Part IV: EPISODE THREE
The things they don’t teach you in design (art) school
Going deeper into the conversation on the value of (design) education, I am joined by three extraordinary female designers, coming from different design disciplines and backgrounds:
Jenny Kan, Creative Strategist & Art Director, design lead and a great mentor, based in the Netherlands, well-versed in creative leadership, design thinking, user experience design, digital strategy & innovation. Although I’ve known Jenny only for a short while, she has been instrumental to my professional development as a designer.
Laura Duarte, service designer, Master candidate at University of the Arts in London, Colombia native, based in the UK.
Rachel Salmon, digital product designer, founder of Women in Design — Reykjavik, design mentor, UK native, based in Iceland.
Jenny, Laura and Rachel shared some brilliant ideas around their experience and views on education and how it translates into a future career realisation. Happy reading!
*this content is published with the prior knowledge and approval of the authors.
Jenny, why did you decide to choose design as your career, what spoke to you in the profession?
J: I think what drew me the most about choosing the art academy was the fact that I could be creative and work on concept development. I’ve always considered myself a better concept developer than a designer but I happen to be good in both (laughs). And I think over the years I have always loved to be involved in the strategy and the strategic process of creativity. To be honest, even though I am a good designer, I consider myself really more a strategic thinker. There are designers out there who have design in their DNA, they breathe and live design. If you look at their Instagram, it’s like wow, so tasteful… I was always more focused on ideation. So I think the concept development part was the reason why I chose design.
What is your overall take on formal education? What do you think is the purpose of formal education?
J: It depends on the context, I’ve worked at design agencies where it’s really about being an awesome designer and being able to create wonderful awesome designs and artworks; there, the talent comes first. If you have an impressive portfolio and your personality fits, that will get you quite far in the process. But if it’s a company that values education, it’s different. I’ve worked at a company founded by two academics, so they really value having an academic background and a research-mindset. They would appreciate formal education even more, so it really depends on the context.
So for you it depends on what professional direction the person is going to take?
J: It’s about getting a sense of what the company probably will prefer; if the company is research- and service design minded. For example, within UX you have UX researchers, there are psychologists working as UX researchers. In these environments, formal education would weigh heavier than in a traditional design agency where you are creating wonderful awesome designs, so that’s the difference.
I see. Did you ever consider not going to university, was it an obvious choice for you that you were going to university to receive your education?
J: Actually, I didn’t like the fact that I only had the design background.
I had a Master’s of Art from the Art Academy but I didn’t find it sufficient to prove that I had my strategic thinking skills, so that’s why I started to pursue an Executive Master’s to demonstrate my academic skills as well, in this way to grow in my career.
And did this second education live up to your expectations, did it give you what you were looking for?
J: Yes, it does. I haven’t finished yet because it’s a one and a half year part time Master’s. It’s a Master’s in Business Administration so it focuses on business strategy, innovation and technology.
Sounds interesting. What was something that you learned from your formal education in terms of skills or qualities that you perceived valuable for your future growth professionally or personally?
J: I think that if you want to become a service designer, UX designer, you have to be able to visualise, period. You cannot just scribble on a paper and say, hey, this is my concept, it doesn’t work this way.
Even if you don’t have those flawless design skills, you should at least have visualisation skills. If you want to become a designer, you should definitely at least be able to handle some drawing software. That’s the effort you should put in, you cannot just say: “Oh, I only conceptualise”.
Would you say that your formal education gave you or solidified this mentality that you need to be able to visualise on a medium external from your head?
J: Yes, all my classmates, if we had a project, we had to be able to visualise, you cannot just deliver words. And of course you have to put a lot of effort and also passion to keep on honing your skills. Nowadays it’s quite a thing because there’s so much drawing software, web design software so it really takes some devotion to keep yourself up but that’s the price you pay if you want to keep on surfing the wave.
I was saying this to a fellow designer recently, 20–25 years ago it must have been so much more difficult to become a designer, now with so much software and knowledge, you can do pretty much anything with a course, if you put in the effort into understanding the basics of design, of course.
