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Design Education in the Digital Age

There is an old romantic idea that intuition and intellect do not mix. There is an equally erroneous belief that inspiration takes the place of industry. Fortified with such misconceptions it is understandable that we tend to minimize the importance of learning the rules and fundamentals which are the raw material of the designer’s craft.

Technology, in my opinion, has had a negative impact on our education. The education of the designer, traditionally, is focused on developing skills and minds. It was about thinking, not about doing. Today’s designers who have never known the world outside of technology, are preoccupied with doing and not thinking. Technology does not allow adequate time for designers to pause, to contemplate, to compare, to work through a problem. And, it doesn’t offer the same level of satisfaction experienced when the execution of a welldesigned idea results from of a designer’s meticulous process, knowledge and skill.

Milton Glaser once said that “computers are to design what microwaves are to cooking.” The computer is a most awe-inspiring machine but the language of the computer is a language of technology, not the language of design. It is also the language of production. It enters the world of creativity only as an adjunct, as a tool, a time saving device, a means of investigating, retrieving and executing tedious jobs but not as the principal player. The moment the balance is distributed in favor of production, the computer becomes a hindrance to creativity and a barrier to the link between thinking and doing. Because the modern world lives by technology it favors digital solutions to the extent that the computer replaces the mind and hand and prevents the student from developing important nontechnical skills. Additionally, when computer programming is confused with design theory, it is equally damaging.

Clearly the computer is more than a pencil or a brush for storing information, for producing intricate configurations, for illiminating the tedium of repetitive processes, and for doing things swiftly, it has no equal. However, without a knowledge of design, the computer like the pencil is useless, producing enough superfluous material to create the illusion that one is designing, when in fact, one is merely producing variations of a theme of nothingness. This problem is particularly troubling in design education, because it confuses technique with form. The notion that the computer is a creative tool is misleading in that it implies that creativity is a matter of pushing buttons and moving around a cursor. In a school environment computers should be part of the curriculum, but not the curriculum. Nothing can replace the hand and mind in the early stages of design education.

The kind of images that the computer can generate may also be misleading in that they often look new. This conundrum is more a matter of technique than of substance. The phrase “the tool of the future” is equally suspect, it seems, to suggest that the hand and mind will eventually become obsolete. All in all, what these expressions have in common is that they promise more than they can deliver. This is not to deny the real fast-paced computers hold for all of us.

The prospect of sitting down to play with a machine is a heavy one, but the same time this play may side track tools from the real work of design, the step by step participation and the process of thinking through a problem. It also deprives students of the drawing skills they develop only after hours and hours of practice, pencil or pen to paper.

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