PART VI: EPISODE V
The things they don’t teach you in design (art) school
The last episode of my interview series on the purpose of academic education comes full circle to where I started my exploration on the topic. For this iteration, I met three truly unique designers, all from very different parts of the world, all pursuing different career paths within art and design. They shared generously their perspectives and made me think even deeper not only about education but other key aspects of the way we relate to our societies both as professionals and individuals.
Libby Connolly, Senior Designer & Art Director, based in the United States. Libby is not only a very versatile artist but also an amazingly generous and kind person.
Nydia Lilian, photographer and visual artist, based in Mexico. I’m in complete awe of Nydia’s artistic expression and distinctive photographic signature.
Stefano Bellucci Sessa, service designer, improv comedy actor, organiser of Creative Mornings London, Italy native, based in the UK. Apart from using design to make real difference in people’s lives, Stefano amazed me with his humility and rationale.
What Libby, Nydia and Stefano disclosed is being published with their prior knowledge and approval. Happy reading!
Libby, what do you think about education, what is the purpose of academic education?
L: I think my opinion of it has changed significantly now that I’ve been out of it. I think you look at it much differently as a prospective student. You are going to learn so much but I think the lens in which you look through is that you think you’re going to learn every single thing that you need to know. I don’t think that’s just for the arts, I think that’s education in general.
So now when I look back at what I actually learned, I see education as more of a conceptual training: conceptual thinking and how to get an idea tangible. I think, at least in my background, that was the bulk of what education was. It wasn’t just design classes, you had to learn about the history of art and design to then make better informed decisions in the product or what it is that you’re designing.
There was very little, at least from my experience, business experience in art school which I think is a complete oversight. It’s so interwoven but you don’t know until you’re out there that you’re like, “Oh, I wish I knew this kind of stuff.”
You studied Fine Arts which is a very artistic profile in design, I would imagine that in a programme like that you don’t really focus on business skills, the focus is more on art and handcraft, not even design. Having in mind that education in the States is quite an investment, why did you decide that you needed a degree in design, or in your case ⏤ art?
L: This is a deep question. I think so much of our society is rooted in this mentality, especially now that education is more accessible. It’s just the thing that you do and it has been hardwired in everyone’s brain. You finish high school, you go to college.
And the thought is that the longer you’re in school or the higher degree that you’re pursuing, the greater payoff you’re going to see long-term. And I’d like to think that that’s true.
You know, you hear these stories, especially now with COVID, of people who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their education and there’s still..nothing’s really lining up. It really is such an unknown after school and you can easily get stuck in this mentality of “I have to get ahead, I have to get ahead.” There’s also a lot of value in experience out of school, too.
If you think about your education, what are some skills or qualities or anything at all, that helped you in your career or your personal development, something that you picked up at school, during your formal training that was very important for you to acquire?
L: I think the biggest thing being: learning how to speak about your work, especially to other people. We were lucky in that we had this one design class that was a bit more focused on your outward facing appearance, how you talk about your work, and how you ultimately sell your work to clients or market yourself to prospective employers. That has always stuck out in my mind as “Yes, this was helpful.”
How about your practice as a designer? What was something valuable that you couldn’t learn at school but you learned on the job, by working in a real-life setting?
L: I think a lot of it is technical. Going back to what I previously said, you learn a lot of conceptual knowledge or it helps you practise conceptual thinking and then I remember when I was first starting out; you know, how to submit a document and how to get specs for, let’s say, packaging or a web design. Emphasis was not placed on the technicality of something but how you thought about it and how that idea translated. So I think that was for me a huge learning curve because I came from a place where so much emphasis was placed on conceptual thought. You get into the workforce and there is importance for sure, but you have to do it quickly and you have to do it correctly.
This is a hard question and it depends on location and programs and everything but would you say, from your own experience that academic training is kind of disconnected from industry and formal education doesn’t prepare students for what comes after?
L: Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. I think the one thing that really does have going for it, is the network of people that you make when you’re there. You never know who knows someone who can get you that contact that you need. Especially being in art school. I think I did find that really valuable. But there’s definitely a disconnect, and I think you’re right, it depends on what school you go to and how they approach design versus the business side of things but in my experience, it was much more fine arts-focused, so much so that it realistically didn’t really translate into how you’ll be applying yourself once you’re out of school.
