Jon Gold

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Thinking about Design School

One of the articles I’ve been meaning to write for a while is a summation of my thoughts on Design School, and its relevancy in 2011. By ‘a while’ I mean at least the 3 years I was in university education for; I also did a UK college Graphic Design course (the equivalent of US Community College?) for two years before that.

So I’ve been in, around, and thinking about Design Education for a long time; I’m just really shit at finishing blog posts. But I have a shiny new blog urging me to write on. So here we go, stream of conciousness style.

Before I start, it’s been difficult over the years to restrain public ranting about Ravensbourne. What follows is a completely objective post about my experience there, after the dust has had sufficient time to settle; it’s more rational and less emotional than the drafts I’ve written over the years.

The Good.

Learning typography in a traditional setting, from people who have been there (Basel/Zurich), done that, and kerned the t-shirt. Typesetting by hand, on paper. Learning about grids, 1-on-1, from actual Modernists who actually knew Muller-Brockmann. Having Wim fucking Crouwel come in for an intimate lecture on your birthday.

Spending three years in a studio with classmates— laughing, joking, kerning, stressing out, sticking in, cutting out, learning together and teaching each other. Having older students to look up to, and having younger students to (hopefully) pass things on to. Just being in that environment for that amount of time is incredibly valuable.

You can’t replicate that learning from home (due to the internet not being the greatest setting for learning design), or at an internship/apprenticeship/etc (due to time constraints), but I’m not sure it’s valuable enough to justify the investment.

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The Bad.

Feeling like The Good Ship Web Design is sailing off without you_. _Thinking you’ve had enough learning and want to start doing. Right now.** Before another amazing site gets launched that you didn’t have the chance to work on.** Because you’re sat in a classroom meeting unproductive assessment criteria when you could be doing meaningful work. Seeing younger designers (who haven’t committed to years of education) achieve great things, and curse yourself for being stuck in this situation.

On Sketchbooks, and ticking boxes: **of course we have to learn to design on paper. No one disputes that. Going straight to the Mac is a mistake we’re all guilty of in the early stages of our careers, and we could all stand to keep better visual scrapbooks. **Sketchbooks are brilliant.

But not when they’re a key component of assessment. I’m dyspraxic and, to cut to the chase, when I’m in the zone I can’t slow down, print out what I’m doing, neatly cut it out and stick it into a sketchbook, then annotate it just to show the assessors my thought process. Not without ruining my work and focus.

Just one example.

Outdated assessment styles and disability discrimination combining to make for mediocre outcomes; just one example of how inappropriate and self-serving design education has become. Nice. **If a degree has to be compromised to be shoehorned in to the national education framework then it’s not appropriate anymore. **

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Education can’t do digital.

The problem is BA (Hons) degrees need to be validated. They need to have a set curriculum, with set projects and assessment criteria for those projects. Web design is moving so fast that just taking an hour out to write this post has caused me to fall behind(!). There’s no way that something as fast moving as web design can be shoehorned into a 3-year validation cycle. Ish.

Front-end code can’t be taught in universities. Period. It’s moving too fast. C++ and Java can be taught, but they’re not moving at breakneck pace. Let’s forget the idea of web design education requiring a code component. I just can’t see a way it can be done. I still passionately believe that every graduating designer should know how to write HTML and CSS, but the classroom isn’t the place for it.

What the classroom can teach is design for the web. User Experience design. How to think like a web designer, rather than a print designer doing a website. Big difference. And that’s not being taught properly because the staff aren’t in place. With such a high demand for good web designers at the moment who would choose to teach? What you get is tutors who honed their skills as print designers being told by management to ‘make things digital’. It doesn’t work.

But that’s the only hope I can see for design education - have relevant tutors teaching relevant design, or die.

The Outcome.

Things worked out for me in the end, but I wonder if it was directly a result of design education as a system, or a combination of chances on the side. One example is if Ravensbourne hadn’t scrapped its analog facilities (screenprinting, letterpress, darkroom) I would have been content making posters. Without these facilities I became jaded with print design which led me to web design. In a roundabout, unintentional way, my education made me a web designer.

But that’s just my story - knowing what I know now, I don’t think I could recommend any design course apart from Hyper Island. Possibly some of the UAL colleges if you’re intent on being a print designer at the end of it but** so was I**.

‘But I want to be a print designer!’

In 3 years I’m sure the web will be even a more attractive prospect than it is today, and I think you’d be foolish to not pursue a career in digital design.** Seriously. It’s awesome.**

What are the other options?

Try to find a job somewhere that will teach you the ropes. Not an agency still creating Flash or tables. Apprenticeships like Mark Boulton was offering are a great idea. I don’t have the answers yet, but I do know that design school shouldn’t be the best one. I really hope some day we can solve this problem, because there are positives to formal design education. I’m just incredibley jaded by my experiences.


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Jon Gold

Jon Gold is a technologist, musician, and attention activist researching the long-term future of computation at Airbnb, focusing on the intersection of Artificial Intelligence & the creative process. Contact