Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the third Designer’s Debate Club, hosted by the AIGA and held at Parsons The New School for Design. The motion in question was: Formal design education is necessary for practicing designers.
The debate was intense and engaging. Both sides presented well-constructed arguments, and the audience got to participate in a lively floor debate before the closing statements were given.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Arguing in favor of the motion were three giants of the design world: Alice Twemlow, author of What is Graphic Design For? and educator at the School of Visual Arts; Matteo Bologna, founding partner of Mucca Design and owner of the greatest mustache ever seen; and Abbot Miller, partner at Pentagram (enough said.)
The team’s arguments were well-considered and eloquent. Essentially:
- Self-education is like a meal that consists of a few inconsistent courses, whereas formal education is a full meal with the appropriate nutritional balance. A pick-and-choose education is inherently weak compared with the real thing.
- Formal education provides opportunities for classroom critiques of one’s work, allowing students to identify their weaknesses in an organized and productive setting.
- The guidance of experienced teachers and fellow students will help up-and-coming designers identify areas of weakness and ignorance. A self-taught designer might never learn where they’re weak.
- Design is a field with rich tradition and philosophical underpinnings. Formal design education teaches students to understand and embrace that tradition, whereas self-taught designers might only skim the surface.
- Formal design education provides its students an opportunity to explore the design field without commercial constraints.
The For side’s arguments were summed up nicely by one of the floor debaters, who said “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Their case focused on the ignorance which accompanies a lack of formal education and places self-taught designers at a disadvantage in the competitive design marketplace.
“The real world is the best classroom.”
Standing against the motion were three big names of the digital design circuit: Able Parris of Big Spaceship; Peter Vidani of Tumblr; and Kate Proulx of Huge. Their arguments were both personal and pragmatic:
- Formal education is expensive, placing students into debt and incentivizing them to take jobs that pay well, even though the jobs best for a young designer’s career often have lower salaries.
- It’s true that a lot of self-taught designers have done a poor job learning about their industry, but that speaks against those designers, not self-education itself. It’s still possible to be self-taught and have a healthy appreciation of design philosophy.
- It’s better for designers to learn under real constraints such as commercial interests, rather than in a classroom insulated from the “real world.”
- The designers who first developed modern design thought were mostly self-taught, but that doesn’t invalidate their contributions. Why hold current designers to a different standard?
The Against team’s arguments were less unified than their opponents, but I thought they still presented a well-reasoned and compelling argument. Their thesis was that, even if formal design education is valuable, that doesn’t make self-education worthless. I would’ve liked to see one more back-and-forth round between the two teams to allow them to better flesh out their arguments; it seemed like the debate ended just as the Against team was hitting their stride.
Before and after the debate, the moderators called for a show of hands to determine the audience’s leanings. The audience was initially leaning towards the For side of the argument, and sure enough the motion passed by a substantial margin.
I was surprised that so many members of the audience believed that formal design education was necessary to being a professional designer, but upon further consideration, I realized it made sense:
- The debate was held at a design school, and the numerous students in the audience may have been predisposed towards the For side. It matches their own experience, and validates their decision to pay for a formal design education.
- My experience is largely on the digital side of design, where self-education is more widespread than in other design disciplines. It’s common to find self-taught web designers; it’s not so common to find self-taught graphic, fashion, or type designers.
- The For side presented their argument with more rhetorical prowess. The Against team was eloquent, but their opponents have a much larger body of written work, and are more experienced at crafting sophisticated arguments.
A debate like this is less about winning/losing and more about learning to appreciate the other side’s perspective. At the beginning I was leaning heavily against the motion, but by the end, the For team nearly had me convinced.
- Even the participants with little debate experience did well and spoke eloquently. I think the type of mind that makes one a good designer is also good at structuring a well-reasoned argument.
- The For team didn’t include any designers doing primarily digital work. The Against side was almost entirely digital.
- I’d be interested to hear how each side would argue if they were required to present the opposite viewpoint. “For” arguing against, and vice versa.
- Each participant in the floor debate received a voucher for a free workshop at General Assembly. If that isn’t a reason to attend the next one, I don’t know what is.
- There’s nothing as cool as meeting someone in real life whom you’d previously only encountered online. I spent several minutes talking to someone before realizing it was Tobias van Schneider of the .Mail project, about whom I’d written an article previously.
The debate was informative and a lot of fun, and definitely worth the $10 ticket. If you’re in the New York area, I highly recommend going to the next one.