Designer’s Debate Club: On Formal Design Education

The Designer’s Debate Club is hosting a debate on the necessity of formal design education. The club’s third session, to be held on February 13th at 6:30pm, will take place at the Tishman Auditorium of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City.

DDC, founded by Keenan Cummings and Jon Troutman, has held two previous sessions. Session 1‘s debate was on whether or not “All Web Designers Must Learn To Code.” Session 2 discussed if “Lean start-up methods prevent designers from solving big-picture design problems.”

The motion being debated in Session 3 is: “Formal design education is necessary for practicing designers.”

Arguing against the necessity of formal design education are such industry figures as Able Parris of Big Spaceship, Peter Vidani of Tumblr, and Liz Danzico of the School of Visual Arts. Arguing for formal education are Alice Twemlow (also of SVA) and Matteo Bologna of Mucca Design. The “for” side will also feature a mystery debater; considering the participation of two others from SVA’s design programs, I wouldn’t be surprised if this mystery luminary is Jeffrey Zeldman or Jason Santa Maria.

Tickets are $10, and the debate will include audience participation in the form of voting and floor debate. Get them Tishman Auditorium

Image of Tishman Auditorium courtesy of joshbousel on Flickr.

Formal education is tricky when it comes to interaction design. At least anecdotally, it seems like the vast majority of practicing digital designers are self-taught, or have a degree in something unrelated. There are the big names like Mark Zuckerberg (dropped out of Harvard) and David Karp (didn’t even finish high school), but even the average designer-on-the-ground is unlikely to have a degree in web design or computer science.

That alone doesn’t mean the degree is without merit, though. Just because there was no such thing as a Bachelors of Engineering when da Vinci was working doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile now. In fact, it may be the widespread lack of accreditation that leads to client misconceptions like “any 12-year-old can design a website.”

In my opinion, the question hinges on the definition of “education.” We’ve loosened the definition of the word to include vocational training, whereas it used to imply a well-roundedness and exposure to the liberal arts. Taking exclusively practical design classes is training; taking a variety of classes with an emphasis on design thinking is education. Design is a fusion of so many other fields it would be counterproductive to learn the practical side without having been exposed to business, philosophy, art, et cetera. Pragmatically, the digital world moves so quickly that practical training would become obsolete much faster than a well-rounded education. A similar argument can be made regarding an entrepreneurial education.

There’s a case to be made on both sides, and I’m sure the debaters next Wednesday will have many interesting things to say. I will leave you with this: a man named Charles Eliot once stated that a liberal education could be obtained by reading for 15 minutes a day from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. This was after he’d spent 40 years as president of Harvard University.

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