Five Questions About the Future of Design and Design Education

Gregory Hubacek Design Director

We were recently asked five questions by The Design School of Arizona State University as part of an exercise to gather insights from the design community. We thought it would be fun to publish the conversation from our internal Slack channel here. In the thread was UX Designer Ana Khachatrian, Senior Designer Henrik Andersson, Design Researcher Tess Feigenbaum, Senior Advisor Viktor Venson, Engagement Design Director Zachary Szukala, CEO Marc Mertens, Creative Director Birgit van den Valentyn, and Design Director Gregory Hubacek. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

Gregory Hubacek: Welcome, designers of all types. We’ve been asked to help provide some perspective on some questions around the future of design and design education. We can just start at the top with the first one, “Where is design going?”

Henrik Andersson: Visual design or what area of design?

Gregory Hubacek: Any area of design. That definition has become much larger than traditional disciplines lately as design has been expanded to be more involved with business and strategy.

Henrik Andersson: Design is going all sorts of places. Design is a strategy to reach your goals.

Ana Khachatrian: We’re already there, but I think it will become increasingly less tangible. For example, voice interaction is big now.

Zachary Szukala: Design was once craft and was then democratized with computers. Design then fought to be relevant and once it was, the conversation shifted to experience. Today, the design conversation is taking over the business world.

Birgit van den Valentyn: It’s not about the object only anymore, it’s about designing an entire ecosystem. It’s about solving complex technological and social problems.

Viktor Venson: I’m a fan of the definition that design is ‘tension management’. It rings true in so many ways.

Zachary Szukala: Design is therapy and designers are therapists so that fits in with tension management well.

Gregory Hubacek: We’re all well-familiar with the “design thinking” gold rush, do you all feel like we’re going to continue to see a democratization of both design tools and design ideas? The widening of the application of design?

Ana Khachatrian: I think so. I’d like to think design has proven its value in the private sector, but the public sector lags behind. I think we’ll see more government institutions adopting design thinking to solve problems (hopefully).

Zachary Szukala: If you consider business and economics one leg, health and science another, government another, arts and design is the fourth leg that was often wobbly, and it’s now solving world challenges as powerfully as the others.

Viktor Venson: There’s the idea that anyone can solve problems thorough design thinking. It skews reality. We have to watch out for that one.

Zachary Szukala: True – But I feel it has just come into its own, so there’s hype factor.

Henrik Andersson: I’d say human-centered design is what seems to be the big area that most brands explore and how we interact with design.

Gregory Hubacek: Humans do tend to be human-centered.

Viktor Venson: Is ‘design thinking’ an evolution of design? if so, what came before it, and what will come next? Very curious if there’s a continuation of some sort.

Gregory Hubacek: In my mind, just a recognition of the design process’ benefits external to design, or what we’ve traditionally classified as design.

Zachary Szukala: Design thinking and design in conversation is really just the manifestation of design practice democratized. Is it evolution?

Tess Feigenbaum: Jumping in as the typical product designer who believes everything we use and see and interact with is designed by someone, I’d argue all we’re talking about is recognition by people who aren’t typically ‘designers’.

Gregory Hubacek: Bingo, Tess.

Zachary Szukala: Those driven to advance are always looking for new models to think in and with.

Viktor Venson: Then there’s this talk. It may be too aggressive, but coming from Pentagram, I find it interesting.

Natasha Jen: Design Thinking is Bullshit from 99U on Vimeo.

Gregory Hubacek: “Design thinking uses just one tool: 3M Post-Its”. Yup.

Ana Khachatrian: But… I love Post-Its.

Gregory Hubacek: Let’s set the value of Post-It Notes aside for a moment. It sounds like we see an increased role in design (thinking), in the future of business and the world. So, to turn our thinking, let’s look at the future of design education. “How can design education be more relevant (to students, to community, to the US and world)?”

Zachary Szukala: There is an expectation of design at every level across every sector. Awareness and “consumer” demand for it has never been higher. Education of holistic and well rounded designers is critical moving forward. Design education has to keep ahead of that need and continually make itself relevant to job markets, and the market overall.

Gregory Hubacek: Good point. I think there’s this amazing thing happening where the democratization of tools has really lowered the bar for creation, creative vocabulary, and possibility. To me design education is no longer really about tools – or partly even theory, but really about what end design serves. Skill alone, or even the ability to create is not something that is a core product of design schools anymore.

Tess Feigenbaum: Totally. I think designers who train in process, iteration, and craft being able to adapt and collaborate across boundaries is where everything is going right now – it’s all about applying different skills and expertise to tackle a problem in a holistic and creative way.

