Co.Design

American Design Schools Are a Mess, and Produce Weak Graduates

Famed designer Gadi Amit laments the lackluster quality of job applicants and their portfolios and wonders: Are design schools failing their students?


As head of a major Silicon Valley industrial design studio, I review hundreds or even thousands of portfolios every year. It is an essential part of my job as I look for the best people to join our growing team. Because the right mix of talent is so crucial to our success, I make it a principle to review every portfolio sent to us myself.

That commitment puts me in a bit of a tight spot, as I struggle to find the right way to say the right things to people whose high hopes I'm forced to dash. Despite the recent surge in interest in design careers, the quality of candidates' portfolios seems to have stagnated or even diminished.

The problem has become increasingly acute. I'm eager to hire the next great class of designers, but to my dismay—and the dismay of many young hopefuls who've often spent many years and thousands of dollars preparing to enter the industry—I'm finding that the impressive academic credentials of most students don't add up to the basic skills I require in a junior designer.

The quality of recent grads has stagnated or even diminished

Simply put, the design education system today is failing many aspiring young students. Some of the design schools they've attended have no real design process education, while others have only process education. Many come from engineering programs that claim to be "design" programs. Lots have been taught some version of "design thinking," but most of that is devoid of any cultural, aesthetic, or form intelligence. Most students can claim some familiarity with design research but few have any sense of design integration.

Academic design programs are crippled by blurry standards which are so vastly different from program to program that it is nearly impossible for me, as an employer, to have a reliable idea of what skills a student toting a design degree can be expected to possess.

Overall, the schools' results are often a muddled mess, the end result of programs pulling in every direction, with no sense of focused common ground, no basic core curriculum in design.


Mind you: I'm no academic snob. I don't care which school an applicant attended or who his or her professor was. Employers like me and my peers need evidence that a new hire has what it takes to hit the ground running. And, given the lack of consistency in design school training, we're forced to put more weight on portfolio reviews or evidence of skills learned through internships than academic credentials.

One way schools could change that is by adopting a clear, "consumer friendly" approach that spells out to young designers-to-be that, for example, "With this degree you'd be better positioned to approach an in-house design team in a large corporation or a very technical product development agency." Conversely, they should state explicitly that other degrees "are not suitable for design-agency work."

The schools are a muddled mess, the end result of programs pulling in every direction

I know how critical the right program is personally and economically for the students (and their parents!). I think academia must develop clarity quickly. Celebrating the one-in-a-thousand alumnus who made it big is not helpful and propagates the misleading idea that a hodgepodge of courses builds a skill set that would be universally useful in the marketplace.

Much of the work that students show me in their portfolios is broken into two categories: skills work (3D CAD) and process work (research, model-making). Only a few show projects showcasing the applicant's ability to integrate seamlessly all levels of creativity. Such well integrated notion of design is shared by a few good programs: In the U.S., Cincinnati has an excellent program with very solid graduates, while In Europe, many German and some UK schools are developing an excellent sense of cohesion in their grads.


But most portfolios I see lack the critical mass associated with a solid inside-out, outside-in, perception of design rather than simply skills training. Anecdotally, the one skill that does "glue" design together, hand sketching, is slowly eroding. Mainly seen as a quick ideation phase before CAD, this skill should be seen as a way of thinking—combining visual thinking with personal aesthetics. Good internship programs are essential to this "gluing" process. There is nothing more effective to this amalgamation process than those moments in the real world of design, when an idea clicks to become a product.

Unfortunately, the problems don't end with undergraduate design education. The American notion of a design master's degree as being any BA plus some design added on top is even worse. While many masters programs are essentially four-year basic design programs with loftier credentials, some programs simply combine an assortment of academic credits with some light design glue to create a hollowed degree with very little in the center.

