Formal Design Education Is Necessary for Practicing Designers. Yay or Nay?


Scott Stowell

It was the third Designer’s Debate Club event. The Parsons Tishman Auditorium on West 12th Street was packed last Wednesday with people eager to hear what well-known designers and design educators would have to say about the necessity of formal design education.

Co-sponsored by AIGA/NY and organized by Designer’s Debate Club founders Jon Troutman, lead product designer at design/technology incubator General Assembly, and Keenan Cummings, co-founder of travel startup Wander, the event was moderated by Scott Stowell, proprietor of Open and an instructor at Yale and SVA.

Structured like a formal debate, two teams of three panelists each argued the motion, “Formal Design Education Is Necessary for Practicing Designers.” In the spirit of serious interchange as well as good fun, the goal was to find out through audience votes, before and after the debate, which panel was the most persuasive and swayed more people from their original positions to their side.


Yea: Miller, Bologna, Twemlow

At the ‘For’ team table, saying ‘Yea’ to the motion, were Alice Twemlow, co-founder of SVA’s D-Crit MFA program; Matteo Bologna, creative director and president of Mucca Design; and Pentagram partner Abbott Miller.

The ‘Against’ team members, saying ‘Nay’ to the motion, were Kate Proulx, designer at HUGE and an instructor of digital design at Parsons; Able Parris, associate design director at the Big Spaceship digital agency; and Peter Vidani, design director at Tumblr.


Nay: Proulx, Vidani, Parris (standing to make his point)

The initial show of hands revealed that approximately 60 percent of the attendees were in favor of the motion, 40 percent against.

I raised my hand for Nay. Why? I’m the product of a liberal arts education—I was a design major at UCLA. And I’m a big believer in formal design education, having taught at Pratt, Parsons, School of Visual Arts, and Purchase College, SUNY. But I can’t agree with the word “necessary.” There are too many exceptions, too many self-taught, original, and game-changing David Carsons and Matteo Bolognas (though seated on the ‘For’ side, Bologna opened his studio in Milan straight out of an Italian high school for art study and learned by scrutinizing the work of his design idols in Type Directors annuals). Am I being too finicky saying I would re-write the motion: “Formal Design Education Is Desirable for Practicing Designers”— desirable, advantageous, important, useful, valuable, helpful—just about any word but “necessary.” Well, if it’s a formal debate, the task at hand is to debate the motion exactly as presented.

Each team had five minutes to make its case in an opening statement. Twemlow eloquently compared formal design education to a full banquet, an experience rich in content, community and culture. Informal, do-it-yourself design education, she said, was like a cold buffet on flimsy paper plates, which “never satisfies.”

“Design education is broken,” countered Proulx, who made the case for learning via alternate means: online discourse, trial-and-error experimentation, on the job. She claimed, via her own experience, that design school faculty are unprepared to teach the technological skills needed today, and that design education mainly serves to get graduates into huge debt.

Then came the rebuttal/argument segment. To wit:

Bologna: “I didn’t go to design school but wish I had. Making a success of yourself is very tough without having someone to teach you how not to make mistakes.

Proulx: “I don’t look for degrees. I look for how well you express yourself, what’s in your portfolio.”

Miller: “I’m horrified at the debate itself. What you’re buying in design education is not an imprimatur to get a job. It is a face-to-face, collaborative experience in a real physical space.”

Parris: “It’s very rebellious not to go to school. You can create your own school on your own time: Twitter, TED talks, YouTube videos.”

Twemlow: “What you’re describing is lonely and sad.”

Vidani: “School costs way too much.”

Miller: “Not all schools and programs are expensive.

Parris: Buckminster Fuller didn’t go to architecture school, and look what he was able to create.

Proulx: “I teach today what I learned on my own as a teenager. Digital design teachers really don’t know what they’re doing and can’t teach for the real world.”

Bologna: “The real world is bullshit.”


Speaking against the motion from the floor

Two microphones were set up for audience members, who bravely lined up to make one-minute floor speeches as passionate as those of the panelists. For example:

“Even the renegades come from a design education tradition.”

