John Spencer: “Universities aren’t the future of design education”


We love to bellyache about the failure of university design education to prepare students for a career in graphic design. One of the greatest complaints is that it hasn’t kept pace with the times and some say it’s decades out of date, but I don’t think that’s the problem at all. I reckon the real problem is that most universities have got hopelessly lost because they’re following industry trends instead of focusing on the building blocks of our craft. They’re trying to keep pace with an industry that can’t even agree on a definition of design let alone use coherent, bullshit-free vocabulary to describe the work it does.

Design education needs to be connected

The closure of the Bauhaus-inspired foundation course, which allowed students to cross fluidly between disciplines, is a horror story. We need foundation courses now more than ever. Design education needs to be connected, not specialised, because that’s how design is in the real world. It needs to prepare students for a career in an industry whose future is probably best described as a ‘known unknown’. If designers aren’t ready for anything they’re ready for nothing.

Nothing graphic designers do is very complicated

Universities have a responsibility to encourage students to be agile, resilient and adaptable. They’ve a responsibility to encourage an openness to new ways of doing things. And they’ve a responsibility to help students develop the means to work in different contexts. More than anything, their job is to provide students with the mental and physical space to experiment, to fail and to learn. Nothing graphic designers do is very complicated. Nothing we do has fundamentally changed in the last 50 years. Then as now, the most important thing we have to offer is our instinct and imagination.Alan Fletcher was once asked by some students, “What is the most treasured and well-used piece of equipment in your studio?” He replied, “My head.”

Universities are a retail scam

Universities have become commercial enterprises and their pursuit of income is now an inescapable reality. They’ve sold their souls. They’re all about bums on seats – as many bums on as few seats as possible. And they’re churning out mediocrity on a grand scale. Universities are a retail scam.The introduction of tuition fees has turned students into demanding customers. The student satisfaction survey has an inordinate influence on university league tables but more importantly, it’s altered the dynamic of the learning environment. It’s changed forever the relationship between teaching staff and their students because there’s friction between the educational call for critical assessment of students’ performance and the business need to keep the customer satisfied.

University design education is in irreversible decline

I’ve come across some excellent teaching by inspired, passionate and committed people who are well informed about our rapidly changing industry. But on the whole, design education is in irreversible decline with its indifferent teaching, routine pursuit of trivial research and unimaginative management. What’s more, its usefulness is being devalued by a fixation with dreaming up courses that sell – a marketing gimmick that exploits students and peddles unrealistic expectations.Universities are behemoths driven by self-preservation. Competition between them has got out of hand. Yet they’ve no real idea how to compete because they’re not run by entrepreneurs, they’re run by risk-averse administrators and career academics who have little or no understanding of how the design industry works.

Design industry-funded elite design schools are the future

So if universities aren’t the future for design education, what is? There are plenty of commercial alternatives – Shillington College is a good example. But the School of Communication Arts is particularly interesting. It claims to be “the most successful ad school in the world”. It’s a social enterprise that’s supported by more than 100 advertising agencies. The course runs for 18 months out of which its 36 students get about six months of placements in top agencies. And the School has a network of over 800 industry mentors, so students learn from giants of the advertising industry like Sir John Hegarty, Alexandra Taylor and Dave Trott. It’s a bit like an apprenticeship.We should try to stop fretting about what universities are getting wrong because it’s only going to get worse. The future of design depends on the quality of its “new blood” and it’s in everyone’s interest to keep the standard high. So if our industry is genuinely bothered by the poor quality of university design education we ought to do something about it. We should take our lead from the advertising industry and fund our own elite design schools that nurture real talent. And run them as social enterprises so students don’t get saddled with indefensible debt.

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