J: I do believe that even though there are great drawing software available such as Photoshop, Sketch, Figma, if you are really good at design, there will be a difference. You will see who the people are who have design in their DNA and who are using the tool.
In my last position, I was hiring designers and I would recognise when design was just templaty, or design that was unique and personal. And I would be more drawn to the personal design because then you feel like that’s someone who has design in her or his DNA.
That’s very interesting that you had experience with hiring designers. I’m curious to know what people are looking for when they are hiring designers, what is most important?
J: You have to show practical skills again, I will not hire you if you just say I’m a concept developer and you only show me words. Show me wireframes, show me customer journeys, show me frameworks…You have to be able to have hands-on skills, visualisation skills and be a team player, and also be willing to learn to design because when you work at an agency, sometimes it will be required that you are the one that has to make a quick prototype.
So it’s also about the attitude, like maybe I’m not a designer by background, but I’m willing to learn so the attitude is of course vey important, as well.
If you think about your design practice, what was something important that you learned from this practice?
J: You have to be able to deal with multiple stakeholders who all have an opinion. Design is very subjective and everyone will want to have a say and you will have to be able to deal with that in a non-personal way. You have to be able to articulate your design decisions.
Would you say that formal education, based on your experience of course, doesn’t quite give you these skills and you can only pick them up in a practical setting?
Would you then say that academia and industry are disconnected, that when you finish school, when you get your degree and enter the business field to start a career, you are practically thrown into an entirely different reality?
If you have an academic background, and it will be your first role, you should be prepared that you would do operational stuff even though you’ve studied for high level, strategic thinking. You start at the bottom.
So you start at the start, unless you have very strong connections and you are lucky to start as a senior manager at your first role.
Would you say that a person needs a degree in order to become a good designer?
J: No, you have to put effort, time and dedication to build your portfolio, show the frameworks, show the prototypes, put time into getting to know the software.
Is it of great importance whether you are a talented person, an artsy person in order to become a good designer?
J: Not artsy, dedicated. For instance, we were looking for a visual designer, so I wanted to see a portfolio full of visual designs and not a portfolio that only shows concepts or strategy because that’s not what I’m looking for. So you also have to look at the job requirements.
If you are willing to spend time to get to know a few of the industry-standard software and you are able to produce some designs, mockups, prototypes to build your portfolio, that would open your door much wider than only a graduate degree. People, especially in the design field, want to see stuff, it’s one of the most visual professions there are.
Laura, tell me about how you decided to go into design.
L: I discovered service design by accident. When asked about design I used to think of fashion, interior design and graphic design. For me design was something I was not attracted to. But then when I joined this company in an employee experience role, the focus was on making activities and giving cupcakes on special dates.
I asked myself: how can we make this more human? How can we understand the experience of people who work here and build programs they really need?
And organically I started working on ideas and projects from an employee- oriented perspective. At that moment, I did not know I was applying principles of human-centered design. Talking with friends and colleagues I realised that what I was doing and what I loved to do actually was that and that I could do a Master degree on it! I decided to leave the organisation and start my journey to get my master degree in service design at UAL.
What do you think about formal education overall, what do you think about its purpose and value?
L: I think most of us are educated to work for someone else rather than to create our own sources of income. I think education could play an important role in the distribution of wealth and creating a more equal and fairer society.
Also, I think education now is mostly siloed, my personal opinion is that it should be interconnected, more systemic because, what we are seeing is that a biologist is working with a service designer and a psychologist with an architect in an interdisciplinary project.
Most companies are putting people from different backgrounds together. That brings perspective to the table. If that is what is happening when we enter the job market, why are we being taught to see the world like this?
You’re making a good point. What was your motivation to go into formal education in service design, you already had a solid experience as a service designer prior to that so why invest in academic training?
L: In order to apply to the master degree, I had to work purposely not by accident in service design related projects. I taught myself the principles by reading books and volunteering for projects. I was able to work on multiple projects and by the end I was getting paid for my work!
However, I felt I needed the international experience and the academic background I was missing. I think I was looking for a different way of doing things because of course, self teaching was very valuable and I was already doing half of the things that I was taught to do but I didn’t have the mindset, I didn’t have the holistic understanding of systemic change.
