Top creatives discuss design education around the rest of Europe

16 October 2014
Reading Time
6 minute read

As part of our Back To School month we wanted to make sure that we took the temperature of design education around the world and not just to here in the UK. Next week we’ll be focussing on creative education in the USA but here we’re looking at the challenges facing design schools in Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. We’ve opened comments too so you can agree, disagree or let us know about the lie of the land in your country…

In Germany there are not very many good design schools; Leipzig, Offenbach and Stuttgart are the only ones which are good I think. Generally speaking Germany doesn’ t have really good colleges.

Most of my interns aren’t German, –they are mostly from Switzerland, England, France etc. The schools there teach there students to work more focussed I think. In Germany students have too much time for their projects, in real life you have to be fast, make decisions early and move on. Clients want to pay less and less money, so time really is a criteria in these times. The other problem is that good teachers are rare in the universities; most of the tutors don’t really work anymore.


Bureau Mirko Borsche: Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks poster

In general, Dutch design schools are liberal-minded environments that allow the individual, both teacher and student, to flourish. They are the product of a tolerant, progressive and prosperous climate since the 1960s.

In nearly all the main schools, the teaching staff are active practitioners who are relevant, and even celebrated, in their field. They are not eternal or ‘professional’ lecturers. Their presence enforces vital relations between education and the real/business world – as well as providing flashes of inspiration, without the staleness associated with full-time teachers (those black-clad fogies in an ivory tower without a WiFi connection). 

Department heads of the various academies also enjoy unparalleled autonomy. For example, in our position as Head of the Visual Communication department at Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE), we were given carte blanche to change the course. We had responsibility for devising the educational programme, recruiting the teaching team and directing student appraisals. And all this while we ran our studio.

"From personal experience, Dutch teachers are often reluctant to work as a team, and resemble their feuding football stars at a World Cup – just think of Cruijff, Gullit, Davids, Sneijder et al."

The Stone Twins

However, a downside to this educational model is the Dutch trait of individualism. The Dutch have an almost universal disdain for authority, which jeopardises any coordinated or disciplined approach to education. From personal experience, Dutch teachers are often reluctant to work as a team, and resemble their feuding football stars at a World Cup – just think of Cruijff, Gullit, Davids, Sneijder et al.

Another big challenge for Dutch design schools is the creation of an education that values both the highly conceptual and the eminently practical. In recent years, and speaking only for DAE, the balance has been lost, and the gap with the real world is widening.

Graduates are primed for a cultural or artistic audience instead of the creative industries. Graduation projects are positioned as exclusive exhibits in a gallery as opposed to inclusive, accessible concepts for society at large. Galleries breed ego, create false meritocracies and are ultimately a great disservice to the graduates flooding the job market. This development is the antithesis to our former strategy and one of the reasons why we resigned in 2013 after five years.


The Stone Twins: Kiss The Future (Design Academy Eindhoven)

What I’ve observed, over a number of years as visiting tutor to a few design courses in Ireland, is that classes that display a sense of camaraderie in sharing knowledge with each other tend to graduate with a high level of well-conceived and well-finished portfolios of work.

As a visiting tutor, I feel somewhat sheltered from the day-to-day challenges faced by the various design schools around the country. One of the greatest challenges is budget. Classes are growing (doubling in some cases) and resources are stretched. The impact on the quality of graduating design students is something we won’t see for another couple of years, but I’m guessing it won’t be positive.

The disconnect between graphic design education and industry in Ireland remains, but it’s being bridged by initiatives such as ThreeX3.

In more recent years, I’ve seen a concerted effort from all the institutions to engage with the wider creative and business communities. The more varied the range of visiting tutors or lecturers – cross disciplinary and cross border – the better, and the greater an understanding of design and culture the students will have on graduating.

Technical ability comes with practice and there’s no better place to hone your skills than in a working studio. A more structured path for students, similar to the architecture industry, is worth looking at, whereby post-graduate students are given two years of assessed professional training and practice before being afforded the title of “architect.”

Basic business skills are very often overlooked as part of design education. Understanding your client’s processes and needs is fundamental to solving their problems – through design – and most of those problems are business problems.


Conor & David: Studio Craft & Technique

École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) is a very dynamic school constantly looking for exciting manufacturers to collaborate with, young teachers to run workshops and new equipment to keep expanding the student’s possibilities. ECAL is working with a lot of the world’s most renowned design-oriented companies so there is definitely always the challenge to deliver projects that are both up to the school’s design reputation and satisfying for the clients and the students themselves. 

One of the main challenges of the school I think comes from its strength, which is to combine briefed projects in collaboration with manufacturers with free self-initiated projects. Students are asked a lot and have to deal with real-world clients and finding their own design personality at the same time.

ECAL is a very pragmatic school where the students have to come up with final mockups and functional prototypes. They have to deliver not just the shell of the products they develop, but most often the core and mechanisms inside as well. Such projects are always a real organisational puzzle where planning is key. 

One of the real problems actually happens after graduation, when students have to find a way to earn a living whilst remaining true to their creative side. The furniture industry may be very glamorous and heroic but very few of us are living of it in the end. This is a reality the teachers at ECAL try to tell their students about. The teachers and the school has to try as much as possible to help students finding their own design profile while fitting a classic industrial design cursus. The balance is not always easy to find.


Ana Varela: Thin Lines

Back to School
Throughout the month of October we’ll be celebrating the well-known autumnal feeling of Back to School. The content this month will be focusing on fresh starts, education, learning tools and the state of art school in the world today – delivered to you via fantastic in-depth interviews, features and conversations with talented, relevant, creative people.

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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, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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