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Education stimulates curiosity. That doesn’t mean that people who haven’t followed a conventional education path aren’t curious; it’s just that academia concentrates curiosity and provides an environment for it to thrive.


The things they don’t teach you in design (art) school

Design practitioners reflect on the value of formal education

In episode #4 of my interview sequence, I continue the discussion on the value of education with two very accomplished and extremely talented designers:

Adrian (Adi) Constantin, Product Designer and Art Director, Romania native, based in Germany.

Camilo Hidalgo, Graphic Designer & Art Director, Colombia native, based in Finland.

I have a special admiration for both Adi and Camilo not only because they are amazing designers but also because they are well-versed in areas I find remarkably fascinating: Adi has lead the design process on couple of projects for what I see as one of the best automotive companies ⏤ Mercedes-Benz, and Camilo holds a Master degree in typographic design. Hats off to that, not many designers who are not typographers, dedicate this kind of attention to the most important design element (at least in my opinion).

Adi and Camilo naturally have different experiences and perspectives on design and education, yet somehow I found some similarities in their thinking and career paths. They both provided me with some food for thought on a lot of topics around and outside of education. Happy reading!

*these interviews are published with the prior knowledge and consent of the authors.

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Adi, you don’t have a degree in design, you have a university degree but not in design, did it ever occur to you to go into formal design education?

A: I’m still thinking about this. There’s so many good designers and young designers who don’t have any background in design education, so I’m not sure if it’s necessary. I would do it more for the connections and for the experience of doing a design university.

I already have quite some experience in both tech and design agencies so I don’t think I’d actually need it, especially for the hard skills. I don’t even think these universities teach you how to learn basic softwares, because these are just hard skills, everyone can learn today, just by looking at YouTube videos, there’s so much free content that really, you can learn everything by yourself.

But I would like to go to a university like Hyper Island, if you know it. I have some colleagues and friends who went to this university and they were really happy and satisfied with it.

But as I mentioned, they didn’t learn how to use certain softwares, it’s more about learning how to work on briefs and most of the time, I think they were working on real projects and some of the teachers there, are actually creative directors or design leaders in design agencies so they really work with what they need for a real job, not just old school stuff that’s really not relevant in such a fast-changing industry.

What is your take on formal education? What is the purpose of education, according to you?

A: The first thing I think is teaching, right?…I’m not sure if I’m the right person to ask because I didn’t do a design education but I would still go to a school like Hyper Island because of the soft skills part. I think they are so valuable and a lot of junior designers don’t value them so much, they think that just building a nice layout is the most important but there’s so much good work, just go on Behance, designers that do this for three or four years, they can do really pretty good layouts.

But the more you progress, the more you realise that these are just hard skills that almost everyone with some aesthetic sense can learn easily these days. I would still go to a university like that more for learning how to approach a brief, how to improve my presentation skills but this type of skills, soft skills, I think are even more important than your hard skills.

Hard skills are good probably if you are a freelancer but if you work in companies like Google or Facebook, I think soft skills are so important, especially these days when it’s so hard to get a good job just by applying, it’s all about connections, it’s all about soft skills.That’s just based on my experience, I’m not saying that I’m right or wrong.

I actually agree with you, I really think that soft skills are much more important than hard skills, I’m seeing this now in my job search because a great deal of my struggle is due to my not so sophisticated soft skills which unfortunately I didn’t get to train on in my formal education; but then, as you say, maybe there are universities that provide this training in soft skills, too, you just have to do proper research.

A: Yes, exactly. I usually ask people who’ve done something, what they think. And so far, I’ve heard only good things about schools like Hyper Island. But of course ⏤ again, they are not going to teach you how to use Photoshop so it’s also up to you to be really proactive, really be into that field because you also pay quite a lot of money, I think. So it’s a pity to go there just for hanging out on a Friday. But usually people who go to school are quite motivated and driven.

Are there any skills that you learned at university that helped you in your design practice, I know it wasn’t a design education but were there any skills in your formal training that you could transfer to your work as a designer?

