What Design School Should I Go To?

Advice from The Sherwins for March 2019

Picking the Right Marker


Hi Sherwins,

I’m a design professor at a community college, and most of my students spend two years here before transferring to a larger four-year school to finish a degree. I usually advise them on what program might be right for them, but this year in particular, I’ve started to feel like there have been so many changes in the field that I don’t really know what’s out there for them. What advice would you give my students as they’re picking a design program?

G in North Carolina

Hi G,

Thanks for writing in; we love talking to other teachers. But you asked for advice for your students, so let’s switch gears.

Hi G’s students,

Your professor asked us for the advice we’d give you about where to finish your design degree. So here we are. We’re going to skip over the logistical stuff and get to the bigger concepts around design education. When you start making your lists and researching programs, these are going to matter more in the long-term than whether you picked the one in the city with the awesome cheese fries or the one in the small town with the better coffee. Decisions about location, outside of the school, are a bit of nuance to add near the end.

If you’re getting a degree specifically related to your career choice—industrial design or visual design, for example—there are three questions to ask: What do you want for yourself? What do you want for your career? And finally, what do you see for your career within the industry?

What do you want for yourself?

This first question is for you to answer. It includes things like: what you like to do in your spare time, how active you want to be in the community, and what you need in order to feed your creative side. It’s a question about what you want for you, right now, independent of job stuff. This doesn’t have to be a definitive answer, because it’ll most certainly change. You just need enough to get you started.

What do you want for your career?

The second question is half for you and half for your program, because really, you don’t know what you don’t know. This is about what you want for your career, and how the program is going to help you with that.

This goes beyond just asking if the school offers career services. Will your career be discussed regularly through the program? Over the next two years—because that’s what you’ve got left as a transfer student—how often are you going to be exposed to the work that you want to do? This could include mentoring sessions, public critiques, and studio tours, so long as it happens regularly for all students, from freshmen to transfers to stressed-out seniors. You don’t need to be thinking about your next paycheck the entire time you’re in school, but then again, the last five weeks of your final semester is too late to start thinking about what you’re going to do once the loans come due.

Relatedly, your student portfolio isn’t something to be thrown together and tied up with a bow in a few weeks. Sure, it’s the culmination of four years of work, but it should also clearly point to your future capabilities as a designer. A good portfolio isn’t just for you to show off to an employer in an interview; it should also show you where you’ve come from and where you can go. Portfolios speak a particular truth, and the one who hears it the best is you, the one who sifted through the ashes of all of your design experience in order to fill it. You’ll change what’s in it frequently as you fail and improve, as you learn and grow, and also as you continue to make the same mistakes. Your student portfolio should remind you of all of the places you’ll see one day, not just the places you’ve been. This is just a long-winded way of saying: Don’t treat portfolio like prom. It will only break your heart.

One of the great tensions in education is what we like to call freedom versus focus. As educators, we want you to be able to explore whatever you bring to the table, but we also want to show you things you might not know about. We want you to learn about everything, but at the end of it all, it would be awesome if you were getting paid for your skills. Say you totally want to be an Interaction Designer at Google, so you decide to go to an interaction design program. Some programs will just give you the tools you need and send you on your way. You’ll probably get a job, and they get to count you as a success story. But a good program can introduce you to adjacent concepts in interaction design, so that you might discover you actually want to do design advocacy or design research. With a program like that, you'll gain a different understanding of what you're capable of within a bigger picture of what's possible. A design program should be able to support what you want to do and also prod you into changing your mind.

What do you see for your career within the industry?

This third question is solely for the program, and it’s the starting point for you to be able to evaluate which program is right for you. No design school can teach you everything—nor should they—and a good program should be able to speak to that. You’re paying a school for their ability to teach, but you are also paying them for their point of view.

Let’s go back to that interaction design program from the previous example. The program doesn’t have classes about, say, futurecasting. If you asked them why, they should be able to tell you. If you think that interaction design, industry-wide, is going to need to utilize futurecasting, then say no to anyone who hasn’t got it. Also, consider turning down any program that says that it wants to teach something but can’t find anyone to teach it. By the time that gets taken care of, you will have graduated.

Now, with all of that said, there are a few basics that any decent design program should be adhering to, whether it’s graphic design, product design, interaction design, whatever. Programs that aren’t strong in these might not be worth your time. These are our opinions, mind you, so the advice you get from others might move in other directions.

Accessibility: Every design program should be actively working towards a curriculum that understands the principles of universal design, which includes robust discussion around when universal design isn’t a priority for the work. At the very least, a school needs to be asking their faculty what they’re doing in their classes to move design as a field towards a more inclusive future.

Environment: Every design program should be viewing the influence of their classes, their students, and the output of both through the lens of the environment. Climate change ain’t changing, folks. What are design programs doing to prepare their students for this?

Ethics: Every class in a design program should provide a space for discussion of ethical considerations, because the ethical frameworks that we use for ourselves don’t necessarily match the frameworks of others. Discussions around ethics include trying to uncover and understand the system-wide effects of our designs. Run away from any program that equates ethical with good. “Ethical” is about what a community has deemed appropriate for themselves, not what we as designers think is good for them. Balancing and reconciling the differences is part of the work.

Teamwork: You need to work on teams in a design program, ideally as many as you can with as many people as possible. Your portfolio should show work that you’ve done with a team. You should get more than one team grade during your time in the program. Too many design programs are graduating talented people who fall down in their first job because they don’t know how to work with others. Yes, it’s a rare program that will expose you to what it’s really like working with an engineering team or a marketing team, but equally rare are the programs that teach you how to work on a team beyond simple project management. And that’s a shame. Design work is always done by a team. Always.

Things That Are Important to You: Any good design program should welcome your specific questions and be able to provide specific answers. If you want to work on projects with local communities, ask if the program does that. If you want some guarantees about being on an inclusive campus, ask about it. If you want access to the animation studio or you want to develop an interdepartmental project with film students, ask. Don’t feel rushed because someone tells you that you’re asking too many questions.

Which brings us to our final point about all of this: You have time. Yes, you need to make a decision about where to transfer, and you need to be intentional about that decision. But we’re talking about what happens after you graduate.

People talk about design nowadays like our mission is to save the entire world. That is an enormous goal to set, not just for the industry but also for ourselves as individuals. It’s a little absurd that you, as undergraduates, are making decisions within the space of a handful of months about the rest of your design life. But your degree is just like your portfolio; it shows where you are and where you could be heading. It’s not the end, and it’s not set in stone.

You have time. Plenty of designers work for a bit and then go to grad school. They change jobs, they switch industries, and they go on sabbatical. Maybe they freelance for their entire career. Some go to school for something that isn’t design, and twenty years later they end up in design. There are even some who graduate with a design degree and walk away from design entirely. They become journalists or swim coaches or they go back to school to study psychology. All of those things are ok.

So for you, G’s students…and you, G… here’s the part for everyone.

The future of design is bright, even once you look beyond the shimmer of “saving the world”. There are so many more paths for you to take after school, more than there were even two years ago. There are many more seats at the table—and so many more tables. This future requires that you, or rather we, not be passive. That as students within the discipline of design, whether we’re undergrads or professors or CEOs, we’re taking an active role in seeing and creating the possibilities of the world. Don’t wait around for someone to drop an education in your inbox. Every day, as designers, we must take what we’ve learned and transform it into action.

That is what a design program must teach you, and that’s what you must be willing to learn. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Wishing you success,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will graduate on March 31, 2019.