“Design school teaches you how to talk to other designers … there needs to be an entire course on talking to people who are not designers.”

“First-year students should be put through a rigorous programme of calculus, economics, history, composition, and public speaking. The goal would be to produce first a thinker, a professional, a businessperson, and an educated individual. Only then will traditional design “training” begin. And yes, a lot of people would drop out. The phrase “in the real world” would be banned — this school would be very much a part of the professional world.”

“A class that gives homework from that awesome lil’ book “Caffeine for the Creative Mind.” Or one that uses “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon Mackenzie as mandatory reading.”

“Fifty percent of the class shall be directed towards commercial work, with the remaining fifty percent spent pursuing personal projects.”

“What we lacked was web design teaching. It’s a big part of the demand would have been a major plus.”

design exhibitionPhoto from Terashima design exhibition

“I would teach how to get a proper design brief from a client. The design brief is half the battle and can really guide your work. I would then teach client contracts, another area I feel school has given me little knowledge about. Revisions, getting half pay up front, client approvals, and other legalities.”

“I would place a lot of emphasis on the strength of the concept. Design students might fall deeply in love with a design because it’s absolutely gorgeous (but it might not always be the most effective solution for that particular project). It’s important to learn the difference between a gorgeous solution and an effective one.”

“I would prepare my students for the inevitable…the small projects that take time away from the major projects. For example, after assigning a two week project, I would sporadically assign ‘Client Emergencies’ like that ad that needs to be designed, approved and printed by ‘tomorrow’. That’s something that I wasn’t prepared for when I got my first design job.”

“Run it like a business. I feel like clients abuse designers and there needs to be a class to learn how to deal with them.”

“Balance, movement, tone, grid structure, etc, would all become permanent vocabulary for my 101 students.”

“Part of the problem of my graphic design degree was that it spent a lot of time glamourising the subject and not enough time telling us what it was like in the real world. More input from employed designers would be a welcome addition.”

“Once my students graduate I’d always keep in contact in case they need anything more.”

“I would teach the students, ”Kill your darlings!” This was the sentence one teacher repeated in a design course in Sweden. I find it important because sometimes we think we have the solution, and it’s definitely not. Killing your first idea is a good solution because the first one that comes to you is almost never the right answer.”

“I would teach students a lot more about running a business. My course was outstanding at teaching us design, but lacked in teaching us how to run our own business.”

“I would make sure that all students understand the importance of print-ready files. This was an area that was barely touched upon in my courses, both BA and MA. A lot of people left the course not knowing how CMYK made a full colour. Ridiculous.”

“It would be good to see a focused course covering all aspects of web design in more detail from yr1 including standards, css, type, usability, social media, IA, branding etc.”

“I would assign projects that that solve real problems for real businesses. I am so sick of all the Best Logos Of The Web posts that are full of fake, made-up businesses and words that would never be used in real life. If you can work with the challenges of a real client with real opinions, and you can still come up with a top quality design, that’s what it’s all about.”

“If you don’t know how to interact with clients, or even close a sale, your talents are going to be restricted. No clients = no designing.”

design exhibitionPhoto from Terashima design exhibition

“I’d make very clear that design is not art. So many designers end up where they are even though they always wanted to be artists. As such, they hate the business side, and try push clients to fulfill their own goals. Design and art should be separate, and that should be fundamental in any course.”

“If designers had more knowledge on how to start a small firm and turn it into something great, we wouldn’t have so many frustrated creative people in the world.”

“At least one design class should pair each student with a business seeking a new visual identity, with the students then taught how to ask intelligent questions, prompting the business to reveal its vision for the new look.”

“Since so many designers are called-upon to do web design, and so many websites require some programming (with Javascript, PHP, Actionscript, etc.) a minimum of practical exposure and experience to de-mystify (and defuse) the basics can go a long way.”

“I would love a class that taught how to be diplomatic with people who don’t know anything about design but think they do.”

“If I ran a design course I’d spend most of the time teaching basic design principles and working with pencil and paper.”

“If I ran a design course, I would take the time to learn the art of teaching first and realize that just because I have designed a few annual reports in the field does not qualify me as a good teacher. Many of my professors have not been able to justify their grades, didn’t know what a scoring guide/rubric was, and loved to humiliate students during the critique portion of the class. Phenomenal teachers give constructive criticism, but they also know that they should sandwich it in between some positive feedback.”

“I would include some sort of discussion or lecture on pricing.”

“The capstone would be very similar to my branding class where students would create a product/company of their own and take it from nothing to launch, writing design and marketing briefs and design several key things such as an identity package, advertising, catalogs, packaging, etc. with the instructor acting like an art director in a design firm. Outside of design I would have students take courses in experimental psychology to expose them to research methodology and looking in research journals to help solve design problems.”

“Students should be given projects where the teacher plays the role of a difficult client — someone without imagination and the ability to articulate what they want. It can be a huge challenge to isolate the core message of a design project, and knowing how to handle those clients, and keep them happy, can be even harder.”

“I always felt that my design classes, while informative and very helpful, never touched on the ‘real world’ of the design community and life. How to survive at a design firm (whether small or big) was never spoken of.”

“If I ran a design course, I would hire David Airey to give me advice on what to teach students.”

“Business practices in the design field would be high on the list. Presentation skills should also be stressed.”

“I’d like to see design schools help students garner freelance work on their own, as a student project supervised by an instructor, as well as require an internship in an agency setting.”

“After our last final a couple weeks ago, my fellow students all felt like, “Wow, we’ve got a portfolio website for ourselves, but how do we do it for a client? Do we buy the domain or what?”

“Perhaps a lack of craft is partially the fault of the student, but in many cases, as a teachers assistant I find myself often showing students how to properly utilize an exacto blade, or even how to score something. These basic skills are easily enough taught, and I can’t believe that some of my professors are overlooking them, because they’re fundamental in the final presentation of your product.”

