately for most jobs and companies are definitely looking for designers with skills beyond “design thinking”. But that’s why I stopped applying for so called design jobs; I’m too busy dealing with more important things.

    55. csven

      I’ve long argued the exact same thing: “Design is thinking”.

      For what it’s worth, although I first earned my Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering at Notre Dame, I’d always intended to return to art school in order to study Industrial Design. Four years and some additional professional and on-the-job training after getting my first degree, I went back and spent another five years at the Cleveland Institute of Art and earned my BFA in Industrial Design.

      I don’t now merely sketch concepts. There’s much more going on; a continuous feedback loop occurring throughout the creative process itself. And varying the activity – swapping materials or mediums (e.g. 2D switching from pencil to charcoal, or 3D swapping clay to polyurethane foam, or 2D/3D shifting from marker to clay) – changes the filter of the information going back into my mind. Each filter rendering the problem in unique ways which my mind interprets differently. It’s like opening up new windows to possible solutions.

      The point I’d make is that it wasn’t until my fourth year at CIA that I removed the blinders my previous education and experience had put over my eyes. It’s like somebody throwing a switch connecting the two hemispheres. Good luck explaining it to those on either side who have their own blinders with which to contend.

    56. Nicholas

      I like to think that there are two areas of design, and by implication a third area of study. First, as a student of the Institute of Design, the concept of planning for design is incredibly important. Associated skills, such as information design were rarely discussed in the early nineties outside of such places. Secondly, as a student of Weingart, understanding the methods of creation is the basis of the design profession. I learned more with a pair of scissors in a week than in years at ID.

      The area that is personally interesting is the boundary between the two. How do we take methods and distill meaningful form? How does Castiglione create puns with materials? How does Weingart methodologically come up with rather anti-methodological forms? In spite of a glut of creative, excellence is often absent in the larger market. And, in spite of a couple of decades of D schools building professionals, thinking is really missing from both the business and client side.

      My question would be, where do both sides work together, and for whom do they work? I would guess corporate training, complex product design, and interface design.

    57. scott klinker @ cranbrook

      I studied at Cranbrook for 2 years , then I worked at IDEO for 3 years. I now run the program at Cranbrook which is a hands-on, studio-based grad program focused on making. As a Cranbrook person, I take great interest in craft, form, and cultural PoV. At IDEO I worked alongside brilliant D-schoolers from IIT which resulted in some amazing teamwork. My teammates took more interest in business models and user-observation, and generally looked to me for deriving ‘form’ from our collective thinking. There was a clear division of labor, with respect on both sides. That’s an ideal environment for corporate design; a mix of form-givers and strategists. We shouldn’t expect both to be cut from the same cloth. But we should be clear about who is who and their expected roles.

      In the overall design equation, the thing to fear is design-by-committee. All truly great design requires a leader with a clear PoV steering the ship. That PoV and the product ‘form’ must correlate with great clarity. In my opinion, a person who understands the nuance of form-giving must ‘take control’ of the process to see it through to exquisite execution. Indeed, our (American) schools need to produce more of these nuanced, form-giving people. And they should be empowered by D-schoolers.

    58. Rebecca English

      Remember the Music Man? The fraudulent professor Harold Hill ‘taught’ the boys in the band to play, using ‘The Think System.’ ha ha ha

    59. David Smith

      It’s that time of year when Adaptive Path wades through stacks of design school students’ resumes

      Hang on a minute… Dan, can you confirm that you you have formed this impression about an alleged deficiency in contemporary design education based on flipping through a stack of resumes?

      A lot of respondents have made reference to “portfolios”, but you did not use the word in your essay (or elsewhere in the discussion AFAICT).

      Can you quote statements you have found in any resumes that support your position? And what exactly are you looking for in a resume, particularly from internship candidates?

    60. csven

      For some very odd reason I was thinking of the Music Man the other night before drifting off to sleep, but that part didn’t occur to me. Nice one.

    61. adammenter.com Blog » Blog Archive » D

      […] is an interesting blog post on the Adaptive Path website about design education. The title – “Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again” – is a direct plea calling for design schools to get back to basics. You can almost see the […]

    62. Tony Buckland

      Stop solving the blame and fix the problem.

