So, what are the most important aspects of industrial design education at the moment? What, and how, do students need to learn to contribute effectively to industrial design practice in the future? What does the industrial design profession want from a graduate? Where is design education excelling and where does it need to improve? Curve asked universities and design organisations internationally to comment. While the responses indicate that university programs are mostly hitting the mark, especially when it comes to environmental awareness and the emphasis on designing for end users, there is broad agreement about where it could do better – with business and project management skills repeatedly cited as needing improvement.
Stephen Trathen, senior lecturer in industrial design at the University of Canberra, thinks it is a very interesting time for industrial design education. “Australia, like many other western countries, is adapting to reduced local manufacturing and the expanding influence of countries such as China and India,” he says.
“Internationally, the practice of industrial design has broadened its traditional object-based sphere of interest into areas such as interaction design, experience design, service design, environmental responsibility, and so on. This means that educational bodies need to revise the content of courses in response to the evolving role of industrial design.”
Frank Tyneski, executive director of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), brings a US perspective to the discussion. He says the fine arts, science, technology, industry and commerce all have acute relevance to the industrial designer but believes that the most important aspect of design education is to train industrial designers to be sympathetic to the needs of the end user.
“The designer is rarely that end user,” he says. “For example, an able-bodied designer may be employed to design medical products for the ill or disabled and a young designer can successfully design a product for the elderly.
"So, design educators are teaching design students how to seek an understanding of unmet needs and also to look for opportunities to improve our existence.”
In Norway, design education is about communication, collaboration and problem-solving. “Students should be shown how to solve real problems in a design project and be able to communicate well both visually and in words,” say Soren Yran and Lars Haaland from the Norwegian Industrial Designers association.
“It is also important to teach them to cooperate well, especially with people from other professions – industrial design is seldom realised by one person alone.”
Frank Tyneski is especially excited about the collaborative spaces and curriculums being built at universities in the United States. “For example, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) School of Art and Design has created a common space (UIC Innovation Center) to bring together students from a variety of cross-functional disciplines (industrial design, engineering, marketing and anthropology) so they can connect in a communal setting.
These collaborative environments are springing up across the US, and this relatively new education model is important because today’s problems are much too large and difficult for one person or one discipline to solve.”
“We are all familiar with just-in-time manufacturing practices, and now universities like UIC are attempting to evolve design education by incorporating just-in-time education to deal with the immediacy of critical problems that arise out of ever-changing behaviours.
"As much as I’d like to believe design can save the world, that’s simply not the case. However, I get very excited when I see what is possible when creative design students work collaboratively with those studying science, fine art, architecture, engineering, material sciences, chemistry and robotics.
"Designers are typically great connectors and when these working teams come together in a design-centric setting, it’s incredibly dynamic.”
Others in the field – both educators and those heading up professional associations – have positive things to say about the current state of industrial design education as well.
Oya Demirbilek, senior lecturer and head of the industrial design program at the University of New South Wales, says design education is doing a good job of teaching technical skills, design thinking and problem-solving. “Our students are also very sensitive to sustainability and human emotions and experiences.”
“Tertiary industrial design education has done and continues to do the job of exposing potential designers to the profession’s culture and design processes,” says David Robertson, national president of the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), which is currently developing a new education policy to strengthen the links and dialogue between practice and education. “In the best graduates this reinforces a desire to create high-quality, distinctive products.”
Soren Yran and Lars Haaland think the focus on design that improves the lives of people, as demonstrated by the rise of universal design, is a very positive thing, as is emphasis on the technical side.
“We expect a lot from the newer generations of industrial designers who design for the digital domain (services and user interfaces), which is a growing area both in the Norwegian design business and in education.”
So, where does design education need to improve? For starters, there seems to be wide consensus that the teaching of business skills could be ramped up at universities.
“Industrial design courses must train designers who are well versed in management, business and marketing, with significantly better grounding in technology, world manufacturing, the design process and the all-important control of design data, specification and documentation,” says David Robertson.
