Lessons from design education

I met someone today at InfoCamp who got her college degree in “design management.” This essentially means coordinating overarching design projects that include a team of specialists working in a variety of mediums or products — such as brands that span websites, retail packaging, advertising, etc. (Apparently, in the US, this specialty is only offered at the Art Institute in Portland and at RISD.)

Carina said that virtually every project assigned in every design class she took was a real project for real clients. Companies, nonprofits, or government entities who needed something designed. This is in stark contrast to most class projects in most other disciplines, where imaginary problems are created with imaginary stakeholders, and the project team just consists of one or more students in the class.

Is it any wonder that software engineers are blissfully unaware of the needs of real users, when their only deliverables in school were to TAs who graded the correctness and efficiency of their program code?

I’ve already heard Bill Buxton talk about how class projects should at least include students from different disciplines, since that is the type of team that can make the biggest impact in the real world and people in such a team need to be able to communicate across the disciplinary boundaries. I’ve also read about the socially relevant computing initiative which seeks to make computer science projects more obviously related to real-life problems.

But design education goes all the way, by involving students at almost all levels in real projects. Actual projects! That actually need getting done! That come with all of the organizational politics and communication challenges of the real world.

Is there something special about the design discipline that makes this approach work? Or is the approach just as feasible in computer science, too?

As a high school student with no formal computer science training, I created an entire content management system with three interconnected data types (pages, vocabulary terms, and bibliography citations) and specialized back-end management interfaces for each type. Surely, there are real projects of this level of complexity or less that a first-year computer science student (or group of students) could complete. This clearly does not constitute “innovative computer science research.” But it does solve real problems with current technology, and it introduces students to the realities of working with users and stakeholders other than oneself.

An ongoing conversation thread among designers and consultants is that it is up to them not just to design but first to resolve the organizational problems (“corporate underpants“) of siloed teams lacking clear goals and effective communication. This seems to me primarily a failure of education.

Why would we expect people to know how to communicate with diverse stakeholders, if they never learned to do so? (The same reasoning goes for other emotional intelligence skills such as conflict resolution and leadership.)

If these skills are as widely needed as they appear to be, we should start teaching them at the earliest levels of school. The responsibility surely shouldn’t rest only on college-educated designers.