What is an educated designer?

I recently had a nice chat with a former design prof about what makes for an educated designer these days. I graduated over 10 yrs ago from CMU’s School of Design with my Master’s, so it’s interesting to look at today’s crop of incoming students and emerging design leaders. What are the expected work experiences, toolkits, grades and scores, etc. All that has evolved per raised expectations and changed parameters (i.e., GRE scores, web-based toolkits, social service and “alternative” work experiences and travel opps). But coming out of all that, what does it mean to educate a designer and then even lifelong, what’s that journey ahead in gaining education? What does it mean to be an “educated designer” these days…and beyond?

There’s simply a balance of past, present, and future, in my view.

** Historical understanding of ideas (origins & evolutions) and techniques (manual, non-digital). You’ve got to understand how things have come to be today, based upon earlier theories, practices, movements, schools of thought, etc. Else you’re doomed to repeat mistakes, look foolish re-applying former approaches inappropriately, and simply lack proper appreciation for how and why we do what we do today, and as we extend into the future. A brilliant short example of this is Mike Kruzeniski’s reference to paper/print/type for the future of interaction design, influencing the creation of Metro visual design system as a truly novel, authentic competitor to iOS. 

Also you need to understand how the things we take for granted in Photoshop and InDesign were done in “the olden days of yore” with manual typesetting and letterform drawing, manual laying out of paper elements and photography. It’s a matter of appreciation and thoroughness of understanding to be a complete designer. Sure there’s Kuler for creating algorithmically correct color palettes, but performing color studies with paper and paint heightens one’s sensitivity further. And of course, sketching will never die, despite the advent and popularity of digital tools on iPad, etc. Basic pen, pencil, paper skills are vital even more, IMHO.

** Liberal arts basis of thinking: literature, philosophy, art history, etc. As a designer drawing inspiration from disparate, complementary or orthogonal sources, you gotta be a polymath of sorts, with ever evolving appreciation for various subject matters, and be able to dive deep enough to interpret and leverage that for problem solving. Simply adds to your arsenal, making you a cultural creative conversant in the grand scheme of life itself, or at least with other designers when brainstorming ;-) 

** Current events and media/pop culture. Gotta stay hip to the times, not just latest cool tech gadgets, but also what’s relevant and fashionable. And how those topics refer back to historical patterns and trends (borrowing form liberal arts basis, describe above…see how it all ties together ;-) And of course social, political, economic factors going on now and near future. What are the trends, situations, events, and general attitudes overall. 

** Current tools and methods of making. Still need to make stuff, even if you are in “design strategy” or “design thinking” roles! Knowing how to craft highly resolved solutions in their various embodiments and expressions is vital to securing and developing your credibility as a designer, period. Keeping up with tools is essential for this, with ongoing practice trying them out, doing projects, etc. 

** A pulse on the future. Voraciously absorbing what’s on the horizon in terms of trends, patterns, trajectories, scenarios, predictions, etc. from fashion to politics to new theories and products/services. What are emerging social norms and generational lifestyles/attitudes to prepare for? What are ethnographers and anthropologists and psychologists discussing?

And keep taking classes on new things…improvisation, negotiation, social entrepreneurship, writing a business plan, refreshers on history and philosophy, etc. Keep the mind sharp and agile!

Whew, that’s a lot! At the end of the day, however, I keep coming back to a fundamental core value for a truly educated designer: adaptability and willingness to “unlearn” so as to “learn the new”. Having a strong liberal arts-based design education myself, I believe that’s the key to honing your ability and becoming a total, well-rounded, 360 designer prepared for a lifelong journey of evolution and success in Design.

One Reply to “What is an educated designer?”

  1. Interesting thoughts, Uday. It’s not for everyone, of course, but I think there is no better way to retain the title of “educated designer” than teaching.

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