What this Country Needs is a Good Five-Year Design Program

What is the greatest problem facing graphic design education today? Not enough quality time. With the exception of occasional two-year programs, most undergraduate colleges and art schools offer four years—one of them being foundation, a questionable squandering of significant design teaching time. So the average education lasts three years, which is insufficient to cover everything today’s well-rounded graphic designer should know. What might ease this “crisis in education?” Perhaps what this country needs is a five-year undergraduate school.

Of course this assertion contradicts prevailing beliefs. But, arguably, the increasing number of applications (particularly from graduating seniors) to the growing number of American graduate design programs is evidence that today’s BFA students are not entirely prepared (or confident) to function in a world of integrated practice and advanced technology. Let’s face it, a three-year education is old school.

Proficiency in requisite technologies, not to mention a slew of optional techniques, easily takes a year or more to master in a rudimentary way. Acquiring fluency in the design language(s), most notably type, is an ongoing process. Then there is instruction and practice in a variety of old and new media—print and web, editorial and advertising, static and motion, not to mention drawing and photography—these take time to learn, no less to hone. And what about the liberal arts: writing, history and criticism? Theory is also a useful foundation if taught correctly, but it is often perfunctorily shoehorned into studio classes. How can a design student function without verbal expertise, let alone the ability to read and research? This must also be taught in an efficient manner that takes time. And then there is basic business acumen; every designer must understand fundamental business procedures, which are virtually ignored in the ultimate pursuit of the marketable portfolio.

Whew, that’s a lot to accomplish in just three years. But, added to this are the necessary internships that also take chunks of time. Frankly, students should not be allowed to enter the field without a little real world experience under their belts. So shouldn’t there be time set aside for a few solid internships or work-abroad programs in addition to a strong course load?

The foundation year—traditionally an opportunity afforded to freshmen to sample a broad arts curricula—would serve students better if devoted instead to teaching the technologies and introducing languages endemic to graphic design.

Art and design schools that ostensibly begin to teach design majors in the second year have barely prepared their sophomores for design literacy. Foundation classes may offer some credits towards graduation, but what good are these credits if the knowledge has little bearing on the major? It is hard enough being merely competent these days, but fluency in type and conceptual thinking is so essential that more, not less, time must be devoted to it. Most sophomores, even those who excel in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or In Design, are plunged into problem solving without the ability to parse the problems they are asked to solve. Sure, their instincts and skill-sets evolve over time, but in the truncated three-year timeframe there are greater chances that too many students will be left behind.

The greatest single area of ignorance among students (and some professionals) is type and typography. It takes a sustained effort and practice to produce a type literate student who knows how to compose type, what type is designed to express, and the history of letterforms as design components. By the senior year too many students are still type novices, following superficial trends or rote traditions, and the portfolios prove that the standard for literacy is not as high as it might be. If nothing else, BFA graduates should flawlessly “speak” the language of type. Regrettably, claiming proficiency with computer programs seem to be more important.

Blame can sometimes be laid at the feet of instructors, but not always. How many times do good teachers lament the lack of time devoted to their specialty, or complain about the overall course work packed into a short time period that diverts student attention? In a three-year program the number of required classes (and credits) often exceed the ability of the student to be well taught, or at least to retain what they’ve studied.

Given the programmatic and bureaucratic intricacies of higher education, a five-year program is probably unrealistic, but not altogether impossible. One solution is to eliminate foundation. But more importantly, it is necessary for administrators to accept that twenty-first century pedagogy is more complex than before. More, not less, schooling is demanded in many fields today, especially design. At the same time, design students must not be encouraged to view graduate school as merely a two-year supplemental extension of their undergraduate education. MFA faculties should not have to teach remedial type or computer programs—leave that for continuing education classes. Rather MFA programs should offer an additional two (or three) years to analyze and research bigger ideas for which there is no opportunity in the workaday world. MFAs should be advanced options after certain levels of experience are attained. Undergraduate education should be a full plate of pedagogical necessities that prepare students to enter the design field.

Admittedly, five years is not a lot of time either, but it will enable teaching of technology and encourage its immediate integration into the design process in the freshman year. Furthermore, it will allow courses on history, criticism, and theory to be more than electives or add-ons (critical history should be a three year parallel track intersecting with studio practical classes). The added year(s) should allow for more advanced minors in interrelated subject areas. More time could also allow for longer and more varied internships as requirements towards graduation. Five years of dedicated design pedagogy will better prepare students to enter the workforce, where doubtless they will learn even more.

Undergraduate design education is not the last word in creating the good designer; work experience is essential. Yet more education accelerates professional growth. There are many terrific graduates emerging every year, but just think how many more there could be if graphic design education was not hampered by such a truncated production line. An extra year or two could make a big difference for everyone.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com