The longer I work as an intern at Andculture, the more I wish I could tweak my design education. This is because I have come to realize that while teachers are theoretically preparing students for the work world, they’re not usually emulating it.
My classes focused on teaching us very specific skills, such as how to use specific Adobe products. Assignments typically involved reading sections of a textbook, listening to lectures, watching brief demonstrations in class and working on a lot of projects.
Class projects were meant to closely resemble design work in the professional world. And yet, in my experience, projects were just a way to cement what students were learning in class. That’s a decent start, but projects have the potential to teach students much more. At my internship, for example, I’ve learned a ton of best practices and collaborative skills.
For class projects we:
- received a handout on the project requirements (usually with very little context)
- were (sometimes) introduced to examples of previous student work
- worked on the project for a few weeks at home
- submitted it in on the due date and had a class critique
These projects were usually small or encompassed just a section of the design process. Sometimes they did both. That makes a certain amount of sense since classes only last so long and it allowed students to explore and try new things. The problem was that teachers rarely, in my experience, tried to accurately mimic or implement how handoffs between teams actually worked and only rarely had longer term projects to mix things up (even the longer projects tended to only last a month or so).
This means that as a student, my design process was fairly artificial and broken. I typically didn’t do research or use research in my designs because projects didn’t require it and there weren’t any clients, fake or otherwise, to base research on. I didn’t really appreciate style guides, Github, or even organization much because such collaborative documentation tools weren’t useful for small projects with no team behind them. It wasn’t until I started my internships and my senior capstone class where I worked on larger, more collaborative projects that these things suddenly became important and I scrambled to adopt them.
While I did have a smattering of group projects in several of my design classes, they were rare and generally consisted of people working on pieces and then combining those pieces right before the deadline.
There was one instance where I worked on a group project in school that had teams of people separately doing the research, wireframes and mockups. This would have been great if we weren’t doing them all at the same time and without any communication between us until the deadline. Needless to say, the research was completely useless except to retroactively justify certain decisions and the wireframes were completely ignored.
There are definitely better ways to handle collaboration, but I didn’t experience much variation until I began my internship with Andculture.
Another frustrating part of my design education were critiques and how poorly they were set up. Getting feedback at the end of the design process, instead of throughout it, not only hurt my ability to change my design and create better work, it also prevented me and my fellow students from learning how to have discussions about in-progress designs and how to be open and flexible to feedback. After hours of insular work, most students were usually either extremely defensive or preemptively self-defeated during the critique.
That’s not to say everything is perfect in the work world. Professional designers do run into problems like poor communication and tight deadlines. A designer’s ability to tackle these problems starts with their education. While learning on the job is a necessity in our continually developing field, students shouldn’t have to rely on getting a great job early in their career to develop great workflows and habits.
So here are suggestions to professors hoping to avoid these pitfalls:
- create projects with real or fake clients so context can inform the students’ designs
- facilitate more group projects
- have students create the first half of a project and have another student take it over and finish it.
- assign multiple deliverables and have casual check-ins to give feedback
- give students the opportunity to work on longer projects whether that be through a dedicated class, outside student organization or internship.
Open communication and collaboration between professionals, teachers and students has the potential to completely change how new designers interact and contribute to the work environment. A well educated student can bring change with them and help their community adopt and create new best practices and tools, in turn elevating the design community as a whole.