Students lately seem to have a sense of entitlement that has no place in reality

I recall a long conversation with a candidate from a very respectable program that provided next-to-no aesthetic education. Her expensive degree had given her very little to offer in an area she felt central to her personal ambition, creating beautiful objects of cultural importance. The road she taken was not unusual: Her Language Arts BA combined with excellent scores in relevant tests made her an excellent candidate for a demanding MA program. But it didn't make her a designer. This approach works only in America. Asian and European schools (I get many of these portfolios as well) will demand substantial design education before allowing a BA student to pursue an MA in design. In other words, it is too easy in America to start with non-design BA and switch to MA in design. Any school that allows that should clearly present it as a "high risk" career path. Not doing so has moral and intellectual drawbacks.

Lastly—and please remember that my role in the studio is primarily boss, not teacher—students lately seem to have a sense of entitlement that has no place in reality. Design is, in many ways, a tougher profession than, say, law or medicine since it has far fewer opportunities, lower pay, and a far murkier career path. Young designers tend to approach their first jobs as "extended education" with me, the principal, assigned to promote their career, rather than deliver projects to clients. Try telling that to the people who are paying for our services!

The first five years in a designer's career are absolutely critical and the true educational experience. A young designer must appreciate that opportunity to mature while on the job and take nothing for granted. A willingness to do anything and everything he or she can to get experience and learn, from the ground up, should be reinforced by the schools. Since design can be a difficult career option, we've got to instill young designers with a critical sense of reality — your first job is your true MA, your best chance to establish a career path, your opportunity to work on the coolest projects — and you get paid for it. What a great job it is!

[Images by Betahaus — which it should be pointed out is a pretty great model of DIY design education]

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40 Comments

  • Tanner Stephenson

    While researching about which schools curriculum would best prepare me for a career in industrial design, I came across this article. To be brief I'll just ask the only question that I have: Where can I find the education that will best prepare me for a career in ID? If anyone has any clues, I'd be most grateful. I'm tired of comparing curriculums only to lead with an educated guess. Thanks in advance.

  • Indiemmy

    I find that the biggest problem is nonconstructive criticism. Instead of complaining about the design field, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Help designer wanna-bes achieve that level of excellence in their design that you are looking for.

  • BrendaFranklin

    If you want specific skills from the average 20 year old college graduate, you will have to do it "on your dime".  Or, you will have to go to the universities and voice your concerns along with solutions, perhaps you could walk in with a check list. I learned a hell of a lot more working actual jobs than doing color wheels and cramming for art history exams with names I do not remember now. 

    One thing I will say about some designers, perhaps artists in general is that their attitude STINKS. They accuse others of being selfish when they are selfish themselves. I call it the spoiled-boy syndrome. If you want someone to know something, try teaching them yourself and if they don't get it at that point you can label them as failures. You are sitting on a cushion of being a recognized professional so that affords you the opportunity to look down on others who may have not had the same background as you to learn a wide variety of skills in a short time. You have to keep that in mind when judging other people and where they are at in their design career.

    But I will be honest, these type of designers usually keep a chip on their shoulders for life, always looking down on others. That kind of attitude will get you paid but probably won't make you many real friends. I hope that I can always be humble and lend a hand to someone who really needs it.

  • Nam Giang

    It would have been nice if Gadi mentioned plausible actions/steps that may help remedy this problem as saying it out loud doesn't resolve anything unless actions are taken...but why can't the designers solve that problem unless you can't solve problems....   

    Firstly i wish to advise people that regard Gadi as rude and so forth, please justify your claim with clear evidence of this, if not, then you must be imagining it through the words. As we too often observe, people will criticise the author or try to discredit them to feel that they have been unfairly treated but fail to realise there is truth to the matter. 

    What my concern is that, we have too many students wanting to study design which dilutes the quality of the education (teacher to student ratio) and the graduate pool. Who is to blame, the institution thats profiting from allowing large volumes of students in. I am currently enrolled in one and i feel that i would be better inspired by not having mediocre students around as having inspiring students around will push the collective body of students further as you work together and help constructively critique each other. I have noticed attending other design school graduate shows, you notice a higher standard, so if all you see is mediocre unknowingly, you'll think it is normal.