So how do you cope with that so that you get up to speed, because you don’t have the time to do another four years or five years of education about business skills, right?
L: For me, I guess I gained that experience through jobs. And I’ve seen it done both ways. I’ve seen some of my former colleagues start freelancing on their own and now have started their own business. So I’m sure they’ve learned it in a much different way than I did. For me that came from experience on the job and especially in more of an entry level position when you are just getting out of school.
I think there is a bit of grace there because they know that it’s still very new, you don’t have that industry experience. The longer you do it, the easier it gets, you know. The more repetitive in nature, it just starts to click and you understand it better.
You did another programme, was it a Master’s programme that you did in Boston? It was again in Fine Arts?
L: No, so I started at Maine College of Art and then after my second year, I transferred to MassArt, seeking the same degree. However, I was feeling really homesick and overall missed the community that I had made at Maine College of Art and so I transferred back and then finished up my degree there.
It’s funny that you mention that. The experiences between both schools were drastically different. I think it has a lot to do with the staff that they have, the professors that are teaching. I would say MassArt was a bit more ahead, they were focusing much more on digital and interactive design whereas Maine College of Art really was not. It was pretty focused in print, and MassArt in general I would say was a much more competitive school.
And were you more interested in the more traditional, let’s say print design, not so much in digital?
L: I think so, yeah. I can appreciate interactive design but it’s not where my interests lie, I guess. I really love traditional, typeset books and typography. And that does translate to web, right? But I like the tactile quality of design.
So would you say that you’re overall happy with your education, you’re pleased with your education?
L: I would say so, yeah. When I look back at the investment, the big things that stand out in my mind of what I gained were the friendships, the connections, and appreciating the time that you have to just focus on you and your studies because that’s invaluable.
Once you’re out in the world and working and have to sustain and make a living, you lose that time or you’re giving it to something else. So there is a tremendous amount of value in that.
Do you think that talent plays an important role in design, do you need to be gifted so that you can be a good designer?
L: I don’t think so. I think a lot of that comes from practice, practice and hunger to continue to learn.
I think I saw that in myself and I see it in younger designers who are just starting out. You can see the progress that they’ve made in just a short while, in a year or two just because they’ve stuck with it and they keep practicing it even outside of work. They’ll do things for themselves. I think it’s interesting because you’ll see people sort of find their niche within design, because design is very broad. Everyone has a very different style. I just really liked typography so I honed in on that. I’ve met people who have formal training in design and decided “I actually really like illustrating,” and then they transition to that sphere.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, whether it’s better to be a specialist or a generalist.
L: I still go back and forth on it. When I was in school, they always said “Be a generalist. Versatility is more important, you can niche yourself later on in your practice.” Which is true. But now I do kind of see how niching yourself early actually can make you quite marketable early. But then maybe you do run the risk of pigeonholing yourself.
Do you think that it’s easier now to become a designer than it was before, just because knowledge is so much more accessible in a way, you can go online and take courses online, even for free, you don’t have to go to university and pay huge tuition fees.
L: I think it is much more accessible, to your point of: there are more self-taught people I think more recently than maybe five or ten years ago. But at the same time, it’s becoming such a saturated market so it’s getting more and more competitive.That being said, I don’t think design is going anywhere any time soon. If anything, brands have now noticed and truly understand the value of really good design and how much it can help their business so it’s definitely here to stay.
Do you think that probably in the future, education will become obsolete, especially in design, it will lose its appeal somehow?
L: Maybe so. I think especially with COVID, too. I know in the States we’re seeing this moment where everything is still remote and so those schools that you’ll be investing thousands of dollars in, are remote just the same as if you’ll go to a local community college and either pay nothing or very little.
So I think with education in general, we might see a shift. People just kind of realising: “Do I need to invest all this money into education?” Or “What can I learn on my own?” I think we will see a shift in that for sure.
Yes, I would assume that the design industry has changed a lot in the past say 20–25 years probably, and education in general, not only in design, just because there are so many other options to acquire knowledge in a certain area.
L: Yes, absolutely.
Which is weird why universities, especially in the States are still so expensive.