      Every person that owns a studio / firm or works in one who is tired of the quality of students being produced should either mentor these students, teach the classes, or get on the school boards / committees and change things or shut the hell up. Students inherited these programs from YOU! They don’t know what to expect when they get out so unless you’re in there helping them, you’re part of the problem. Blogging does not count.

    63. Christopher Fahey

      I’m a little late to the game, here, but I wonder if this isn’t a bit of a strawman argument. Is “design thinking” being taught in design schools? I doubt it. Most design schools do such a terrible job teaching anything other than design (such as history, writing, and science) that I find it hard to beleive that any design schools would try to take a bite at the business concept of “design thinking”.

      “Design thinking” is a business school construct, a concept used to help non-designers understand what that magical mysterious thing it is that designers do when they make great things. One would think that a basic understanding of this concept would be a pre-requisite for admission to any design school, so I find it extremely hard to beleive that bad design portfolios are the result of teaching “design thinking” in design schools.

      Dan, you think you’re a curmudgeon? Listen to this: Perhaps, as another commenter noted, you just experienced the perennial fact that most designers are mediocre. And perhaps you’ve also experienced the growing phenomenon of the explosion of art school admissions — with more and more high school students opting for art and design programs in college, and presumably no more than the usual aptitude for the discipline exists in the talent pool, naturally a higher percentage of candidates will be mediocre. Because our culture increasingly asks less and less of our kids in terms of hard work, art and design programs are very attractive to many high school seniors right now because the field seem less challenging than, say, science or business. And the art schools are happy to oblige this greater demand by lowering their admissions standards and increasing their revenues.

      And can we please stop it with the “d-school” lingo? Are designers really so desperate for business world credibility that we are willing to lower ourselves to their juvenile frat-boy euphemisms just at the precise historical moment when the MBAs are realizing that designers are a more powerful force in the business ecosystem than they ever imagined? How about we force them to act like grown ups and *stop* using the term “b-school” instead?

      Finally, is there even such a thing as a “design school” anyway? They’re almost always called “art schools” (except for the trade schools of course, which generally teach “commercial art”).

    64. Christopher Fahey

      I’ll eat my words if someone can show me a design school curriculum that has more than one required course in “design thinking”.

    65. Christopher Fahey

      Okay, I’ve looked at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design web site, and they definitely teach “design thinking”.

      But, to my eyes, they don’t look like they are a design school. Not at all.

      They don’t seem to actually teach any design. There is nothing about their web site that suggest to me anything about design fundamentals, or about actually making things, or about the history of design. There’s a lot of stuff about business and creativity, of course. But no design.

      The most troubling part is that Hasso Plattner calls themselves a “d.school”. That’s so icky.

      Dan, maybe your concern isn’t so much that “design schools don’t teach design”, but more that “business schools should stop pretending to be design schools”. Can we designers reclaim ownership of the term “design”, please?

    66. Dan

      You are not going to find many classes named Design Thinking (although Stanford has “Experiences in Innovation in Design Thinking” and “Adventures in Design Thinking”), but you will find classes on “Innovation” and practically no classes on, say, typography. Even Don Norman is getting into the act with his new Segal Design Institute.

    67. csven

      As this seems to still be alive and kicking, here’s a link to my ongoing thoughts regarding what I consider to be the “design thinking” myth:

      “Why “Design Thinking” Makes No Sense To This Designer”http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1231

    68. graphpaper.com - A Peek into the Sausage Factory (

      […] of building products to precisely fill carefully-measured needs… but after reading Dan Saffer’s lament on the topic, I’m reluctant to use that term any more (a post on this is to come) so in a way I’m glad I […]

    69. csven

      I honestly wish a less contentious phrase had been used. “Design Thinking” carries associations with/among applied artists that are tough to shake. Why not just call it “Design” and drop the “thinking”? Just define “design” so that by default it involves “thinking”. I’ve read a lot of what I consider to be really crappy definitions; it could certainly use something definitive and flexible.

      Personally, I’d be happy to have the business world simply regard the applied arts as more than just “sketching” or “modeling”. I’ve encountered plenty of people who treated me as an inferior when introduced as the “product designer”. When they learned I also have an aerospace degree, they changed their behavior; apparently deciding I was suddenly an equal. That’s biased. Engineers don’t necessarily make better “designers” just because they’ve learned some things specific to their activity. Graphic designers, product designers, and others also think. Seems to me that too many people believe otherwise. Therein probably lies much of the problem I perceive surrounding this issue.

    70. jw kim

      Hi Dan,

      I think there’s two points of clarification I have to make with Dan and Chris. Chris is right that D-school (at Stanford) is not a design school, it is an institute and by no means does it grant a degree. Its goal is to teach folks from other disciplines to learn design thinking, i.e. as opposed to sit in a conference room (typical corporate America scenario) and do analysis on a spreadsheet/pie chart, you go out there conduct user research, get inspiration, build and prototype. So, comparing dschools like Arts Center and dschool (at Stanford) is like apples and oranges. And many other schools are I think trying to establish multi-disciplinary programs to teach non-design folks to think and work in a process like the way designers in multidisciplinary teams that includes a designer, an engineer sociologist/psychologist etc. So, I feel like all the rants about these new programs coming up are not apples to apples comparison. I agree to csven’s post that design thinking is not necessarily a process a designer follows (nor can it be logiaclly defined) but the real goal of teaching this to non-designers is that the rest of the team can follow a process. I think you would agree that a multidisciplinary team that is going out observing users and prototyping/iterating/testing would be a much better process than no process at all, i.e. sitting in your conference room, guessing what the users want, segmenting the market, arguing over who has a better idea (between team members), which is a typical scenario in the corporate world today.

      By the way, the ‘actual’ design school at Stanford is the Joint Program in Design — http://www-design.stanford.edu/PD/index.html. dschool is an offshoot of the Joint Program in Design (JPD). JPD’s curriculum has creative art studio courses but it’s not a traditional ID school, since it does not teach design purely from the artistic sense but both engineering and art– thus called joint program. And yes you can criticize that our curriculum does not have the “typography” class and we are not a typical ID program. But I believe the in the curriculum here based on past graduates and their accomplishments.

    71. Kvetica

      agree %100! Just graduated and already some of my class are going on to “higher education” without a clue how to send a file to the printer let alone make a multi page document. Doing is equally as important as thinking, hell unless you have a pretty high end client Id say its more important

    72. designswarm thoughts » Blog Archive »

      […] recently online about what design schools are teaching nowadays (I’m mainly talking about Adaptive Path’s call for designers who can actually make things, and Peter Hall’s claim that there should be […]

    73. Mark Schraad

      Came to this via the FrogMind article…

      As an undergaduate… fundamentals, then application makes sense to me. As a graduate student, those are still important, but design thinking tools are so very powerful, they need to be the emphasis. I think it won’t be too long before “design thinking” is a standard class in MBA programs (thanks in part to Rottman).

    74. eray

      you cant find those designers unless you start to teach them “design thinking”. there are thousands of designers out there creating objects and messeges that are polluting physical and social enviroment. its time for designers to “think” before fetishizing the objects and messeges they create in a highly complex world.

    75. robert

      As an employer of designers, i agree with Dan 100%. There needs to be a gap between theory and practicality. A creative designer will still be able to manifest his creativity even as he learns the more ‘techical side’ of being a designer. 2 reasons.

      to get started in the real world, chances are you will not be too involved with conceptualization but rather the more basic or technical tasks. As one gets a better understanding of how the system works and as opportunity arises in the office, the chance to do more “design thinking ” steps into play. the second reason is that with any art there needs discipline. you can not design if you can’t sell it to your peers,clients,etc. At best someone may interpret your thoughts as they communicate your idea at a technical level.

      GOOD designers know how to express their creative thinking to the non-creative ones. good design doesn-t stop at the big picture, good design lies in the details!

    76. What is design education? at SOUP DU JOUR

      […] or tedious depending on how you look at it, debatehere about the nature of design education. If you make it to Bruce Nussbaums comments they make […]

    77. “rarified vocational air” « Seco

      […] Dan and I sit next to one another at AP, taking in huge gaping mouthfulls of that rarified air Khoi mentioned with every breath. We do this because we’re happy to be here, and thankful to be surrounded by talented, dedicated and independent thinkers. Dan wants to fill this city of ours with amazing designers, and so he chafes when people like Bruce Nussbaum start saying things that, to Dan’s ear, tell people that the thinking part of design is more important than the doing. He gets pissed when he realizes that the curriculum of the design schools are starting to deemphasize the actual design work. […]

    78. JW Kim

      Get it through your thick skull, when Nussbaum says design thinking, it’s just a name for a methodology for multi-disciplinary teams to work through where making and doing is essential — it could be design doing for all I care. You guys have more common than you think, it’s just that I think you already made up your mind about him, therefore anything you read reinforces your bias. The whole goal of ‘dschools’–design institutes, is to teach non-designers about design thinking, not to produce MBA’s or MS’s to be designers, but help them to understand and value what designers bring to the table and ultimately elevate the value of designers so that folks like you get paid more. i.e. not just make things pretty, but innovate through design.

    79. Interesting UX/UCD Reads for the Week at Mobimeet

      […] Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again by Dan Saffer …I was taught that design has three components: thinking, making, and doing. (Doing is the synthesis, presentation, and evaluation of a design; the bridge between thinking and making.) If all design schools are teaching is the thinking, well, they are missing the other two thirds of the equation. They have abandoned craft for craze. Thinking without the making and doing is almost useless in the job market, unless you want to work at Accenture or some other big consulting firm. It probably won’t help you get a job as a designer in a studio environment. You’d be better off getting a degree in Humanities; at least you would be well-rounded… [read…] […]

    80. graphpaper.com - Design Thinking Out Of The Box

      […] hype around design thinking has been a little troublesome to many practicing designers, myself included. As I’ve said before, to me design thinking is […]

    81. Waikit

      I really missed this one. Yeah, it’s a shame that many schools are not teaching properly. Some focus too much on design thinking and other too much on making. But ultimately, the student or graduate needs to discover and work on his/her weaknesses by training skills that are not sufficiently taught at school.

    82. Thinking about ‘Design Thinking’ - Mat

      […] I subscribe to the feed from Adaptive Path’s blog because, as they say here in Boston, the people who work there are “wicked smaht.” As a result, and thanks to the magic of RSS feedings, I spotted this impassioned plea from one of the Adaptive Pathers, Dan Saffer, for design schools to start teaching design again. […]

    83. Ellen Lytle, M.A., M.Des.

      The amount of knowledge required of a graduating graphic design student has TRIPLED in the last ten years. The amount of time spent in school hasn’t expanded by a single day. You can’t keep shoving more and more content into the curriculum and the field without an effect. The logical, albeit unfortunate, outcome is that design education becomes less about true depth of understanding and more about being “exposed” to a very broad spectrum of content to assure minimum competency. The sheer volume of content results in less time on each of the crucial areas of knowledge and superficial experience with it. For example, twenty years ago, students learned about typography in greater depth with 2-3 courses in the curriculum dedicated to that one topic. Same with the core areas of layout, design process, history, and theory. Programs could afford the luxury of specialized topics such as environmental, packaging, corporate identity and publication design. Now the student is expected to graduate not only as a graphic designer, but also a web designer, an animator and a web developer. The result is a watering down of the core skills by virtue of volume, so many design schools react by focusing on the skills that can only be learned in school. Employers are not going to “train” someone to thing critically, evaluate alternatives and synthesize complex principles. School is the only place to learn theory, process and core skills. I believe the perfect balance is maintained between academic integrity of a curriculum and the realities of the real world in a coop program such as the University of Cincinnati where design students are required to hold 6 quarter-long coop jobs while in school. (Full disclosure: I am a graduate of U.C. on both the bachelors and masters level.) It expands the length of the program to five years. U.C. founded the concept of cooperative education at the turn of the century and it has served as a much admired model for design education throughout the world. This model fully integrates the thinking, making, and doing. There are things that can only be learned in the real world and other things that can only be learned in school. Can (and should) design education effectively simulate things that can only be learned in the real world? Should employers bear a responsibility for training design employees the same way they train other employees (sales, retail, customer service, etc.)?

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