“Preparing students for the working world should be a priority.”

“If I ran a design course I would want students to seek out opportunities within and outside the design profession. My favorite thing about being a designer, the thing that pulled me into this field to begin with, is the ability to see how so much other stuff works behind the scenes. I love talking to clients who do things I never knew existed.”

“If I ran a design course, it would be for kids from 7-18. It would be completely free, and all they had to bring were their own tables and chairs.”

“I would include a lot more on client interaction or the business side of design. For every design course I’ve taken, we learn the ins and outs of the software perfectly, along with the review and application of design principles.

“However, there have only been a few courses where the outline simulated a real-world design we might have to do for a client, or the handling of any other sort of client alteration, suggestion, or complaint. Of the few that had done that, I learned the most.”

“Instead of just having the students design a book about a place they visit, for example, I would make the students research their place of choice, talk to people from that place, photograph the location, derive common themes of their place, use word maps to find deeper than surface ideas for much more well thought-out designs.”

“The tutors would behave like clients with the briefs so you have to ask the right questions in order to get the information needed.”

“I had an instructor who made us run our projects through an output bureau before we turned them in. It was expensive, even with the student discount, but it only took one midnight phone call (“Hi. Your type defaulted to Courier. You said you had to turn in tomorrow morning… what do you want to do?”) to make me pay attention to all the details. That was invaluable experience.”

“With just a little more effort ‘clients’ could have been assigned to each student, or students could have come up with a client, written up a brief and then thrown it in a box and swapped with other students so they had to follow some guidelines from a client. Who gets to change the name of their client because they want to create a logo in a grunge style this week?”

“I would love to see more print shops being visited, mom and pop, large scale, all types from full four color offset to web to flexo to letterpress, designers need to know how things work so that as designers they can design for how it will be processed.”

“Business classes should be a requirement because design serves business. Without an idea of how businesses operate, we designers are missing a huge part of what we are designing for. We aren’t creating commissioned art pieces, we are creating design solutions.”

Not everyone who replied to my call was featured as there were some overlapping thoughts. Thanks very much to everyone who took the time everyone.

Related: What’s high school for? By Seth Godin.


January 27, 2010


Amazing collection of ideas. I personally gained my degree in graphic design at a respective art college but learned how to apply most of it on the job out in the workforce. Working in the printing industry, most everything I know today about printing was not learned or even experienced at the collegiate level.

People need to remember that college is to help prepare you for the rest of your life. But don’t forget that simple facts that most people go to college for four years and then they work for forty years before you retire. You can not learn or live it all in four years. College is what you put into it.

loved this article. absolutely forwarding to a design professor of mine. she actually taught us a few of these. she was smart. This article, actually makes me feel better about dropping design & going into business school, even though i love design. I will still pursue it, im studying Information Systems, i think this glues very well, i might actually finish marketing too, & want to take some art courses too. i might not finish studying ever, but i love it all.

Excellent collection of thoughts here. In fact I think the very first one sums it all up for me – design colleges are too insular in my experience. I chose to do work placements in almost every holiday during college so that I could get some of the skills suggested in the ideas above.

I really hope colleges and schools pick up on some of these ideas for the future, but there still needs to be a balance. We don’t want ideas and dreams to be suppressed by teaching too much of these business skills.

Great post. I gained a Graphic Design Degree, but also found that aside from teaching me the creative process and how to generate ideas, there seemed to be huge gap from leaving my course, to getting a job, and the approach to a brief in the work place.

Wonderful round up. With design roles changing so much, it’s nice to see that the need for the foundation skills of design are still important as well as suggestions for business-world preparation.

I scanned through a lot of the list, and was surprised at how many people mentioned web design for the graphic designers.

They’re really two different beasts, and if you want to do web design, you really should focus on it. I’m just finishing up a 3-year Bachelor’s degree in web design, and I tutor lower-division students.

It never ceases to surprise me at how, even students who MAJOR in web design, take two years before they really start understanding even basic xhtml/css… I don’t even want to go into how it’s not enough to know ‘the basics’ of scripting languages like Javascript and PHP.

At my school, the degree schedule is set up to teach you the fundamentals and principles of design first semester. From my observations, I see a lot of students getting out of those classes asking ‘what does that have anything to do with what I’m doing?’

If it was up to me, I would get the students working on what they ‘feel’ is right for the first semester, and teach them the fundamentals second semester, so they can get a better sense of how it relates to what they’re doing– whether it’s logo, print layout or web design.

Great ideas here!

I would love a design student to come out of school with the knowledge about pre-press work and web design with a little html base to go along with it. I do both print and web design and have a very hard time finding young graduates to hire who know anything about these subjects.

In addition to working as a graphic designer for the past 12 years, I have also taught at a design school for the past 2 years. My observation is that the professors/instructors are out of touch with what the students really need to learn. That is due to the fact that they are “teaching” and not “doing”. Since college, I have felt that there is not enough practical application. Nothing prepared me for my job better than the first year at my job. Its great to learn design basics and theory, but knowing how to apply those ideas and skills is a totally separate concept.

Students should also be taught that it is not always about your design. Sometimes you will have to compromise and sometimes you will hate the final results. And yes, that just stinks. But it’s reality. Students have it too easy. Half a semester to do a project. I wish I had that much time to work on projects.

I loved reading all that and I can really relate to that.

When I did my BA (HONS) Graphic Design, the focus was coming up with creative ideas to the brief. On the one hand that is great, but in the “real world” the client is more likely to not get it/like it since they already have their own pre concieved ideas.

Also we had to choose which modeules we wanted to go into, either web or flash. It would have been good to do both, since both are now prominent in the industry.

If they had a module focused on real life briefs and dealing with clients from companies, this would be most useful. I mean we didn’t touch about DPI, colour settings, bleed, image settings etc!

My experience with design schools is that experience is key! As great as some schools are out there, nothing seems to be as helpful as just getting in and doing it. Learning the rules and basics are important, but a little hard work can go a long way.

The first one just summed it up for me here David.

“Design school teaches you how to talk to other designers … there needs to be an entire course on talking to people who are not designers.” ~ Stephen Lee Ogden

What a top article that ooses creatives’ honesty.

If only the design schools would respond…

I run a Foundation Degree in Web Design, lucky for me i’m already ticking most of the boxes on this list and i’ll certainly consider the rest, so thanks!

Education is starting to realise that students need (and want) real experience, the majority of projects done on the course are real client projects. Soon you won’t be able to do a 3 year course with pretend projects that leaves you unemployable at graduation.

I also teach my students how to get and manage their own freelance projects, they all do work placements on the course and we keep close contact with companies/individuals in industry – so effectively they are already in the real world!

I understand that people want their to be a distinction between graphic and web design (I want it like that too) but employers are increasingly expecting graduates that can do both, is this realistic? I don’t know but we, as tutors, need to be aware of what skills are in demand (and know this changes!) and educate our student properly.

Dedicated teachers is a good idea, but only if they continue to stay plugged into a design network and keep up on new trends and technology. It is easy, when they are in a full-time teaching position to become unaware of what is actually going on in the design world.

I also agree that there are too many design students that don’t have what it takes, and someone really needs to let them know that. There needs to be actual requirements that you students can cut it to get into a design program. But unfortunately, schools like getting paid, so that probably won’t change.

It seems like anyone with their work from school can get into a design school nowadays, and I think that is the primary fault when it comes to design schools, anyone can get in.

My experience was that all you really needed was a good overall grade from your high school, mandatory marks (in English, etc) and a portfolio, which really didn’t have to be good.

Speaking of George Brown College here, that school was disgustingly overpopulated. There needs to be a filter, one that throws out the ‘I don’t know what I want to be, but I know I like to make graphix’ or the ‘Accounting didn’t work for me anymore so I thought I’d give this a shot’ from the actual talent. It may sound elitist, it may sound snobby, but that is whats needed.

Small classes of talented individuals. The Bauhaus did it right, as a matter of fact they got it spot on.

There are schools today that are like that, where the professors know what they are talking about, are actively taking part in the Graphic Design network, and are contributing. Which brings me to my next point.

Better, new, and fresh curriculum content.

Sadly, and I have to use George Brown as an example again, the things they taught were the things their professors knew, who have no idea what design is today. We need younger teachers. There are a lot of people who are very talented at not only doing, but telling you how to do it, and how to do it right. No more of this part time teacher nonsense, where they have their own gig on the side. We need dedicated teachers.

My 2 ¢.

Great article David, great insight and feedback from students. Been given all the tools to make a decent living as a designer, from dealing with clients to setting up artwork seems to be sniffed upon by academic lecturers, who are probably more into fine art than commercial, visual communication.
There are basic rules when it comes to visual communication, once they are taught it’s all about practice and experience. So maybe an entire year should be spent in a studio / atelier / under a senior designer to get a very clear picture of the day to day life of a designer.

Excellent idea and responses.

Personally, I’m an English (Technical Writing) major who was required to get a Graphic Design minor to graduate. I also crammed my degree into 3 years, finishing last August. I only took one web design course, covering XHTML and CSS; all the rest were taught by the same professor, who had a photography and print shop background, but had only been out of grad school a couple years. For those of us only minoring in design, there were no classes on sketching or idea-forming, just basically crash courses in Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, with fake client projects. In contrast, one of my writing courses involved rewriting an actual manual used by the U.S. Navy, and we met with our client through videoconferences.

I think I’m glad I was required to take the design minor, but it left me confused as to whether I was a writer or a designer. Since there aren’t many writing jobs where I live, I threw together a site and I’m pathetically trying to freelance, but I haven’t taken business or marketing courses and it’s slightly ridiculous. Right now I’m trying to get a “real job” so I can just do business cards, layout, etc on the side.

Hi David,
I’m 21, and I graduated in 2008. Being pretty green to the industry, I can definitely relate to this article. I’m from a fairly small city, and I could only afford to go a local college, where the Graphic Design program was only a 2 year. I didn’t receive an internship like most programs, and was forced to learn most of this information on my own. I read recently some where, some crazy statistic, that within the first 4 years of a Graphic Designers career, 40% of Designers change careers. And this article is a perfect explanation to why. Students aren’t prepared to be a jack of all trades.

I am currently a design student.

When I attended my first design school, it was intense. We weren’t allowed to touch a computer the first quarter or even to use color. Everything was hands on, late night working with a minimum of 100 sketches. Cutting, scanning, copying, printing, gluing, exacto cuts and sleep deprivation. It was the most intense and time consuming thing I had ever done. The work that came out of those classes floored me. The work from myself and my peers was above anything I expected to learn in a few months. Even after the first quarter, we weren’t allowed to use computers very often. When we finally were allowed to use them, the time on them was brief because everything was planned and only needed minor tweaking.

Then I had to enroll into another school because of relocating. This school, of course, made retake all of the design classes so that I could learn from their designers. The first class I was in made us hop right onto the computers. Then the next class dove you straight into computers. I still brought out my sketch pads, but no teachers enforced sketching and thinking things out. Every class I’m in focuses on the programs and tricks. They criticize students who don’t have good concepts and thought out ideas, but they don’t teach it.

Honestly, only students who were skilled when they came into the school have had any real development (which I believe comes from being independent, constantly seeking design research, and practicing). There was a girl in my class who had amazing work every time she sat down, but she had been a designer for 10 years and only came back to school to officially obtain a degree.

Then there is the issue of we never read in any of the classes. There is some reading, but it’s not usually required. We need to have required looks at designs and designers. Since I’ve been there, we watched 1 video on Helvetica. Just 1 video. We need to have visuals of good design and what makes it good. Not just in a few classes, but constantly looking at design and learning and inspiring should be constantly in our faces.