“Design education is for an old system.”

“It’s five years behind, not up to current standards.”

“Design school is not about technology. It is about art and culture, form and structure.”

In the second vote, more hands went up for ‘For.’ “The Yays have it!”

Well, the auditorium was filled with students. It’s encouraging that they’re committed to what they’re doing. I stuck to my ‘Nay’ vote. The three panelists on the ‘Against’ side—their work, what they’ve accomplished professionally—are living proof that a formal design education is not necessary. But, again, that doesn’t mean it’s not advantageous, important, useful, valuable, desirable.

Maybe the question really being debated was, Can you be a successful designer without a formal design education? Yes. Some rare and talented people, including Parris and Vidani, have done it. There will always be renegade geniuses. But just because they and Buckminster Fuller and David Carson and Matteo Bologna were able to succeed brilliantly without a formal education, that doesn’t mean that design school doors should be closed to everybody else. It did sound like the ‘Against’ side might be eager to shut down the schools and departments, and perhaps deprive those who aren’t independent learners of the opportunity. And to be honest, if the need to go to work and earn money weren’t an issue, if tuition fees had been magically paid, how many self-taught designers would have jumped at the chance to spend time in classes with great teachers and immerse themselves in art and culture, form and structure?

Upon further consideration: Both sides won. I’ve been a member of the AIGA since 1987, and this was one of the best events I’ve ever attended: the best organized and most relevant. Bravo! To both sides, to attendees, and to organizers Troutman and Cummings.

Afterwards, Jon Troutman filled me in on the Designer’s Debate Club: “We wanted to start an event series that was different than the typical panel or ‘designer at podium with slideshow’ type of thing,” he explained. “And it’s actually quite fun to throw manners to the wind and flat-out argue. This format is meant to be open and honest and somewhat raw about which things are working, or not working, in our industry. Also, debates are a hell of a lot of fun.”

The topic of the first debate, held at General Assembly, was “All Web Designers Must Learn to Code.” Recalls Troutman, “The response was so overwhelming that tickets for the second session were claimed within 36 hours of announcing it; more than 100 people were on the wait-list.” Panelists at the second session, which took place at the Etsy Holiday Shop in SoHo, argued, “Lean Startup Methods Prevent Designers from Solving Big-Picture Design Problems.” I’m not sure I totally understand the statement, but I’ll maintain that most clients’ design budgets, startups or not, are too lean.

Designer’s Debate Club plans to hold monthly debates, and invites all designers to suggest topics by tweeting @DesignDebaters.

Since design is often compared to writing, my parting thought is a quote from The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner, a college textbook:

“Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become second nature. Ordinarily this means university education, with courses in the writing of fiction, and poetry as well. Some important writers have said the opposite—for instance, Ernest Hemingway … who recommended just writing, writing, writing. But, it may help to remember that he went away for free tutorials to two of the finest teachers then living …”

And the debate goes on. Long live Designer’s Debate Club. Especially since all proceeds from the $10 admission tickets are going to support Inspire/Make Workshops, free classes for high school students who want to learn how to design and develop for digital media.

Continue your design education with HOW Design University, an online education program for busy creative professionals.

14 thoughts on “Formal Design Education Is Necessary for Practicing Designers. Yay or Nay?

  1. Ellen Shapiro

    Thinking about this again…

    Joseph, I am most intrigued by your comment: “Take the Art Institute chain of schools for example, I attended one for almost 3 years before I realized that I could probably teach most of those courses and that I wasn’t learning much at all, at least not enough to justify the tuition.”

    Whoa! Almost three years! You could teach most of those classes yourself! First of all, I’m sorry for your loss. What now? The Art Institutes advertise heavily in the design magazines. Are they that bad? Should we do an exposé? Of late they’ve been running commercials on the Food Network and Cooking Channel, commercials that seem to claim that if you take their culinary programs you could be the next Emeril or Bobby.

