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Design Education and Leadership

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Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Barry Katz, tenured professor at California College of Arts (CCA), who took me on a tour of the cavernous CCA building—the same building SOM designed in the ‘50’s to house Greyhound buses. As we walked, he related the progression of CCA’s multi-discipline degree programs, and how that’s been enabled by the building’s open plan. The faculty there is heavily weighted towards adjunct vs. tenured professors, allowing for responsiveness in its programs. Four years ago, CCA was the first to offer an undergraduate degree for interaction design. Today, the school offers a Masters in Interaction Design and even an MBA in Design (gasp!). Change is in the air!

CCA Flexible Room Dividers
CCA Flexible Room Dividers

My co-founder, Greg Baker, and I come from RISD in Providence. Unlike CCA, the RISD learning environment takes place in a collection of standalone buildings, each specializing in its own discipline. A dichotomy plays out each year for the RISD student: a craving for more cross-discipline exposure, but an overwhelming amount of focus and complete focus in the student’s chosen program. The immersion is total—you leave wishing you could spend another four years there. While curricula largely have not changed, we see tangible proof each year that RISD’s program continues to deliver an incredibly high level of design quality and creativity.

Design education is continuous, evolving and becoming increasingly accessible to all.

As traditional university education evolves, short format programs like General Assembly have emerged. And they’ve become quite successful. The proliferation of design bootcamps and online programs, are tuned very precisely to a single topic like “LeanUX” or “Mobile” in direct contrast to the university philosophy.

More design education options have risen from the increasing importance of design and design thinking across disciplines from people at various stages in their life and careers. And it’s now largely accessible to everyone—whether full immersion and multi-discipline training with degree programs, exposure to topics via continuing education, or assistance switching careers with the help of bootcamps. The more education options there are, the better the design field is. We’ve hired incredibly talented designers from CCA, RISD, Academy of Art, General Assembly and many others.

Technology advances design faster than any single option of academia can keep up with.

Learning on-the-job should be a very important part of a design team’s culture. Creating the ‘space’—whether it be physical space, time, or new platforms and programs—for learning is a critical.

Here, new staff is billed at half time to clients, allowing time for training fundamentals. Formalized learning is always encouraged be it coursework, speaking events or conferences. The staff uses Slack as a critical medium for ad-hoc learning, channels are dedicated to topics like development and prototyping. Monday mornings, a designer hosts a “Show & Tell” that highlight a new technique for the whole studio.

On Fridays we have an early happy hour and share company news, and often design colleagues are invited to present new perspectives from their workplace. DesignMap also hosts design and tech meetups in our space, providing multi-discipline exposure to topics like IoT and launching startups.

Educating designers continues well past wireframes and responsive layouts.

While the hard skills of design are well known and being addressed with various education options and platforms, it’s soft skills that help designers become impactful leaders within companies and in the industry at large.

Frequent turnover amongst designers is a well-known challenge amongst design teams and agencies. Here, the leadership works on the many dimensions of our company experience: true work/life/family balance, personalized career development, empathic techniques, social dynamics, DesignMap core values and culture. We all strive to be emotionally intelligent.

RISD didn’t necessarily prepare me for being an entrepreneur, manager or leader. This has taken time and experience, and continuously educating myself. Understanding how to build a long-term, sustainable organization of people and complex systems continues to be the ultimate design challenge and learning experience.

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Nathan Kendrick

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