To school or not to school – the design aspirants debate

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The notion to ‘Un-school’ is rife amongst millennials and Gen Z. There are good arguments made by both sides regarding the advantages of self learning and the extra edge gained via design schools. Some believe unlearning or self-learning is the way to go forward whereas others assert the importance of design institutions. As is the case with most discussions – both parties have some fairly good claims. Thus, I don’t want to argue in favor or against any one of them, but simply elaborate my views on various topics and let the reader decide.

Fair warning: This debate only concerns itself with Design schools.

Strong basics

  • Unschool: Design principles or design thinking is a natural and personal process. This is never the same for two people. Every individual’s approach to tackle a design problem comes from their own experiences, observations and style. Design schools sometimes put so much pressure on following the set and done methodology that they end up molding everyone to approach the problem in a similar fashion. This hampers the individual’s own take towards the design process.
  • School: When streamlined in different principals like Architecture, Interiors, Fashion, Graphics or Product; Design comprises very unique skills. A technical viewpoint is as important as raw design thinking. As much as design is a free thinking, individual approach, it also needs to abide by some laws for it be useful and practical. Good design schools recognize an individual’s raw ideas and try to shape them in the right context. This enables aspirants to channelize their thoughts into more functional outputs.

Time and money

  • Unschool: Design schools are expensive and demand your full attention for a few years. In this time and money, one can already start creating and earning. If self taught, one can decide how many hours they need to ideate, create and earn. Design schools dedicate years to learn basics, polish them, conduct research and create concepts whereas the cut-throat market doesn’t allow for such a long ‘backstage’ time. It’s better to put your skills to use everyday than to wait for years to do so, when they’ve already become obsolete.
  • School: Design schools are expensive because the accolades earned carry value in professional life. Years are dedicated in polishing basics to integrate them in daily life and thought. It is true that the market puts a time limit to every project. It is not possible to deep dive into research and concept creation in such a limited period. However, this is exactly why schools dedicate so much time to it, so that this research and concept gets ingrained. Students gain deep knowledge about many aspects of design so that they don’t have to repeat it while working. Concept creation becomes a natural code of conduct. No design school stops a student from learning and working. The curriculum is demanding of course, but it is possible to take up projects, internships or apprenticeship while studying.

Specialize or Generalize?

  • Unschool: Design institutions focus on gaining specialized skills and push students in that direction sometimes for their own gain. This happens to keep up with industry trends, depends on the faculty expertise or the institution’s forte. However, being a designer should be more about acquiring different skills and one should have the freedom to do so. Gaining expertise in a single direction might land you a good job but doesn’t necessarily make you a good boss.
  • School: Institutions naturally focus on specific things and sometimes Degrees or diplomas are also acquired in very specific streams. Some universities have research and development at their core whereas some focus on technical knowledge. As a space designer, you could gain a specialized degree in landscape, sustainable design, aesthetic building design, structural design, construction management, furniture design, decor etc. Yet, if we take the example of residential design, it entails all of the above. Many schools offer different subjects which students can select based on their interests. It is up to them to pick courses which are very focused or offer a range of different skills. However, it is foolish to assume that any aspect of learning would completely cut out other sources of knowledge. One is free to acquire skills they deem worthy through books, peers, research, internet or practical work.

Competition

  • Unschool: As a designer it is important to not constantly pit yourself against others to retain your own individual streak. The competition should rather be with your own self which would help you constantly improve your work. Schools tend to set boundaries and grades in specific qualities and judge everyone on the same platform. This hampers the designer’s unique traits as they end up racing each other in the confines of the school system. As a result, robotic designers are produced who value grades more than talents.
  • School: Grading students at the end of the term on the same platform is a measure to determine the skills acquired. A minimum requirement in technical subjects is essential to evaluate if the student is aware of the practices and science needed to excel in a certain design stream. Being able to do construction and graphics in a similar fashion sets the base quality for future work. However, it is true that design cannot be judged equally. Every design has a distinctive approach, concept, purpose and output. Yet, it is also true that one cannot compete only with oneself when in the real market. Every designer is constantly competing with others to get projects and recognition. The school system provides good practice for the future. It is important to not let grades and marks sway you from your uniqueness. At the same time, it is quite relevant to know where you stand amongst future designers and how you can catch up in skills where you lack and refine where you ace.

Influence or shared knowledge?

  • Unschool: In a school setting, young designers are influenced by set ideas and standards which prevent them from taking risks. A designer’s strength lies in the ability to experiment and innovate. Creating in a closed academic environment imposes restrictions on designers early on, putting a stop to imagination and freshness. Being bound by professors, peers and experts limits the designer’s curiosity and feeds the idea that there is only ‘one proper way to design’.
  • School: Design schools expose students to a variety of different disciplines by calling experts from various fields. Moreover, engaging in conversation with fellow students increases knowledge about places and ideas one hasn’t personally ventured in. Fresh perspectives and outlooks emerge as a result. Network with future designers and industry professionals are formed. One doesn’t have to agree or accept every idea put forth – a difference of opinion is allowed and even encouraged in most design schools. Working with others also prepares you to work as a team and take other’s opinions into consideration which is extremely important as a designer. Tackling rejection and critique is also drilled deeply into students. This helps in establishing the fact that dismissal of your idea isn’t the end of the World and that every single designer has room to improve.

Accomplishments and Success

  • Unschool: As a designer, one needs to learn constantly. At no point in their career can a designer state that he knows everything now. So getting a degree or diploma isn’t the measure of your success. A designer’s accomplishment lies in their portfolio. Learning cannot be restricted to classrooms, but also lies in the World outside – travel, read, observe, work, try, fail, succeed. How can a marksheet score a designer’s success when their work is always evolving through fresh experiences.
  • School: A design school awards degrees to mark the beginning of a designer’s career. A good portfolio is what gets you a good job or a valuable project. Clients or employers do not care about marksheets. Design style, travel experiences and expertise can be conveyed much better in a portfolio anyway. However, it is much easier for clients and employers to trust a designer who has a university degree as it conveys his technical and practical soundness. It also speaks of qualification and background of any candidate. Having a design school certificate immediately pits you higher than candidates who are self learned and have no way of communicating that they possess higher skill sets than graduates. What is better than having a very good portfolio is having a very good portfolio backed up by a university degree.

There is no prescription for success. It is a matter of personal will and instinct. Intellect can be gained in different ways – through schooling or sans schooling. The decision goes far beyond this listicle and there are many other aspects to consider. Yet, I hope this article brings you some insight into where you see yourself as a designer. Evaluate your interests, talents and aptitude before choosing any career stream and outline the best options for YOU. No matter which path you choose, I wish you all the fun and success that awaits you as a DESIGNER.

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