Marc Mertens: Design will be increasingly personal and purpose driven and will enable us to align our lives with our values. Designers in the future will need to connect with their unique contribution in an effort to bring forward their unique perspective and skills to create change.

Viktor Venson: I like that.

Tess Feigenbaum: I’d argue versatility and as much exposure/collaboration as possible is the current definition of relevance.

Zachary Szukala: Being, maybe the one person in here who doesn’t have a design degree, I feel like the business, organizational, and communications skills that I focused on have been more relevant to solving design challenges than craft and tools.

Henrik Andersson: I’ve never really believed in a design institutions, to be honest (although I spent over 7 years in them). They are way too literal. I’m not even sure if design fundamentals are needed anymore. In real life projects your learning curve increases enormously.

Gregory Hubacek: True, however, as a private art school grad, I have to stick up for the institution in saying that the most valuable skill set I acquired from art school was not tools or even theory, but the ability to think like a designer and approach problems through that lens. To be able to understand and manipulate process. So I guess that blows my previous crit of design thinking out of the water.

Tess Feigenbaum: YES

Zachary Szukala: That’s arguably the best takeaway from an expensive private art or liberal arts school experience.

Gregory Hubacek: That and my perpetual sense of superiority. Which actually dovetails nicely into our next question. “What are future skillsets that designers need to learn now? Are they soft-skills, technical skills? Other? Sounds like we’re all pretty down on design education teaching technical skills.

Viktor Venson: Tools are looked on as important. The big design firms are still looking at your tools as a sign of your keeping up with the times.

Gregory Hubacek: But tools are so quickly made irrelevant. There’s no shortage of irony in having this conversation on the day when Invision announced its attempt to cannibalize it’s former best-friend Sketch by releasing Invision Studio.

Zachary Szukala: You can learn tools from those who use them and practice with them everyday.

Ana Khachatrian: I wonder how many design schools are continually adapting and changing their curriculum to actually stay relevant. All too often it feels like they just lag behind. Are we saying that they don’t need to necessarily? That as long as they’re teaching students process and how to problem solve that’s ok? Specific tools shouldn’t be the focus. I’m thinking more about designing for new technologies. We’re moving towards AR/VR/mixed realities, chatbots, voice, etc. But what skills will be needed when human-centered design meets that new technological frontier?

Marc Mertens: People skills. In a world full of AI and robots, humanity is what will be most in demand.

Birgit van den Valentyn: Right, we’re essentially talking about empathy. Designers will need a deeper understanding of how people experience a product, space, or an entire ecosystem or will need to dive into the workings of the human mind to design AI.

Gregory Hubacek: I’m not saying the human element isn’t important, the designer of today needs to draw on both technical skills, and a wide array of soft or human skills. But it seems the technical skill range is ever-expanding. We’ve definitely seen the slow erosion of specialization in design. Isn’t a designer these days expected to be a jack-of-all?

Ana Khachatrian: I agree.

Zachary Szukala: Being a designer is even more technical than it used to be. Although less dangerous than when you had to manually set type with hot metal.

Gregory Hubacek: Which leads us to our next question: “Designers work in trans-disciplinary ways now. What should a design school do to prepare students for that?”

Henrik Andersson: What about skills that always will be universal. Communication skills and how to deal with all sorts of people. If you can’t get your ideas across it won’t matter anyways!

Gregory Hubacek: That’s so underrated. I had the privilege of having an instructor in PRIVATE ART SCHOOL who drilled into our heads the idea that if you can’t talk about your decisions and your process, your designs are useless.

Ana Khachatrian: I think design students should be required to take non-design classes (e.g., machine learning, physics, marketing). Even better, it would be cool if they could collaborate with students from other disciplines on a project.

Marc Mertens: To take that a step further, design students should be solving real-world future-facing challenges that make clear the interconnectedness of our systems and technology.

Viktor Venson: What would design for artificial intelligence look like as a curriculum?

Ana Khachatrian: Yes!! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, humans designing for AI.

Zachary Szukala: You really have to be more of an engineer these days to leverage the inputs to amazing design.

Ana Khachatrian: But speaking of inputs, how do we get good data? What do we then do with the data? What types of feedback loops do we incorporate to improve the algorithms? Who designs the algorithms matters. There is this false belief that data is always accurate or non-biased.

Viktor Venson: There was an article about the first AI composed music piece that I thought was interesting in terms of any kind of creation, including design.

Gregory Hubacek: Great question, Ana. This talk from Mimi Onuoha is right along those lines.

Eyeo 2017 – Mimi Onuoha from Eyeo Festival // INSTINT on Vimeo.

Ana Khachatrian: Ooh, I will check it out. Thanks!

