Design · Design Thinking

Is a formal design education necessary for designers ?

Alexia Auyang CEO/Founder at NameLock, LLC

February 19th, 2015

Saw a recent article about designers and design education and it strikes me that formal design education is outdated and really not useful. You spend 2-4 years talking about typography and pumping out rebrands. There is little talk of UX or UI  let alone real "majors" in it. Most UX people I know are self-taught. Is it worthwhile or even helpful for designers and should I care about when hiring designers?

Daniel Turner Available

February 24th, 2015

Congratulations, Michael, and glad you went and got some insight into another discipline.

But remember that you may have learned good skills (and be clear, I applaud you for that), there's still a TON of stuff behind the discipline that I'm pretty sure you can't fit in to 18 weeks. Think if a designer said she took a course, so she know knows video editing (your wheelhouse, right?). She may know all the sliders and commands in Avid (or your editing suite of choice), maybe even in a fresher and more efficient way than you do, but years of experience and a background have taught you WHY to do certain things and not.

UX isn't just slicing Photoshop layers, or styling buttons, etc.; you should also have a good grounding in sociology to learn how and why human brains do things, in visual and cognition, in theories of information architecture -- remember, UX is about solving problems for humans, so learning about humans is vital to a good UX education. The why; learning tools is relatively fungible.

Tom Maiaroto Full Stack Consultant

February 19th, 2015

There are specialized programs and schools for digital design and UX. Traditional design schools may not offer as much in this regard (though it's changing, when I interned at the design school I went to I was tasked with updating a course catalog and saw more modern classes being added).

However, that doesn't mean a strong design foundation isn't worthwhile. I took many years of typography and while I don't use it everyday, I certainly learned a lot from it as well as layout design. These are principles which are quite useful in all design - including UX design. Especially UX and UI design. Understanding how people will see text, how characters render, and understanding legibility is paramount.
A good design school will do more than tech technical skills too. A good design education will teach a designer how to be an author and even an entrepreneur. It will teach a designer how to be an art director. Which is a lot harder to teach yourself.

All that said, it is very much a talent we wear on the outside. It is very easy to spot and it is one of the few professions we get to carry a portfolio around with us. That does make it entirely possible to work in the industry and do well if you are self-taught.

I code these days more and more and while sometimes that makes me wonder why I'm paying off student loans for design school still...I also don't regret it. It was a top school (I purposely sought out the best design school in the country and ignored cost, I wanted to learn from the best) and completely worth it.

Plus don't forget part of going to college is to network. A lesson I unfortunately learned after graduating. If you want to get your foot into the door, going to the right school is the best way. All of my professors were professional designers working in the industry.

Michael ★ Vice President, User Experience at RingCentral

February 19th, 2015

I'm unclear on whether you are asking if a design degree is critical for a new hire candidate, or whether it's worth going to d-school.

Either way, I think you might want to research design programs a bit more.  It's easy to look at design from the outside and think to yourself that it's all pretty easy requiring nothing but an outsider's perspective.  I suspect that's why there is so much crappy software out there.  In actuality, it takes talent, a real commitment to the craft, and some actual training.

There are a number of great schools doing more than teaching typography (actually very important as both a craft skill and a foundational design discipline).  Look at Academy of Art, the at Stanford, Pratt, RISD, Parsons, Art Center, UC Davis, etc.  We recruit a lot at CMU and Univ of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

As someone who has hired more than a few designers over the last few decades, I have to say that a formal education at this point is pretty valuable.  I would't staff a an entry level IxD or VxD position with someone "self-taught" when there are so many talented designers coming out of school, either undergrad or graduate programs.  And, I wouldn't staff a more senior position with someone self-taught unless they had a very complete and strong portfolio.  And, no young person is going to get that kind of portfolio without significant work experience.  And, that first job is going to be tough to get without credentials and a student portfolio.  And, so on and so on.

10-15 years ago, this wasn't the case.  There was no such thing as "UX" it was "Information Architecture" and "website design" and design schools had less expansive digital design programs.  Then, you did find people who, while I would't call them self-taught, came from other disciplines from print design to industrial psychology (my undergrad) to MBA (my grad) to project management, etc.  We all got the jobs because nobody else was around and we were all making it up as we went along.  But, alas, now, there are people with actual talent and training and I'm just lucky to be their boss :-)

Post a link to the article you mention, it's probably a good read.