At the same time, I wasn’t exposed to academic and formal education that could help me to know what the profession was to date and get those learnings. I didn’t know anything about participatory design, I didn’t know about systemic change, I didn’t know about many things that people have researched for years so I think I wanted that and that it’s something I couldn’t get by myself.
What was something valuable that you learned at school, a skill or a quality that you gained because of your formal education?
L: I would say the mindset and the systemic understanding of things, how things are interconnected one to the other. That is something I learned just by having the experience of doing this master and getting used to seeing things from that point of view.
The second one would be the importance of empathising with the user and actually not pushing your solutions; that is something I already knew but I didn’t know how to empathise with the user and to extract the information more than by doing interviews but with other methods.
Would you then say that there is a disconnect between industry and academia in this sense; what you get from formal education, it is structure, it is the habit to argue well but when you graduate and go into a career, it’s a totally different world you’re thrown into?
L: In my masters, I don’t think so, we are learning by doing, we develop some projects that we actually complete during the master, from the beginning to the end. We learned how to design end-to-end services. However, I feel, starting a service from scratch is not usually what we will do in our jobs. It would be more about redesigning, interconnecting, rethinking. I think there is still an opportunity to improve in that sense.
How big a role do you think that talent plays in design?
L: That’s a very long conversation because what does talent mean? I didn’t know how to use any design program: Illustrator, Sketch but I think I’m very talented in the way I see problems and I find correlations.
I have a holistic view on things. My talent is connecting the dots. I think you need to define what talent means before addressing that question. Definitely, there are certain careers in design that you need to have certain skills.
The only one I can talk about is service design in which, in my personal opinion, the mindset is highly important. As well as cultivating soft skills such as: empathising, understanding, being able to correlate and generate problem- tailored ideas.
Rachel, how did you decide to become a designer? What was your motivation behind this decision?
R: I grew up without knowing that design was a career choice really. I originally studied English literature at university, and then went into publishing. I was working in the marketing department and would see all these beautiful book cover proofs coming through on the department floor and I thought, “I want to be doing that!”. I’ve always enjoyed being creative but didn’t really know the route to be doing it as a “job”, so I put it to the back of my mind as “something I’d do one day”. Months later, I saw an ad on the London underground for a design course at Shillington, so I decided I’d just go for it. They had an intensive three-month programme or a nine-months evening course. I signed up for the evening course and got an Office Manager position in a design studio during the day.
This work experience was invaluable towards understanding the business behind running a design studio ⏤ writing proposals, invoices, composing emails to clients; whilst in the evening I was studying the actual craft and process of design.
I loved the Shillington course so much. My particular class included people from all walks of life ⏤ we had ex-ballerinas, construction workers, photographers, event organisers, financial experts, all these interesting people who wanted to inject a bit of creativity into their careers. That was really fun for me to meet with this collective group of people, and see how their experiences shaped their work.
I don’t know if I would have liked studying design in a traditional university setting as much. The Shillington setup is very hands-on. The “classroom” was set up like a design studio; everyone has their computer, and you’re set briefs that are as close to real life as possible. The class practiced how to give and receive feedback on projects as we moved through them.
This, plus the feedback from my teachers was such a key experience for my career later on. The primary output from the course is the portfolio, which showcases all you’ve learnt and created. This is what I took to job interviews for my first few gigs.
Did you ever consider going into a more traditional programme, in the sense that there, the teaching format is different, not so much hands-on?
R: I think that at the time, because I had already done a three-year long degree, I was still just exploring the idea of design and being a designer. I’d not had that touchpoint growing up. I had no designers in my family and I didn’t really know what it looked like to be one so I wasn’t ready to commit another three (expensive) years to a traditional degree.
I also wonder if I would have moved into a traditional degree, if it would have been too conceptual for me at that point. It’s something I might consider now as I see it as complementary to the experience and knowledge I already have.
What do you think is the purpose of formal education, why should/shouldn’t people go for academic training as opposed to, for example graduating high school and then going directly into a career development? What’s the difference according to you?
R: I don’t want to discount the more traditional design education routes because many amazing designers have come out of that. However, my impression from talking to peers who are hiring for example, is that they focus primarily on your portfolio ⏤ on your work, and your experience. They care little for your qualifications.
I’ve also had feedback from past colleagues about students who’ve graduated from more traditional courses having a harder time hitting the ground running in the workplace. They’re perhaps not as familiar with the tools, or how to work with briefs and clients as those who’ve had a more practical design experience or education.
And then, I’ve also worked with amazing designers who are completely self-taught. They were just curious at a young age and got experience hustling with side projects, and now they are earning a lot of money as senior designers! There are many routes to becoming an established designer.
I know this is very difficult to answer and you cannot generalise on such a question because it’s so different between locations, programs, people, but having said that, do you think that industry and academia are kind of disconnected when you think about design education? Is academic training in design preparing students the way they should be preparing them for what’s coming next? From my personal experience and what I’ve seen and heard around me, a lot of people sometimes struggle to find jobs and to have the skills that will sell them well and get them the position they want. What is the value of dedicating so much emotional and financial effort in an education if it’s not going to deliver practical results? Another thing that I’m struggling with when it comes to this, is that there must be more to education than just supplying a job.
R: I understand what you are saying. I enjoyed studying English at university but I came out of it with a bit of an existential crisis. I had no idea what I was going to do next. Yet, I wouldn’t change doing it because I still loved it and there was stuff like critical thinking, gender and colonial studies, creative writing and more that I really enjoyed and that opens your mind in different ways than simply learning something practical.
However, the key difference between an English degree and a design education is that the design industry is moving and evolving so fast. I’m not confident that a more traditional university design education could stay relevant. If those who are teaching you are full-time professors and they don’t have relevant industry experience, the student would miss out and it would be harder work for them when they enter into a work environment.
That’s something that Shillington tackled well, as those who were teaching us had to also be actively working in the industry, and we gained from their insight. I think for this particular industry it just moves so quickly. That being said, there are skills you might pick up in a more traditional design course, such as research skills, which is not something we had time to look into at depth at Shillington.
I’ve had to pick those skills up along the way. This industry is quite unique, design is quite unique in that way. It’s similar for computer science. My husband is a developer. He never studied computer science but just learned it on the job. In fact, he’s been in the position of hiring and has the same kind of feedback as my industry peers — that many of the computer science graduates don’t actually have the knowledge expected from a junior developer.
So in summary the ideal design course would touch upon the fundamental theoretical concepts, but also offer a hands-on practical approach. I think that’s where the gap is found.
What was something valuable that your formal training in design gave you? Something that has improved you, not only as a designer but as a person even, it can be anything at all that you attribute to this formal training.
R: That’s a great question. Well, off the top of my head we were really encouraged during my design course to back up the design choices that we made and that’s a huge part of design actually.
I learnt pretty quickly that you can’t just do something because it looks nice, you have to marry business goals with usability with the client’s requirements or needs. This was a huge take-away from my design education: behind every design decision, you should have a reason. I can’t say for sure but I think that’s something that a more conceptual design course might lack because it’s more of an exploratory method, like learning about typography.
Another is how to receive feedback and how to give feedback. I’m always still learning more on this of course, but these are essential skills, the experience of doing that I think really started on my design course. Because we had to, mid-way between a brief, we had to just literally pin up our work to the group and explain where we were and why we’d made the decision so far and we had to just be given the feedback which is really hard.
But it was a really good experience because that’s what it’s like and often the people in the workplace who are giving feedback aren’t as nice as the students I was working with, so that was a really key thing, giving and receiving feedback.
If you then think about your design practice, what are some valuable skills that your work experience has given you, something you cannot pick up at school?
R: Working with clients. If you have a good client, it’s great, if you have a difficult client, it can be challenging.
You find yourself making compromises which is not something you imagine you’d be doing when you’re at school. Working with other people, obviously that can be in any other industry but that comes with work experience.
