When Jack Roberts started attending Parsons School of Design in the late 1990s, the expected post-graduation path was pretty straight-and-narrow. The internet was nascent, the term “design thinking” had yet to penetrate the glass doors of the C-suite. Companies hired graphic designers to design identities, marketing campaigns, and book covers. “If you were studying design, you were going into a design studio class and hoping to end up on the factory floor of Pentagram,” says Roberts.
Today, tell someone you’re going into design and they’ll probably ask you to be more specific. Do you mean branding? Digital design? The design of systems, behavior, experiences? Roberts now teaches at Parsons on subjects that likely wouldn’t have registered when he was a student there: strategic design, design thinking, creative management, the “storytelling of design.” He teaches them in summer school classes and weekend workshops offered by the college, to incoming students, practitioners, and a range of professionals, some of whom work in other fields but find design applicable to their work.
As technologies change and design principles seep into other industries, what we think of as “design” has undoubtedly broadened over the past couple of decades. In turn, art schools and traditional four-year design programs are feeling the need to provide more specialized offerings and to reach more people. Adding to the pressure are new unaccredited programs, coding bootcamps, and intensive workshops that can teach a highly specified skill quickly, and for cheaper. While they are far from replacing art colleges or universities, alternate education models are pushing elite design programs in new and interesting directions.
According to the 2019 Design Census, the majority of designers working today have a bachelor’s degree (32%). Seventeen percent said they’ve engaged in online learning, and 10% have taken workshops or programs, while only 6% have master’s degrees, and 0.1% have received Doctorate degrees (participants could pick multiple options). Most surprising: More people ticked the boxes for online classes or workshops than for specialized art schools.
In design, online learning and alternate programs come in a range of different forms and levels of intensity, from online tutorials and weekend workshops to year-long certificate programs. The largest examples are well-funded startups like General Assembly and the Flatiron School, where you can take intensive, multi-month coding, UX/UI, and data science courses for around $15,000. There are also more local options, like the Austin Center for Design in Austin, which offers a one-year intensive program in interaction design focused on how design can “change human behavior and improve the world,” for $18,000. Its graduates have gone on to work for Argo Design, Dell, Frog Design, and IBM.
Seth Johnson, IBM’s program director of designer practices and community, says the design program has hired graduates of both General Assembly and Austin Center for Design (IBM has a large office in Austin), as well as from community colleges and other nontraditional programs. “We actually seek them out and acknowledge that they are just as primed to start their careers as designers at IBM as students who went to a more traditional four-year program,” he says. IBM doesn’t require job applicants to have a bachelor’s degree, in part, Johnson says, because the company simply has too many positions to fill (IBM has added more than 2,500 user experience designers in the past several years). Finding the best—and finding enough—design talent requires that the company look beyond traditional pipelines.
Johnson also points to diversity as a key reason they don’t require that employees have a degree. “We want to make sure that our design teams are not all staffed with people who have come from the same socioeconomic background,” he says. This means opening them up to people who might not be able to afford the tuition for a four-year undergraduate degree (in the U.S., public universities cost an average of $20,000 a year and private schools cost an average $45,000 a year). The most important thing, Johnson says, is not the applicant’s educational background, but the work in their portfolio.
This hiring approach is a growing trend in software engineering, where prospective employees are often asked to show their code in Github. But in the design industry, requiring a degree is still common, says Lee-Sean Huang, AIGA’s design education manager and cofounder of creative consultancy Foossa. That’s especially the case when it comes to big agencies and strategy companies like McKinsey, where coming from a prestigious school is part of the culture. For smaller studios that lack the resources of a company like IBM, it’s easier to hire through their own professional and social circles. But Huang says he sees that shifting in tech environments, where the tools and trends cycle out quickly. Hiring managers are becoming more savvy about what prospective employees need to know coming in, and what tools they can learn on the job.
At this point, comparing online learning and alternate programs to four-year undergraduate programs can feel a bit like comparing apples to oranges. They’re distinct experiences, and many people do both. Programs like Flatiron School and General Assembly are popular with people who want to change careers or learn a new skill for professional development. Some already have degrees, design or otherwise, or plan to get them. But where does that leave design degree programs, if prospective students are able to learn the tools and gain specific skills for the workforce elsewhere? How are they responding to this new crop of hyper-specialized nontraditional education?
One the one hand, this question is just one aspect of a larger challenge around specialization that design degree programs face. Incoming college students today have a higher level of exposure to design than in the past—they grew up with Instagram and the internet, and many already know their way around the Adobe suite. “People used to come to design schools to learn how to use design tools, and that’s not the case anymore,” Roberts says. “They’re coming to design schools to learn what to do with those design tools in the world.”
John Caserta, an associate professor at Rhode Island School of Design, echoes that sentiment. “So many of our incoming undergraduate students have been feeding off design for half their lives,” he says. “They come to school already with strong opinions about design and what they want to learn.” At RISD, this sense of early design literacy has led the design program to expand elective options to include more classes in specialized skills like UX design, software development, interaction design, and form-making. They’ve also added to the curriculum four-week workshops that meet once a week to learn things like Risograph printing, calligraphy, or digital design.
It’s also important to the RISD faculty that incoming students take a foundational year and a half, where they’re exposed to different kinds of design and gain a more expansive understanding of the field, before they go straight into a specialized path. “A four-year undergraduate degree is a significant commitment, financially and time-wise, but there’s so much that comes along with that in terms of community and finding yourself,” says Caserta.
Caserta sees the intensive workshops and bootcamps like Flatiron School being used more in a post-baccalaureate way, but colleges also realize that online learning and other alternate modes are flexible, affordable, and thus more accessible to more people—and they’re taking note. Caserta says colleges can be better at harnessing the medium of the internet, taking advantage of video or sophisticated chat technology to offer classes online that are the same caliber as those on campus. CalArts has been doing this with its “Open Learning” initiative, which offers free, no-credit online courses to the broader public, in partnership with Coursera and Kadenze. The courses range from typography to digital arts to game design. “There’s no reason why there can’t be a pallet of offerings from established schools that look and act more like what you’re seeing in that kind of niche space,” says Caserta.
At Parsons, the summer school courses and workshops that Roberts teaches are part of an effort to diversify their offerings and reach people beyond those getting a four-year degree. This includes business students, for example, who see design thinking as a skill that can strengthen their careers, as well as people who want to go into design, but don’t know what kind. It also includes those for whom traditional design education is too steep a price to pay. While Parsons’ summer school classes cost between $7,000 and $10,000, and the workshops between $500 and $2,500—a high barrier to entry for many—Parsons offers full scholarships to these programs to people from low-income and nontraditional backgrounds.
“College shouldn’t be the only way to start doing design, because it’s potentially a very egalitarian discipline,” says Caserta. A clear benefit to more nontraditional design programs entering the educational space is that there are more options, which opens design to more people. Whether they’ll lessen people’s appetite for paying tuition for degree programs is yet to fully be seen. But they’re awakening colleges to expand their offerings and meet students where they are. And as design both broadens and specializes, the more diversity in terms of backgrounds, modes of thought, and skill, the better.