Joshua Butner Founder / Partner at Vulk

February 19th, 2015

Alexia, As an entirely self-taught designer and developer, I definitely have a bias toward practical experience versus a college design education. Having said that, actual user experience professionals- as opposed to interface designers, or other designers for the web- tend to have a more traditional education in things like Human-Computer Interaction or Psychology, which I've found to be extremely valuable. -Joshua

Daniel Turner Available

February 20th, 2015

Alexia, I cannot comment on this "recent article" -- can you provide a link? I agree with the others that it's hard to figure out quite what you mean, as well as hard to assess what the article's actual content and take are, when all we have is your brief filter.

And I also agree with Luca (hi, Luca): if you are so engaged in possibly hiring for design, you should make the effort to learn what design and design thinking are, as well as become familiar with what programs in it actually do (to Michael's list, I'd also add my program, the I School at UC Berkeley). Spoilers: it's not all typography and pretty colors.

Granted, we've invited this to some degree with vague and Protean terms (HCF/HCI/UE/UEI/UI/UX/TLA), and "design" can stand for a lot of things. But that makes it all the more critical for you to do your homework.

Let me phrase a question to you: is any education in business important? I mean, barely literate people sell things off of pushcarts, and have a lot of experience, so why don't I hire one of them instead of somebody with an MBA? If you find yourself bristling at that (if it were a serious question -- and I apologize to people struggling with their lives), then you might begin to understand how others, who have spent at least years of their lives training for problem solving and empathy, might react to your question.

Ariel Jatib Product Designer, UX

February 22nd, 2015

If you're looking at a junior level designer, it can be helpful. Depending on the type of position that you're looking to fill, different degrees will make sense. Degrees in Industrial Design, Human Computer Interaction or Library Science can provide students a good foundation in the skills necessary to be effective "experience designers." More recently, schools like SVA have begun masters in Interaction Design. 


February 20th, 2015

I have hired both educated and self taught.

I have had great experiences and bad experience with both.

The people that I have liked best are simply the people who had a passion for what was needed.

I focus on Mobile, I do lots of iOS development. If a designer has an Android phone, this may be an issue. If they have an iPhone and have downloaded lots of apps then that's a huge plus.

When I talk with them I don't ask to see their work at first, I ask about what they like and ask them to show me something they like, maybe the top 5 apps they use everyday and why they use them and like or dislike them.

If they don't have passion for what I need them for then its on to the next one.

I meet lots of Web Designers looking to get into mobile, I don't want an app that looks like a web page so unless they can tell me the differences between the two, I have to pass.

Don't think that a Graphics person is a UX person, these can be two distinct skills. A UX person might be great at Wireframe but not good at Graphics and the otherway around.

Always Always Always get source files for any work you pay for :)

Zvi Epner

February 19th, 2015

Excellent point, it's a craft and the great ones just simply like doing it. And when they speak about it, it's logical, intuitive, and makes our lives more enjoyable. The winner in the UX field is the person that best keeps things dead simple and exciting.

Yorke III cloud | startups | strategist | catalyst & game changer

February 20th, 2015

Most UX people that I hired had some basic design sense. However, you have to hire people who want to dig into UX and User Interaction. This is a different side of the brain. You have to want to lay things out in wireframes and think through logical screen by screen flows. Someone who is very good at using a Mobile device will have an understanding of this. But a UX person needs to have a Passion for technology usage. A designer does not necessarily have that. I’ve hired and trained excellent UX people that were Sculptors and Illustrators, but had a passion for technology. Knowledge of Photoshop or other designs skills is necessary. A good eye for what is aesthetically pleasing and how to create that is necessary as well. Let me know if you would like to discuss further. Cheers! -Yorke

George Cuevas Freelance Creative Director, Graphic Designer, Social Entrepreneur, Freelance Advocate & Speaker

February 20th, 2015

Since most agree that design is subjective, when I hire I look for character. My experience has been that if a potential hire has evaded a deeper understanding (minimizing the foundation) of their craft by not going to college, they will be more likely to evade the deeper, harder issues in any project they are confronted with. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. But it's certainly not the norm.

In the end, I look for a person that has made a commitment to college and stuck with it regardless what the system threw at them. Regardless wether they like it or not. That level of commitment is worth more to me then what they learned. Working alongside such a person will yield the right results in design, UX/UI whatever discipline you desire to apply it to assuming they fit within your company culture because if they are committed to plow through the not-so-glamourous, they will definitely reach the fantastic.