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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]

Add New Comment


  • Jimutz55

    Why oh why are you sending people to Amazon to buy the book? Amazon's business model is unsustainable and is only concern is to dominate market share and to destroy all competition.

  • carrots328

    this is why I'm glad I didn't know I wanted to be a designer and enroll in a school until I was in my late 20s. I already did the college thing and had a few jobs and a wee bit of life experience. not saying I was the best in all my classes, but I definitely noticed a different way of thinking and approach in my work (not to mention way less caring about what other people thought & an ability to take criticism) that made mine different from all the youngins who just wanted sh*t to look cool.

  • Chris Raymond

    Michael, this is so spot-on. I came to graphic design in my late 30s after being a journalist and earning a PhD in sociology, and I always saw design as a way to visually communicate CONTENT in a way that just words couldn't. I can recall one job interview for a studio that was planning to shift into more "strategic communications". They were excited about my writing and analytic thinking skills. But then ultimately, I was told that it was clear that I lacked enough formal design training (i.e., my work was not "beautiful" enough to get in design annuals), and they hired another young person fresh out of school with pretty work but who lacked intellectual depth or the ability to, as you point out, do design in the context of the client's real-world milieu. It seemed to me it was a case of lip service to wanting to put design in the service of communication, but in actuality really wanting more formally beautiful pretty pictures.

  • jnbdesigner

    I feel I was one of the lucky ones that graduated from a great design department within a state university. This allowed that broad spectrum that has really helped me become a better designer.

  • Steve

    The problem shows when these students must be assessed and to assess a cohort of 300+ design students yourself, you are required to boil down the criteria to an objective level which makes quantifying lateral design difficult and the alternative would be extremely time consuming.

    If student numbers were limited to smaller classes this is totally achievable.

  • John Jarvis

    Designers and schools have changed.

    Why post an essay from the past with out any context or comparative followup?  Why must you panhandle on FastCo Mr. Bierut?


  • Rhonda Merrick

    It's not just design.

    I was in no way prepared to actually earn a living as a musician. I learned how to make music, but nothing about protecting my intellectual property rights, forming sustainable collaborations (necessary to survive... one person can't write, record, produce, play all the instruments, book the gigs, publish, chase up placements, log in the music in all the correct performance rights organisations etc...)

    In any creative field, students need to be able to think about what they're doing and what they'll actually be doing with all that talent and training.

  • Rhonda Merrick

    Oh yes, music is the only life for me. You could probably find me as Rhonda Merrick...but I'm known for 'RhondasSongs' What about you? What are you doing with your art? I wrote songs everyday last year... we're sorting out several hundred songs and I'll be needing album covers... I do live shows... I just signed with MPL Communications and Simpozia. I try to have a photographer/filmmaker for my gigs... now that I'm on the books at Simpozia, I can stream live from small or large ones.
    See you around. xRhonda

  • John Eaton

    Brilliant! I had nearly the same experience in art school, when the answer given by my photography professor when I asked "how do I get a job in photography?" was, "Hell if I know!"

    Of course, youth being what it is (was) I learned quickly that application (and financial reward) of artistic talent requires a different sort of creative energy that more often than not is simply trial and error. Really not so far from the "iterative" approach most art requires in the first place....try, fail, learn, try again.

    Ultimately I did a fair amount of work as a commercial photographer, but more importantly compounded my minimal talents with experience to build an interesting're still a musician, right?

  • jacob_Somers

    I agree and it's sad. I go to a process school, and have profs who claim to be taught by Armin Hofman himself, and I find that this school is greatly lacking in preparing students for the real world of design. A number of my friends, and I am thinking about doing this myself, end up going to a portfolio school afterwards to learn to do things faster and more polished. The school teaches you to think outside the box, but once we go to work, we don't get jobs where we can do that.

  • Elizabeth Miller

    I think this article hit the nail on the head at the end, with the issue of design schools living in a sort of vacuum. I went to Parsons, which is somewhere in the middle between process and portfolio, but slightly more process leaning. While I feel it was an excellent school and I got a great education, I found myself continually frustrated with the so-called 'Critical Studies' classes which were a requirement for graduation. Nearly all of the Critical Studies classes the school offered were simply different iterations of Art History, which while interesting, got tedious and repetitive after having to take 8 different versions of a similar course over 4 years. I battled and rallied against the department to let me take classes at the sister liberal arts school for equivalent credits; I had a passion for pop culture, history, literature, and psychology (and still do), but sadly I was told that if I wanted that type of education I would have to go get an MA. While I filled in the blanks for myself with outside reading and keeping myself updated on the world in general, many other students (especially those who had gone to an arts-based high school with a similar negligence to non-visual subject matter) struggled to make sense of subject matter that couldn't be solved in a purely visual way. Critical thinking is lost without the ability to relate design to anything outside of itself.

  • David Ramos

    When this essay first ran, in 1989, most of today's college students hadn't been born. It's an essay that doesn't speak of the changes wrought by the Internet, or really, even by the computer.
    Today's young designers aren't as broad-minded as they should be, no, but design education, the profession, and society have changed in ways that we should find heartening. Design has grown into a multifaceted field, encompassing areas of practice that did not exist two and a half decades ago. In all but the most ossified corners, teachers bring ways of thinking from social design and interaction/product design. The once-esoteric concerns of designers have become the pet topics of business magazines, mass-circulation newspapers, and even just people chatting in elevators. 

    There's been a twofold change. Design's opened itself up to the surrounding world, and the rest of society has embraced the designer's way of thinking.