    How to rectify the situation?
    How do you tell a school not to let more students in? You can't.
    Maybe that should fail more students so they get the idea? Less likely to happen.
    Maybe design firms should have the countless fail stories of how i didn't become a designer? 
    I definitely agree with a far better integration between the institution and design firms, it will guarantee real world knowledge is transferred and both students and the firms will have a clearer understanding of its strengths and weaknesses to improve on. It would also reduce the reliance on limited internships placement if the firms work with students first hand in projects and help develop their potential just like you would get with an apprenticeship but for all students. After it all, you would definitely know which students would be perfect for your firm and you would have a better success rate with interns and graduates. It would be a win win situation.     

    Regarding design thinking and creativity, the problem is with any university run design school, it has to abide by university standards which is far from being successful in turning out brilliant minds but money. As a whole, a lot of its rote learning which hardly fosters any conceptual mindset or creativity. What we need is designers/part time educator that embrace and encourage free thinking means of education.   

  • guest

    I totally agree about the authors on the blogs. The design
    schools today are more focused on using current technologies instead of using
    creativity. The American Society when it comes to the design are more of the
    chop shop or the mass production similar to the good old-fashioned
    manufacturing days of the USA back when cars were proved produced by the
    hundreds of thousands in Henry Ford's heydays. Now, were in a society is all
    about mass-producing and less and less about originality.

    Education should not be in the form of the degree but more
    in the form of a certification of one's talents and abilities. There's been too
    much focus on the name of the school more so than the quality of the student.
    It seems like the top 1% of all designers are entrepreneurs rather than general
    designers, that's my personal opinion. The entrepreneur must focus on being
    better and creating results while producing designs in order to keep the edge
    from its competitors. While the average employee who works inside a design firm
    is accustomed to a salary and benefits which produces mediocre work which could
    lead to just getting by to complete the task at hand.

    If we look at the process of getting the Adobe certification
    while it's not all about design is more about the tool to create the design
    piece. This is more in line with the practice of creating a fine martial artist
    who has taken time to understand tools and his ability to create the ultimate
    masterpiece. His art form is his hands and his techniques. I see the
    self-directed path as the best way to go in order to become the best designer in
    one's design profession. The self-directed path leads to the designer to take
    on many task at hand and to take education as needed and not just for the glory
    of getting the education to hold a piece of paper that has some institution
    name on it.

  • Tortugaamo

    This article...Gadi, I agree with some but am utterly disgusted with the claim that the first job is an 'extended education'.  Well, then why do graduates have to 'intern' for 3 years with lower pay when in reality, they do the work? (autoCAD, Revit)  I agree that schools do not create designers, but can they?  How do you teach design?  Design is intuition, an eye for design, and a natural instinct.  I don't believe you can 'teach' design.  You can teach history, engineering principles, and applications but to design you can not.  

    As an architect you currently accept the role of a teacher for the younger generation of designers.  This is/was part of the prestigious label of architect.  To 'teach' your methods of design.  This makes you 'better' than they neighbor designer and typically you want to pass this on for evolution to occur.  

    I'm tired of older architects claiming the 'younger' architects don't do anything...are you kidding?  How ignorant.  Do you understand the multitude of information students can and do learn in architectural education? The computer knowledge could and does create a whole new degree.  

    On this subject I do agree with the claim that schools are not creating working architects.  But, they are teaching history, computer application, construction principles and general building information.  If they taught codes, documentation production and how-to design students would be in school for 30 years.  That point of education is the job of the employer, as implied by the internship program.  I worked throughout college and every firm was different, standards, methods, design concepts....that's what makes design 'DESIGN'....

  • Melissa Judd

    You may not like the delivery approach of Mr. Amit regarding this subject, but I believe for the most part he is nothing short of unfortunate accuracy.

    I graduated with a BFA in Interior Design 2 years ago from a very exclusive private ($$$) Art & Design School in the U.S. I had always wanted to become an interior designer/architect from a very early age and have what I consider to be a natural creative talent with a large drive and passion. When accepted into this program at the age of 34 I knew it would be a difficult task, one that I was more than ready to tackle...I was excited at the idea of finally being able to take my imagination to the next level, to finally achieve my goals!! Life had taken me down another path for many years--accounting, business, law, customer service, but through my love of travel I always noticed architecture, people, space, and thought about my real passion...design!