A: I think, having this background (computer science) helped me to communicate definitely more easily with developers and they always like how I spec. When I design a website or a product, I usually like to build everything in a modular way and when I do my specs, developers are actually quite happy with how I do them, because I understand how they think, I understand how they approach projects, both the front-end and the back-end side. I think that’s one of the things that has helped me, having empathy for developers but besides that, not really.

If you think about your design practice then, what were some valuable skills that you picked up from working in a real-life setting?

A: I think I’ll go back to the soft skills again. Especially when you do presentations, it’s so important that your presentations are really nicely crafted, I usually do my presentations in Keynote and I prefer it much more than PDFs because you can do a lot of animations and you know, just picking the right fonts and font sizes, it’s so important.

Some design consultant companies do a good job from a strategic and business point of view, but their presentations still look like they were done in Powerpoint at least five or ten years ago. It’s so important how you present your projects and everything to be really polished and nicely crafted, explain it simple, as simple as possible, just be focused, clear and to the point.

Would you say that this gives you more credibility before the client, they trust you as an expert more if you present it well visually?

A: For sure, because if you do that with a presentation, you don’t really have credibility, right, how can I trust you with a project for which I’m paying 1000 euro or whatever, if you can’t even do a proper presentation? I try to put myself in the shoes of the client.

I would not trust someone talking about design if I see that his or her presentations are ugly or they pick the same font everywhere, especially if it’s more art direction or graphic design-oriented. I’d like to see something a bit more personal, a bit more crafted for that specific company or client.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced in your first role as a designer?

A: I was working for a recruiter company, we actually had offices in Bulgaria. The owner was my boss and we had this recruitment platform. That was my first proper job. This was the first job where I actually had to collaborate with developers. Before, I did some prints and I would just go to the print company and talk to them. In this company I did a bit of front-end, it’s called product design, this is where I learned to collaborate with developers. This is also where I learned how to present my work in front of stakeholders or managers and this was definitely challenging because I was always an introvert, I didn’t like to stand out and present my designs.

I think that’s what I learned, to collaborate with developers which was quite easy since I had this computer science background. I also worked with other designers which is also a valuable skill. Since I was at the beginning, of course they were better than me. So that was actually also very important, always try to work in a company where you have someone more senior than you because this way you’ll learn for sure.

Do you think that talent is critical to becoming a good designer, do you need talent for that?

A: Depends what’s your criteria for a good designer, what you mean by good designer?

In terms of career success, to make a name for yourself and to be able to pick the projects you work on, not to be pressed by finances, for example. In terms of design expertise, to know the basics of design and have an eye for aesthetics, that for me is really what sets designers from other experts. I hate it when people describe designers as “creatives”, for example. All people have creativity, it’s just that designers are better trained at expressing it.

A: For me, I’m not talented. I don’t even know how to draw, so I think you must be really anti-talented not to make it. I think it depends on what type of designer you are, I’m more into UI/UX but of course if you’re an illustrator or graphic designer or brand designer, I think you need to learn to draw. Also, I do a bit of 3D but I’m really a beginner, I just try to get familiar with motion and 3D but if you are actually a proper motion designer or a proper 3D artist, again you need to know how to draw.

I think if you really want to be a very good designer, you know Ash Thorp or these names, I think talent also has an important role, not as much as hard work, of course but you need to be talented. I think anybody can reach my level just with working hard without any talent but if you want to be among the top designers, then I think it’s also about hard work, talent, maybe luck a bit, being in the right moment with the right people.

I’m curious to learn how other people see the future of formal education because the economy is changing so rapidly and especially in design, the industry is changing so rapidly so do you think that the gravity or importance of formal education in design will gradually fade away and employers won’t value it as much?

A: I would say so but it also depends how design schools embrace this topic of change and innovation ⏤ if they stay relevant, of course they won’t become obsolete but if they are not going to change and adapt to this fast pace, yes, they will definitely not be as needed as before. But I think more and more agencies don’t require formal education. And again, these days you can learn hard skills just on Youtube.

