The Rise and Fall of Corporate Design Education

The Rise (And Fall?) of Corporate Design Education

Corporate design education is saturated. Some of these educational programs take the form of workshops and training in-house, often led by consultancies, while others are bootcamps that are separate from companies but funded by corporate training dollars.

External training is a big business; General Assembly, one of the best known of these mass training programs, has raised $119 million in funding over five rounds, with the latest series D a massive $70M. Corporate design training – design education brought into a corporation – is a big business, too. Cooper offers a 3-day Design Thinking Immersive for $2100 a person. Design Gym offers a one-day Design Thinking Bootcamp for $475. Nielsen Norman’s is seven days for $5488.

Modernist Studio offers educational training to large corporations, too. We develop different custom courses for big organizations. Our training focuses on service design, design-led product management, sketching, research, and so-on: the competencies that make a designer a designer. Sometimes our courses are day-long introductions, while others stretch over months. We have a huge demand for this type of work.

There’s a few reasons for the rise of the design workshop and for the demand we see.

First, design has been realized as a legitimate, thoughtful, useful profession. It took a while for us to get there. Designers have been bemoaning their lack of influence for years. I like to cite a New York Times article that describes Industrial Design’s rise (authored at perhaps the peak of garish consumerism, 1985); it explains that “Designers nevertheless call themselves the invisible industry. Many companies either don’t use them or use them in frivolous ways. Designers tend to agree that most products on the market are ghastly in design or adorned with meaningless decoration and could use their helping hand.” While industrial design as form giving is all but a dead profession in the United States, interaction design as drivers of experience has been the new black since the world became a giant computer. That’s good news for designers, and so it’s good news for design educators.

That’s evidenced by the large growth in design hires. Some of the stats of increased demand are astounding: Atlassian’s grown from a 1:25 design:developer ratio to 1:9. Dropbox has grown from 1:10 to 1:6. IBM from 1:72 to 1:8 (!). I’ve managed large teams of designers, and I can’t imagine trying to coordinate something of that size and scale; I have huge respect for companies that can pull it off. The scale is indicative of the perceived need, and that’s indicative of the perceived value.

The second reason for such a crowded design training landscape is the popularity of design thinking as a silver bullet for organizational and strategic problem solving. As high-level executives attend TED talks about design thinking and read articles in Harvard Business Review that triumph the value of design thinking they become champions for the techniques and philosophy as a force of change in their organizations. As is often the case, a top-down mandate to adopt a new method or process typically stalls when it reaches middle management, who may fear the change associated with a new style of working (and who may be fatigued by constantly being told to chase a new cure for all woes.) As those managers reflect on how to institutionalize this vague process into their teams, they often turn to external sources for knowledge sharing and training. Design workshops become a quick way to introduce ideas into a large group. An off-the-shelf curriculum can be rolled out quickly, and teams can gain familiarity with the language and process of design thinking.

Another reason for the increase in expensive design training offerings is that more and more people are being called, or are calling themselves, designers. The lines between a product manager, a BA, a developer, and a product marketer are blurring because they all impact the experience a person has with a product or service. The role “experience owner” or “experience lead” is a new one, describing a person (often in a massive company) who has responsibility over the delivery of a specific set of capabilities. For example, at a banking client we recently worked with, experience owners might be in charge of “bill pay”, “lost card”, or “onboarding.” But these experience owners aren’t designers in a traditional sense. They don’t make wireframes or prototypes, or draw, or build brand and identity packages. Instead, they manage teams made up of a variety of competencies, all focused on the way someone pays a bill, or the way someone handles a lost card, or the way they sign up. It’s a management role more than a typical form-giving role. Yet they need to be versed in the language of design in order to drive meaningful change in those experiential areas.

Crash Test

I often celebrate the growth of design as a more ubiquitous, broad competency. I teach formally at Austin Center for Design because I see how becoming a designer is so transformative. It’s a powerful, fulfilling, and often frustratingly magical profession. A big part of this personal transformation occurs when people come to terms with their creativity – when they realize that they can make things, that the things they make can be really bad, and that through critique, iteration, and practice, those things can become better and better. That’s a professional growth, but more importantly, it’s a human growth: it’s about identity, wellness, and self-value.

I also value the growth of design because I’m sick of products being so awful. When I was in graduate school in the late 90s, I took a class with Randy Pausch that focused on building usable interfaces. “Delightful, powerful, valuable, or strategic relevant” weren’t words that we attributed to digital products, because the tablestakes of usability were so low. We learned about iterative user testing, recognizing and repeating the mantra “the user is not like me” over and over. I feel that some major brands have internalized usability as a basic by hiring designers who studied at the beginning of the digital revolution, people like me. But many companies never embraced such a simple idea, that people should be able to use the things you make without frustration. An increase in design education should, theoretically, improve the quality of the artifacts that pervade our lives.

