Design Education, Cutie and the Deck Shoes

This article was published by 2+3D, a Polish design magazine. I agreed with the editor that I would put it up here after the issue had been out for a while. It was published in Polish, so there's probably not too much overlap in readership here. I do recommend subscribing to the magazine. The images alone are an amazingly valuable thing: you can sort of dope out the gist of the text.

Cutie and the Deck Shoes

Right after Christmas, at the time a fresh new crop of bright sweaters, scarves and hats suddenly appears on the commute ferry from my island, I spied an ordinarily somber acquaintance wearing a particularly festive pair of deck shoes. As I looked closer at her feet, I noticed that along with magenta flowers and acid green lines of varying widths, a large photo of a bulldog smiled up at me from both shoes.
“Shoes!” I said, thinking that by saying “Shoes!” I was neither saying, “I like your shoes!” which would have been an utter lie, nor “Where did you get the tossed salads that are on your feet?” which probably would not have gone down well either. I commute every day with the same people: I must be careful.
“Aren’t they great!” she beamed up at me. “I designed them myself, on Zazzle!” Her habitual dour expression vanished. She was so happy. Curling her toes up, she pointed down.
“That’s Cutie, my dog.”

A sharp pain stabbed at my stomach: A referred pain from 20 years of paying the student loans that financed my design education.
“Your dog!” I said, brightly. “Well, there he is! Hey, I’ve got to get coffee--” and with that I lurched toward the galley and toward the safety of the coffee line.

Standing in line in front of the huge coffee urns, I bowed my head and thought sad thoughts about Cutie and the deck shoes. "It’s the end of design," I thought. "It is the end of aesthetics, of educated decisions, of culture. The Vandals have scaled the wall and they’re wearing bulldogs on their toes."

Who's a Designer?
Seems everyone’s a designer these days. From business cards to backpacks, if you can access a website, you can “design your own.” Design grads are nervous. And, from a certain perspective, they have a right to be.

The proliferation of crowdsourcing sites is increasingly making design a field of unlimited web competition and work-for-hire clauses. This is a shock to students who-- through the endless crits and psychological battering that is a classical design education--have learned clear and set beliefs about who they are and about who they should aspire to be.

So we have people putting dog portraits on their shoes, and we are competing with thousands of people for every job we get wind of on the web. To add to this mix, traditional design schools are noticing a new player on their previously private field, a new breed of “d-school” that promises computer scientists, mechanical engineers, science managers, sociologists and future MBA’s that they’ll learn how to unleash their creativity by using the magic of the “design thinking” they'll find in groups of computer scientists, mechanical engineers, science managers, sociologists and future MBA’s.

These days it can feel as though the real action in design is happening, not in the clean and quiet, white-drawing-table-and Mac-laptop-laden studio, but in some sort of brawl in the parking lot. This makes classically-trained designers, particularly young designers, feel duped. They feel dumb for spending so much on something others seem not to understand or value. They're worried that the aesthetics they have learned at so high a cost are not considered important anymore. They fear, in the words of the old parody of "Home on the Range," that in order to be a designer these days, all you have to do is "get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy, too."

Not unlike Arabian horses, designers are a high-strung breed, and design students the most high-strung. In my office, more students cry about debt than about grades or work-load. Before their eyes, they see opportunity shrinking, behind them, they see debt. They say things like:

"My parents are paying all this money for me to go to design school and my neighbor thinks he can do what I can do because he taught himself Flash and Photoshop and he'll do anything for almost free. Clients can’t tell the difference between me and him and don’t care if there IS a difference!”

If it makes you feel any better, you're not alone. I, too, must confront the anathema of Cutie and the deck shoes. We are living through the Cutie and the Deck Shoes moment of design history together. Let’s examine what’s really going on here. Are the keys to the design kingdom really being wrested away from “real” designers? Do we really hear the unwashed masses trampling up the palace stairs? And if we do, is that an entirely terrifying and bad thing?

Service vs. Commodity
Ten years ago, I was hearing that design, always considered a service business, was becoming a commodity, and that, because of its superior technological advance, Korea would be the place that commodity was produced. To tell you the truth, this was sort of a relief to me. Making things has never been a big part of my designing life. I talk to people about brand stories, and I am absolutely bored to death by tweaking type.

But for most designers, designers who love the process of design, the change of that which has been individual into that which is mass-produced is a sad thing. We are told that in the West there will be a need for designers who direct, but there will absolutely not be a need for designers who execute, because execution will be an “off-shore commodity.” This is hard to bear.

It is hard to bear because we are schooled to believe that we have more personal power as designers than we generally do. This belief gets in the way of our adapting to the reality of digital culture. The Arts and Crafts ideal of the well-rounded design master-- the Bauhaus ideal of that master-- was actually defiled long ago. Industry long ago divided design from production. Is this pain really something to write home about? We are an industrial culture that splits operations into their component parts, that does not value the unity of one vision over the cheaper cost of "going off-shore." Why are we now worried about that splitting? Is it because it now affects us in a personal way? We didn't cry when typesetters disappeared. We didn't sing sad songs over Ludlow operators' losing their jobs. But now we're strumming the old balalaika.

Too Many Designers
We are watching  the consequence of designer glut.
In the 1980s, hundreds of schools in the US suddenly realized that they could make their art departments more profitable by creating “graphic design” majors. These hundreds of departments now pump out thousands of graphic design grads every year. Acccording to the US Department of Labor, 286,100 people work as graphic designers in the U.S. alone. In the next ten years, experts predict that 36,000 jobs will open up. (These figures were compiled before the current recession.) However, according to the Princeton Review, 25,000 people tried to enter the field of graphic design just in the last year in the US alone. This little inequality, coupled with current crowdsourcing aches and pains, means a design degree is not going to guarantee the production job it once did. When supply is high, the customer is king.

Of those that do get a job, only 30 percent will still remain in the profession after five years. Why? Because most of the work of the average graphic designer is repetitive, dull, boring and not at all the bang-zoom life of, say, Sagmeister on Bali. These students sign up for that Sagmeister life: but most of them find work sitting in a cubicle changing 11 point to 12 point according to the brand guidelines for some sort of phone interface. Fun as that can be for a year, it is not fun for five years.

Is it so terrible to admit that most of design is a commodity? Yes. It is terrible, because it signals change: Because it forces traditional design schools to take a look at themselves and at what they are selling. The Bauhaus enrolled 150 students, more or less. Their "star designer" percentage was off the charts. No institution today comes close to matching it. Not too many Bauhauslers ended in cubicles tweaking phone apps. There was no competition. 

Not so for the average graphic design program in the US today. The average graphic design program must now ask itself: Is it fair to inculcate students in this legacy of individualism when they will soon be plunged into a market that really does not value that individualism? Right now, many design schools still teach students the holiness of their profession: Few prepare them for the truth of it.

Utopian vs. Aestheticist
To add to this small yet roiling kettle of fish, “Design with a Large D” has, in the last few years, received the dubious distinction of being “the next new thing” for business. Design has become, again, a vehicle for Utopian thinking.

Evidently exhausted by years of finding various tipping points, thinking without thinking, acquiring the seven habits of highly-effective people, memorizing the 48 laws of power and uncovering the five dysfunctions of a team, we are now told that right-brainers will rule the future, that we should unfold the napkin and solve complex problems with simple pictures, and that using “design-thinking” we can do everything from revamping our Fortune 100 to providing goats to starving farmers in Africa.

Design can, of course. But that kind of Utopian door-opening is cage-rattling for people schooled in the systems and programs and change-defying arcana of the fossilized curricula to which so many design departments cling.

The real issue here may not be that design is wandering off into the purviews of other disciplines, but that our Utopians are veering away from Aestheticists. The Aestheticists feel that the hard-won sensitivity and sensibility of a “classically-trained” designer is the most important aspect of design. The Utopians feel that design's role in social change should take precedence over type-tweaking. (Sometimes, when I look at the actual physical output of the d-schools, I see a momentary film-like sequence. It's Gropius’s design-workers building their Utopian cathedral, bliss upon their faces and “Kumbaya” upon their lips, but this time they're all holding self-created blueprints for how the building is to be built.)

Bruce Mau started the real rumble off many years back with his exciting if histrionic Massive Change, a Utopian dream of unity which became a sort of mini-industry. Here’s the gist from its continuing website:

"Massive Change explores paradigm-shifting events, ideas, and people, investigating the capacities and ethical dilemmas of design in manufacturing, transportation, urbanism, warfare, health, living, energy, markets, materials, the image and information. We need to evolve a global society that has the capacity to direct and control the emerging forces in order to achieve the most positive outcome. We must ask ourselves: Now that we can do anything what will we do?"

Similarly, David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, runs Stanford University’s “d-school,” which features fun, fresh groupings of vital, excited people running around taking bootcamps and classes in “design thinking,” none of which references or cares a whit for the various aesthetic dogmas and drills so integral to the thinking of a person principally educated in design. Kelley’s compatriots at Stanford:

"…aim to provide experiences in design thinking, to increase everyone's confidence in their own personal innovation process (sic), and to make a contribution to the world."

Holy-Moholy. No wonder design Aestheticists all over are flapping their hands and worrying that their type skills not respected like they used to be, that everyone has jumped on the Utopian bandwagon and that nobody appreciates them and their 100-year history of problem-solving any more. What if they don't want to tear down everything they've learned? What if they want to design alone and elegantly, and don’t want to jump in to collaboration and mask-making and make-a-structure-out-of-these old-bashed-up-beer-can games? No wonder they tell me the dark ages are closing in again and the canary is passing out and that no one will really ever set beautiful type again and nobody will care and we're all going to die dark, poorly kerned deaths.

