On Wednesday, February 13, 2013, at Parsons The New School Tishman Auditorium, AIGA/NY Parson’s Lecture Series Designer’s Debate Club No. 3 convened to debate the motion of whether formal design education is necessary for practicing designers. Arguing for the motion were Alice Twemlow, Co-founder of the SVA MFA Design Criticism program, Matteo Bologna, Founder and Principal of Mucca Design, and Abbott Miller, Partner at Pentagram. Arguing against were Able Parris, Associate Design Director of Big Spaceship, Peter Vidani, Design Director at Tumblr, and Kate Proulx, Designer at HUGE. Scott Stowell, Proprietor of Open and instructor at both Yale and SVA, moderated the event.
The structure of the debate included 5 minutes total to hear arguments from either side, followed by a free-for-all rebuttal, then the opportunity to hear 1-minute arguments from the audience. Participants were invited to vote on the motion before and after, with the win going to the team that swayed the most voters to their position.
Both sides began their argument from very personal perspectives.
Alice Twemlow’s parents graduated from design school at Central Saint Martins, and Twemlow graduated from the Royal College of Art. She compares a formal design education to a Michelin Star dining experience, with courses served in the correct order, replete with the good company and conversation while the piecemeal work of patching together a design education only amounts to a “cold buffet.” She argues against framing education as a commodity, and that it’s actually about becoming immersed in a community and body of research, within which you find your path and, most importantly, learn how to frame your own new questions.
Matteo Bologna, in contrast, did not come out of a formal design program and speaks to how difficult it can be to build yourself up through trial-and-error alone. He joked about how the first designer who would hire him was “terrible”, and how the high-stakes work environment isn’t necessarily the best way to shape your early career. “The real world is bullshit. Clients are assholes. In school you have the possibility to really use your mind and explore possibilities, not to have to think about having to sell something,” he said.
Abbott Miller cited his undergraduate experience at Cooper Union as the most formative 4 years of his life. Like Twemlow, Miller pointed to the lasting mentorship and community he established at Cooper Union. His education was a foundation for writing, thinking, and design that built his career. He expresses fear at the thought that education is even up for debate, as hisÂ daughter is about to enter into the creative field.
Arguing against the motion was a noticeably younger panel consisting of professionals working at digital agencies.
Kate Proulx, a graduate and instructor at Parsons, argued that design education is fundamentally broken in today’s fast-paced professional environment. As an educator, she faces challenges in meeting the individual student needs as they come with varied backgrounds and future aspirations. She argued that she learned more on the job than in school, and pointed out that some agencies, including Huge, are finding alternative ways to train employees in the necessary skills.
Peter Vidani found himself surrounded by peers in college who were still figuring out what they wanted out of life, while the work that he wanted to do was already actively being produced online. He built his community online, got feedback, and learned the skills necessary to build the products he envisioned. Without the debilitating weight of student debt to influence his decisions, he was able to take a risk and start working at Tumblr, which was still new at the time he joined.
In contrast to Twemlow’s fine dining metaphor, Able Parris described the current educational experience as a rigid, step-by-step cake recipe, which lacks the flexibility to contend with the rate of emerging technologies. And even though it may come piecemeal, free videos, blogs, source code, and programs facilitate free self-education. Parris, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, advocated for alternative and innovative ways to learn.
Though speakers and audience members covered considerable ground during the debate, the points kept returning to a few main themes.
Among the most salient arguments against the motion was the prohibitive cost of a formal education, which can imply the perpetuation of a privileged class system and leaving others with years, sometimes decades of crippling debt. The team arguing for the motion claims that the experience is priceless, and cheaper options and scholarships do exist, but for many the economic reality is a major obstacle.
Many of the arguments against formal education rested on the assumption that it constrains innovation, but formal education provides one of the few safe havens for the risk-taking necessary for innovation to occur. An audience member challenges the wording of the motion itself”even if it’s possible to practice design without schooling, the very existence of academic programs as incubators for new ideas is essential for robust, critical discourse, and to push the broader design practice forward.
Foremost in the conversation was the issue of community, and whether a community built through an intense, full-time academic experience was still worthwhile in an age where the information and tools seem to come readily at hand. When asked if it’s lonely to be self-taught, Parris admits it can be at times, but purely by design. To forgo the academic route is rebellious, but provides the opportunity to pave your own path, free to pursue passion projects that aren’t necessarily tied to client needs think Buckminster Fuller or Frank Lloyd Wright. As a personal example, Vidani explained how his very first project, start.io, was built over iChat in 3 months. Proulx she favors a work environment where she’s surrounded by many experts instead of just one.
When asked what you can only get in the traditional academic environment, Bologna playfully noted that “you can get laid way easier.” Miller argued that only the face-to-face interaction can teach you how to understand the intentions of other people in a room. While finding like-minded individuals online can come easily over social media networks, only the intensity of those live critiques and grounding in a physical space can cultivate the broader perspective”and as an audience member put it best, it allows you to realize what you didn’t know you didn’t know.” Though agility in keeping up with the pace of technology goes to those learning on the job, what the formal program promises is lifelong, and extends beyond one’s role as a designer.
In either case, there’s no doubt that both can be viable options for those interested in design. When the audience again voted by raising their hands, an informal count deemed the side arguing for the motion to be the winners.
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Special thanks to guest contributing writer, Mira Rojanasakul, for the AIGA/NY Parson’s Lecture Series Designer’s Debate Club No. 3 event recap and photos. Say hello to Mira Rojanasakul or follow her @rjnskl.