L: Well, it goes back to people here still very much have the mentality of: going to the best school and getting what is deemed as the best education will give you the best connections and set you up the best way possible, right? I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for the arts. I don’t think it matters where you go or necessarily who you meet but rather what you can do with that, what you can do with your resources after that fact, and being persistent in that.
Nydia, I read in one of your interviews that you had a passion for graphic art and photography from a very early age. You received your formal education in Arts in Graphic Design in Mexico. How was that experience for you overall? Did you enjoy your education, what was your impression of it as a whole?
N: At elementary school, for some strange reason, they taught me Corel Draw, it was around 1997, I really liked the ability of creating these kind of collages, illustrations of my favorite anime characters as well as doing digital paintings based on my drawings.
Personally, because of my ADHD, it was pretty easy to choose a career path, since everything else seemed very complicated and I really enjoyed to draw, paint, make digital illustrations and some photography from a very young age and in a very amateur way… inevitably, I studied graphic design.
During college, it was a very good experience, I learned many techniques about how to create new things and built a foundation for art, graphic design, illustration and cinema. There were also things I didn’t like, it was very expensive, and sometimes I felt that some classes lacked of good and more relevant content.
What was your motivation to receive academic training since you have been doing art since your teenage years (in that sense, I would imagine you already had the technical skills)?
N: I think millenials, in most cases, were raised to have professional studies, this was the default for me, and I’m very thankful to my parents for encouraging me.
I actually never thought about studying a career in fine arts or photography but I already knew that I wanted to do something around graphic design. I started doing personal and emotional things with digital paintings and photography, but I also like the commercial side of this, to have commissioned projects as well as working with brands.
In México, it’s a bit difficult to be an artist; some often rely on government grants, so I often rely on my commercial projects to fund my personal work.
What was something valuable that you took out of your education and did it aid your design practice afterwards in any way?
N: By studying graphic design I learned a lot of different skills, and after my first photography class, I realised that I liked it even more than other graphic design areas. They taught me the basics and over time I started doing more courses, tutorials, books, equipment to build my career path.
A great advantage is, when you study at a university, you have the opportunity to meet incredible people. You can start building a network of future business contacts; I have collaborated with lots of former teachers and fellow students, even now.
I see. And what was something important that you learned at university?
N: All the principles and fundamentals for composition, color, and every other technical aspect. For example, I can do editorial design for my presentations, record and edit videos as well as taking photographs and do re-touch, even some web design knowledge. In summary, the way I can get curious and combine all creative and artistic disciplines together.
In contrast, what was something important that you learned from your professional practice?
N: The thing that I felt missing was everything business-related and real-world preparation, like how to properly quote for a project, create estimates, generate invoices, pay taxes, read and make contracts, etc.
On the other hand, in this field, you need to be constantly updating yourself and the knowledge you have (like every 3 months), so you keep track of latest trends, technologies, and so forth. Basically, many things I learned in the university are obsolete nowadays.
Does one need a degree in order to become a good artist/designer?
N: I know some incredible designers, illustrators, and photographers that didn’t go to a university or that studied something non-related to design or fine arts and they managed to become successful by finding their own style.
However, in this technology age, it seems you can learn anything online by doing a simple Google search or finding tutorials on YouTube. For more specific things, most online courses and ebooks are very accessible and cheap. But learning the technical side doesn’t mean to have a good eye or the fundamentals of design.
As for building a professional network, it’s important to know people in your location, and thanks to the internet, you can also just upload your online portfolio to engage with new clients from all over the world. So, in a way, it seems like you’re competing with everyone on a global scale.
In summary, there are many pros and cons about studying a career in design or fine arts considering you can now learn almost everything online, but the discipline and fundamentals gained during a university experience as well as the contacts, could be difficult to obtain on your own.
This is a difficult question and depends on many factors but do you think formal education prepares students in a good way for what comes next?
N: I would say it depends on the teacher’s ability to engage with students and prepare them for what comes next and their willingness to push themselves and embrace new challenges. I would say that meeting people is the most important thing for me, the opportunity to know very talented teachers and students as they become your peers, clients, collaborators will make finding a job much easier.
It is up to the student to constantly keep learning new things, as I mentioned previously, most of the things I learned 15 years ago are now obsolete. What really helped me was to continue exploring different techniques, doing a lot of experimenting with new materials, and figuring out what, when, and how to use them on my work.
