Essays & Articles


Design Education: Brilliance Without Substance

Originally published on the Industrial Design magazine,, website.

We are now in the 21st century, but design curricula seem stuck in the mid 20th century, except for the addition of computer tools. The 20th century developed craftspeople capable of magnificent products. But these were relatively simple products, with simple mechanical or electrical components. In the 21st century, design has broadened to include interaction and experience, services and strategies. The technologies are more sophisticated, involving advanced materials, computation, communication, sensors, and actuators. The products and services have complex interactions that have to be self-explanatory, sometimes involving other people separated by time or distance. Traditional design activities have to be supplemented with an understanding of technology, business, and human psychology.

With all these changes, one would expect major changes in design education. Nope. Design education is led by craftspeople who are proud of their skills and they see no reason to change. Design education is mired in the past.

A quick definition. I focus upon the areas called industrial and product design, broadly defined to include interaction, experience and service design. Actually, I believe the problems I discuss apply pretty widely across the multiple design fields, but I haven’t examined the curricula of these other areas with the same care as I have for the industrial and product design areas.

Designing a new design curriculum is fraught with difficulties. I’ve written about this (see my column “Why design education must change.”) (Also available on this website,

I have helped organize conferences on design education and have attended others. I’ve literally traveled around the world to discuss design education at major universities in Asia, North America and Europe.

The critiques I present are commonly voiced. I have to report that I see many positive examples of curriculum change, for example, the curriculum reforms being put in place at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft, in the Netherlands). Other schools are exploring similar changes. The responses to my article have, on the whole, been positive, and some schools have asked for my opinion and help. Still, I find the vast majority of schools incredibly resistant, unable to change. Yes, a few faculty members may wish to join the 21st century, but the departments as a whole strongly resist.

Designers are proud of their creative thinking, of how they break out of traditional solutions to problems, examining new potential directions without prejudice. “Do not criticize” is a frequently cited mantra during the ideation phase of a project, because criticisms, even if valid, kill creativity. Let the criticisms come later.

But try to think creatively about the design curriculum and fierce defensiveness comes into play. My experience is that designers believe the mantra of no criticism during ideation, but they are unable to apply it to themselves, especially when it comes to changes in the curriculum.

The world has changed, I explain (over and over again). In the past we trained wonderful craft skills of sketching and exploration. The tools were drawing and model building, shop skills and even the computer revolution in drawing and fabrication tools. But today design is more than appearance, design is about interaction, about strategy and about services. Designers change social behavior. So shouldn’t designers understand the fundamental principles of human and social interaction, of how to assess the validity of a claim? The designer’s role is not easy; in addition to their traditional design skills, they must now be expert at human behavior as well as understand how to deploy new technologies emerging from the rapid advances in computers and communication, materials and sensors, actuators and displays.

“Yes, yes,” say my design friends, “but there is no room in the curriculum.”

“Every field says this,” I explain, for I have heard the same objection in departments of engineering and social sciences, engineering and science, literature and art. But in other fields, the curriculum is divided into specialties. All students must take some core courses, but then, depending upon their area of specialization, the curriculum changes. Moreover, the university itself requires students to take courses outside their department and even outside their school so that they have some balance of knowledge.

Much of design training takes place in specialized schools of art, architecture or design, where there appears to be no understanding of the need to broaden the education. In fact, many of these schools do not even offer courses outside of their major area. Moreover, within design, there seldom is specialization: everyone gets a heavy dosage of the core elements. The few electives that are permitted tend to be within design.

Given that lengthening the duration of study is impractical, the only way to make room in a curriculum is by dropping existing requirements. Why not? Does every designer have to have the same depth of skill in drawing, model building, CAD tools and prototyping?

Product design is still a fundamental part of modern design, but so too is communication, interaction, experience. So too is service design and design for the environment. Almost all products now have microprocessors, communication links, sophisticated sensors and actuators, and display. Sure, designers are whizzes at packaging these, but where do they pick up the skills to make the interaction smooth, understandable, functional and pleasurable? Do they know how to validate the designs? And what of systems, where the design is only a small component of the entire system, whether it be one for transportation, health, education or the environment? Why should every student have to go through so much training in drawing 2D and 3D? In fabrication? Not all designers need this stuff.

Where is the content matter in design? Nowhere. It is all technique. All craft. As a result, in many new, important arenas with heavy technological and social components, the design requirements, parameters and constraints—and often even the first draft designs—are being done by non-designers. Interaction design is being done by computer scientists and psychologists. Other areas use engineers and professionals in the fields of operations, city planning, transportation, and health. Designers are called in afterward to make it all look good—the very attitude we have been fighting. Yes, the design community complains, but I place the blame squarely on the limited reach of design education. It is our own fault.

How important is drawing?

A major part of design curricula has to do with drawing. “Drawing is essential, ” I am told. “Designers think by doing. We think by drawing.”

I can take three stances with respect to this claim:

1. There is no evidence for the statement that designers think by drawing. It is similar to the old belief that studying Latin or Greek led to better thinking for which there was also no evidence.2. Yes, designers think by making things, by drawing and constructing. This is the argument for making design (and more generally, sketching) a critical part of the curriculum for all designers, even those who design abstract things such as experience and interaction, services and strategies.3. There is truth to the statement that designers think by drawing, but imperfect, very rough sketches will suffice. The extreme emphasis on the development of high technical skills is misplaced. Yes, product designers might need this, but everyone else would do far better to learn rapid sketching techniques as an enhancement of the creative process. Today, drawing is taught as an exercise in its own right instead of as one of the multiple components of creative thinking.

