A private approach Educating the masses, $10k at a time

The Faculty of Architecture at Sydney University was where the seeds of a love for design were planted but I didn’t know it right away. Spending 6 months analyzing the functions of a chair seemed hardly ‘design’ to me then. In fact, it was one of the most boring things I had ever done. I wanted to play with colour, line, type and texture – I wanted to create. But as I look back now, I see the wisdom of Dr. Mike Rosenman and Professor John Gero. How can one design something new without knowing why and how we’ve created what already exists?

A chair to me now is a fascinating object. The fact that for thousands of years humans have been trying to come to grips with the design problem of ‘the chair’ is mind-boggling. A chair in one context may not necessarily be as functional or as aesthetically pleasing as one in another. As far as I’m concerned the 3 years I spent learning about Architecture, Object Design, Multimedia, Information Systems and the human psychological response to everything was money and time well spent. It’s actually not long enough. I know now that a design education can hardly be confined to a finite time period – a good designer learns about design their whole lives. A good designer grows because of that.

With this firmly set in my head I was confident that I had finally discovered a small diamond of knowledge that I could keep with me in a velvet purse as I traversed the rocky path of my own design career. You can imagine my shock when I turned to an inside cover page of my wife’s latest Frankie magazine and find that a double-page spread is telling me “A world class design education needn’t take forever!” Apparently I could become “an immediately employable designer who has total confidence in my ability to take a brief, use the programs and meet the deadlines”. There was no chance I’d be left behind either because the college doing the advertising has “constantly evolving courses to keep in line with current common practices and design trends in the industry.”

Yes, it’s well written marketing material – you can jump on the conveyor belt, pay your $10 000 dollars, enter the big pretty box and come out the other side an accomplished, employable designer. Not only that, but Shillington College tells us if we want proof of their success, we simply need to look at the ‘high number of their graduates who attain high quality employment in the design industry – Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, Frost, Interbrand and BMF’ are just a few of the design ‘studios’ where Shillington graduates now work.

I was really disappointed. If I had only known about this before I could have saved 2 years of my life, $6000 and be employed by a company like Clemenger BBDO! However, the sheer shock of this article led me to read it again, more thoroughly this time. As I scanned the page, line by line, the message became a little clearer –

  1. “A world class design education needn’t take forever!” or in other words… we have colleges in more than one country (that’s the world class bit). Asky yourself, how could we have expanded in to other countries if we didn’t do what we say we do really well. Our courses don’t go for longer than a year which will lead you to believe that they don’t cost as much as a university or other private educator – so we’re hoping that will prompt you to call us.
  2. “train students to become immediately employable designers who have total confidence in taking a brief, using the programs and meeting deadlines” became: We don’t say we get you a job because we’re not a recruiter or an IT education institution. All that we’re saying here is that if the big agencies are using Adobe CS4 then we’ll teach you how to open it, move layers around and save a file for web. That’s all you’ll need to know when you’re working 9am-1am on banner ads for a big agency’s corporate client brand rollout that was poorly managed so everyone has to work back for the week.
  3. “Constantly evolving courses to keep in line with current common practices and design trends in the industry” was interpreted to say:
    What’s that? Vince Frost is using CS5 to apply swirly vectors or neon shapes to flash banner ads now? Quick, let’s buy some licenses and show people the new features – there’s a really cool automatic swirl brush in illustrator that will save some time. And of course, last but not least, Shillington has a:
  4. “High number of graduates who attain high quality employment in the design industry – Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, Frost etc”, or put in another, more accurate way… We prepare you to become a Mac Operator for the first 4 years of your design career. You’ll have all the perks that come with working with a big agency – Working on your own in a corner pumping out varying sizes of static banner ads that someone else gave you the creative for. You’ll have the pleasure of working back late to get a job out on time – that means having dinner and breakfast at work. You’ll get to play on the company pool table or the company Wii console at lunch instead of leaving the office. This is just in case a job comes in and your 1 hour lunch break means that the client needs to wait until you return to get their iteration back to them before they change it 60 times anyway before it gets approved.

It probably sounds like I’m a disgruntled ex-university student who simply paid too much time and money to become a designer and if that’s your impression, then please pay for Shillington’s course and visit me in 2 years from now to tell me how well-rounded (and happy) a designer you are. I’d love to hear your success story.

After reading Shillington’s double page ad I couldn’t help but be reminded in some way of Michael Beirut’s essay, “Why Designers can’t think” on the difference between the Swiss and American approach to graphic design education. He discusses the Swiss approach to be one of theory before practice. You have to know why you would use Helvetica rather than Univers for a piece of design, you spend your time exploring Gestalt principles and completing simple exercises that have little or no ‘real-world’ reflection. The American approach on the other hand seems to be portfolio focused; the mentality where replicating current design trends to create assignments is the goal. Of course, the idea behind it is what you end up with is a portfolio whose author any studio would be glad to have as a team member – it shows you can ‘design’ right?

Are we witnessing Mr Beirut’s “Portfolio vs Process” internally here in Australia, between University and Private schools? And where does our TAFE system fit in the mix. Having gone through the process system I’m unsure how anyone can call themselves a graphic designer if they simply know the programs.  What’s worse is that you can pay a yearly fee of a couple hundred dollars to Lynda.com and get a wider breadth of program tutorials at a fraction of the cost! Knowing how to use the technology doesn’t make you a designer – it makes you a Mac Operator. To me a designer knows the why, not just the how.

With all of this in mind, I find it disheartening to hear that private colleges who seem to favour the “portfolio” focus over the “process” are growing. They’re slowly moving in to each major city touting that theirs is the course that will make a student the next Ken Cato of the Australian design industry. What does it mean for the quality of Australian design if in 100 years from now the majority of our graphic designers are knowledgable only of the how and not the why? Or is the why something we’re supposed to learn throughout our careers? If big agencies are now happy to employ those who know the ‘how’, then who will be left with the know-how of the why to continue making meaninful, intelligent and successful graphic design in this country?

2 Responses to “A private approach Educating the masses, $10k at a time

  1. Great to see another designer putting together a writing blog and having a crack at building a considered, well thought out body of writing. When you have a moment check out my attempt and tell me what you think. Best of luck with it!

  2. […] Whether we are makers or not (and whether we realise it at all) we’re responding to our world all the time. We consume gigabytes of information daily – each piece shaping our opinions, giving us our own slant on the world and all of its problems. For some reason, makers need to tell everyone else (whether they want to listen or not) their version of events. We do this in written word, visual art or performance but often, these things don’t have financial guarantees so we turn to design. It sounds like a pretty good deal initially – with design we get to make (which is really important to our identity for some reason) and we get paid for it, which helps because we also get to continue living. When we leave our educational institutions we present our degree and folio to any employer who will give us 5 minutes and proudly declare, “I did it, I did it!” as if we’re the first ones to have ever had a mediocre design education. […]

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