Designing the Future: Forging New Paths in UI Education

“Learning by doing” is the way that most people retain information best. However, with how quickly the digital design industry is changing, it’s extremely hard to give students the proper tasks that really equip them for the work they may be doing in the future.

Meredith Davis, a former professor of design at North Carolina University, foresaw these challenges all the way back in 2001 with her research  “The Future of Design Education: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century”. In her work, she claims that “Professional education transmits tacit rules through examples of ‘good work’ and engages students in learning by doing under favored frameworks and known problems. The old paradigm persists until mounting anomalies demonstrate its inadequacy in solving new problems or confronting new conditions. Design education is in just such a state, inheriting industrial-era curricula that fall short in addressing the contemporary context for professional practice.”

Over two decades later, the discourse on design education’s shortcomings, either perceived or actual, is still present. Today, the pressing issue for educational institutions is whether they can prepare students with the evolving skills demanded by design’s latest developments. This poses a crucial question about academia’s ability to stay on top of industry changes and meet the demands of the future.

Bauhaus and Its Early Attempts at Bridging the Academia-Industry Gap

Criticism of design education is not a new phenomenon. The academia-industry gap – the misalignment between the skills and knowledge developed in academic settings and those required by the industry – has come under scrutiny as early as 1919, the year in which the famed German design school, Bauhaus, was founded.

Bauhaus’ goal back then was to modernize the whole approach to art and design education, and prepare a new class of artists, craftsmen and designers for a world that was in turmoil following the end of the First World War. While they certainly hit their target when it comes to bringing lasting and profound changes to design education methodology, it can be argued that Bauhaus’ teachings were highly reliant on the belief that geometry was the ultimate unifying power, an idea that is not as prevalent today as it was back then.

The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany. Credits: Ben Benjamin on Unsplash

Fast forward to today, and the academia-industry gap still exists. Despite the many efforts that have been (and are still) being made to try and bridge that gap, design graduates are still having problems transitioning from the classroom to the workplace due to a lack of practical skills, and companies struggle to find new designers that are equipped with the right skill-set.

Design Education’s Efforts to Adapt to a Dynamic Landscape

Many of the issues faced by both design graduates and industry players today are linked to the differing skills developed during study courses and those which are in demand among recruiters for designer positions.

This led many in the sphere of design education to realize that a change of course was necessary. As a result, attempts to align study curricula with the needs of the industry were made, following the example set several decades earlier by the Bauhaus school.

One such attempt has been explored at the LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Design Communication in Singapore. Here, efforts to develop a new norm of thinking in design education led to students being trained to “hone their discipline-specific skills and develop multi-disciplinary approaches while having an open, reflective and critical overview of the role of design, as well as where and how design can contribute to societal, cultural and economic developments.”

The questions that remain are: did initiatives of this kind have the same impact as the reforms put forth by the renowned German school? And have they managed to address the issues specific to the contemporary educational landscape?

Nowadays, digital-only media, like websites and apps, is created in much higher numbers than printed media, like books and magazines, which now usually have a digital counterpart, too. This means that digital designers, especially those specializing in either user interface or user experience have been in extremely high demand due to UI/UX’s rise in prominence. Design education, obviously, has no choice but to follow along by coming up with new, UI/UX-focused curricula.

Spaces for Industry-Academia Collaboration

While they’re nothing new, internship programs have been among the main conduits for bridging the distance between education and industry. It’s clear that the industry is ready for this because students engage in real-world projects instead of made-up ones during internships. That’s because companies benefit from the perspective, new ideas and experimental approaches that interns bring to the table.

Credits: Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Internship programs are valuable because they offer students hands-on experience and a chance to become industry-ready. We can’t stress enough how important it is for students to possess skills which are sought after. But for companies, that’s not just important, it is essential. From the point of view of students, internships not only help them “up” their practical skills, but also offer them an insight into the inner-workings of the design industry. And what better way to make young adults ready to take on projects in their upcoming professional life, than to expose them to how things actually work once they start working… ?

The issue is, design internships are scarce in comparison to the number of students that would like to be granted the opportunity to do one. This problem is well-documented, and has been discussed by product designer Sanjana Galgalikar, who examined how difficult it is for design students to land an internship in an article published a few years back. In it, there’s a very telling quote by a former student from the University of Washington: “I’m actually considering graduate school so that I can access UX design internships”. This says a lot about the general availability of internships for design students, as well as how much they’re coveted. The author adds that “the easiest way to land an entry-level design role at a company is to first get an internship there and get a return offer for a full time role. But landing a design internship in the first place is no easy feat”.

Today, collaborations in design education are mostly established through partnerships between educational institutions and design industry players. Take the collaboration between Stanford University and IDEO, a global design and innovation consultancy, where students engaged in design thinking projects with real-world clients.

The collaboration offered students a crucial takeaway – invaluable real-world experience that will undoubtedly prove essential in their professional journeys. But as this was also a chance for an exchange of ideas between students and industry representatives, there were other important findings which emerged. Among these, one of the most interesting was the fact that “design thinking” seemed to be viewed quite differently across educational institutions in different parts of the world.

“There are people who consider themselves designers in the classical sense and don’t refer to design thinking”, David Kelly, founder of both the Stanford and of IDEO, explained in a post-collaboration interview. “Design has an inherently individual bias, it’s like an individual sport; design thinking is definitely a team sport”.

Credits: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

A Collective Responsibility for Designing the Future

The disparity between the knowledge and skill sets provided by design education and those which are sought by the industry isn’t something that can be solved with just a flick of the wand; whichever way you look at it, this issue is bound to present itself again in the future, with academia needing to keep up with the industry. Thus, design education should try to encourage and facilitate a sustained dialogue between educators and students with industry players, to make sure that the disparities can be kept at a minimum, reducing the potential for an ever-bigger divide between academia and industry.

This seems especially necessary in light of technology reshaping design. The recent application of AI to design has been one of the most discussed topics of this year, due to questions posed by AI’s potential dangers to design’s authenticity. Tools like the much-talked about DALL-E and Midjourney have been developed specifically to apply AI frameworks to visual creation, potentially transforming conventional design workflows for good.

Educational institutions can’t just ignore such changes, and will have to take them into account when crafting future study programs. This highlights how essential a concerted effort involving educators, industry and students is if design education wants to have a chance to stay tuned to the needs of the industry. Maintaining a synergic relation between all those who participate in design education – professors, agencies, industry and students – is not just key, it’s a prerequisite to keep the world of academia receptive to design’s frequent and often disruptive changes.

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Gianmarco Caprio Avatar

Gianmarco Caprio / Content & Community Manager @ Phase

Content creator, editor and community manager at Phase.