“To give graduates a chance in a job environment lacking in opportunities for high-quality post-graduation mentoring, tertiary institutions need to pack more substance into industrial design courses.
"Graduates need increased exposure to business and administration skills, manufacturing industry knowledge and methods of international outsourcing; significantly improved understanding of technical inputs to the manufacturing process such as electronics, software and materials; and familiarity with the skills and roles of others in the manufacturing supply chain.”
Frank Tyneski, too, thinks that graduates usually have a lot to learn about business. “Sometimes the real world is a shock to them. This is because design students enjoy few design constraints while in school. A design curriculum allows a student the opportunity to freely explore new ideas and concepts, as it should.
"It’s a good primer for being able to manage real design programs with many more design constraints. Corporate design constraints are often far from ideal and much more compromising than the typical school project.
"For example, a designer may have to re-use existing parts or components and seamlessly integrate them into their design proposal, rather than design new parts from scratch.
"In business, all programs are driven by cost and schedule. Neither is very accommodating to the design process, and graduates aren’t ready to manage product cost or negotiate schedules. If left unprotected, they’ll be devoured by the engineers.”
Eugenie Biddle, senior project manager with the UK Design Council, says there should be more emphasis on communication, markets and culture, client require-ments, planning and cost structure.
“We have found from talking to industry design leaders and educators that business skills should be developed to ensure we continue to have a design industry that is fit for the global economy.”
Susanne Lengyel, president of the German Association of Industrial Designers (VDID/DDV), also thinks there is not enough emphasis on business management in industrial design education. “Education is too often about giving design tasks to students,” she says.
And it’s a similar story in Norway. “We’ve heard from executives that design education needs to focus more on manufacturing issues, project management and how to sell a design,” comment Soren Yran and Lars Haaland.
Stephen Trathen says there are opportunities for Australian universities, government and industry to join forces on a range of initiatives to develop the nation’s ability to innovate.
“In the Australian context, there is a real need for the university sector to collaborate more closely with professional design and manufacturing industries in the development of relevant undergraduate programs, expanded applied research and relevant research training for design practitioners.”
Communication and project management
Frank Tyneski thinks that graduates are usually good communicators – but not in the classical sense. “Thoughtfully crafted written communications are nearly extinct, having been eclipsed by instant messaging, mobile texting, email, Skype video calls and blogging,” he says.
“This is an area where the senior personnel are often educated by a new hire. However, young designers who enter the workforce run the risk of being dangerously casual with senior staff.
I recall telling a junior designer, ‘Don’t call your boss dude, dude.’ Communication should be respectful.”
Tyneski also says that while good designers are often great storytellers, “many innovative concepts never make it to production because the designer wasn’t able to seduce the client or business leader with a good pitch”.
Graduates’ lack of schooling in project management is another area that comes in for criticism from the industry.
“It’s an under-served segment,” says Frank Tyneski. “Product management skills are important because a schedule slip at a corporation can cost millions of dollars in lost revenue per week.
"Schedule slippages are always investigated and, at best, the owners of the mistake will be put on the company’s endangered species list.”
“Students entering a design consultancy will have different pressures. Typically, design firms are less responsible for the production outcome. However, the modern design firm must compete on speed as much as quality. You see, corporations typically hire design firms long after they discover that they have more on their plate then they can handle.
"For the corporation, this realisation often comes late so they must scramble to find a design firm to dig them out. Before hiring a design firm, the corporation must also go through the competitive bidding and selection process. So, the firm that wins the job is typically at a huge time deficit.
"To vent off the intensity and retain creativity, design firms often trumpet cool, communal and fun environments for designers to work in. But look behind the curtain and you’ll find some brilliant project managers.”
Susanne Lengyel also feels not enough is taught about project management. “Having your own office means controlling budgets, controlling projects and controlling time. This could be taught more intensively!”
Soren Yran and Lars Haaland tend to agree but think it could involve more input from the design profession. “Active designers should be more focused on sharing their experience with students, and we believe it would be better if students were allowed to take part in ‘real life’ projects in design studios.”
