The Designer’s Debate Club recently took on a topic that I think a lot of us have a strong opinion on: Formal Design Education Is Necessary for Practicing Designers. Yay or Nay? The debate was done in the traditional sense, with two teams taking a yay or nay position and arguing their side, the winner of the debate being chosen by the audience.
On the two teams you had Alice Twemlow, co-founder at SVA’s D-Crit MFA, Matteo Bologna, founding partner and principal at Mucca Design, and Abbott Miller, a partner at Pentagram arguing in the affirmative. Arguing against the motion was Kate Proulx, a designer at HUGE, Able Parris, an associate design director at Big Spaceship; and Peter Vidani, the design director at Tumblr.
As the debate was in New York I wasn’t able to attend though I thought this post by Ellen Shapiro over on Imprint really hit the nail on the head. She, like me, voted nay in the debate, saying that design education is not necessary.
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.
As someone who only did a little time at junior college and a couple of night courses at Art Center I’ve been able to come pretty far with just my own wit and determination. I think that Ellen’s point, that a design education is a lot of things, but necessary isn’t one of them. What is necessary is educating young people about what it means to get an education these days. Asking tough questions like “Can you afford to go to school?” or “Are you ok with having $100k of debt?” could be extremely helpful. With so many online alternatives to learning and the world basically at your fingertips there’s a lot of options out there for those who can’t make that sort of investment.
We all choose different paths for ourselves and it’s important to take the one that fits your life.