In the last hundred years, "Design" acquired tall walls and an impermeable perimeter. The act of designing, or solving problems, was schooled: there became a "right way of being a designer." We owe it to ourselves to ask where our real fear lies. 

There’s a freshness and a value to prancing software engineers and sociologists. But its value may not actually be a design value. It might be a perimeter-bashing, wall-breakdown value. No one can deny IDEO’s spectacular success at making itself the go-to design think-tank. But take a look at their website. It’s one of the most potchky type messes this side of the Rockies. It’s impossible to read and leaves one with a sense of queasiness not brought on by excitement, but by visual exhaustion. If the “d-schools” had more readable websites, perhaps I’d fear the demise of traditional education more than I do. Right now I feel that the Utopians serve a wonderful, fresh-air purpose. But they could use a good type handler, too.

The great thing about IDEO and the business vogue for design-thinking and all those custom sites and crowdsourcing is that it is shaking up an industry long proud of its elitism, long taking its hog-tied market for granted. “We have a skill and you don’t. You will have to pay us an enormous amount for deploying that skill on your behalf. Our skill-set was handed down to us by the high priests and therefore you will know it to be good." Well. It worked for 100 years.

Nothing in design is as fixed as flux. First we called ourselves idealist modernist form-makers, then we decided to be Marxist social reformers, then we became self-styled social critics, then Structuralists, then Poststructuralists, reading texts and slipping in subversive inclusions. After that we tried for Postmodern irony, then, when we became exhausted by the navel-gazing of the previous generation, for post-postmodern formalism. Since we had private access to the tools of communication, we were able to graft many limbs on to the tree--limbs that really did not bear much fruit for the person paying the tab. Is it really such a wonder that sometimes a client just wants to pay fifty dollars for a logo and be done with it?

Pretty Journals and Fresh Pencils
Much as the new crop of “d-schools” trumpets its fresh approaches, much as their organizers run around accessing everyone’s design capabilites and throwing open various barn doors of “design thinking strategy,” the truth is that not everyone can be a real designer. True, most people can learn from thinking about design and confronting problems in the ways a designer does, just like everyone can learn from reading "A Manual of Style" or from drawing with charcoal. But everyone who reads "A Manual of Style" does not become a writer. And everyone who draws with charcoal does not become an artist. At best, most of the people who go through Stanford's "d-school," and programs like it, will become exactly what this world needs: good clients. Partners in design. Clients who understand the design process.

As a writer, I often run into people who say,
"Oh, you're a writer? I just LOVE to write! I'd write all day if I could-- if I didn't have to do real work (wink) I'd just write, write, write, write, write. I've got an idea for a mystery— can you to introduce me to your agent?”

These people will never write a book. And if they happen to assemble a manuscript, no one will ever buy it because it will not be valuable enough to the experience of other people for a publisher to buy it. These people like the feeling of writing. They like buying pretty journals and fresh pencils. They love to workshop and go to coffee and discuss writing. But they have no clue what real writing entails, they have no clue of the long nights and the churning of the stomach and the work it is-- the tweaking it takes, the line editing, the back and forth between writer and editor, the tinkering with structure, the craft. They will never pry the number of my agent from my compressed lips, and if they somehow did, my agent—a fabulous agent—would reject them so fast they’d have whiplash.

Because you enjoy writing in your journal does not mean you can write. Because you pay Stanford a bunch of money to be exposed to "design thinking strategies" does not make you a designer. Proficiency in rusty beer-can structure experiments does not make you an architect. Some design things just aren't about one's own personal quest for innovative strategies. Some design things make sure the envelope doesn't get caught in the post-office router, that the building doesn't fall down on your head. And in that pursuit of elegant solutions to plain old realities lies some of the real relish in being a good designer.

Identity in Flux
Designers have always worried about their identity. They worry that clients don’t appreciate them. They are always explaining their jobs to people who have no idea that everything an urban person touches was designed by someone. As a community, design has the identity issues often found in a really good actor. It can take on many personalities, but has a hard time maintaining one of its own. That’s because, Aestheticists or Utopians, we are a screen for culture. We manifest what our culture values, what it wants, what it has convinced itself it is, right now.

Right now, our culture wants to survive. It wants to find some good drinking water. It is less concerned with aesthetics and more concerned about polar bears slowly drifting away from each other on melting ice floes. Design seems to be manifesting more on the Utopian side these days and less on the Aesthetic.

Changes in public access and perception do not change the value of educated designers or of the design process, nor do they make educated designers obsolete: the more the world changes, the more the function of educated design remains the same. That function is to martial the resources of the human mind and spirit in order to make life safer, healthier, better, more beautiful. Anything else is just putting a dog on a deck shoe.