Mark Strachan, academic leader – Industrial Design, Interior Design and Product Design Engineering at Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, agrees that experience in design firms is invaluable.
“Swinburne prides itself on offering students valuable in-the-field work experience,” he says. “Our Industry Placement program is offered to third-year students and gives them a real taste of the pace and requirements of working life.”
Frank Tyneski is also mourning the loss of the tactile aspects of the creative process and wants a return to old-school model-making.
“The designer must delicately manage and nurture the symbiotic relationship between conceiving ideas in his head and testing these assumptions in the tangible world. The process of making things and manually manipulating raw materials like modeling clay, wood, structural foam and cardboard is an essential part of the design process.”
“Sadly, the hands-on process is rapidly disappearing. Many design schools are now relying on new hands-off rapid prototyping tools. These tools are incredibly fast and efficient, reducing cycle time and cost.
"Creating prototypes from computer-generated data is also accurate and the process is much cleaner and safer than using hand tools. These new tools make simple business sense and that’s scary to me, as I fear that soon design students will no longer be intimately involved in the hands-on process of making things.”
“Romance is hard thing to quantify, but we all know what it feels like. For a designer, romance is never stronger than when we run our hands across a beautiful surface, a surface we created with our own hands.
"As we roll forward with new tools and technologies, I believe it’s important to preserve the hands-on process in school. It teaches young designers very important spatial and sculptural relationships. It aids their ability to draw these complex forms.”
Mark Strachan, too, sees real value in teaching model-making. “Despite the advent and remarkable benefits of rapid prototyping, it still remains important for graduates to experience the process of hands-on model-making, learning material manipulation and characteristics, as well as construction, assembly and structural integrity.
"This way they gather an innate feel of what constitutes a well-conceived and well-executed design.”
Clearly, sustainability and environment now get much more attention in industrial design curricula than they used to, but is it enough?
Eco issues are not getting adequate coverage in UK universities, according to Eugenie Biddle. “An understanding of sustainability is definitely an area that we need to encourage within the design sector,” she says. “We need to work with education partners from school level to university to ensure that sustainability is included in teaching and learning.”
David Robertson thinks design graduates are aware of sustainability issues and in many cases have a personal interest in them. “But they lack the detailed knowledge about materials and processes needed to make informed choices during the design process.”
However, Frank Tyneski is impressed with the teaching of environmental issues at universities. “Today’s design students know our planet is in peril and they want to make a positive difference.
"Many student design programs and thesis projects are investigating ways to achieve corporate profitability while simultaneously conserving natural resources and encouraging less spontaneous consumption. It’s no easy task. Yet today’s design students are optimistic, well informed and galvanised.
"I believe they are up for the challenge. I’m also hopeful that they’ll be able to encourage their business leaders to make responsible decisions. Designing concepts for the future now includes making sure we have a future.”
Employability and recruitment
Once students have completed their design program, how do employers think they shape up? There’s no doubt that competition for jobs is tough these days and that graduates are very well scrutinised by employers.
Frank Tyneski says he looks for a graduate who has had some level of professional experience. “It’s very tough for an undergrad to get their first break, which is why it’s so important for students to land an internship prior to graduation. If you’re a student, you should voraciously compete for them.
"Most design interns are paid, but I know of one student who offered to work at a budding start-up for free. Today he’s a senior partner in that firm. He’s also very glad he decided not to go backpacking through Europe that summer. Upon graduation, the talent and skills required to land an internship roll over; they simply become baseline requirements for getting an interview.”
But interpersonal skills and blending in with a company’s culture are also important, says Tyneski. “It’s also about finding someone who is a unique and natural fit for the role. I can’t emphasise this enough.
"Every designer is an ambassador for their company’s brand. Many designers may wonder why they were passed over and in many cases it’s not for lack of ability. Hiring a designer isn’t as easy as plugging a hole in the organisational chart. The design department must be staffed with organisational soul mates.