Since I’ve enrolled in this school, I feel like I have learned very little of design. Most of what I learn is by looking at the world around me and researching everything I can find.

I think all design schools should do what the first school did. No computers, no technology, no color for the first quarter or so. Just pure design and a critical eye. Plus there should be the constant looking of designs and reading.

I agree with many of the comments above. Specifically those that state “you get out of it what you put into it.” Being a recent graduate I have seen first hand how many students expect to show up to class 30 minutes late, hand in assignments that they started the night before or that afternoon (and think it’s fun to advertise this tidbit) and then expect to graduate with a degree and be ready to take on the world.

I learned early (thanking my mother for this one) that design is an extremely hard industry to compete in and it takes years upon years to become adequate after you accept that fact. Students tend to pick up this ego very early that they can say “I’m a graphic designer” and they somehow expect people to listen or even bow to them. If the industry worked that way, everyone would go to school right now. It’s not a trend, it’s work.

I spent hours each night reading, sketching and seeking feedback from my more trusted peers and those that had nothing to do with the design industry in general. Every time I ran into a problem I took it upon myself to find an answer. I didn’t sit in the classroom and just hope that the instructor would eventually get around to telling me. I found it left me a very strong individual after being handed that certificate. At the same time, it would be completely naive to think the hard part is over, or has even started for that matter.

As mentioned above. School only sets the groundwork and it really erks me when I hear students complaining about how they aren’t getting work right out of school when they do nothing but sit there and tell people about good they are without the means to back up their statements. If they’re not prepared to work harder than the next guy/gal, I’m not exactly sure where they got the notion that they will have any better chance at success over said individual.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is not to rely on school to teach you everything. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely agree that most art schools are flawed (which is why I left short of completion at a “very good” art college) and need a much more realistic structure. But the things I have learned outside of school mean so much more to me than anything learned within its walls. Yes, you will flounder around, you will make mistakes, but stick with it long enough and you will eventually learn. This process is what gives us an added edge and allows us to compete in a “dime a dozen” industry. School is great, but eduction never ends and there is the school you pay to learn from and the school that teaches you (and sometimes even pays you) if you are willing to listen.

My best advice for students:

1) Your first job is about cutting your teeth, be a sponge…work for a print shop if you can. Whatever you do, I recommend you start in-house before going freelance.

2) Find a mentor, someone who is doing what you want to do for a living and is successful at it. Feed off them. Most designers who have been through hell are more than willing to share their knowledge (Twitter and Facebook are great for these purposes).

3) Listen to everybody. A lot of business knowledge is passed down every day from all walks of life, do not assume that someone who is a plumber does not have relative information you could apply to your business or the design profession.

4) Learn to educate the client. I’ve found that joining an area networking group with other small to medium size business has been very beneficial for this reason alone. Designers are by and large under-educated in “the real world” and there are so many of us who often take jobs based on paying the bills. We also make the fatal assumption that everybody has some basic knowledge of what we do: THEY DON’T and in fact, much of what non-designers do know about the profession is ass-backwards. Our job is to educate the client as to WHY we are the better choice than going with a cheaper option, and “you pay for what you get” is not always enough to sway a client hell bent on the bottom line.

5) Build your own network. Get other creatives on your side. Find what you are great at and specialize, don’t try and do everything, find others who are strong where you are weak and work out something with them (usually in form of a contract) so that you can offer their services under your moniker. Perhaps they’ll do the same for you.

6) Probably most important of all in this day and age is to know your self worth and STICK TO IT! It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s the only way you will last in this business.

And there’s oh so much more, but that’s enough of a start for this.

What my design program lacked was the business side of what we do: Contracts, providing quotes, writing clear and elaborate briefs, REAL world situations. More importantly – How To Get Paid.

I’m currently looking on how to get a Web Design/Developer certificate. The GD program didn’t go into building and maintaining websites. I’ve learned that afterwards! However, nowadays, you have to know not just HTML and CSS, but also Ajax and javascript, FLASH and actionscript, PHP, WordPress, CMS…and it gets overwhelming.

What I have observed is a clear distinction between those who are willing to challenge themselves, and those that cower from adversity. The ethics of hard work and integrity can’t be taught in design schools however. You either got it or you don’t.

A slightly different perspective: What the schools seem to lack from my perspective is quality control. I see so many portfolios from grads looking for work that clearly have little if no talent, yet they have a degree or diploma. That’s not fair on the student or the profession. I understand the financial pressures many design schools are under, and the temptation to admit more students, but it’s coming at a big cost to the student and to the industry.

I love the fact that you listened to real people and put their thoughts on here for others to see. I love it! Great post.

I would add that we should all think back to when we first graduated and what it’s like to compete with hundreds of other graduates as well as established professionals with your portfolio in hand. (Sometimes we do not even get the chance to speak about our work because we are asked to drop it off and leave – a speech class won’t help in that instance.)

There is a huge pressure to show exceptional work in your portfolio, which cannot always be done when you are working under the constraints of a corporate project, due to limitations of business and marketing goals. This is especially true in interactive. There are so many types of interactive jobs out there and the requirements are so specialized if you are to be good at it, there’s really only time to get a broad perspective in school.

I also think it’s important to note that MANY studios/agencies (who can afford to) do not pay for their student internships. Many more students could be learning these important lessons but simply cannot afford to work for free. Come on, I know they will get experience from you you, but they also need to eat. It’s very exclusive, in my opinion, to require someone work 10-20 hours per week for nothing when even McDonalds pays a minimum wage. By the time a student qualifies for an internship, they have some solid skills they can bring, so I don’t really understand this.

Lastly, the good schools usually offer classes that work for a non-profit to get a client experience as well as a designer business class (at least mine did – Tyler School of Art, Temple University). Their full-time and adjunct professors are working designers, so students are benefiting from life experience.

We can also get involved with design organizations like AIGA, the Art Directors Club, Technical clubs, become mentors, etc. I firmly believe that the best way to change something is to lend a hand in solving the problem.

