What goes on in design school?

Design school is very different from most other educational experiences. Design students still occasionally listen to lectures, read books and essays, take exams or write papers like other college students, but almost all of their learning and evaluation happens through making and critique. The purpose of design education is to develop and practice habits of learning that a designer will use and hone for the next forty or fifty years.

Design education isn’t limited to the classroom. Learning outside of school is an essential part of any design education. Most making and learning takes place outside of class, either working alone on projects, with others in groups, or in professional contexts such as design studios and in-house departments.

What is learning through making?

Studio assignments range from small exercises with more predictable outcomes to long-term, self-directed projects. For example, early on in a design program a student may be given a week to respond to a tightly controlled problem, such as arranging forms or text on a field to explore concepts of rhythm and pattern, or writing basic HTML to explore repetition or input. For some students, conceptual projects that don’t seek a known outcome are new territory. Whether physical or digital, such projects allow students to make small (or big) discoveries along the way while providing technical practice and evidence of mastery.

An advanced student may tackle designing a publication, ad campaign, or digital product and address everything from choosing the platform and distribution to curating the content. These projects are similar in that the outcome is not predetermined, and the learning is expanded and more complex, adding method and theory to concept and technique.

How can a project break down into parts that can be handled individually? How does changing one part affect the others? When talking about the project, what are some things to say that help people understand the connection between the intent and the outcome? How can a student assess their own talents and interests to frame problems that are neither too easy nor too hard?

What to expect from critique

While some of this making happens in a classroom, most of it happens elsewhere. In the classroom, the primary method of instruction is critique, where students and faculty discuss the progress and outcomes of a project. Critique may often look like criticism or market research. It can also resemble an oral examination, defense, or focus group, depending on the participants and how the work is shared. But a critique is really more like an exchange, where someone presenting work shares ideas and enthusiasm, and receives useful information, questions, and suggestions to make the work better in return.

Through critique, designers learn to ask the right questions and connect projects and concepts that don’t immediately seem related. Courses in history and theory support studio critiques by building a common set of words, concepts, and images with which to discuss projects. Designers who learn to regularly give and receive criticism continue to improve throughout their careers, which is why so much time is spent developing these important skills.

Moving from the abstract to the concrete

In practice, a designer spends a lot of time understanding how individual talent and expertise can play out in a particular context, whether it’s a specific type of business or institution, a new medium, or a new web of relationships between people working on a project. To address that experience, most design programs scale from the abstract to the concrete, starting with concepts and techniques that are universal and moving towards specific contemporary purposes and audiences.

The learning often moves from dependent, instructional formats to more independent projects and inquiries, building self-knowledge, agency, and entrepreneurship. None of those qualities are requirements for an entry-level design job, but all three are necessary for leadership positions, independent practice, and for moving the discipline forward.

About the Author: Juliette Cezzar is a designer, writer, and Assistant Professor of Communication Design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, where she was the Director of the BFA Communication Design and BFA Design & Technology programs from 2011–2014. She served as President of the board of directors of AIGA/NY from 2014–2016. She is the co-author, with Sue Apfelbaum, of Designing the Editorial Experience, and the author of five other books, the latest of which is The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design.