From the issue feature, "Living by Design in the Pacific Northwest." 
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karen cheng  design class

Photo: Rachel Hobart

The below is adapted from a talk given at a PechaKucha Night Seattle event, Designing Leadership, which was hosted in collaboration with Design in Public for their Seattle Design Festival. Over the coming weeks, we'll release more adaptations of presentations given that evening. —ARCADE


One of the pleasures of working at a university (in my case, the University of Washington) is observing the annual ritual of the American “college tour.” I actually never went on a college tour myself (my Asian tiger-parents determined both what I would study and where I would enroll).

Therefore, I am particularly curious when I see prospective students and their parents visiting our design program. What do they think when they see our studio spaces or examine the work that we’ve hung on the walls? Luckily, we have a few design students who work as prospective student guides (we call them “Design Ambassadors”). I asked them what the most frequently asked questions were during these campus visits.

To my horror, one common question was: “Why bother to go to design school at all?”—meaning that, in this day and age, anyone with an Internet connection could simply learn Photoshop, web design, illustration, etc. via online tutorials. Many of these online schools are free (or at least considerably cheaper than our tuition).

I’m not at all against these online resources—they are indeed providing unprecedented, democratic access to design information, and sometimes, access to particularly well-known design experts. When I went to design school, we waited impatiently for the next issue of Emigré or Print to see the amazing work happening in California, New York or Chicago—Europe was only available through the portals provided by Graphis and Eye Magazine. Today, design blogs and the Internet make even the most niche aspects of design culture broadly available.

However, I wonder if it’s truly possible for online learning to replace the special kind of interaction that happens when you bring dedicated students and faculty together (even in the relatively crummy physical building that we have at the University of Washington). A few points in favor of physical face-to-face learning—or as it’s called today, the “high-touch” model:

1. In the best design schools, students form a tightly knit community, building connections that can last a lifetime. A successful design program is an environment where students help and learn from each other—where each student is motivated to perform at their best by following the example set by other dedicated students.

UW design students

Photos: Francis Luu

2. In a university setting, design students have the opportunity to learn about an incredible range of subjects—from nanotechnology, to the inner workings of the brain, to the history of Rome—all while also learning about design. The diversity of knowledge at a university provides rich possibilities for interdisciplinary collaborations—in the form of research projects, commercial start-ups or nonprofit/social initiatives.

3. It’s obvious, but the best design schools provide strong foundations in design fundamentals, both formal and conceptual. Students should leave design school knowing what makes something aesthetically pleasing—in every detail—as well as what makes a design logical, cohesive and easy for an intended audience to understand and use.

UW design crit

Photos: Lauren Jong

4. The key learning activity of any good design program is the critique. During critique, design students learn how to speak critically and thoughtfully about their work, and they learn how to give and accept constructive feedback. Learning to be open, to take criticism and to iterate toward success is vital preparation for the professional practice of design (and perhaps for the general practice of existing in a society).

5. Successful design schools foster discipline. Faculty should be nurturing, but they should also push design students to work hard, to stretch above and beyond their current limits and to pursue perfection in all aspects of their work. Some students are self-motivated, but others need the positive social pressure of a structured program—a college education in design—to perform at their best.