Students need to think creatively, yes that’s true. But like any other course, it should be expected that many will drop out or change creative fields like go pursue photography or art. Many young designers can think creatively but can’t apply it. They have creative minds but not necessarily design minds. What I mean is test who can observe, things and retain them visually and then sketch it out with proportions, perspectives and influences without having to look at an object. Who can create an entire storyboard in one’s mind and visualise every possible scene.
there have to be exercises to actually determine this, and more than the trainers, the students should be able to realise that if their mind works this way, they can be graphic designers. If they can visualise every page and button of a website and also how will they create it, to be able to break up a complex picture.
The students who have this capability, will make good designers than the creative spontaeneous ones who cannot analyse the scopes and problems beforehand.
I think there should be more exercises on graphic use outside of just paper.
Make a graphic panel, and environment. Thats when they will face challenges, and know that design is not flying above the real world like art, it is actually functions right at the bottom becoming the base for further actions. And yes guest lectures should be from other people from other fields and how design helped them.

Nice. I feel so important with my name up there. Really dig the list. I shared it with some of my old design teachers yesterday. I snuck into the computer lab during a meeting w/ an old professor and bookmarked your site under “Education” on all the computers. How’s that for ninja. I also recommended your LogoDesignLove to be required reading for the beginning design students. hehe. So yes, soon you’ll be indirectly teaching design courses in Honolulu, HI.

I think what you are doing with your site is teaching us all about the importance of building a solid network. This is probably the best indirect lesson I got while attending school. You keep in contact with your teachers because they have been through it and in the end they could close the deal on your first gig. I learned the my important skills in design and seeing the world just hanging out with my old teachers at lunch, talking story after graduating.

Wow, this is a hot discussion topic! I’d say that one of the main things I wish I’d had more of in graphic design training was real interaction with clients, or at least a simulation. For example, being given an assignment that was due the next class period, because many client requests are “emergencies” that require immediate attention.

Another way to simulate a client experience is by giving a very specific design brief. Rather than giving a general assignment like “Design a tri-fold brochure,” schools should provide a company name and basic content, and then require students to figure out how to fit the content in and work with what they have. Classroom deadlines should be short, because they are in the real world!

Thanks for the post David. I enjoy your blog immensely.

I definitely back-up Chris’s sentiments about being a sponge in your first design job. I remember my first interview — I said all the things I’d like to do in the role, thinking I was bringing some valuable experience. The reality was, I learned so much more than I could ever accomplish without guidance, and I look back on that interview and cringe.

Raul, those were some brilliant ninja moves. Perhaps one day you can teach me your skills?

It’s excellent that you’re all carrying on the discussion. Lots more valuable comments, thanks very much. Although I can’t reply to each one individually just now, I’ve read everything you said. Great contributions.

Schools should spend much more time on the business side of graphic design. Most people design because it is what they love to do, so they will do it whether they have assignments or not.

Many designers are not interested in the business side of things, so if they do not receive business related assignments they will never learn how to be successful in the industry.

This is a great post. I agree with some others. Business and marketing should be focused on a lot more. The art of graphic design can be picked up with experience, its not really something that is developed over a course in college, However you can be taught the techniques to market yourself as a designer.

Can’t believe I missed this. As a student myself there is soooo much I would suggest to be changed on my course.

Firstly, we are not taught enough skills that we will actually use in our profession. We get roughly half an hour of software classes taught to us each week. Luckily I already am comfortable using the software but others aren’t, meaning they could not immediately go out and work in a studio that requires this – which most will! Yes design thinking is more important than software knowledge but in today’s world knowing your way around CS Suit is vital.

Another thing that annoys me is how only in the final year of my course have they started to ask us what part of graphic design we enjoy. For me this should be asked at an earlier stage as many people on the course who may not be as skilled in certain areas have become disheartened by their grades. Their are some ultra talented illustrators on my course but because this skill is no benefit to any of the set briefs many of them feel lacking in skills.

My Uni was only teaching Graphic Design for 2 years prior to my arrival so it’s fairly new but hopefully it’s learning fast because it needs to. I was lucky to have 2 very helpful and knowledgeable tutors who really taught me great things. They, more than the course, are what I will look back on positively in future years.

Good collection of student voices. To them, I ask: Think back. Didn’t anyone say anything about business, the grid, deadlines, etc…? Truth be told, they likely did — probably more than once. You likely weren’t listening and that’s to be expected — you’re 23. You’re busy reading the design blogs and waxing poetic about Sagmeister’s video on TED.com. You thought the teacher was long-winded when they told you stories of how you might encounter this-or-that in the real world. You wrote on your class-evaluations “why are you asking me for a one-page synopsis of my idea? this isn’ a writing program!” yet now lament that you weren’t told how to draft a creative brief — when in fact, that synopsis *was* a creative brief and you winged it in a hungover stupor the morning of class. You listen to the wrong people and pay far too much attention to the hottest monograph — and scrounge desperately for the magic ju-ju to emulate that style-du-jour while forgetting to craft one of your own. You say “yes” to the question: “Now, is it a good thing that your poster looks so much like Makela?”. You roll your eyes when we encourage you to volunteer at AiGA events. You pitch a fit when we make you keep a process journal separate from your other classes… And we love you for being 23, think-headed, a bit lazy and a total star-f**ker. You are our student and it’s our (often thankless) job to show you the ropes even when you don’t seem to appreciate it or even act like you’re paying attention. We take the negative comments in stride because one day you’ll look back and remember that time when that guy said that random thing and now — years later — it all completely, utterly makes sense… that guy was your teacher.

To be honest I would just be happy if people went to school for design. For every designer that has a degree there are probably 5 others out there that don’t.