    Being an older student I quickly suspected that the immense creativity level I came into the program with was being slowly stifled and replaced with what Mr. Amit speaks of, "a hodgepodge of courses builds a skill set that would be universally useful in the marketplace." Instead of helping to enhance my individual design personality I felt as if I was being turned into a “universally useful” Stepford student. I cannot tell you how many times we were told by our professors "don't reinvent the wheel" when presenting a concept or idea (And I'm not referring to standards and codes here). We were point blank told that we were being taught (groomed might be a better word) in a fashion that would allow us to hit the ground running when it came time for an internship, and that our program was constantly being praised by professionals saying that we could in fact. Obviously, this is a good thing, but somehow it seemed as if it really wasn't about the creative design process as much as the pretty package we were delivered in. We were selling ourselves on our knowledge of skill sets and various other aspects of design, but most of us felt as if our portfolios did not represent the true designer that we thought we were.

    I would almost describe my education as being a “jack of all trades master of none” approach due to the myriad of subjects necessary in order to make us knowledgeable and marketable to potential employers. The argument could be made—with this day in age, is it better to be competitive in the amount of technology and skill sets that one has to offer or to take a practical approach in spending more time on the foundation elements of design practice?

    Lastly, I would like to share the alarming statistics of our very talented graduating class in 2009; out of 15 students only 4 have jobs in an actual design firm/field, myself NOT included. I must admit I am greatly shocked and very much distraught over the fact that I have an immense passion for this profession, a varied work background that I feel would be of great asset to my position as an interior designer, no children so I’m ready to give it my all, great outlook on life, and above all I am willing to start at the bottom and work my way up as Mr. Amit points out is lacking in some. Yet, no opportunity…but I won’t give up, even if ‘American Design Schools Are a Mess, and Produce Weak Graduates’.

  • Steve Whetstone

    I agree strongly when he writes. . .

    One way schools could change that is by adopting a clear, "consumer friendly" approach that spells out to young designers-to-be that, for example, "With this degree you’d be better positioned to approach an in-house design team in a large corporation or a very technical product development agency." Conversely, they should state explicitly that other degrees "are not suitable for design-agency work."

    I almost didn't graduate because my last year I realized I was stuck in program and future I didn't want and was led to believe I would be learning something else when I signed up.

    Here's my extension of this point into a realizable solution.

    Ask yourself this question. . . "if students could go online to a website called and get a simple honest and reliable ranking of how effective a school is in preparing them for the real world, what would be the result?" What if every college were legally required as a part of the truth in advertising laws to make publicly available the results of the usually secret and confidential internal teacher evaluation and class evaluation surveys that most students are required to fill out. What if industry employers were paid a compensation fee to rate the real world effectiveness of the same class in several different colleges (in addition to declairing any and all financial relationships with the universities of course). What if student loan default rates (an easily comparable measure of graduate employment success) were published by and broken down by school, major and possibly even by class or teacher using simple college level statistics analysis?

    There is a movement towards improving the transparency of college programs. Some schools, such as the Academy of Art University, my school, publicly state the number of successfully placed graduates working in their area of study. This is a good start, but can be improved significantly. First, the public has no way to verify the college claims and there's effectively no way to compare claims from different colleges. One college may consider working as a cashier at Flax art supplies to be work in the industry. Worse, there's a financial and institutional perverse incentive to exaggerate claims and omit any negative findings. We've seen the results of that type of system with drug approval trials being suppressed or repeated until the desired result is found. If a college or program collects unflattering information it's financially in their interest to suppress it. At the very least they won't make it easy to find or bring it up unless they have to.