    1. MariaWriter

      I know that formal design education is not any guarantee of anything, not all the people get the same advantage from the same studies, the natural skills are natural, nobody can teach how to get creativity as nobody can teach how to be more handsome. I knew graphic designers formally educated with not much creativity at all. I remember one of them that his first step at any graphic design project was just to literally copy from something already done searching on the internet so this guy had education 10 but creativity 0, and of course a no honest person as copy from others is not a good thing.

      Regards, Writing service Buy college essay org offers high qualified essay help for college students.

  2. Latte

    As a self-taught designer, I definitely say necessary is too harsh a word. But, I have taken several classes and workshops over the years and I see where the enrichment comes from attending art school. Not to mention the minds you get to “see inside of” while you’re there, and the experiences you can’t always find out in the “real world” so easily. What I would do to now be able to go back and try all the things I am now trying to find places to try!

  3. Indra

    I voted “Nay” in the beginning but changed my mind and voted for the movement in the end. The “Yay” side was just so much better at arguing for their movement, and with much better arguments and much more eloquence. I really wanted to believe in the No-side, but was particularly disappointed by Proulx. Also Verdani had not too much to bring against the movement. They were solely talking about technology. As if webdesign was the only part of a design practice.

    I’m a full-time teacher myself (typography), and would still think that you can learn your stuff without a formal education. After all, all I learned about typography I did not learn in school. But the Yay-side had some good points that made me think about what I am doing, and if I am doing it right, and if I offer the right things to my student. In the end, I think it doesn’t matter so much what exactly you studied or major in. But taking the time and concentration, these 4–6 years of intense discourse, reading, debating, fighting, working through nights with colleagues, making friends for life, building a network, arguing, rebelling, demonstrating, writing, planning ridiculous things … this is priceless and I wouldn’t want to have missed this for anything in the world.

  4. Ludvik Herrera

    This debate has been probably on the floor since there were such degrees given at higher education institutions. I will add my vote to Nay! However it makes me very sad that many supervisor or people with hiring power roles do not look carefully at the work and sometimes potential as they look at degrees. A degree is already an over inflated piece of paper that for many people gives them a false sense of their real qualifications and skills. Can you really teach design to people with aesthetically challenged minds? I have seen several people with degrees that fit this description. Is graphic design an innate skill? Is it a craft that you have to carefully grow and perfect? Many educational institutions are mostly motivated by tuitions more than education. Who has learned more from a collaborative project in someone basement versus at a multimillion dollar institution classroom?
    Ellen, I agree with you, it is nice to have an education in design, however not a necessity.

  5. Gunnar Swanson

    I’m still confused about the premise. What does “necessary” mean in this context? Required? (By whom?) Impossible without? (Clearly false.) Should be required? (Another “by whom?” and add a “why?”) Very strongly recommended? (Okay. I’ll buy that one but why the hyperbole?) Needed for the advancement of the overall good of graphic design practice? (Maybe I’d be happier if I could specify the nature of the education that might or might not advance design practice.)

  6. Norman

    Fantastic idea … for those of us not in NYC, we’d love to have access to the room, and would gladly plunk down some $$ to watch a live webcast of these debates.

  7. Paper Acrobat

    I am largely self taught but in many ways wish I had gone to college. Some companies won’t even consider you without a degree no matter how good (or bad) your work is.
    Having said that qualifications don’t make you a good designer but they can hone your skills.

  8. Joseph Nicklo


    I feel like this debate could spur another, deeper debate — should the term “Formal Design Education” be broken down into different institutions? There are some Universities/Colleges/Institutes who have some flat out terrible Design programs. Take the Art Institute chain of schools for example, I attended one for almost 3 years before I realized that I could probably teach most of those courses and that I wasn’t learning much at all, at least not enough to justify the tuition.

    Now, if I had gone to SVA, Pratt, Parsons (or any other institution on this list I am sure that I’d have gotten my money’s worth and walked away with a very rich experience but sadly, I could not afford to attend any of those.

    I feel that this scenario is very common for potential students and with so many successful, self-taught designers being vocal about how they didn’t receive formal training, more and more people will dismiss the possibility of formal training.