Someone gets a copy of photoshop from a friend and overnight they are a deisgner. I know because about 80% of print files I get are photoshop files when I should be getting 0%. If someone goes to school, gets a degree, customer hires them for a print project and they open photoshop instead of InDesign to create their project then either the school failed or they have a very low IQ.

I really think there should be an exam or a degree requirement. The only thing you need right now to be a designer is a name. And it not only hurts the client but also the reputation of designers in general. You end of with a conversations like “would you like me to design that for you?” “No, my 14yr old has photoshop.”

Couldn’t agree more, speaking to clients and customer care skills come into a design job as much as skills in Photoshop, if you can’t speak to clients or you freak out at high level meetings, then you will fold on massive campaigns, its and interesting article.

I like the full argument of having Photoshop makes me a designer :P lol I got hit with a security guard telling me we where the same because he know a little Photoshop… that was a hard sell !

Hi, fabulous idea this post, and very interesting assortment of ideas collected here. I would point out that art and design do not need to be so radically different. While art is theoretically a place to do whatever you want necessarily having a client in mind, both areas are quite complimentary and I believe good design is often art, and good art has almost always to be well designed. I studied both I. Design and Art, and practice graphic design, and as much as these clashed in the beginning, I realized the line separating them was quite thin, art and design both require a process, insight, analysis, and communication. Of course they both can have different ends, but I consider they also share a lot.

What a great list, David, comments included. I’m struck but the call for the basic business guidance of pricing, dealing with clients, etc.

I sometimes wonder how much we get could get ahead of the global free pitching problem if all graduating designers had even 20 hours of basic business training.

20 hours business training +
1 or 2 generations (time) +
better business education/support from design associations =
free pitching problem solved

That struck me, too, Blair (the call for basic business guidance). I’m sure your contribution to my book has gone down very well amongst the readers, where you discuss dealing with clients. I made a point of mentioning spec work, too, and advising against it.

As a project manager by trade and a designer by hobby I have often felt like designers need more training on the business side of things – and it appears that most designers feel the same way after graduating from school.

Perhaps your readers who feel that way, would be interested in checking out my blog (the link is in my name above). It focuses on Business Tips, Client advice, project management skills, etc. for designers.

Thanks for sharing all of this information. It was very insightful.

I have a degree in Graphic Design, whilst I owe a lot to my tutors for their help and encouragement, I learned most of my web design skills in the job I got when I left. Also agree there should be more focus on working with clients and even basic business skills.

I graduated from the finest design schools with a five and half year diploma. Apart from the exposure to (and even fortunate to meet some) god fathers of design like Charles Eames, Viktor Papanek, Bruno Murari, B. Fuller, Otto Frie, I had to unlearn everything my collegues learnt. This was 30 years back. I stayed miles away from other designers and never went back to any alumni meet not kept in touch with them. I think that saved me. I did pretty well for myself by running a full fledged design, house, advertising agency and one of the biggest printing unit. I worked for all my competitors either as a ghost designer or a vendor. I was forced to free lance because the guy who interviewed me would be without a job if he hired me. I was able to retire at age 39 and take to consultation and teaching. I am now undoing all I did with advertising by giving my talent to NGO’s.
The secret of my success:
1. I never did anything extreme like pierce my body, grow hair, wear a pony tail, odd clothing or accessories.
2. I took notes when the client gave a brief.
3. I learnt the the client was giving me an opportunity to learn.
4. I learn the client was paying and must get what he wants – I was not offering my ideas if he did not want them. If he accepted my idea, I thanked God that someone was paying for my learning.
1. Designers suffer from the complex that they did not make it to engineering, math or science hence they try to balance it by extreme behavior that scares people who want to pay you.
2. This is the only profession mostly run by business persons with MBA’s and not creative professionals. All designations of the creative world are self created ~ never earned. Designer to chief designer – executive designer, creative designer – senior chief creative…
I would teach my students by first making them observe LIFE in all its shades as it is before they set out to change it. Most designers have a swollen head, think their ideas are the greatest and the client is a fool. If you can change that without being a slave, you can be a good designer.

In my opinion, design schools are lacking instructors that know what the hell they are doing and talking about. Way too many instances of “Those that can’t do, teach.” There is an instance of a “professor” at a local university’s art school that’s teaching design, design techniques, business practices etc. that can’t make a brochure mock up to save his life. Yeah, and he’s teaching after 3 failed businesses. He’s pretending that he’s one of those guys that goes out and makes money public speaking and inspiring people to do great things. This “professor” only inspires people to go to the restroom. So glad I got my degree before he came along… worthless like many others.

I have recently graduated from Westwood College of Design and after reading all the posts about what is needed, I feel that my choice in colleges could not have been better. Many of the things that many colleges do not teach Westwood does. They teach courses in business and always stress the importance of deadlines. I cannot be happier with my decision to attend Westwood and feel very comfortable with my skills. I did forward this thread to the Dean of Design at Westwood so that he may be able to glean a few ideas to help students prepare better for the real world of design.

I’m currently a student in Graphics Design and the thing that frustrates me the most about the course I’m on is that originality isn’t pushed for. When we’re told to create a poster from a certain era and study designers for it, more often than not everyone will completely rip off another designers work and get praise where as I’m trying to take characteristics of the designers we’ve been told to emulate and make the design my own. I feel the originality is one of the most important factors, otherwise you just end up with a lazy, half-assed attempt

In my opinion, design schools should invite more professionals from different markets to show us how things work in “real” life. I believe that the students’ experience should increase with this initiative.

An ideal design course needs to take lessons of intensive illustration, typography, digital imaging, web, working with more lessons in these chairs, but also including all the applications needed for a good education, not only knocked over by the applications and instead, working intensively application teaching tricks that we do not learn in books or sometimes are not learned working alone.

I’m enrolled in a school where we learn how to think conceptual, what you do with it is up to you. Although I’ll be a ‘bachelor of design’ in the end, I’ve done various kinds of design (from graphic to web to stage performances, except for dancing) and organising (not my favourite part to be honest).