    So how can we make this happen?. First we a school who is a leader in producing real world qualified students . They need to have the talent and ability to also prove it to an admittedly skeptical audience. Then they make a big advertising point of you're superiority and that you offer methods of verifying the information is reliable and honest (while your at it make a big advertising point about the you vs the colleges that don't provide independent verification and prepare for the anti-competitive retaliatory backlash). Finally to really complete the solution we need that school to spearhead a national movement to standardize or regulate and fund from a dues system informative college reviews and make them public.

    p.s. yes, I'm trapped in a poorly designed comment box too. No way to click "submit" or finished or anything else. This is the U.I. equivalent of using comic sans in your portfolio. I see a lot of design agencies that fail to practice and most likely fail to understand even basic user interface design ability. Insistence on sketching has become a hallmark of an employer who never fully transitioned past their print foundations. Whenever it's someones pet peeve, I can dramatically increase the odds they don't care or respect good web design.

  • Nick Gassmann

    I wonder how Gadi feels about the art school in his backyard. Industry focused schools that are for-profit like Academy of Art... do they not fulfill his qualifications?

  • M Boyko

    Fast Co. Should take a look at its own design mess. This site IS the dont list. 3 lines of scrolling text for comments is just one of the issues. OMG.

  • Alvin John A. Niere

    I am a 4th year Architecture Student, and although I have not even touched "the real world", it scary to see the things you have mentioned here. Far too often, many students are designing in CAD and removing themselves from the hands on experience. Although the school I attend emphasis a process based design, it is true that a design with cultural or contextual significance can be overlooked.

    I feel that many schools are afraid to turn students away because of their statistics and money. I have seen so many ill-thought out designs with professors quietly slapping the students on the wrist. To me, this is a field that, if you design horribly, it should be addressed because it will be a shame when these same students will enter the workforce.

  • Sara

    As a recent design school grad (SCAD 2010) I can not fairly blame any institution. I have an honest perception of who I was at 18: A mess more concerned with men then design. You have to walk before you can run and school showed me merely how to use design tools. Many are just shipped off to art school because they are creative and don't know what to do about it.

    Higher level thinking comes after mastering a tool set. Gadi may have never been 21 or he's forgotten how shallow the pool is for these overly protected guppies just entering the world. That's not something you can blame on anyone. When we're young we need substance to feed our minds and less lecture about entitlement. At nineteen I had no idea what to send off an internship application and blowing some of those applications was part of my growing process. Design schools struggle to pack the depth in when students are required to take a host of other courses that have nothing to do with their profession for acreditation purposes. Your future employees are spending hours in lecture courses that have nothing to do with the real world except that they make people more well rounded. It doesn't help design firms that I've read Shakespeare and know something about Degas. I just do. In four years it is impossible to cover tools, culture, and best business practices. When we start at art school we are misfits.

    The assumption that an employer is too good to teach is rather horrifying from a business management stand point. If an employer wants things done to their standards there has to be training and more training. Recent college graduates have had their heads filled with so much Shakespeare, Freud, and an art history they need to know your expectations through interacting with you. We're a delicate bunch high on the liberal arts. Employers need to take more responsibility for not being able to communicate what the standards are without assuming someone is completely unable to produce professional work. I see a lot of an entry level employees making one or two mistakes and being deemed a failure for life. The replacement you hire because your standards are so high will also have issues too. It's much more productive for Amit to invest in training people rather then write them all off as hopeless.

  • Sandy Epstein

    I think Gadi's comments are right on the mark. He's not being rude, he's right. Students are ill prepared to enter the workplace out of school. It's not the students, it's the schools. No matter how good their portfolios, they often lack basic design skills, much less experience for preparing construction documents and detailing, marketing or business accumen. They have no understanding of how time connects to money. As an architect, and a firm owner for 26 years, it is frustrating how may students come to the workforce without a professional degree. A 4 year Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture is worthless towards registration. A Bachelor or Master of Architecture is required for this. Many students attaining the Bachelor of Science degree don't immediately go on to the master's program. Some even say they feel they were duped by the schools in lettting them think they would have a professional degree in this four year program. So they enter the work force, work for 2 to 3 years, with substantial cost born by the firm for training, and they reluctantly return to the master's program, with a 50/50 chance of ever returning to the frim they left.