You have experience working as a designer in different countries, do you see any differences in how employers approach formal training or the skills they value in the candidates? For example, when you were in Shanghai, did you see that people were more traditional in this sense and wanted to see a person going into university, having these and that skills as opposed to for example Germany or Romania?

A: It’s a bit hard to tell because the companies I worked for in Shanghai were international companies but from what I’ve heard, it’s actually true; they do value the importance of formal education much more. And also, when I had the chance to work with teams of local designers, I saw that usually the questions they were putting and the way they approached a project, you could see that they came from a design school, when you were presenting something, they were always asking why did you choose this colour.

You know IDEO or frog, these are design consultant companies, they have a very similar approach, which I think is a good one. It’s very different in design agencies, they had very similar approach, it’s not so much about the art part and how things look but how they work…It was all about the process, which I think is a good thing, especially in product design companies.

Here, in Berlin, I think it’s also about being a bit artsy and being a bit different and try new interaction models, whereas back then in Shanghai, they didn’t really care to be fancy, they just wanted to be super functional. Which means that you can’t really come up with new approaches sometimes, because it was always these examples, look at Apple, look at this, they do it like this therefore it works, therefore, let’s apply it.

If you wanted to do something new, okay I know Apple is doing like this but we’re not Apple so let’s see if we can maybe tweak things to have more personality, or be more unique in our designs. They were not really embracing this mentality, it was always let’s stick with what we know works; which in a way makes sense but if you are a designer who wants to be maybe more creative or unique, it can be boring.

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Camilo, how did you decide to become a designer?

C: In my case it’s a bit weird to be honest, I’m from Colombia, I did my Bachelor degree in advertising but the focus was more on marketing and selling, it wasn’t focused on design. So that’s my background, it’s not design, it was advertising. But I never really worked in advertising after I finished university, it’s not that I didn’t want to, it just didn’t happen. I was most of the time doing a lot of freelance design projects, small things like branding and identities, really small things but it was always related to graphic design.

I did that for a year or something like that. Then I moved to Melbourne, Australia to study English. But at the same time, I had the chance to start working.

I think Melbourne was really the place where I got into design in a big way; there’s a big design movement there; the art galleries, the museums, everything that’s going on in the streets is really based on art and design. I had the chance to work as a graphic designer in a couple of studios there, and that was the first kind of big breakthrough into design.

I just went deep into design and after working as a designer and meeting more experienced people, like graphic designers, interior designers and architects. I think it gave me a really wide spectrum of things related to design, which was really good for me, I could see what I really liked or what kind of path I’d like to take. After my experience in Australia, I decided that I wanted to study something related to design.

I wanted to have some kind of academic knowledge related to design, everything I knew was self-learned and working with other people. So I decided to study a Master in typography. I went back to Colombia for a bit but then I went to Barcelona. I did a Master’s for almost two years, it was really interesting, typography is a “small element” but I think it’s the core of design.

The design of typefaces is such a deep crazy world. Before doing the Master, I didn’t have a clue of how deep and complex this kind of world is. So it showed me all the principles that I can apply to everything I do in graphic design even if it’s a brochure, identity, digital, etc.

All those principles that I can apply when I design a typeface, those things can be applied to other things in design. The level of detail designing a typeface is so amazing, you go deeper and deeper into details, it’s the same with any design, if you take care of details, you’re going to have a good design.

What do you think is the purpose of formal education, what was your motivation to get a degree?

C: I don’t know, I wanted some formal education, in this case typography. I think I also got it because when I was looking for a job or getting freelance clients, having some kind of formal education behind you, it’s not going to make you the best designer in the world but I think in the eyes of the other person, it gives you a bit more of credibility, in my opinion.

It opens different doors for you, having some kind of formal background in design. And also, I think curiosity was another reason why I did it. I was curious how to design a typeface, how professional designers design a typeface, why it is such a kind of dark world, it’s such a weird thing, in a good way of course.