Colleges are constantly evolving and changing. After I graduated, I worked as a freelance photographer for my university and I saw a big change from what I experienced during my time there. I noticed how they changed the entirety of the study plans and overall careers for a better real-world preparation, they also started inviting a lot of instructors from around the world for workshops and new courses. I found that to be very interesting on how much variety and innovation they added to the school in just a few years. I probably felt a bit envious, too.
What’s the role of talent in design, does one need to be talented in order to be a good artist/designer?
N: I guess it’s subjective and it definitely depends on each person and the position they want. I’ve seen very creative and talented art directors and visual artists and I’ve also noticed how new disciplines like UX and Product Design are very methodical, testing, iterating and learning directly from users in order to get a “final design” out there, a team effort between designers, developers, researches, etc.
Lastly, I know people who have their own design studios and sometimes they prefer a dedicated and focused team member willing to learn and listen, than a highly talented designer who has a unique style but is hard to work with and adapt to the company culture and collaborative mindset.
Stefano, how did you discover that you wanted to be a designer?
S: My father is an architect so in terms of design as a mindset, I probably went into design because of that. I was always illustrating when I was a child and I think that came natural, to have a degree in that range. But then when I applied to university, I got accepted both to architecture and industrial design which actually my father told me to apply to. I didn’t really know what it was exactly because I knew I wanted to use that part of my brain about solving problems and inventing things but I didn’t exactly know how to translate that into a degree or a discipline.
It’s not really a regret but I think what I was missing at the time was exposure to role models, like “I want to be like that person”. So service design for example, it’s something that I had no idea what it was until two or three years ago. In retrospect, I would love to have known about it at that time because I like it much more than all the other disciplines of design. That’s how I got into design, the industrial design curriculum covered exhibition, visual design, product, transportation and branding so it was quite diverse.
And did you always know that you would go to formal education for it and get a degree?
S: Yes. In Italy we do have that mentality. I don’t know if things have changed now but the generation of our parents were the ones that kept telling us that you need a degree in order to find a job. So I grew up with this as the default option, that wasn’t really meant to opt out from.
Were you pleased with your education, how was that experience for you overall?
S: I was happy with it, it was quite diverse, it wasn’t too specialised. But at the same time, when you are a junior designer, it’s quite challenging to find a job, if you’re not specialised. When you are a junior designer, you end up having such a diverse portfolio and no advanced skill-set to become a junior designer because my visual skills were not at the level of somebody who had studied visual design for three years.
I think in the long term now after 5–7 years, that education started to really pay off, because I can see the benefit of being a designer with a wider mindset instead of being too focused.
Beside that, in the university I was in, which was in Rome, it was quite a traditional design concept, so transportation, products. I’m not saying those are bad but it’s quite anachronistic that in 2010, there was no course about digital design. Hopefully it changed now.
So you were missing the focus on digital design?
S: Yes, that’s what I was unhappy about and then I didn’t really realise it that much, I was just trusting the institution or what it was teaching me.
What do you think is the purpose of academic training in general or in design specifically?
S: So I am biased because I am a believer in education. I think the purpose of education is keeping you accountable that you are on a defined learning journey but also push you to have a wider view.
Tying back to what I said before, the purpose of my education was to understand how many types of design there are and I could have become by exploring different options. These 5–7–9 design exams that were given were different types of design. This helped me choose the option I wanted to, at the time it was visual design.
Without that, I might not have had the role models to be able to understand what type of designer I want to be. So education is a path for you to understand different options that you can pursue. In terms of what is being taught to you, I feel that it’s relatively useful and that applies to any type of education. We need to remember that knowledge of the teacher is limited compared to what you can find on the internet.
So I think that a good teacher is not the one that gives you the knowledge but the one that points you in the directions where the knowledge exists.
When I was teaching design, of course I was teaching principles and a little about a topic, but then I was also pushing students to look for information about it because I might be wrong. Or what I am telling you might not be relevant also because it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Mostly in a subject like design, where I can talk about design process but then when I give an example from an exhibition, to UX, to website or apps, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because when you get specific, I probably don’t have an answer to give you, but I still have the questions that will help you find the answer yourself.