Gregory Hubacek: It’s Amazing. As we all know the design tends to reflect the designer. The data tends to inherit the biases of the person who gathers that data. The object exerts influence on the observer. So if we’re really dedicated to this idea of design being a future-changer, a major player in reshaping the world, who are we really shaping the world for? What should a design school do to forward equity and inclusion?

Personally, I think it’s partially the design school to design industry pathway that creates some of that lack of inclusion. If the best design education lies in the private art schools, Stanford D Schools and MIT’s of the world, then only the candidates of privilege will go on to influence the industry. And yes, my privilege is showing.

Ana Khachatrian: In order for design schools to be diverse, they need a diverse enough applicant pool. I think this goes back to the question on how can design education be more relevant. How can schools reach potential students & help them understand the benefits of a design degree and see design careers as viable options? It’s easy for us to talk about the spread of design thinking and the democratization of design, but I’m sure a lot of the world still thinks design is making pretty things.

Gregory Hubacek: That also has a huge basis in design as a career pathway not being tied to the existence of “artistic potential” in younger students. How do people who are looking at a business degree, a law degree or poly-sci degree see design as a viable option?

Henrik Andersson: Throughout my years in design school one thing stands out—the connections you make. When you meet someone with similar ideas and drive things start to happen. Connecting you with likeminded people was the most important benefit for me. Working in teams are always the most fruitful.

Gregory Hubacek: But, sometimes phrases like “like-minded people” is sort of a dog whistle to mean people who have traditionally been in design circles and have similar backgrounds (not saying that’s what your message was).

Viktor Venson: Not too long ago, John Maeda was hired as a Partner at Kleiner Perkins, one of the largest VC firms in SV to help design across their portfolios. It was a bold move, and unprecedented, no other VC firm of that size has ever done that. I thought it was really interesting. To your point GH – how can design position itself up there with law, business. etc

Marc Mertens: What if design schools invested in their students like an incubator invests in an early stage start-up?

Gregory Hubacek: That’s an interesting thought, but it’s not just about higher-ed, design should be incorporated into K-12, something seen alongside STEM as a vital piece of core curriculum at grade school levels.

Viktor Venson: STEAM is the new hot thing.

Everyone: (Groans)

Zachary Szukala: My local school district has separate high schools for Design and Science. And a design degree needs to be viewed as on-par with biz, law, poly-sci, and not just an “art degree”. In many ways it’s getting there, you see so many schools racing to deploy those “intersection” degrees

Gregory Hubacek: The PRIVATE ART SCHOOL I attended was actually kind of ahead of that curve, and even ten years ago was offering a Bachelor of Science degree. My personal opinions on its efficacy at the time not withstanding, it was an interesting move for them to make.

Zachary Szukala: Privilege has its perks.

Gregory Hubacek: I think Eddie Huang signed off on one of his Viceland episodes with something to the effect of: no matter where you go there is privilege, but if you stop and look, all anybody really wants is an opportunity. The best you could do with privilege is to use it to create more opportunity for those without privilege.

Zachary Szukala: There ya go. You mentioned something above that design is just fueling itself and insulating itself with elite private colleges feeding candidates into elite agencies, and it’s a gated community. Busting down those barriers to access at earlier ages is key.

Gregory Hubacek: Definitely. In typical A Hundred Years fashion, that brings us to 15 minutes over our scheduled meeting time. I’m going to allow one round of final thoughts if anyone wants to leave us on a high note.

Viktor Venson: I wonder, the chief designer for Apple has become a well known name. But why don’t we know the chief designers for the other tech giants? They don’t exist? They’re not on the same level as the rest of the leadership? They’re not a priority? FB, Google, etc.

Gregory Hubacek: Probably because they don’t have lovely accents and make my heart swoon?

Viktor Venson: THAT needs to be taught in art school then.

Zachary Szukala: Seeing designers or those preaching its power in key positions, alongside the typical C-Suite is a visibility thing for the industry that indicates design’s necessity. When a DEO becomes a commonplace as a CEO there’s an indication that a shift is happening. It paints a picture of a career you can see, one that, often is invisible until much later in your career. I’d anecdotally mention too that no one ever told me about design in early education. No guidance counsellor, no math teacher, no art teacher. I stumbled on it and it made perfect sense but it’s not a visible career.

Gregory Hubacek: So, C-Suite Design presence and a higher profile, I can get on board with that. As much as I’d like to be a bit of a pessimist about the role of “design thinking” and all the hype that’s been piled on it, I think it’s actually core to the ability for the world to solve some very large problems. A few years ago I was excited about the idea that a lot of designers were moving from client services to entrepreneurialism and bringing their design skills along for the ride in one way or another. I see that same thrill in watching design break through other barriers including what exactly we classify as “design” and “designers”.