Learning the Wrong Lessons: Design Education in the Age of Disruption

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photo by Faustin Tuyambaze

“I’ll never forget what Herb Lubalin once said,” Antonio Dispigna, Typographer and distinguished Pratt Institute Professor recalls a conversation with his late mentor turned business partner. “He told me, ‘Forget everything you learned in school, your real education begins day one on the job.’”

This evergreen wisdom from the 60s has been passed on like an heirloom to thousands of Professor DiSpigna’s students. It’s no surprise that minds and majors change, but professions that utilize creativity, technology and design evolve so fast that everything else will too.

The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 1,853,000 tassels turned from right to left in the 2015-16 academic year. This transition from academics to actual workplace has always been the moment of truth because it shows whether the new hire majored in letters or focused on learning.

However, the speed at which the disruption and change is taking place in some industries happens much faster than the time it takes to go from freshman to first day. As technology transforms, breaks and creates business models, what are the implications for the education model?

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To say education is going through disruption is an understatement when rockstar professors and Ivy League schools offer free courses online. There are 500+ universities, 4,200 courses, and 35 million students shifting the way knowledge is being imparted according to Dhawal Shah in “By The Numbers: MOOCS in 2015.” This isn’t a fad.

The New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote about the new tension in “The Practical University.” The central point of his article makes the distinction between technical knowledge and practical knowledge. He argues that the physical university will have to contend with the rise of online courses, which impart technical knowledge for free from a distance, by becoming places where students learn what can only be absorbed in person.

Brooks writes: “Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.”

When applying this to the aesthetic profession, taste is often regional. There’s no substitute for networking, and the judgement needed to make sound creative decisions can’t be taught at a distance. Yet, on the technical side of creativity, young aspiring designers have choices like Lynda.com, whose website offers, “5,633 courses in Business, Technology and Creative Skills taught by industry experts,” and HOW Design University.

On its face, the prospect of binge learning any subject at your own pace, for about the cost of a dated $200 textbook, is a compelling proposition. This is how technology is changing education: the perfect storm of rising tuition, the most recent economic downturn and a shifting job market are issues that could be fissures in the ivory tower. If physical universities can’t keep pace with the convenience and cost of the virtual options, they may have to cede the technical knowledge space.

This is not lost on university administrators who recognize the increased competition because their programs must take the shift seriously to remain relevant. Former CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein acknowledged the importance of the less traditionally academic or applied fields of study, where ongoing professional practice is a qualifier for teaching.

Chancellor Goldstein’s remarks highlight the emphasis universities are placing on rethinking themselves. In CUNY Matters, an employee newsletter, he writes,

“Universities also need to seek advice and direction from companies whose employment needs can shape the direction of curricular innovation. The new Cornell NYC Tech institution in New York City, for example, is based in part on the idea that many ideas originate in the market, rather than in the university—so its programs are highly connected to business and industry.”

If the profession changes with the maneuverability of a speedboat, academia changes course at the rate of an aircraft carrier. This is where disruption makes what is complicated for the boardroom potentially out of reach for the classroom. Recognizing new trends in the industry, writing a new course, getting it department approved, sending it to a university senate curriculum committee, making changes, having it approved, and then offering that course can take up to a year or more.

In this reality, the curriculum and the frame of reference that inspired it, is a shadow of what the industry was vs a reflection of what the industry is. Yet when the technology is on par and if the instructors remain viable professionals, then closer alignment of business, education and the creative industry is the ideal. In order for the inside of the classroom to take its form from the boardroom, industry and academia would need to blend.

When looking at traditional creative or business education in a vacuum, they blend like oil and water. Academic options like advertising or design appeal to young artists who already spend most days drawing and using their imagination. This is their creative path to a professional career. In a design program or specialized portfolio school, students are taught to focus on the tactical creative parts of what should be larger strategic business decisions. Design without a business or marketing context is art, and this is where the lack of exposure in the classroom creates limitations in the boardroom. This graduate is a qualified visual problem solver who’d rather design the business plan than understand it.

On the other side of campus, business programs are adept at teaching their students analytical thinking, competitive strategy, and marketing tactics. The end result produces qualified managers from left-brained thinkers who are definitely more interested in the plan’s tactics than the typefaces used to print it. The scope of a business or marketing program oftentimes may not include inspiring designers, or even making them aware of the creative process that they can kindle.

This disconnect isn’t unique to creative and business education, but it would seem inadequate to prepare for the dynamic ecosystem of people, platforms and processes. This on-the-job trial by fire is an accelerated continuing education that will take place each time someone moves into a different role or encounters a another firm’s culture.

The question remain: How do you prepare students or professionals for that? New York City College of Technology graduate, Kate Ling offers her view that, “School’s job here is to teach the constant and then prep the student to have the changes.” Although Ms. Ling is a confident millennial only three years into her career as a digital art director, she’s already contemplating her future at this pace. “There is an expiration date for people in advertising. I’m looking at my shelf life; I don’t know how long I can be in this industry.”

In this dynamic environment, the transformation is that businesses are repositioning themselves through design. In the past 18 months brands like IBM and management consultancies like Deloitte and Accenture have acquired digital advertising agencies. These tectonic shifts create a blended area of opportunity from the broken individual business models that existed before them.

It also creates role confusion, and who’s doing what job, has implications on who gets to invoice for it. This is eliminating the notion of a specialized offering and may eventually be the end of a specialized creative or business education. “Now, it’s crazy town. Everyone is playing in everyone’s field. I’m not trying to paint this like the Game of Thrones, but it’s definitely, not the industry it was 15 years ago,” Andrea Waite-Spurlock, AOL Global Agency Lead, describes what amounts to an epic love hate relationship, where media and creative agencies compete with platforms like Facebook and Google.

This constant change produces a volatile mix of what she calls “land grabbing” when emerging technologies enter the marketplace. Where the business model blends, the technology changes. Programmatic advertising for example, eliminates the need for people to negotiate media fees and submit insertion orders because the software can do that. The efficiencies of freeing up your media people for strategic planning purposes, handling your own media buying at an advertising agency or bringing this method in house if you’re a brand are clear. Brands spend large sums in agency fees and targeted media buys to execute their business strategy with creative tactics. Those same clients expect everyone involved with their brand to be strategic in delivering messaging and ultimately reaching an ROI justifying the expense.

The convergence makes roles less black and white, replaces people with efficiencies which makes billing less black and white. Technology is putting pressure on the media model and the creative model is also feeling the pressure. Demand-side-platform or DSP technology shifts a digital art director’s job from creating one concept in 25 different sizes, to creating various parts of an idea that are served up in different variables. So if it snows, the Starbucks ad selects a hot chocolate and snowflakes but if it rains, you may get the cider and the puddles in the ad according to your location. Mrs. Spurlock chuckles and continues while laughing, “I don’t know how you teach that.”

This perpetually shifting landscape makes it impossible to teach everything in school because as soon as one convergence starts, the search for the next competitive edge begins. Recently, Dentsu Aegis put a billion dollar bet on data as a differentiator with its investment in Merkle, a performance marketing agency. Every side is looking for a competitive edge by investing time and people into emerging platforms that could get the critical mass to become the next Snapchat. The takeaway is: how well one performs on the job, may have little to do with what was learned in class and everything to do with how well one learned to adapt.

Professor Dispigna’s advice to his students stems from what seems to be the only constant in the constant change. “Ideas are still the coin of the realm. I don’t think that will ever change no matter what technology comes along. It’s the computer between our ears that drives coming up with creative solutions to challenging problems.”

 

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