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Michael Bierut and the failure of design school

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Image: Christopher Meder/Fast Company

This is an interesting essay #. Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York office of the design consultancy Pentagram # and president emeritus of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, lays out an argument that says in essence, contemporary design schools that focus on either Swiss-style process or portfolio school “slickness,” both fail their students if they are not prodding them into gaining a deeper understanding of the Humanities; Bierut says that design educators today focus on technology because they fear computer illiteracy amongst their students, but, he points out, it is the broader cultural illiteracy amongst students that is far more troubling.

He begins here:

Programs will pay lip service to meaning in design with references to “semiotics” (Swiss) or “conceptual problem solving” (slick), but these nuances are applied in a cultural vacuum. In many programs, if not most, it’s possible to study graphic design for four years without any meaningful exposure to the fine arts, literature, science, history, politics, or any of the other disciplines that unite us in a common culture.

And, he continues:

The men and women who invented graphic design in America were largely self-taught; they didn’t have the opportunity to go to fully developed specialized design schools, because none existed. Yet somehow these people managed to prosper without four years of Typography, Visual Problem Solving, and Advanced Aesthetics. What they lacked in formal training they made up for with insatiable curiosity not only about art and design, but culture, science, politics, and history.

Today, most professionals will admit to alarm about the huge and ever-growing number of programs in graphic design. Each year, more and more high school seniors decide that they have a bright future in “graphics,” often without much of an idea of what graphics is. This swelling tide of 18-year-old, would-be designers is swallowed up thirstily by more and more programs in graphic design at art schools, community colleges, and universities. A few years later, out they come, ready to take their places as professional designers, working for what everybody cheerfully hopes will be an infinitely expanding pool of clients.

Obviously feathers were rustled but the comments on the essay were fairly reasoned. Here’s one from Paddy Harrington, Executive Creative Director at Bruce Mau Design #:

PADDY HARRINGTON #
03/29/2012 09:32 PM
The problem goes beyond design. The endless fractal sub-divide-specialize-wring-out-any-holistic-thinking-in-students-because-you-make-more-money-by-offering-more-specialized-degreesization of the world is leaving, in its wake, a generation of graduates who are TRAINED to not see the forest for the trees. Employers are left choosing to try to spy the talent and ability to think that shows its glimmer in a “Swiss” or “slick” portfolio. The short cut to finding these rough diamonds is often by embracing those who have jumped across disparate specialized fields because that demonstrates an inherent desire to connect ideas.. big and small. The best young designers usually have a degree in, say, biology, and THEN a degree in design. They’ve gamed a system that is inherently set up for specialization that often leads to the kind of illiteracy that this article warns against.

Anyone who is passionate about design and education should read the article and check out the comments here #.

Helen Walters, on her spirited blog Thought You Should See This #, is a supporter of the main points in Bierut’s essay. She held a Twitter “discussion” about it with Jon Kolko, an educator, that is also worth reading #.

And Bierut leaves us with a really good question: How can a designer plan an annual report without some knowledge of economics?

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