"I always seek a diverse group of talented individuals who are harmonised, and tuning a design organisation is no easy task. I always ask myself: will this new individual be able to play well with others and are they talented and humble enough to gain the respect of the other staff?”
Oya Demirbilek says the key attributes of a design graduate should be enthusiasm and the will to explore everything, combined with “a good set of design skills (visible in their portfolio), a positive attitude, good interpersonal skills, and an awareness of world issues”.
But is it unrealistic to expect graduates to know the industry inside out and be schooled in everything, chapter and verse? Eugenie Biddle says it is.
“We encourage employers to recognise that they may not be getting the whole package when they employ graduates, and that they should be prepared to train them up in certain areas. We also encourage graduates to continue developing their skills.”
Frank Tyneski, too, believes that graduates shouldn’t necessarily know it all. “In fact, a naive designer is often an organisational asset. Design is about breaking the rules and young designers optimistically throw themselves into their projects, completely unaware of the rules they are breaking.
The courage and zeal they bring to the design department is healthy and very inspiring to the senior staff. Without young energy, an organisation runs the risk of having too firm a grip on its institutional knowledge.”
He also says, although the modern design student should be well trained in graphic design, branding, materials and processes, marketing, consumer research, human factors and experience design, it would be nearly impossible for an individual to learn all of those skills in college. “This is why natural ability, talent and insatiable curiosity are important attributes of the industrial designer.”
David Robertson thinks very few students have exposure to complex manufacturing environments and complex product ranges in Australia, or a grasp of market forces. “While students may have an awareness of the way economics, consumer behaviour and marketing affect product development, I am not aware of Australian industrial design courses having the scope to deal with these subjects in detail.”
Susanne Lengyel is also skeptical about the ability of universities to teach everything there is to know about complex products and systems. “This is something designers learn on the job,” she says. “Real life is the only way to learn about these things.”
According to Tyneski, top graduates are landing lucrative positions in America, but they tend to be with design consultancies rather than in large corporations. “Many corporations have either downsized or have not adequately scaled their design departments as their companies grew. The result has been more jobs for design consultancies. Independent designers are also doing well.”
“Industrial designers are also crossing over into analogous businesses like fashion and architecture. Buildings are becoming much more sculptural, so they’re essentially being designed like large products.
"Industrial designers are well trained in complex form development and most are equally skilled in the software tools required to translate those complex surfaces into usable engineering data. So, industrial design graduates are now marketable to architectural firms.
"Another trend is that fashion is becoming product design and product design is becoming more like fashion. My last industrial design intern was hired to design mobile phones for Kyocera. Upon graduation, he received job offers to work for Diesel, Fossil and DKNY.”
In Norway, as elsewhere, the employment landscape for graduates is also changing. “Our production industry is shrinking, but the high-tech, oil and shipping industries need designers,” say Soren Yran and Lars Haaland. “An increasing number of industrial designers are finding work within digital user-interface design.”
Many graduates, all over the world, are moving abroad to boost their careers. Frank Tyneski thinks that with the US economy struggling, many more graduates may be looking outside the US for work.
“But candidates must position themselves as having a unique set of skills or experiences that are not readily available in the country they hope to work in. It’s rare, but sometimes simply being a talented American will suffice, as it’s very difficult for a foreign company to design for the American marketplace.
"Finding work abroad, however, often requires falling on an economic sword, as labour rates are much cheaper in India and Asia, for example. In these trying times, those who can afford it are waiting out our bad economy in grad school.”
According to David Robertson, many Australian graduates are also seeking work offshore, and this probably works to their advantage.
“A graduate who has spent at least a few years in manufacturing companies with extensive product ranges that are internationally distributed, is likely to have been exposed to many more projects of greater complexity than a graduate working for a small single-product manufacturer in Australia,” he says.
Soren Yran and Lars Haaland say it’s not uncommon for Norwegian designers to work abroad for a couple of years. “A rough estimate says around ten per cent of our members have worked outside Norway for a time.”