What about the first time, when you did your Bachelor in advertising, you said that it was not explicitly design, was it a conscious decision to apply for an advertising programme as opposed to a more art-driven?

C: It’s a bit tricky because it was so long ago but I think in Colombia things are a bit different to what they are in Europe in terms of education. Because there’s some kind of rush, in everything you do, you finish your high school and then you need to study, you need to get a university degree and then you need to get a job, without the university degree you cannot work, it’s almost impossible to get a job if you don’t have a degree.

Even in design?

C: Yes. In places like Colombia, in almost every field, you need to have a diploma that tells the other person that you are a professional or you have an academic background. So it’s a really strict kind of way to get into the professional life, you need to have a university degree, in design, in whatever you do, engineers, accounting, etc., you need to have that degree.

So the reason I chose to do advertising is because I didn’t have that many options, to be honest. I didn’t have the options to do arts or something else, it’s hard because there’s not that many universities, there’s not that many fields that you can choose so I thought advertising was more like the kind of path I wanted to take in a creative way.

But I think it wasn’t the wrong decision even if I never worked in advertising, it really helped me a lot to understand how visual communication works. I got into the creative path of advertising, like copywriting, and still today the process of my work goes back to what I learnt there.

This translates to my next question actually, I wanted to ask you to think about some skills or qualities or something important that your formal education has given you which was valuable for what came after that.

C: One of the main things, at least from my Bachelor, in advertising, was good advertising. When you see something on television or magazine or whatever, usually it’s really rich in visuals, there’s a concept behind, I think that’s one of the main things I took from education. Trying to communicate something visually.

Another thing I was thinking about is dealing with clients, even if it’s a boring topic, in advertising there’s a lot of client work, there’s a lot of back and forth and how to negotiate and how to deal with clients, how to sell your idea. You have to sell the idea to the client or the person you’re working for. It’s the same in design, if you’re doing a design work, like branding or some editorial project, you need to sell it.

Of course the client gives you some kind of information about what they want and need but at the end as a designer you have to put a bit of yourself in that design. And sometimes clients don’t get it, most of the time they don’t really understand, that’s why they contact you. So I think that’s also something valuable, how to sell an idea, how to put an idea out there, so clients and general people can understand it.

What about your design practice, what was something important that you learned because of your design experience that you couldn’t acquire at school?

C: I think every designer has a unique way of working, it doesn’t matter if they went to university or not, you’re never going to find two designers that are going to do the same job equally. Even if they went to the same university and they did the same Bachelor or Master or the same education.

So I think the experience of working in different places, with different people with different skills, different kinds of environments, it kind of shapes the way you do your work. And you don’t realise these things until later. I’ve been doing design for the last 7–8 years, something like that and it’s a process. I guess the experience is giving you, your own way of doing things. You can go to university and learn skills and theory and the history of design or art, you need all that background to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, but the experience is going to give you your own way of designing, which is yours and nobody else’s.

I think that’s the main thing you get from practicing and doing design. You need to find your own way of doing things and just stick with it. Design has a big element of…it’s not objective. I like a certain kind of design, other people, they don’t like it. But if some people like what I do, I’m happy with it, I really don’t need to please 100% of the people in the world, because it’s impossible. So I guess the experience gives you that confidence to stick to your guts, do what you think is right and create some kind of a style and keep going that way. That’s design at the end of the day, everybody is doing something different all the time, that’s the cool part of that, too.

You have experience from different countries and you did your education in two different places, would you say that academic training is kind of disconnected from industry when it comes to design, the education doesn’t quite prepare the students for what comes next in a good way or is it almost the same and gives you what you need to continue and be successful.

C: That’s a good question. I have two different experiences in that sense. When I did my Bachelor in Colombia, many years ago,I think the way the university prepared us as students to deal with the real world, wasn’t the best one, to be honest.

