American Design Schools Are a Mess, and Produce Weak Graduates

Famed designer Gadi Amit laments the lackluster quality of job applicants and their portfolios and wonders: Are design schools failing their students?


As head of a major Silicon Valley industrial design studio, I review hundreds or even thousands of portfolios every year. It is an essential part of my job as I look for the best people to join our growing team. Because the right mix of talent is so crucial to our success, I make it a principle to review every portfolio sent to us myself.


That commitment puts me in a bit of a tight spot, as I struggle to find the right way to say the right things to people whose high hopes I’m forced to dash. Despite the recent surge in interest in design careers, the quality of candidates’ portfolios seems to have stagnated or even diminished.

The problem has become increasingly acute. I’m eager to hire the next great class of designers, but to my dismay–and the dismay of many young hopefuls who’ve often spent many years and thousands of dollars preparing to enter the industry–I’m finding that the impressive academic credentials of most students don’t add up to the basic skills I require in a junior designer.

The quality of recent grads has stagnated or even diminished

Simply put, the design education system today is failing many aspiring young students. Some of the design schools they’ve attended have no real design process education, while others have only process education. Many come from engineering programs that claim to be “design” programs. Lots have been taught some version of “design thinking,” but most of that is devoid of any cultural, aesthetic, or form intelligence. Most students can claim some familiarity with design research but few have any sense of design integration.

Academic design programs are crippled by blurry standards which are so vastly different from program to program that it is nearly impossible for me, as an employer, to have a reliable idea of what skills a student toting a design degree can be expected to possess.

Overall, the schools’ results are often a muddled mess, the end result of programs pulling in every direction, with no sense of focused common ground, no basic core curriculum in design.


Mind you: I’m no academic snob. I don’t care which school an applicant attended or who his or her professor was. Employers like me and my peers need evidence that a new hire has what it takes to hit the ground running. And, given the lack of consistency in design school training, we’re forced to put more weight on portfolio reviews or evidence of skills learned through internships than academic credentials.

One way schools could change that is by adopting a clear, “consumer friendly” approach that spells out to young designers-to-be that, for example, “With this degree you’d be better positioned to approach an in-house design team in a large corporation or a very technical product development agency.” Conversely, they should state explicitly that other degrees “are not suitable for design-agency work.”

The schools are a muddled mess, the end result of programs pulling in every direction

I know how critical the right program is personally and economically for the students (and their parents!). I think academia must develop clarity quickly. Celebrating the one-in-a-thousand alumnus who made it big is not helpful and propagates the misleading idea that a hodgepodge of courses builds a skill set that would be universally useful in the marketplace.


Much of the work that students show me in their portfolios is broken into two categories: skills work (3D CAD) and process work (research, model-making). Only a few show projects showcasing the applicant’s ability to integrate seamlessly all levels of creativity. Such well integrated notion of design is shared by a few good programs: In the U.S., Cincinnati has an excellent program with very solid graduates, while In Europe, many German and some UK schools are developing an excellent sense of cohesion in their grads.

But most portfolios I see lack the critical mass associated with a solid inside-out, outside-in, perception of design rather than simply skills training. Anecdotally, the one skill that does “glue” design together, hand sketching, is slowly eroding. Mainly seen as a quick ideation phase before CAD, this skill should be seen as a way of thinking–combining visual thinking with personal aesthetics. Good internship programs are essential to this “gluing” process. There is nothing more effective to this amalgamation process than those moments in the real world of design, when an idea clicks to become a product.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t end with undergraduate design education. The American notion of a design master’s degree as being any BA plus some design added on top is even worse. While many masters programs are essentially four-year basic design programs with loftier credentials, some programs simply combine an assortment of academic credits with some light design glue to create a hollowed degree with very little in the center.


Students lately seem to have a sense of entitlement that has no place in reality

I recall a long conversation with a candidate from a very respectable program that provided next-to-no aesthetic education. Her expensive degree had given her very little to offer in an area she felt central to her personal ambition, creating beautiful objects of cultural importance. The road she taken was not unusual: Her Language Arts BA combined with excellent scores in relevant tests made her an excellent candidate for a demanding MA program. But it didn’t make her a designer. This approach works only in America. Asian and European schools (I get many of these portfolios as well) will demand substantial design education before allowing a BA student to pursue an MA in design. In other words, it is too easy in America to start with non-design BA and switch to MA in design. Any school that allows that should clearly present it as a “high risk” career path. Not doing so has moral and intellectual drawbacks.

Lastly–and please remember that my role in the studio is primarily boss, not teacher–students lately seem to have a sense of entitlement that has no place in reality. Design is, in many ways, a tougher profession than, say, law or medicine since it has far fewer opportunities, lower pay, and a far murkier career path. Young designers tend to approach their first jobs as “extended education” with me, the principal, assigned to promote their career, rather than deliver projects to clients. Try telling that to the people who are paying for our services!

The first five years in a designer’s career are absolutely critical and the true educational experience. A young designer must appreciate that opportunity to mature while on the job and take nothing for granted. A willingness to do anything and everything he or she can to get experience and learn, from the ground up, should be reinforced by the schools. Since design can be a difficult career option, we’ve got to instill young designers with a critical sense of reality — your first job is your true MA, your best chance to establish a career path, your opportunity to work on the coolest projects — and you get paid for it. What a great job it is!

[Images by Betahaus — which it should be pointed out is a pretty great model of DIY design education]

About the author

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards