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The Main Failing Of Design School: Kids Can't Think For Themselves

As Pentagram’s Michael Bierut argues, designers are too often trained to think simply about the design itself, and not what it means or what it’s hoping to accomplish.

The following was Michael Bierut’s first published essay, from 1988, and appears in Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design.

Graphic designers are lucky. As the people who structure much of the world’s communications, we get to vicariously partake of as many fields of interest as we have clients. In a single day, a designer can talk about real estate with one client, cancer cures with another, and forklift trucks with a third. Imagine how tedious it must be for a dentist who has nothing to do all day but worry about teeth.

The men and women who invented graphic design in America were largely self-taught; they didn’t have the opportunity to go to fully developed specialized design schools, because none existed. Yet somehow these people managed to prosper without four years of Typography, Visual Problem Solving, and Advanced Aesthetics. What they lacked in formal training they made up for with insatiable curiosity not only about art and design, but culture, science, politics, and history.

Today, most professionals will admit to alarm about the huge and ever-growing number of programs in graphic design. Each year, more and more high school seniors decide that they have a bright future in "graphics," often without much of an idea of what graphics is. This swelling tide of 18-year-old, would-be designers is swallowed up thirstily by more and more programs in graphic design at art schools, community colleges, and universities. A few years later, out they come, ready to take their places as professional designers, working for what everybody cheerfully hopes will be an infinitely expanding pool of clients.

There are many ways to teach graphic design, and almost any curriculum will defy neat cubbyholing. Nevertheless, American programs seem to fall into two broad categories: process schools and portfolio schools. Or, if you prefer, "Swiss" schools and "slick" schools.

Some of Bierut’s work for Saks Fifth Avenue

Process schools favor a form-driven problem-solving approach. The first assignments are simple exercises: drawing letterforms, "translating" three-dimensional objects into idealized high-contrast images, and basic still-life photography. In the intermediate stages, the formal exercises are combined in different ways: Relate the drawing of a flute to the hand-drawn letter N; combine the letter N with a photograph of a ballet slipper. In the final stage, these combinations are turned into "real" graphic design: Letter N plus flute drawing plus ballet slipper photo plus 42-point Univers equals, voilà, a poster for Rudolf Nureyev. Of course, if the advanced student gets an assignment to design a poster for, say, an exhibition on Thomas Edison, he or she is tempted to (literally) revert to form: Combine the letter E, drawing of a movie camera, photo of a light bulb, etc. One way or another, the process schools trace their lineage back to the advanced program of the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland. Sometimes the instructors experienced the program only second or third hand, having themselves studied with someone who studied with someone in Basel.

The Swiss-style process schools seem to have thrived largely as a reaction against the perceived "slickness" of the portfolio schools. While the former have been around in force for only the past 15 years or so, the latter are homegrown institutions with roots in the 1950s.

While the unspoken goal of the process school is to duplicate the idealized black-and-white boot camp regimen of far-off Switzerland, the portfolio school has a completely different, admittedly more mercenary, aim: to provide students with polished "books" that will get them good jobs upon graduation. The problem-solving mode is conceptual, with a bias for appealing, memorable, populist imagery. The product, not process, is king. Now, portfolio schools will rebut this by pointing to the copious tissue layouts that often supplement the awesomely slick work in their graduates’ portfolios. Nonetheless, at the end of the line of tissues is always a beautifully propped photograph of an immaculate mock-up of a perfume bottle. Seldom will portfolio schools encourage students to spend six months on a 20-part structural analysis of, say, the semiotics of a Campbell’s soup label as an end in itself. Unlike the full-time teachers of process schools, the portfolio schools are staffed largely by working professionals who teach part time, who are impatient with idle exercises that don’t relate to the "real world."

However politely the two camps behave in discussions on design education, the fact is, they hate each other. To the portfolio schools, the "Swiss" method is hermetic, arcane, and meaningless to the general public. To the process schools, the "slick" method is distastefully commercial, shallow, and derivative.

A masterpiece of analytic thinking, Massimo Vignelli’s Subway Map from 1972

Oddly, though, the best-trained graduates of either camp are equally sought after by employers. East Coast corporate identity firms love the process school graduates; anyone who’s spent six months combining a letterform and a ballet shoe won’t mind being mired in a fat standards manual for three years. On the other hand, package design firms are happy to get the portfolio school graduates; not only do they have a real passion for tighter-than-tight comps, but they can generate hundreds of stylistically diverse alternatives to show indecisive clients.

What, then, is wrong with graphic design education? If there’s a smorgasbord of pedagogical approaches, and employers who can find use for different kinds of training, who suffers? The answer is not in how schools are different, but how they’re the same.

Both process schools and portfolio schools have something in common: Whether the project is the esoteric Nureyev poster or the Bloomingdale’s-ready perfume bottle comp, what’s valued is the way graphic design looks, not what it means. Programs will pay lip service to meaning in design with references to "semiotics" (Swiss) or "conceptual problem solving" (slick), but these nuances are applied in a cultural vacuum. In many programs, if not most, it’s possible to study graphic design for four years without any meaningful exposure to the fine arts, literature, science, history, politics, or any of the other disciplines that unite us in a common culture.

Well, so what? What does a graphic designer need with this other stuff? Employers want trained designers, not writers and economists.

Perhaps the deficiencies in the typical design education aren’t handicaps at first. The new graduate doesn’t need to know economics any more than a plumber does; like a tradesman, he or she needs skills that are, for the most part, technical.

But five or 10 years down the road, how can a designer plan an annual report without some knowledge of economics? Layout a book without an interest in, if not a passion for, literature? Design a logo for a high-tech company without some familiarity with science?

Obviously, they can and do. Some designers fill in their educational gaps as they go along; some just fake it. But most of the mediocre design today comes from designers who are faithfully doing as they were taught in school: they worship at the altar of the visual.

The pioneering design work of the 1940s and 1950s continues to interest and excite us while work from the intervening years looks more and more dated and irrelevant. Without the benefit of intensive specialized programs, the pioneers of our profession, by necessity, became well-rounded intellectually. Their work draws its power from deep in the culture of their times.

Bruce Mau Design’s logo for Canada’s leading design school, OCAD, required serious thought about the school’s role in students’ lives.

Modern design education, on the other hand, is essentially value-free: every problem has a purely visual solution that exists outside any cultural context. Some of the most tragic victims of this attitude hail not from the world of high culture, but from the low. Witness the case of a soft-drink manufacturer that pays a respected design firm a lot of money to "update" a classic logo. The product of American design education responds: "Clean up an old logo? You bet," and goes right to it. In a vacuum that excludes popular as well as high culture, the meaning of the mark in its culture is disregarded. Why not just say no? The option isn’t considered.

Our clients usually are not other designers; they sell real estate, cure cancer, make forklift trucks. Nor are there many designers in the audiences our work eventually finds. They must be touched with communication that is genuinely resonant, not self-referential. To find the language for that, one must look beyond Manfred Maier’s Principles of Design or the last Communication Arts Design Annual.

Nowadays, the passion of design educators seems to be technology; they fear that computer illiteracy will handicap their graduates. But it’s the broader kind of illiteracy that’s more profoundly troubling. Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand. And designers, more and more, will end up talking to themselves.

This essay was excerpted from Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design (Princeton Architectural Press) now out in paperback. Buy a copy for $16 on Amazon.

[Top image: Christopher Meder/Shutterstock]