I think that’s what education means and in general, besides design, that’s one of the problems of education today. Children go to school to learn knowledge from one person. The second they go home, they find better knowledge. And that knowledge might be better than the teachers’ and that learning experience is more aligned to what the world actually is about. Knowledge is already online, the teacher should help children research it, by giving a direction, questions, and support so they are able to analyse what they found, because not everything is correct.
Yes, that’s true. What was then your motivation to start teaching, you are still teaching, right?
S: Not at the moment. I was teaching two years ago and I started teaching because I always had that mindset about giving to others since I was a boy scout leader years ago. That was the reason why I went into teaching, I also like explaining things.
The other reason I got into teaching is because I was working full-time and then I got into that stage of my career when I wanted to lead and help other people grow. I started freelancing and it was actually pushing me away from being able to manage a team because as a freelancer, you are technically more often on your own. So I said: “Ok, I’m going to look for a job as a freelancer but on the side, also as a teacher so that I can learn the skills about teaching others, helping others grow”, and that’s how I got into teaching at first.
Technically, I’m still doing that because the reason why I like service design compared to other types of design, is the component of facilitation. When I do co-creation with clients, I actually teach them how to design. So for me it’s a good synthesis of the things I want to do, which is both design and teaching others how to design.
Because I believe everyone is creative, they just don’t have the process in mind. I think the educator is like a personal trainer, anybody can go to the gym and do exercise but having a personal trainer makes you accountable to measure your success and helps you understand what to do and as a service designer, that’s what you do with others, as well as an educator.
Was that the reason why you turned to service design from graphic and industrial design?
S: No. There were other reasons why I got into service and experience design, one is the more strategic part of it, it’s more about the strategy and then, I always had the mentality to always challenge the brief so I went from visual to UI, then to UX, then to service design, and to strategic design. It’s like swimming upstream, I’m tired of getting a bad brief, I’m going to be the person who gives the brief.
Another reason is how toxic was the education that I received from Italy and about visual design and advertising. Because they tell you that being a designer means having all the answers. While the more you go upstream and you get into UX and service design, the more being a designer means having the right questions when you research and being humble while you test. I prefer that type of designer than the one that plays God and has all the goods for people.
I can relate to that. I started out in graphic design and that was exactly the reason why I wanted to go into service design. If you think about your formal education, what were some valuable skills or qualities that you took out of it that helped you grow afterwards?
S: From the university what I got is the mindset that you can design anything and anything can be designed. The fact that I was taught a process that I could use in different types of environments, was useful for me to understand that I could really look at everything, that comes more from product design because with a product, you are taught that you can design a chair or a wardrobe or a mobile phone, these are objects that are completely different. You are brought to see that you can design them even though they have nothing in common and once you understand that, you can see how you can do the same for anything else. Once you do an app or a website or an e-commerce website or a service or a dialogue between two people, those are all things that can be designed.
I think that was a good take-away for me because I learned to approach every design challenge still with enough humbleness that I might not know a lot about the specifics, but at the same time be confident that I own, thanks to the educations, a process that allows me to understand how to navigate the lack of knowledge. I know I need to research, I know I need to experiment, create things, so that’s the biggest take-away.
From the UX course at the General Assembly, I think what I got was embracing that vulnerability and instead of starting with an idea, start with understanding other people. From the IDEO U courses in storytelling, it was more about prioritising what should come first in terms of communication; which applies to all other things, this is the most important thing you should do and if you don’t focus on this one, then all the others are going to fight for attention so you need to make sure that one thing overarches all the others.
How did you come across service design, was it during one of your earlier employments in graphic design?
S: Yes, service design I never saw in a book before, let’s say. When I moved to London, I was a visual designer, I was looking for a visual design job. I had the luck that I found this job as visual designer at Fluxx, a company in innovation which I didn’t know much about, to be honest. So what I was doing for them is that they were redefining businesses and creating products for people to access services.
What I was doing was visual design which is basically bringing it to life. I was helping them to do the journey mapping or the experience mapping or the storytelling, or a prototype of how the product might look like in the future.
So I thought “Actually my education brought me to be able to do what they do somehow”. That’s when I went from visual design to UX design and that’s when I got my course in UX design. Then my first project as a UX designer was in a startup where I was the only designer. There, I could use the same mindset I was talking about before where beside product I was designing anything.