    Gadi is also right in his assessment of many programs that don't require a professional undergraduate degree in architecture in order to enter the master's program. Learning and understanding design is a long process, and it's my opinion schools have an obligation to do this in a structured, unbroken sequence of years that at the end of the program the student has achieved a professional degree - preferably a 5 year master's degree, instead of these non-sensical 4+2 programs. Under the current system it takes forever for these young designers to get their careers on track, and a hugh amount of uncertainty for firms hoping for long term employees after years of traning.

    And teach them to design with a pen and paper. Their ability to sketch is almost negligible, as well as their ability to "see" the design before they put a line to paper. I require my interns to design their projects, but many don't feel comfortable about their design abilities, even after years of school.

    So who takes the lead here, and why are so many schools so out of sync with design frims.

  • E. V.

    No matter how "famed" a designer is, I find it incredibly rude and inappropriate to come down so hard young designers as Amit does in this article. As a designer with (I would hope) a creative mind, is there not a more productive way to express one's thoughts on design education than write such a negative piece? Could one, instead of complaining about all the downfalls of ALL design students, explain what kinds of skills are important to work in "a major Silicon Valley industrial design studio" in a way that doesn't make one come off as a complete douchebag? Amit says he's no "academic snob." I say he's a snob if I've ever seen one-- and an asshole.

  • Sarah Wolfsont

    Design programs, like designers come in all forms. It's challenging to pack in a concept driven education while focusing on technical skills.
    If there's something you think is missing in the work you're seeing, why not be proactive with higher education instead of harsh criticism on kids who just went through the system?

  • Simon Pitt

    Good read, but I would add at the end that..

    ..for graduates not to treat their first jobs like an extension of their education it would be appropriate for employers to end their practice of underpaying or not paying qualified graduates for quality services, and stop dangling career carrots in front of our noses. It's distracting.

  • Brian Ward

    By the way the US needs to PAY very experienced Industrial Designers to teach. Especially if they worked outside of the US- this would change things for the better!

  • Brian Ward

    Gadi, Your comments are right on the mark! I am a Californian ID graduate that got fed up with the Silicon Valley corporate ID branding trend.

    After four years I decided to pack my things and do an MA ID in the UK- one of the best moves I ever made! The difference was staggering!

    In the UK because ID jobs are scarce, the Universities educate and create what is known as "unemployable" Industrial Designers. This is not what it sounds like! They create Designers who start their own companies and manufacture their own products! As well their wide spectrum of cultural and educational sensitivities put the US designers to shame!

    I look back at the graduates from my first degree and they do well, but the thoughts are bland, surface driven and one dimensional- THEY DON'T MAKE ONE THINK! And the finishing is atrocious!

    Recently I had an argument with a West Coast designer that basically said "love it or leave it!" and that Apple is the shining example of Californian design! Now... I love my state but I must bend the name in terms of Design and call it Caliphoneyian Design. APPLE ID IS FILLED WITH EUROPEANS DUDE!!!!

    Yes, California has a great resource in creativity, and cultural diversity,,,but the general education in the US does not promote thinking OUTSIDE of the US- it is almost completely insular!

    While in London I was involved in designing /making, showing at the Milan furniture fair, Milan Design week Palermo Design week, and other events. Back home I talked to my colleagues and they had a blank stare when I mentioned these things.

    I live in Cyprus and there is little industry here, but we have started an ID studio www dot wedid-id dot com. We went out and found CNC cutters, laser cutters, water jet cutters, metal benders, die casting, injection moulding. These were processes that NO-one knew existed here on the island- but our love of our kraft and desire to create forced us to push boundaries- now we have a range of furniture.

    This is what is lacking from US IDers the love and the DESIRE to Design. They seem to just want a paycheck and collect some IDEA/ Red dot awards- entitlement. We want to Design and MAKE things to better people's lives whether in a simple or technological package- that does not matter!

    Thanks Gadi!