Because while you’re studying, you’re in some kind of bubble. When you go outside the university, you’re going to get disappointed. But I guess it’s a positive thing, I don’t know, the real world is going to teach you in a “hard way” and that’s how you learn the best things, that’ s how you get the best skills, when you actually have to face challenges that they never taught you in university. You have to create solutions to problems that a teacher did not show you how to solve.

I guess in my experience, yes, there’s a bit of disconnection between education and the outside world. At least in the design world, education is really idealistic maybe…there’s a huge process between a finalized project and the beginning of the project, in the middle there’s all this mess, nobody is going to teach you that because it’s impossible, all this back and forth, changing your ideas, you have to put your ego in the bin.

Clients just want something that is useful for them and their needs and their business or whatever they have. So I think when you are studying, you kind of jump through that middle process, you go from a briefing in the beginning of the project towards the end and you create this really cool amazing design. But you jump the middle, you jump all this mess that is in the middle that some people don’t like but that’s how things work. That’s how it goes if you work as a freelancer, or you work in a studio or you work as an in-house designer for a big corporation.

You described it in a very interesting way that you miss this middle part that is kind of essential because if the client doesn’t accept what you provide, there’s no going forward, right? University is cool, it’s kind of idealistic, teachers might give you some pointers and feedback but in the end, nobody at university is going to say, this is complete rubbish, I’m not going to accept that.

C: Yes, exactly, this is my personal view, I’m sure other people think differently and that’s ok. But nowadays, with social media, I think design is turning into a weird world. When I did my education in Colombia, 15 years ago, social media didn’t exist, it was a different thing. All the examples and all the references you could look at were in books, magazines, the street, etc. Nowadays everybody’s posting things online and getting likes is replacing the purpose behind design. But then when they go to the real clients, clients are not giving you likes. If you’re doing your work as a professional and you want to get paid because you need to pay for your life, “likes” are not going to give you money.

I don’t want to generalise, of course some projects are really cool and some clients are amazing and they are really nice people and they understand how the process works but it’s a small percentage of the big picture. I think nowadays there’s a lot of ego involved, there’s a lot of this kind of “fake it until you make it”.

I’ve met really good designers, amazing designers, and they don’t even have Instagram or they don’t have a website, they only have a shitty portfolio but they are really good designers. But I have also met the opposite, people who are really cool, with really big big social media profiles and at the end of the day, their skills are not as good.

That is exactly what I observe in the social media space. While we are on the topic, what do you think about talent in design, is it critical in order to be a good designer? What I mean by good designer, is a designer who understands the fundamental principles of design, as you say, there are so many people that rely so much on social media but they may not have these really tangible and critical skills in order to be good. So do you think it involves talent to a great degree?

C: You mean talent to design?

Yes, to have this natural ability to see things in a different way and pay attention to the small details.

C: It’s hard to think about it, the only example I can think of is music. You can be a really well-trained musician, and have years of academia and know all the theory of music and then there’s somebody else who never went to school to study music but is really successful and creates a really amazing music. I think there’s a bit of that in design, too.

You can have all the knowledge of, for example, software, you know how to use Illustrator, Photoshop, you know how to use all this UX/UI software, Prisma, Sketch, whatever. If you don’t have some kind of talent or understanding, some visual idea of what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if you know all the shortcuts for Illustrator.

What you’re going to do, is you’re going to be missing something. Talking about education, when you study something related to design, you can learn a lot of theory, you can learn a lot of skills, how to use the tools but there’s something you don’t learn in education or university. I don’t know how to describe it.

Something you’re born with?

C: Not sure, it’s more like if you feed your brain with good things, then as a natural process, what you’re creating is going to be good. The main goal of designing something is, on the one hand, to create something beautiful and nice, but there’s also the part of being useful in solving something. I don’t know, but social media is based more on beautiful things, it’s missing the other part.

Yes, design has to be beautiful, it has to be aesthetically pleasing but it doesn’t have to stop there, it has to continue to solve whatever problem is there or whatever issue, whatever need needs to be solved.

I think you already answered that but do you need a degree in order to be a designer?

