A look at the state of art and design education in the USA

27 October 2014
Reading Time
4 minute read

A couple of weeks ago as part of our Back to School month of features, we heard from various creatives about how they saw art and design schools around Europe. The piece added some useful context about the strengths of creative education in Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Ireland, as well as the challenges facing art schools in those countries.

This week we’re turning our attention to the USA with Debbie Millman, James Victore, Michael Bierut and Erin Spens sharing some thoughts about the state of art and design schools across the pond.

If I had to pick one belief system that I find that many graduating design students have that I believe is the most delusional it is this: that being a successful designer is all about being a fabulously talented designer. It is not. That is only one part of it.

Being a fabulously talented designer is essentially achieving what they call in business school operational excellence. Operational excellence is the systematic management of tactics to achieve top performance. Examples of this include trains running on time or your car working when you turn the key in the ignition. But neither of those achievements are anything more than table stakes. You expect and even demand that things work this way.

For some archaic reason, most design schools in the US are inadvertently teaching students that all they need to get a great job in design is a great portfolio. This is not only untrue, it is misleading and doing all students everywhere an injustice. Just because anyone has a fabulous product does not guarantee they will be a success. I think that in order to be a truly successful designer, you must be taught how to sell and communicate what it is about a specific design that is fabulous and inspire people to understand it and feel the same way.

Students today must be taught how to present, how to position themselves in a crazy-competitive marketplace and how to become strong leaders. We need to teach students how to create powerful philosophies that can guide their design careers, how to write compelling resumes, and how to create design work that is strategic and beneficial to business. Then and only then will we really be able to prepare design students to make a meaningful and measurable difference with their work.


I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel and speak at various design schools across the country and have picked up on a few of the prevailing trends, one of which disturbs me. We have forgotten our roots.

Although graphic design is a business, designers as a group do not herald from a long line of MBAs. We come from a wonderful and rich heritage of anarchists, misfits and artists— and we’ve forgotten that. The biggest reason for this amnesia is that, except for a few enlightened outposts, it is not being taught any more. Because of the all the teaching and training necessary for programming wizardry to prepare our young turks for the future, we have forgotten to teach them about the past. How can we expect to create anything new if we do not know what has gone before us? As history teaches, if we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to recreate it.


American millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) finally outnumber our parents, the baby boomers. We’re the biggest generation in America and we’re the highest-educated too. Many millennials feel that our strengths are found in the creative fields, however traditional design education has not caught up with the fully-integrated lives we live. To us design encompasses technology as much as it does art; science and business as much as product and object. For design education to keep up with millennials, it will need to integrate far more into its curriculum than it traditionally has.



Spread from Boat Magazine #8

The United States is so big, and the kinds of schools we have are so varied, that I couldn’t begin to even attempt a stereotypical characterisation. That said, I suspect that this variety is itself its own sort of strength, and accounts for what is great and what is awful about design practice in this country.


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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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