But really, just a few weeks of education makes a designer?

I’m worried about the way these workshops are being introduced, both as classes that can be taken outside of an organization and also as training that’s being brought into the organization.

I wonder if we can actually train someone to be proficient in design – or, in anything, for that matter – in a training workshop of days or weeks. There’s a few questions to unpack here. First, what does “proficient” mean, and what are the goals of the company that hired the trainers? Most of our training partners fall into one of two categories. One is that they want practical, tactical skills for their teams that can be immediately applied. Through the training, they want their employees to be able to do the things they’ve learned on a day to day basis. Proficient, in this case, is the ability to actually do service design, or sketching, or research. The other goal we see with our partners a lot is the want for the team to be proficient in speaking about and critiquing design work, and in integrating design into a large process or culture. In this case, the goal is to be conversationally aware of the methods, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to include them in a program or team.

It’s hard to become competent in something over a year. At Austin Center for Design, the educational journey is 440 course hours spread over 8 months. Students start with no design background, and end with competency in interaction design. They can join a team and be effective, often as a lead. But man, that’s an uphill battle. They burn out during the program. It tests their emotional limits. It pushes them way, way, way out of their comfort zone. They typically dedicate all of their time to the program, spending countless hours late into the morning working on their projects. Think of the commitment they make to gain proficiency. It’s foolish to imagine a manager at a company having this expectation for their teams after just a few days or weeks of training.

So what is a realistic expectation for short-term – days or weeks – education? It’s a realistic goal that students in a week or two week long workshop will be able to tag along on a design project without being completely confused. It’s realistic that they’ll be able to tentatively use the language they’ve learned, to understand what people are referring to during the design process, and to understand the value of core principles like empathy, storytelling, and iteration. It’s realistic that they’ll be able to consider design in staffing models, think about resourcing requirements, and have an order of magnitude understanding of how long design activities take and how much they cost. And it’s realistic that they’ll have gained a passion for the power and excitement of design – that they’re curious to learn more.

Proficiency, in this case, is to be proficient at being a novice. That’s a weird thing to say – aren’t we all novices at things we don’t know? In fact, it takes work to be a successful novice. This is overcoming the problem of “I don’t know what I don’t know”; after taking a two or three week workshop in design thinking, it’s safe to say that the participants now know what they don’t know. And that’s of huge value for people in charge of integrating design into a team. It’s not of huge value for people who expect to immediately go do design work.

The big issue here is time. It simply takes a long time to learn things.

What is most vividly lost in a short program is craftsmanship: details. One of the biggest criticisms of design thinking is that design thinking is not design doing, and without design doing, we have nothing. I fully agree. Students need to learn to make things. This gives them a respect for the medium they are using, an understanding of how important details are, a pattern language of design problems to draw from, an intuitive sense for how to go about solving a problem, and so-on.

Crash Test

General Assembly charges $3950 for a one-week online program in User Experience. In that class, they claim that a student with no experience of any kind will learn to develop a research plan, conduct an interview, create a competitive audit, create personas, map user flows, run user tests, prioritize features, learn to do card sorting, create high-fidelity wireframes, understand visual design fundamentals, create clickable prototypes, prepare usability discussion guides, and present to stakeholders. My criticism of online learning aside, I simply don’t see how they can live up to their claims. It’s a disservice to their teachers, who are faced with such an impossible task, and for their students, who are paying so much money and with such high expectations.

And I’ve fallen prey to the same claims. When I’m in a university classroom, I’m aware of my failings as a teacher, but somehow when I structure an executive or corporate learning program, I have the massive hubris to think that I can teach anyone anything in any amount of time.

I’m actively resetting my own expectations of my training abilities, and at Modernist, we’ve started building into our training programs something we call “Creative Director on Demand.” In addition to our training programs, we offer ourselves to the students for a bucket of hours, hours they can spend in any way they want. They can Skype or email us for refreshers on the content, for advice on a specific project, or even to do the work for them while they ride along as apprentices. This has had a huge benefit for students in our classes, and has helped them move from proficiency in knowing what they don’t know to being more competent making things. It’s no secret why this works. It leverages the old master/apprentice relationship of working under and near an expert; it provides a supportive and encouraging shoulder to lean on; and it extends the training from the original duration to something more involved.

I believe in the power of design education to change people’s lives, to improve products, and to alter the strategic course of a corporation, for the better. I hope to see a resurgence of design craftsmanship training riding alongside design thinking training. I don’t think it’s impossible to teach craft, in a broad way, in an organization. But it will take more time and a different approach to training to realize the power of design as an applied discipline, and to recognize how important true competency of doing is for institutionalizing design and creativity.

Jon Kolko

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