Is formal design education necessary?

I had the chance to attend an AIGA/NY lecture as part of the Parson Lecture Series: Designer's Debate Club No.3 Complete event info about moderator and panelists can be found here. The discussion erupted from a main idea:

Is formal design education necessary for practicing designers?


After the last 2 years of arguing for design certification and receiving a lot of supportive and insulting responses, I truly felt that the self-taught supporters would come out victors. However, the outcome of this AIGA/NY debate proved unexpected. The panel‘s method for determining the winning side looked, not for majority of audience opinion, but for who could sway the biggest number of opinions; who could get more people to change their mind. Although this weighed heavily on the power of persuasion and oratory of the panelists, it was a novel way to vote on a hot issue. Many of the opinions shared reflected closely with my research and writing on certification. It became obvious that the topic of formal education is as polarizing as professional standards have become. I just could not miss being there. Panelists included:

• J. Abbott Miller / Pentagram
• Alice Twenlow / SVA
• Matteo Bologna / Mucca

• Able Parris / Big Spaceship
• Peter Vidani / Tumblr
• Kate Prouix / HUGE

The debate was structured in an open casual manner. Although the intention was to mimic the classy British debates of yore, the actual discussion had a nice honest exchange of ideas, biases and experiences. It was obvious that most panelists and audience members will argue in favor of their own experience. I will defend design education because I went to design school. Self-taught designers will push towards that experience as the ideal way to become design savvy in ur modern world.

As the debate ensued, it was eye-opening to see the difference in opinions coming from the FOR panel and the AGAINST panel. The difference in argument style went hand in hand with the personality of each speaker. It was an all around transparent and sometimes witty debate.

I entered and left an avid supporter of the intangible benefits of a formal design education. Although both sides brought decent arguments forward, the AGAINST panel wasted a great opportunity to attack the bureaucracy and economic expense of formal education in a more thorough way. The self-taught supporters shared a few strong ideas, but failed miserably on getting to the core of the potential problems of formal education, specially the education institution's difficulty of adapting to newer technologies and practices as quick as self-educated designers can do.

“Clients are assholes!”
— Matteo Bologna

The AGAINST panel focused too much on weaker arguments in favor of online learning, watching seminars, TED talks and learning software through “pirated channels” as one panelist stated. Their energy was spent discussing technical specs instead of concrete methodologies, collaborative environments and intelectual manifestos that self-taught designers can offer.

“Design goes far beyond delivering the perfect employee.”
“Education is a visual as well as a technical discourse.”
“We favor design education because of the richness of the experience that takes place in a specific frame of time.”
— J. Abbott Miller

The FOR formal education panel was clearly more adept at discourse and dialogue. Alice Twenlow and J. Abbott Miller’s fluid oratory contrasted with the typical humor and sincerity of Matteo Bologna. Altogether, they offered a stronger case even when the overall statements lacked more cohesion. The audience open mic session at the end of the panel discussion was cut short. During this time audience members came forward and defended their position, some sharing how they had changed sides after listening to the panelists. I did not have time to respond, so I will share my notes here:

• The against panel talked endlessly about the benefit of the new digital technologies, open networks, blogs and free resources available today. Yet, they talked about these things as something unique for self-taught designers and not as open information available to everyone with time and an internet connection. The tried to appropriate the plethora of free available tools that exist and that are immensely beneficial to designers of every experience and training. The information they talked about is out there for anyone to use, the important factor is knowing how to transform information into applicable knowledge, something that formal education forces us to do.

• Design education provides many intangible benefits and experiences. It provides a time and space for us to define the path we want to pursue within the expansive realm of design, while being critiqued, pushed, supported and guided by professors, mentors and classmates. This last group proved to be the core of my growth and support through my grad experience. Sharing failures and successes with other students provided a strength in numbers and a common goal approach that can not be replicated in the everyday work environment.

• Although the collaboration and tangible pressure of real-world client-based work cannot be reproduced on a classroom studio, the future of design as a whole goes past meeting deadlines and budgets. The future of design history, writing, research and discourses such as the one at hand stem directly from designers coming out of a formal design program. These programs, while providing a structured and practical skill set, offer way more than training us in the latest software of creating troops of perfect employees. Formal design education is more than deliverables and paychecks. Only in design education can we find a collective push for asking the un-asked questions and lifting the unturned stones. Education leads the way in our quest to discover and define our practice as we strive to unify our design generation with that of the men and women on whose feet we stand. 

“Design education teaches you how to rebel, how to question.”
“The benefit (of formal education) comes from a cumulative process and the community you share those experiences with.”
— Alice Twemlow

As with any other fundamental issue in design, the value of design education in any shape or form can and should be argued forever. Only in open platforms like the one this debate took place can meaningful design discourse happen. The future of design remains in our power. Wether we are self-taught, novices, amateurs, professionals or just curious is irrelevant. If our opinions carry enough data and the seriousness of a profound though process, not as mere superficial banter, then the state of our practice will remain healthy and active. As long as we keep moving, there is no danger of becoming too static, complaisant or submissive.