After the first 1,5 years students have to organise their own education: the school just gives you the tools for the job/contacts you need. If they haven’t got the expertise you need inhouse, they’ll have contacts in the workfield to support you. Most if not all of the tutors have their own businesses/activities and are up to date with/in the workfield. Naturally this needs a lot of self-discipline and knowledge/interest of the students to keep an eye on the workfield (like this blog is one source for me).

Coming from a webdesign background myself I’m exploring “traditional” graphic design now. My tutor is a schooled graphic designer himself and I learn things from him which I missed in my own explorations.
I may miss a lot of the basics this way (and that thought does scare me from time to time), but it allows me to specialise in the things I prefer.

In the end school is just one way to grow into design: there are a lot of “amateurs” out there who kick the proverbial collective ass of schooled designers by sheer passion, self-education and talent (David Carson comes to mind, a trained sociologist who did some graphic design courses). In the end the real school is working with/at agencies, clients and fellow designers.


Firstly, thank you for the constructive way you have approached this theme. I have been reading about why design schools are ‘failing their students’ since I was a student and have grown tired of the clichéd responses, usually about out-of-touch tutors, lack of industry support, lack of relevant commercial and business ‘nous’ etc, etc, and I am equally frustrated by the ‘need experience/can’t get experience’ and ‘I shouldn’t have to work for free’ cries from graduates. Platforms like this ought to be informing and inspiring course leaders to adapt and refine their programmes in order to ensure that their students are ‘market ready’ when they graduate. Unfortunately, they are not.

I run a graphic design course at an F.E. college and send a cohort of mostly eager, often passionate, occasionally excitable and regularly surprising students off to universities around the country every year. At this point I like to see them as open books, with just a few chapters written, ready for a plot to develop and be revised, the ending not yet considered. I work hard within the limits I am bound, both by the awarding bodies and the institution, and invite practicing designers (often ex-students) to share their experiences, give demonstrations and hold workshops. I take them to relevant exhibitions and places of inspiration, information and (as I have been regularly informed) pleasure! I relate most of what I teach to my own work, past and present, to my experiences as an employee, freelancer and employer, make them aware of some of the realities of ‘real’ design work and try to sow the seeds of moral responsibility too; in drawing attention to the role designers can play to the benefit of the wider community.

In the last few years I have had many of these students calling back into college to say hello and show the work they have done so far. They are also keen to share their experiences with current students, and recognise the value of a little ‘real’ advice, as opposed to the more assumed advice of the tutors. This is as it should be. I value this input from my recently departed students; without their regular input each year I would be really out of touch.

More distressingly, are the numbers of ex-students returning with less encouraging news. These are students who, having done their research, made their visits, and worked hard to achieve more than the minimum acceptance grades to get to their first choice university – often the prestigious ones (I’m not mentioning any names here, but I will indicate at least four highly respected institutions) only to be hugely disappointed with what they have experienced. Now I am realistic about this. Nothing will ever live up to expectations and disappointments are inevitable. This aside, I have seen students who have left college as very encouraging designers, individuals and thinkers, return to tell me about how their university tutors have dismissed their thoughts and ideas without consideration, and enforced a house style approach to teaching that does not allow for individuals to develop outside of the tutors comfort zone. Some of these students have switched universities (and have blossomed as a result) and some have persevered (I have always encouraged a ‘stick with it and make it work for you’ attitude but am beginning to doubt this) but these students have often ended up with a mediocre degree and a lack of real ambition, or have just given up all together. This really pisses me off.

This is not a bad thing if we are wheedling out the weak and ineffective from the hoards of graduates flooding the market each year (this is another problem, but very much out of the control of institutions and likely to get worse under the latest government proposals) but I am talking about good quality students, switched off by these highly recommended, ‘top level’ universities (at great expense I might add) who don’t want them to be individuals, free-thinkers, mould-breakers and innovators, but merely more ‘institutional output.’

As I said before, this really pisses me off. Universities need to reconnect with the industries they provide the energy and innovation for, in the form of their graduates. I’m not saying that universities should be at the beck and call of the industry; that would only result in creating more Mac clones I feel, but there are some of our more ‘prestigious’ institutions that could do with a bit of a reality check.

It is the responsibility of the institutions to prepare students for the next stage (whatever that may be) and the responsibility of the industry to inform those institutions what it really needs – I’m not talking about knowing PhotoShop and Illustrator inside out and all that jazz, but the real human requirements, about thinking, analysing, questioning and reasoning, as well as the means to respond to them all, in new ways and unusual combinations.

The design industry is a very hungry animal; it demands more and more from graduates each year and appears to offer little more in reward to what it did 10 or 15 years ago. I am only 9 years older than you, but can remember how the design industry worked (albeit in the provinces) and how many individual specialists there were; visualisers, illustrators and photographers, typographers, designers, typesetters, and artworkers, checkers and proofreaders, and because the web was only a twinkle in Tim’s eye, it was off to the repro house for scans and films (they joy of Rubylith!), chromalins, then plates and press proofs (if the budget or deadline allowed), then assembled by a team of largely good-natured back-room boys (usually old ladies in my experience!) before the job was done. I mention all these roles because much of this work is routinely expected from designers these days.

Ok, so where am I heading with all this? I certainly don’t want to start saying that everything was better in the old days, but there did used to be a much more formal link between education and industry, especially in Polytechnics. I recall that each course had to have an industry link nominated by the awarding body, and that representatives from these design companies would be involved in some live or speculative projects with students, offer paid (not much but at least it was something) work placements and help develop the structures and direction of the courses. In return for their input, these companies got the opportunity to develop their prospective workforce and play an important social function within their communities (which is invaluable public relations) and the institutions got the up-to-date guidance and input that appears to be so sadly lacking these days.

Pretty much every institution is financially shaky these days, and as I said before, that will likely continue, but links between industry and education don’t have to cost lots of cash, but will take plenty of time and effort on both sides.