In the next career move that I made, in Futuregov, I made sure that I focus on service design because I like the strategic part of it. In the past years, I have been trying to understand which part of service design I like the most. Understanding what to do next has always been a mix of what I know I can do, and what I can’t do but anyway see potential if improved.
What I’m understanding now is that I’m good at envisioning and strategic thinking so maybe that’s what makes me stand out as a service designer. So my strength is actually understanding the consequences of possible scenarios in the future. I don’t consider myself strong in that area but having a good potential, I could become a good researcher for example, but on strategic thinking I see the potential to become great one day.
There is a lot of discussion recently, especially with COVID, about the future of education. Right now formal education is being disrupted even more than before. Would you say that maybe in the future, because of these changes and due to the democratisation of knowledge, as you mentioned the knowledge is out there on the internet, you just need to find the quality content, do you think formal education will lose its appeal and people will switch their mindset that they actually don’t need that at all?
S: This is a thing I’ve been thinking about for a while, and more after COVID19. I think there are different types of educators and probably there have always been.
Again, if you think about the difference between the past and the future of education and understand what are the fundamentals of education that people need. The teacher who’s in the classroom is a person who, as I said before, makes you accountable that you have to show up, makes sure that different people that have different levels of understanding can learn in their own ways, because children are different.
But then there are other types of educators, the other role of that person is filtering what book you should read and study from. I don’t know if that’s the same in every country but at least in Italy, the school decides which books to adopt. There are many reasons behind that.
But then there is another educator, the one who writes the book. So the teacher and the writer, and they need different skill-sets. To be a book writer, you need to be an explainer because you synthesise the knowledge you have in a book, while a good teacher does the opposite process: diversifies the book content so it can be explained to different people. Since COVID19, it’s clear that students who do not show up at school, need education anyway.
But it’s based on an old education system meant to prepare people for a different type of society where learning sources where limited. Now society has the challenge that information sources are unlimited, and being able to navigate these options is the skill that is needed, otherwise people don’t understand what information is relevant and correct. It’s a massive problem that we have in society that we need to fix in the next decades.
It’s a problem that nobody is teaching people how to recognise fake news, for example. While there will always be the type of educators that more and more generate content, making online lessons, writing articles and blogs for children to choose from. So you need a type of educator who makes sure that the content is specific and that is what the teacher does at school.
That person technically is not needed, we don’t need a personal trainer, if you go to the gym, you might not need a personal trainer. But everybody needs a psychologist, the same with a teacher, the teacher makes sure that you really understood, and are able to question what information you found and also you are able to use it which in the questionable to be honest way school does it, if you can explain to me after I ask you questions, I know that you learned it which is different from being able to use it.
I think primary school is better than secondary and high school because in high school, you get questioned whether you learned a topic while what you do in primary school is to make a cardboard and explain to the rest of the class what you learned.
Explaining what you learned is a much more valuable skill because education makes you become an educator of other people and only by explaining things to others you see whether you really got it.
When the teacher questions you, yes, you are explaining what you learned but the purpose is different. It’s an interrogation, you are put in a situation where that person is investigating and questioning to find where you failed. While when you are in front of the class, what you’re doing is to show people what you understood, which is different.
I think in the future, we’ll still have the role of the educator who creates content but then there will be the teacher who points you to the direction of where the information is, which in the past was a book, now it’s just a question and then to make you accountable that in a week’s time, you are going to explain to me and the class what you learned and how that makes sense to you. That’s what we do in our work as consultants, we don’t just create products, we make sure that clients really understand and use what we are telling them. The teacher should do the same.
So basically, this process will unfold naturally, in the sense that the schools and teachers that are not able to accommodate for these changing times and adjust their teaching, are not going to be successful after all and people won’t go for them. As opposed to the teachers and schools that really see these changes and don’t just say “I’m a traditionalist, I’m not going to change myself” but instead try to understand why changes happen and apply them in their work.
S: Yes, I like the word “naturally” because I was like “I don’t agree it’s going to happen naturally”. Because, in terms of “naturally”, you mean the survival of the fittest.
That’s exactly what I meant.