It wasn’t really touched on in detail in my design course but something I’m thinking about all the time now which is accessibility, making designs accessible for everyone so that it’s easy to use. That kind of takes into account colour theory and contrast and typography, and all the basic elements that you learn at school but you realise actually there’s more than it just looking pretty, it has to work for people who might be short-sighted or whatever. That’s something I didn’t really practice until I was working.
The answer to this question is pretty obvious but would you say that you need a degree in order to be a good designer?
R: No. Hundred percent no.
What, in your mind does it take for someone to be a good designer then?
R: I want to say really lovely, airy, fairy things like curiosity and empathy and attention to detail but I think you need to have a portfolio that shows why you’ve made the design decisions that you’ve made and then the end product to be really impressive. That’s what you need really.
Whether you get that from a formal education or not…it’s to be able to tell a story with any project and even if the brief changes, it’s fine, it’s the end product of how you got there. That is probably the most important thing. That was just my experience, when I was interviewing for one of my first design roles for example, they didn’t know I just graduated, they had no idea, they didn’ t even ask, they just saw my portfolio and then they gave me the job.
It was just my portfolio, they didn’t ask about qualifications, because they just didn’t care, they saw the work and they saw the thinking and the process. And you don’t have to know all of this before you go into design, a lot of this I’ve learned in much better ways by doing things than when I did them at school. Just the basics of that are really valuable. Anyone can copy something right, I don’t know if you just copied something off the internet because it looks really nice, I want to know why you’ve made those decisions.
Yes, makes a lot of sense. On that note, how crucial do you think that talent is in design?
R: Talent, oh, my Gosh. That’s like a big philosophical question. I don’t pin myself down or whatever, imposter syndrome…I wouldn’t say I’m a talented designer, I don’t know. Hard work versus having a good eye, I don’t know….I think it’s just practice, like anything, learning an instrument. I would absolutely hate to see my early designs because they are just horrible and I think many designers would feel the same.
Out of curiosity, if it wasn’t design, what do you think you would be doing?
R: This is something I’ve thought a lot about during the pandemic because your whole life is kind of shifting, and you’re thinking what am I contributing to this world. Probably….I don’t know actually, I’ve never felt like I’m in the wrong industry, maybe something that is more community building. I’ve had experience with my Women in Design group that I started here in Reykjavik and it was so vulnerable and challenging but it’s so rewarding to meet other women and hear about their experiences and share opportunities. I love that, something about community-building.
And lastly, why did you decide to become a mentor?
R: I just felt like I wanted to give something back because I had some really good teachers and colleagues over my career. They weren’t my mentors officially but they’ve fed a lot into my experience. When I came out of university and finished my design course, I wasn’t as structured in my process, I was really privileged to have support around me so if I could just offer that back, I’d give it a go.
You have to put skin in the game; if you want to move forward and grow as a designer, you need to be willing to sacrifice your personal time to hone your design skills and learn.
Designers should be able to visualise, being able to conceptualise is great but design is also one of the most visual professions out there. Only ideas on paper isn’t going to cut it.
A degree in design is critical if you’re going to work in a research-driven, academic environment. If, however, you’re striving to go into a more practical setting, then demonstrating practical skills and knowledge weighs heavier.
You have to be able to give and receive feedback in an objective way and that is usually something you pick up on the job.
Education has an enormous potential to redesign society for the better, however, formal education needs to be more collaborative and less siloed: designers don’t work only with designers anymore, they work with psychologists, economists, technologists etc., and education should account for that.
Talent goes beyond technical artistry ⏤ drawing well and having an eye for aesthetics, one can be talented in many ways: how they reason, approach problems and ideate, for example.
Formal education delivers structured knowledge and a body of research done in a specific field. That is something which is harder to get on your own or outside of academia.
Academic education is valuable for developing critical thinking and growing an individual purely intellectually but it often deprives students of real-life, practical experience and that can be challenging going into the industry.
Being a good designer means that you are curious, empathetic and attentive but from a practical standpoint, you need a strong portfolio which communicates clearly your thinking process and design decisions.
As a designer, you should be able to articulate your design decisions and connect aesthetics with functionality.