Changing Design Education for the 21st Century

Changing Design Education for the 21st Century

Read Time: 4.5 minutes

Authors: Michael W. Meyer, Don Norman from Design Lab, University of California, San Diego
Publication: She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation
Publisher: Elsevier  Date: Spring 2020 


Designers are entrusted with increasingly complex and impactful challenges. However, the current system of design education does not always prepare students for these challenges. When we examine what and how our system teaches young designers, we discover that the most valuable elements of the designer’s perspective and process are seldom taught. Instead, some designers grow beyond their education through their experience working in industry, essentially learning by accident. Many design programs still maintain an insular perspective and an inefficient mechanism of tacit knowledge transfer.

Meanwhile, skills for developing creative solutions to complex problems are increasingly essential. Organizations are starting to recognize that designers bring something special to this type of work, a rational belief based upon numerous studies that link commercial success to a design-driven approach.

So, what are we to do? Other learned professions such as medicine, law, and business provide excellent advice and guidance embedded within their own histories of professionalization. In this article, we borrow from their experiences to recommend a course of action for design. It will not be easy: it will require a study group to make recommendations for a roster of design and educational practices that schools can use to build a curriculum that matches their goals and abilities. And then it will require a conscious effort to bootstrap the design profession toward both a robust practitioner community and an effective professoriate, capable together of fully realizing the value of design in the 21st century. In this article, we lay out that path.

“Education for designers (like nearly all education) is based on learning skills, nourishing talents, understanding the concepts and theories that inform the field, and, finally, acquiring a philosophy. It is unfortunate that our design schools proceed from wrong assumptions. The skills we teach are too often related to processes and working methods of an age that has ended.”1

Victor Papanek, one of his era’s most noted designers, was sharply critical of his chosen profession. We believe his quote applies as much today as it did when he wrote it 50 years ago. From one perspective, traditional design schools are perfectly capable of producing practitioners to serve the various design specializations. Indeed, the world seems to have implicitly recognized the value of design through its choices of products and services. However, although numerous studies show the value of design for companies,2 out of the entire roster of Fortune 500 companies, only 10–20 have chief design officers—roughly 2–4%. The full potential of design is yet to be recognized. Perhaps the fault lies with the design profession itself: how many designers are capable of being a C-level executive at one of the world’s largest companies? Perhaps the lack of senior executives is an indictment of our education.

Design is a complex field. It is both practice and academic discipline. Each category encompasses numerous specialized disciplines whose parameters are fluid, ill-defined, and changing continually, with a number of different design societies dedicated to them. Some societies have stated that their discipline represents all of design. This kind of misunderstanding is not unique to design—every professional discipline has similar issues. Nonetheless, every professional discipline also shares a core set of fundamental principles that sets it apart from other disciplines. So it is with design.

In this article, we talk only about one broad class of design: Human- Centered (HCD). By this we mean simply designers who design for people and society. This distinguishes HCD from other disciplines of design—engineering and science, for example—where devices, algorithms, and experiments are designed without any intention that they be directly used by people or organizations. Examples include the design of scientific experiments to test new chemical reactions or to assess the conditions on a distant planet, or the design of a semiconductor chip or an algorithm for a technical purpose. These are all legitimately design activities, but they are not part of the purview of this article. Note that the type and nature of design being taught in schools and design departments today is primarily human centered, even if it is not called by that name.

Today, the world faces new challenges. Designers are starting to play a larger and larger role in not only designing but managing beyond the design studio and even deciding upon the activities that need to be done across the business. Our concern is that design education has not kept up with the new demands of the 21st century. We do believe that existing design schools and designers are still needed—what we suggest is a broadening of the material taught. Different schools might choose different paths (some deciding not to alter what they do). Some will choose to focus on components of new skills. We recommend that all schools of design cover a set of core principles, but then offer advanced courses that might be unique to the special talents of the school or that might lead to one of a number of specialties within design. Keep reading

1 Victor J. Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, rev. ed. (1971; New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1984), 285.2 Michael Westcott, “Design-Driven Companies Outperform S&P by 228% over Ten Years—The ‘DMI Design Value Index,’” dmi:Dialog (blog), last updated March 10, 2014,

Copyright © 2020, Elsevier | Note: This article is available under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND license and permits non-commercial use of the work as published, without adaptation or alteration provided the work is fully attributed.

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