S: So there are going to be good opportunities for well-educated people, but the others are going to be suffering because naturally, they are not going to work.
Well, that happens even today. This is a hard question and cannot be generalised on but based on your experience with academic education, would you say that education is detached from industry and the reality at university is totally different from the one in a work environment?
S: As you said, it’s unfair to generalise because everybody has done different universities, and probably they’ve done only one or two, it’s something that you cannot really compare. But from my own experience, what university does is create a safe space for you to experiment and that’s really important because otherwise it’s going to be really challenging later when the stakes are higher. What I mean by the stakes, is not that you might screw up and get fired.
You need to understand that, as a designer, you should have your responsibilities, if you fucked up with an app, it’s not just you, it’s a lot of people that are going to misuse the app and the service. You should have that responsibility. I don’t know if you know Mike Monteiro.
Yes, I love this guy.
S: I think that’s what is lacking in the world of design, I agree with him. Everyone can design but formal education should certify those that have experimented enough in a safe space, so we can make sure their bad job doesn’t impact people much. As long as you have a school system where anyone can access education at the same level, otherwise that’s unfair. Everybody should be able to access education at the same level, but not everyone should be considered educated at the same level after.
Giving equal opportunities and the resources doesn’t mean that everyone is capable at the end of it, that’s why the school system has the responsibility to show others how much you stood out compared to other people.
In terms of your career path, what was something valuable that you learned because of your career that you couldn’t get from your education?
S: The role of the mentor. There is a difference between a mentor and a teacher. I feel the big steps in life that we have is the mentor education or the line management. I never had the opportunity, apart from Futuregov, to have a formal design mentor. When I was at Fluxx, I was the only designer collaborating with people with different skill-sets. So I didn’t have a formalised person that was mentoring me on my topic, but I had to figure it out on my own about design.
However, it allowed me to diversify my learning by looking for my role model or my sources of experience. That’s interesting because when you collaborate with other disciplines you understand the value of making yours vulnerable to them and open to learn from different mindsets. One of the problems with design is that only designers do it, while actually we need psychologists, linguists and many others.
The other valuable thing that career offers is creating a safe space. Even if as Mike Monteiro says, you need to be responsible of what you design, you need to remind yourself that you are not doing heart surgery. So you just relax. And think “Okay I did screw up, that’s fine, how can I fix it and do better next time?”. So having a culture in your company that makes you look at mistakes as learning opportunities is actually what makes you really, really learn after university.
It is actually an important mindset even for the conversation that we’re having now, you need to remember later in your life that what you learned at university, has the bias that is linked to a specific time and moment in our history. The example with my university, I said it was anachronistic because it’s unrealistic that they didn’t change their curricula to reflect what society actually needs.
But if I had studied these subjects 20 years before, it would have been just great. Being an educated person means having the mindset and the approach to question your own education and keep learning, because with time knowledge changes. I taught a huge amount of topics and subjects that are not relevant anymore, it’s not my fault. I hope that all my students are questioning what I taught them because it was specific for that time and later, things changed.
In your career, it helps you if you work in a culture that is retrospective, so making you understand that whatever you know how to do, might not be relevant for what you are doing or might need to be adapted to that context. That’s why the main purpose of education is to make you a curious learner that keeps learning. And that happens while working.
That makes a lot of sense. While I was still studying, I was kind of disappointed and I was complaining about it and a friend of mine told me: “Well, you might not see the value in it now but I’m sure that with time, you will get what the value was and why you did it”. He was right. This also relates to what you’re saying.
S: That reminds me that when I finished my degree, it was the year when Steve Jobs died. So his Stanford speech went viral again. He makes three points in that speech, one is about believing in what you are doing because even if it doesn’t seem apparent and doesn’t seem related, later in the future you’ll be able to connect the dots. It’s these moments of reflection when you understand how everything that happened, actually had a pattern that you could not perceive while you were doing it.
Yes, exactly. I want to talk to you about talent and being gifted. You have two quite distinct experiences in this regard — being a visual/graphic designer and being a service designer, there are some differences between them. Do you think that you need to be talented in order to be an accomplished designer?
S: That’s interesting, I have never asked myself that question but I realise I have an answer for it.
You don’t need to have talent to become an accomplished designer, but we need to recognise that having a talent gives you an advantage. And that’s because what we call talent is what we should actually call privilege.