Which of these three stances do I believe? A little of all three. First, there is simply no evidence about the relationship of drawing and thinking to creative thinking. Even so, I am willing to give the idea the benefit of the doubt because there is strong intuitive validity to the claim. Just as we argue that writing leads to clearer reasoning (without any evidence), that mathematics is essential for better science and engineering (even though many sub disciplines use little mathematics) and that programming skills are essential for computer science (even if many computer scientists never program), why shouldn’t sketching be the essential tool for designers? This leads to stance 3: just as one need not be a great writer to be a world-class thinker, nor a great mathematician to be a world-class scientist, nor a great programmer to be a world-class computer scientist, why does one have to be a great drawer to be a world-class designer?

If we wish to argue for the critical importance of drawing in design thinking, we should be able to deploy evidence: real data, not the strong personal opinions that today substitutes for data. It’s actually extremely difficult to gather evidence about this issue. It will require considerable sophistication, probably involving the expertise of the research community in social science or education. However, informal evidence does exist: there are superb designers who lack great drawing skills. Do they sketch? Yes, but not necessarily the fully rendered, perfect perspective, wonderfully nuanced drawing we force our students to do.

Eliminating the requirement for advanced courses in drawing, sketching and model construction would provide time to teach the non-design topics so essential to the modern designer.

Modern design is the interface between technology and people, yet the curriculum leaves no room for any understanding of either technology or people. Outside of the few design schools that are located within technical universities, I searched in vain for any evidence that the students get any exposure to science, math or technology. I searched in vain for courses in psychology or any of the behavioral or social sciences. Moreover, being part of a technological university does not guarantee that students in the design program learn any science or mathematics that would be relevant to their career: they may get the university’s required introductory courses in their first year, but after that, unless they make an effort, they can completely ignore everything outside of design. One school told me that they got their students from those who disliked math and science. So design gets the rejects? As for the social and behavioral sciences? These are conspicuous by their absence, even though a number of faculty teaching design were themselves trained in those disciplines.

I checked the curricula of two major design schools in the United States: the Rhode Island School of Design(RISD) on the east coast and the Art Center of Design on the west coast. RISD requires electives in the liberal arts for its students in industrial design, but with no apparent restrictions on content. No science, no technology, no social or behavioral sciences, no business. Just the ill-defined “liberal arts.” The only non-design courses at the Art Center of Design are two writing courses in the first term and one course on “Human Factors & Psychology” in the sixth term. One course is a great improvement over no courses, but it hardly covers the range of content to which designers should be exposed.

Design needs its own courses, not those from other disciplines

I truly believe we must change design education. But I also believe it would be a serious mistake to take courses directly from the other disciplines. Design is a practice: designers create things, services and experiences. Designers impact the world. Most disciplines are interested in science and theory. Designers need practical information, approximations, and good-enough knowledge. We need special courses for designers just as MBA students get practical courses, not theory-driven ones.

Designers need to do statistical tests of their claims, but not with the tedious, critical care that psychologists and social scientists bring to their experiments. Designers are interested in major change, in major effects. Designers do not need to know the exact optimum setting of parameters: they need to satisfice, not optimize. These two principles: big effects and satisficing mean that design can use faster tests with less experimental care, with less attention to small biases and with less precision and rigor.

Designers are only interested in big effects, not the tiny ones studied by the scientist. Our methods do not have to be perfect; they have to be good enough. Design needs experimental methods that are appropriate for the practical world. These methods do not exist: the design community will have to invent them.

The design community needs an infusion of technologists and statisticians who love the challenge of design, who can help devise courses and procedures from the sciences and engineering disciplines that are appropriate to the practical requirements of the design profession.

Learning to work effectively in multi-disciplinary teams

One more point about design education: we need to emphasize working in multidisciplinary teams. Modern design is not done in isolation. No single individual knows enough about all the relevant disciplines required to make a project successful. As a result, designers must learn to work in teams, cooperating with people from other disciplines whose approach to problems and whose language and work habits are quite different from those of design. These differences can and should lead to greater insight and synergistic creation. Alas, they often lead to conflict and a lack of trust among the participants.

Although group projects are common in the design curriculum, the groups usually are made up of other design students. It is important to work with engineers, social scientists and business people. Depending upon the problem, the mix might include people from the medical profession, politicians and community members. Learning to work creatively and effectively in true multidisciplinary teams is a critical part of successful design education.

Design education needs to change

Design needs more courses in substance, less in craft. It needs more education in the tools of the 21st century. But this will only happen if the design profession:

  • Stops being so defensive about their existing curricula
  • Recognizes that craft skills are not required of everyone
  • Is willing and able to change
  • Can develop its own modern curriculum with courses from the other fields designed specifically for the special needs of the designer.

There are many wonderful aspects to design education. We turn out many design professionals who produce brilliant products and experiences. The top designers of the world have taught themselves to overcome the limitations of their education, and by doing so, they function magnificently. We need to extend these characteristics to all designers.

In my essay “Why design education must change,” I ended by stating that as we change, we must be careful not to destroy all that is so wonderful about design. It is only appropriate that I end with the very same words:

“We must not lose the wonderful, delightful components of design. The artistic side of design is critical: to provide objects, interactions and services that delight as well as inform, that are joyful. Designers do need to know more about science and engineering, but without becoming scientists or engineers. We must not lose the special talents of designers to make our lives more pleasurable.”

Design education needs to change, yet still keep its essential character. Otherwise, the graduates of design programs will continue to be regarded professionally as second class citizens. Designers today are seldom asked to take part in major decisions. This will not change until designers become knowledgeable in matters of the world, of business and politics, of social forces and of modern technology. If designers wish their ideas to have major impact, their educational base needs to be broadened. It is time that design education entered the 21st century.

My previous article on this topic

Norman, Don. Why design education must change. Nov 26, 2010. (Also available on this website,

My LinkedIn article with Scott Klemmer on this topic. State of design: How design education must change. Also available at this website,