C: It’s a really complicated one. I think it depends on where you live or where you are going to work as a designer. I would say if I was living in Colombia right now, yes, I would need a degree to be a designer and to get a proper job.

Of course, if you are a really good designer, there’s always the chance that you can make it as a freelance designer and then maybe that degree is not that necessary but those cases are really really small, there’s not that many cases, but that’s Colombia, the way things work there are way too different, South America is different. In Europe, it’s different. I have worked with people who don’t have a degree in design, they have a degree in architecture or they have a degree in engineering, nothing to do with graphic design. I don’t know, it’s really hard.

What I’m getting at with this question is I really don’t believe that you need a degree in order to be a designer, I don’t think that this paper makes you a good designer automatically. But the value of education shouldn’t be getting a prominent career, either. It should give you more than that, it shouldn’t be the end goal of getting an education. It’s more about getting this perspective you talked about in the beginning of our conversation, art history or this very technical structure of design. This is again connected with the other question about talent. Another thing I’m wondering about is why design has exploded into this kind of a buzzword and everybody does design these days, it’s so easy theoretically to become a designer and a lot of companies say they see the value of good design but I don’t think they really do.

C: It’s a really good question, because it’s true. Nowadays there’s a lot of titles as a designer. When I did my Bachelor in advertising, there was a Graphic Designer title, and it involved editorial, illustration, animation, etc., but nowadays there’s a lot of different kinds of designers, graphic designers, editorial designers, type designers, illustrators, all the digital world, it’s amazing, UX, UI, experience designer, service designer and so on.

I think design, the word itself is changing from only visual things, to also experience things. Before, maybe 15 years ago, it was mostly something visual but I think now it’s also changing towards experience. I think that’s also good in some way. Of course, it has a lot to do with technology, and all the touch points between that technology and humans. So I think it’s good that design is expanding to many other fields of life.

Before, it was more like an aesthetic thing (interior design or graphic design) but nowadays, people are designing everything. Every kind of connection you have with people can be designed, every kind of touchpoint that you do with people, nowadays it has some element of design and I think that’s something good. It’s crazy because when I did my Bachelor in Colombia, the only Bachelors in design was graphic design or interior design. But nowadays you have a lot of other design paths that you can follow, let’s see what happens.

Key take-aways

Education is not so much about technical design skills but learning how to approach a brief, for example and growing your network of peers.

Soft skills are much more important than hard skills. Designing beautiful layouts is not what makes you a good designer, it’s your soft skills and the ability to navigate real life in a way that benefits you and improves you as a designer that is far more important.

Talent in design really depends on what kind of a designer you’d like to be, in graphic design, illustration and motion graphics for example, you need to be able to draw well and have an eye for aesthetics. If you are doing UX/UI, though, talent is not as critical. Becoming a successful designer is also about having luck and being in the right surroundings in the right moment.

Education might become obsolete if universities don’t adjust themselves to the fast-pace of the industry. If they manage to embed these changes in their curricula, though, they will still be relevant but a lot of employers don’t really care if you have a (design) degree or not.

Sometimes working in a specific branch of design alongside other designers, makes it clear for you what is the thing that interests you the most and what kind of designer you’d like to be. It also shapes your way of working and gives you a style that is unique to you.

Formal background in design will not make you the best designer but it will open different doors for you and also give you a sense of credibility. However, how education weighs is also country-specific.

Design is subjective, there is an element of aesthetics and technical ability but you cannot expect that everybody will interpret your designs in the same way.

Education is often idealistic, it’s a safe bubble; you learn the best things in a real-life environment which can be harsh but that’s how you learn best.

Nowadays, social media is shifting the purpose of design. Getting likes is not what you get from a client. How many likes you have doesn’t convey how good a designer you are or how good a solution you created.

Design should be aesthetically pleasing but it also cannot be divorced from functionality. Design involves a certain amount of talent but when you train your eye with good content, then what you produce yourself will also be good.

To be continued…

<back to PART IV

>move on to PART VI

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overthinker, designer, humanist

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