Undertaking design education overseas can also bring benefits. Susanne Lengyel thinks there are definite advantages to having an international education. “Students who have studied outside Germany are usually more mature and have learned to live in another culture,” she says.
“There is nothing like taking students out of their comfort zone – broadening their cultural horizons and expanding their understanding of both design and life,” agrees Mark Strachan. “All students should go overseas.”
While Frank Tyneski has never deliberately sought out a designer who has studied abroad, he concedes that international experience is of value. “Studying abroad or seeking a position outside of one’s native country requires tremendous courage – I do respect that,” he says. “Cultural diversity is a plus, and being fluent in more than one language is desirable.”
Dollars and sense
Tyneski tends to think graduates have unrealistic expectations about salary and amount of creative involvement when they join the workforce. “Young designers naturally enjoy winning but very few appear to be as emotionally attached to their mistakes,” he says.
“And worse, many are not able to accept creative criticism. Once hired, they spend too much of their time aggressively campaigning for unmerited raises when they could be using that time to earn them.
"Practically all new hires expect to be on a fast track and very few are grateful to receive professional training or mentoring. It drives me crazy sometimes, but the joy of seeing a new designer achieve a victory in the marketplace makes it all worthwhile.”
In Australia, the DIA conducts an annual salary survey and publishes the results in a series of practice notes that are issued to members, which keeps expectations more realistic.
“Student DIA members receive the graduate salary survey results and a graduate practice note that provides advice on job seeking and salary negotiation,” says David Robertson. “So some students are in possession of accurate data. In some cases lecturers with access to this information ensure that students are aware.”
Narrowing the field
When asked whether graduates should specialise earlier in their studies or career to optimise a smaller range of skills, Tyneski is a little ambivalent.
“Specialisation is a risky proposition but some design professions almost demand it, namely transportation design and toy design. I’ve worked in both fields, so I’m very familiar with the review and interview process. Both categories require a unique set of skills and the student must demonstrate both the ability and a passionate commitment.”
“For example, a concept car designer must have their foundation in drawing, as they must be able to accurately draw new concepts that have never been seen before. Cars are very difficult to draw in perspective, arguably even more difficult to draw than the human figure. Many car designers undertake years of life-drawing classes.
“For toy designers, the emphasis on drawing is much more relaxed. There is, however, much more of an emphasis placed on creativity. The product briefs are typically short, and final outcome is seldom prescribed.
“In the end, I think it’s strategically wise for students to have a healthy mix of diverse product concepts in their portfolio. There are wonderful lessons to learn as you move through different product categories. A student can also mitigate risk and maximise opportunity by showing divergent thinking in different product categories.
"Design consultants love to see portfolios as diverse as their client lists. With that said, there is no shame in going for your dream design job with everything you’ve got. Just have a recovery plan in your hip pocket and remain open to all possibilities.”
Susanne Lengyel thinks that specialisation at undergraduate level is to be avoided. “General knowledge is an advantage for a designer,” she says. “While working you find the fields that interest you – so you will tend to specialise anyway.”
And Soren Yran and Lars Haaland also think specialising early on holds no advantages: “We believe that a broad education is better.”
But Eugenie Biddle is all in favour of narrowing the focus. “We absolutely endorse specialism whenever it occurs,” she says. “We also endorse building on this specialism with business skills.”
Tyneski believes that design education is a process that continues well beyond graduation. However, he says that learning in the workplace is being hampered by changes to the manufacturing environment.
“A young designer was once able to acquire a wealth of on-site knowledge about the manufacturing process. Today, the process of learning on the job is very different for young designers in America. It’s no longer a short walk from the design studio to the production line. In fact, it’s likely a twenty-hour flight to somewhere offshore.”
“Sourcing low-cost manufacturing offshore has broken the tight bond between the art of design and the process of production. In the creative process, one supplements the other.
"American businesses have essentially divided the designers and engineers from those who manufacture and assemble our creations. Yet, designers are required to have a foot in both camps. These days, we’re really stretched at the inseams.”