  • Jack H Steel

    I agree with Mr. Bierut. "Good" design (long-lived, lets say) seems to have come about not from a focus on the end product, but a focus on meeting the needs of the client and the process of winnowing out concepts/information that don't fulfill those needs.

    I'm a pretty mediocre graphic designer. I work production for a media company (which is a lot like being a line cook or working a factory production line, for those who've never done it). My education focused primarily on technical skills (mastery of Freehand and Quark at the time) and finished product. Process was largely ignored and, as a result, I find my creative powers floundering and myself in a dead-end job.

    I can't guarantee, of course, that I'd be any better off having focused on process, but at least I'd have a tool set at my disposal that might make me more appealing to design firms.

  • Will Capellaro

    I agree with Mr. Steel and share the production-centric background and career trajectory commiseration. 

    Point of order: I want to expand Mr. Bierut's design school taxonomy to include a third species: Production schools, where they teach software and design production know-how.  This is the information that is usually reserved for on-the-job training, and I find that unfortunate: on-the-job training is scattershot and of unknown quality. Educators who are just trying to get their students in the door somewhere so they can be "finished" are doing their students a huge disservice.

    It could be argued that Production Schools attempt to balance Process and Portfolio strategies, but I also think there is something to be said for learning the media inside and out. People are still hiring packaging designers, book designers -- you can bet these people know how to put together their products. A strict Process or Portfolio designer would have to come by that knowledge circuitously (or not at all, as they probably have a production design person doing the actual work).

    Both Process and Portfolio schools can be said to be largely ignorant of media - you come up with your concept or your standards, and then apply that to multiple media channels consistently. While production needs to pay more attention to the workflows and subtleties of specific media. This is hard but rewarding work and it should inform the design process.
    There are more categories that don't fit so well into the above taxonomies, as they don't lead with a singular training philosophy: design thinking schools (interdisciplinary and often undisciplined), bad design schools (poorly run, confused, political, resting on laurels) and art schools trying to be design schools but don't understand design, just to name a few.All of these attributes have been around as long as Process and Portfolio schools, but I understand Mr. Bierut's desire to boil things down to archetypes so he could form an coherent argument. Any school is a blend, and an individual student's experience will vary depending on the professors they study with.I think a happy and successful graduate in 2012 is one who:1) has the ability to really produce good solutions from a given problem -- Understands "Process" and can distinguish it from procrastination, ideally can "work smart" within a given timeframe.2) can produce stunning professional work -- Worships at the altar of "Portfolio", stays on top of trends, and knows that thought process is undermined by bad design.3) can get his or her designs produced -- Understands how media is constructed so the design vision can be realized.
    4) sensitive to his or her weaknesses in above categories, stays flexible and allows work experience to build them up

  • James T

    I think the problem is that the students are expected to go and do the research themselves and, at the age of 18 or 21, most of them are not ready for that kind of responsibility – simply because many lack the life experiences which help to build up the designer's foundation.

  • slm

    I firmly believe that great designers must be polymaths, and the vast majority aren't. 

  • Paddy Harrington

    Also, as noted in the article, Bruce Mau Design DID consciously think about the school's role in their students' lives... the relationship between students today and their academic context.  When we designed the identity system for OCAD U, we purposefully gave students the opportunity to be a PART of the face of the school, we broke down the distinction between academic institution and the actual activity that goes on within by conflating the output of students with the face of the school. By creating an opportunity for students to make their work public, it changes the way they should think about their 'academic' work. No longer an insular disconnected and truly academic exercise... instead, it requires an outlook and a process that is more engaged with the rest of the world. It requires more holistic thinking on the part of the student that wants to participate in the way that the school is engaged in a global conversation because suddenly there's something real on the line.. personal reputation on a public stage. And, if you happen to think that spending money on an academic institution's identity with a professional design firm is a waste of money then you simply don't understand what it takes to participate meaningfully in that global conversation... including the need to attract the best global talent, stand out from the crowd, and all.

  • Paddy Harrington

    The problem goes beyond design. The endless fractal sub-divide-specialize-wring-out-any-holistic-thinking-in-students-because-you-make-more-money-by-offering-more-specialized-degreesization of the world is leaving, in its wake, a generation of graduates who are TRAINED to not see the forest for the trees. Employers are left choosing to try to spy the talent and ability to think that shows its glimmer in a "Swiss" or "slick" portfolio. The short cut to finding these rough diamonds is often by embracing those who have jumped across disparate specialized fields because that demonstrates an inherent desire to connect ideas.. big and small. The best young designers usually have a degree in, say, biology, and THEN a degree in design. They've gamed a system that is inherently set up for specialization that often leads to the kind of illiteracy that this article warns against.

  • Cynical

    I apologize for the harshness, but this article is scarred by a flawed thesis. "Poor design is rooted in maligned design instruction". The ability of a student or fresh new designer to think for themselves has nothing to do with what kind of academic instruction they recieved.
    Critical Thinking is at the root of all great ideas. The ability to critically think applies successfully across all industries at all levels, and is at the root of every single innovative concept. A design schools job is to teach you the language of form and function. A designers job is to critically apply those skills in the real world. The student gets, what he or she puts in..

  • YacoRoca

    One part of my academic formation that I still value with every new project is thinking about the user, not the spectator. Design carries with it a purpose to achieve a set of practical objectives beyond "looking good". Those are often tied to conceptual foundations to achieve the right kind of communication for a project.

    My degrees were in Industrial design and in art, whose purpose seemed different (to me) from that of graphic design at first, but over time many of the most valuable concepts I got in touch with in both were transferable to graphic design, my current profession.

    Is the soft-drink pepsi? (there are many cases, yes, but this one came to mind immediately)