Course leaders and tutors need to be less defensive and more willing to embrace commercial practices and practical input by active designers, rather than purely research-led academic endeavour. The industry needs to stop moaning about education and get involved; adopt and nurture a local course (not just the so-called prestigious ones), and ensure that they are turning out the type of graduates they need.

Phew! I’m glad I got that off my chest.

If you don’t want to publish this response (it is a rather long outburst) I fully understand, but could I suggest a new thread for your blog, this time directed only at design companies: just what do they want from graduates? And how much are they willing to get involved to help guide the institutions so that they get more of what they want? But also, if there is much more of what they wanted coming into the market each year as a result, how will they accommodate them? Maybe another thread could follow directed at Course Leaders depending upon the response of the industry.

It’s just a thought. Thanks for reading.

Christopher Skinner

I wish my classes focused more of cost effectiveness and client budgets. You don’t always get the amount of money to work with that you want. Students need to think broadly in a narrow range of movement.

Hi, David
This post really open my eyes. In my opinion, design school should teach us how to get the very first client. Client always want to see portfolio, but how can you build portfolio when you never find the very first client?

What I lacked in college was a teacher who not only understood web design, but could teach it. I barely learned HTML let alone CSS or any other language. I came into the evolving world of design as strictly a print designer and have yet to teach myself web design.

I found this all very interesting, even the moaning!

I did work for a small family business that is still involved in web design in Australia. The boss was a close friend and I remember him complaining that all the programmers that came through university had not covered enough to easily fit into the work force . Basically he had to train them further to do the work he required. He had some much paper work assocciated with running a small business, as well the government want to know everything about what he was doing and send lots of paperwork to be filled in as well. There was no time and no one to speak to about what is happening in uni’s with training young people to fit into the work situation. Once the boss had finished training up these individuals, they went and applied for government jobs that paid more money. This was unfair as he had to start all over again. A lot of time and expense went into training these people to be profficient at their work, something that they should have learn’t at uni but didn’t. At uni some people worked in group of 4 on a project and only learn’t a quarter of what they needed to know. This is no good, how can they turn up at an interview an expect to get a job? It seems that there are a lot of complaints on both sides of the fence and noone is taking responsibility for it. I also know of some University Professors that were no happy with the way they had to teach their students.

College was pretty much useless aside from sharpening my writing skills with all the essays in the Honors program. For my occupational field, web design, I was learning more through independent study than I was in class. The turning point that finally made me drop-out was when I designed a logo for myself, paid the $18 to register a fictitious name with my state, opened a business bank account, and gave a proposal to my university to pay my business $75 an hour to basically teach them what I was originally “trying” to learn from them. I got 3 contracts with them and by the second contract I was making the big bucks. I think they finally realized that I was a student at the university that was supposed to be paying them instead of vice-versa. If that’s not proof that college is mostly bullshit I don’t know what is. Just about everything useful I learned was from the internet and a library card. Maybe if you’re going to be a surgeon or something you need school. Even then, they probably learn a lot of the practical stuff by actually doing it. This was 2002-2003 and I was going to a fairly respectable university.

I have read many of the original comments and plan to read the rest soon. As a professor of basic graphic design at a local two year college and 33+ years experience in the field of graphic design and advertising and having recently finally completed a BA in Business Management, I really enjoyed reading all of the comments. I agree that students need to be taught not only the basics of design but how it will be applied in the real world. I teach my students about the differences between graphic design and fine art. I also encouraged the college to add web design classes to the curriculum and they have done so. It is difficult to obtain work in this day and time without some knowledge and training in web design. I stress knowledge of the printing process and pre-press because if you don’t know how the job the job is to be finished, you cannot properly design the job in the beginning. That is all part of the design process. We do projects throughout the semester geared towards those that they might actually be required to do in the “real” world. Our department stresses teaching as if we are a business and our students are the employees.

And for those of you who are frustrated…there are only so many hours in a day and only so much a professor can teach in and hour and 15 minutes…I was recently asked if I was trying to teach the students too much…however, it takes time, practice and experience to become a good designer. You just have to take the tools and information you get from school and do your best to apply them in the “real” world. You will get only as much out of it as you put into it. As someone above mentioned, titles, etc. are earned. Anything worth acquiring such as tenure, experience, and expertise takes time.

Again, I really enjoyed what I have read so far and hope to implement those suggestions which will improve my course and prepare students to graduate prepared to work or to continue their education with a sound foundation for working in this amazing and wide open field of opportunity called graphic design. Good luck and God Bless each of you.

The biggest problem I have found is printing. My degree had one class on making a print spec but never once instructed upon packing in InDesign or printing and cropping and bleeds, etc. I have had to find this out the hard way!
Love the blog! Thank you Thank you Thank you!

Hey, great post. Love that you have a whole tap for advice for design students. It is very considerate of you and greatly apreciated. Someone mentioned web design and how graphic designers should learn more about it and I am all for that. It seems the job market doesn’t understand that a graphic designer is not a web developer. Could you possibly consider writing about how to bridge the gap between what is expected out of a designer and what the job market needs from us? Do you know some good books to read to learn web design on your own when (in my case) schooling is not an immediate option.

Hello Emely, In my opinion, even though you may or may not need to know how to program in order to design for interactive devices, there are quite a few design-related considerations that have nothing to do with the look and feel. Here is an old post where I wrote about a few of the differences between print and web. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not to intimidate, just to communicate that it’s much more than learning about programming.

I would also suggest looking into “responsive design,” which is where the industry has been headed for quite a while. I would also recommend http://www.alistapart.com. So many fantastic articles written by interactive industry experts. Good luck to you!

Hi Emely, Mitzie makes the same suggestion I would’ve: A List Apart — definitely worth reading the archives. But as I’m not a web specialist I don’t really know what other websites are as good.

Thanks a lot to the previous commentators, too. Sorry I haven’t had a chance to reply individually.

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