My talent came from having the privilege of having an architect as a father, a family who could afford a PC with Paint, and being of a gender and ethnic group that is told to dream to become whatever they want. We need to admit that I’m not talented, but I had these privileges in my childhood that other people didn’t have.
My last question is, if you were to give advice to an inexperienced designer who is looking to get into the industry and build a career, what would you advise them to do, what would set them out for success?
S: It’s a mix of all the things I said already. If you want to succeed, my point of view is that you need to be humble, not insecure but humble. So you always have more to learn considering anything you do as an opportunity. However, at the same time, you need to have a strength-based approach that builds on your own experience and learning so far. So remember to be grateful to yourself and use it to confidently impact in your work by giving others what you learned.
Remember that there’s someone that is two steps behind you. So you always have the opportunity of teaching something to somebody that you just learned because that’s going to help them. The biggest step that you will do in your life is realising how valuable your point of view could be to others.
So there are two ways about that: it’s true that the more you have experience, the more you should be confident about it. However, it’s not about the length of the experience but the quality and the relevance from what it needs to be used. I might have 10 years of experience in design, and you only 1. That year might be extremely valuable and much closer to the problem we are trying to solve than my 10 years. So consider your point of view as valuable and don’t stop yourself from sharing it.
Even if you have to fight organisation biases that say that one year of experience is less viable than 10. That’s just an assumption that might be wrong. If you are working with someone, you might have a similar journey and direction now, but you are coming from two different backgrounds. Don’t assume that what you learned before, is something more experienced people already know and shouldn’t listen to.
One’s perception of academic education changes throughout time, you look at it in a certain way when you are a student as opposed to when you are out of it.
Academic training, puts a great emphasis on conceptual thinking. That gives a solid foundation for being able to rationalise about one’s design decisions, however, it also causes a certain imbalance between conceptual and practical knowledge.
Many people still have the expectation that if they go to college or the longer they stay in college, the better off they will be afterwards, which is not necessarily always true.
Studying gives one time to focus on themselves and that is a luxury they would most definitely lose once they get out of school.
You can learn design much easier these days because the knowledge is much more accessible, however, learning technical skills doesn’t mean that you have a good eye for the fundamentals of design.
One needs to be proactive and constantly seek new knowledge. The profession evolves quickly and what you studied at school 10 years ago might be completely irrelevant today.
The purpose of education is to give you direction: the time to realise what type of design you’d like to do. It’s also about showing you how to analyse the material you’re presented with, it’s not about supplying the material and digesting it for you, it’s about giving you the tools to digest it yourself.
We should account for the fact that education today demands different things and has different purposes than when our parents were students, for example. Today, knowledge and information are not scarce so people need to learn how to navigate unlimited sources of information. A good teacher knows and teaches that.
Education makes you attuned to keep learning throughout life, this ideally translates into a job reality, too.
You need to put things into perspective, sometimes the value of education becomes apparent years after one has completed it.
Education should make you accountable and teach you about the responsibility you have towards the people who will come in contact with your work afterwards.
What we learn at a certain point in time is bound to that certain point in time. It might not have the same importance and value after and we should keep that in mind.
What we call talent is actually the privilege or luck to be born in circumstances that allowed you to pursue and grow your interests.
Success comes from being confident but humble: know that there is always something you can learn from others but don’t underestimate your own experience even if it’s comparatively inferior in length or intensity.
<back to PART V
I would like to acknowledge all the remarkable people who took part in this research. It might not have the absolute certainty of a scientific piece ⏤ after all, it gauges personal opinions and experiences but I don’t think we can even research the value of education strictly scientifically simply because it’s so subjective. That being said, as evidenced both in my reflections and my interviews, education does have a tremendous amount of value and is critical to building a society of thinking individuals. Only time will tell what we’ll make out of it in the future.
Credit goes to:
Stefano Bellucci Sessa | Nydia Lilian | Libby Connolly | Camilo Hidalgo | Adi Constantin | Rachel Salmon | Laura Duarte | Jenny Kan | Stephanie Müller | Jonas Devacht | Rick Veronese | Sebastian Gier | Marc Fonteijn
for their invaluable contributions and engagement in this project.