By Jon Kolko
Over the past decade there has been a rejection the tired model of higher education and an eruption of new educational programs in design, digital product development, and programming have emerged. These new models of education take many forms: day-long or week-long workshops, meetups and brown bags, online, offline, or hybrid. What connects many of these models is their immediate vocational emphasis. The majority intend to train practitioners, not academics, so the focus is on preparing people to do design and get jobs.
I think this is fantastic. One of my favorite quotes is “You can’t eat lifelong learning.” (I wish I could remember the source—it may be Dan Saffer or Alan Cooper—anyone want to claim it?) Ideally, knowledge acquisition as an end-in-itself would be socioeconomically equitable, but the pursuit of knowledge without direct application is mostly a tool of the privileged. For many, any path out of a service job and into a creative role is positive, as long as they can make enough money to live.
These programs are usually relatively short and affordable—compared to traditional bachelor’s or master’s degrees—and promise a clear path to employment. Because this new educational model is focused on training design students to immediately enter the workforce, the knowledge they provide is pragmatic, practical, and applicable.
This value proposition—save money, save time, and get a job as a designer—poses problems.
However, this value proposition—save money, save time, and get a job as a designer—poses problems. To deliver on the promise of cheap, fast, and employable, something’s got to give. And I’m concerned that the “something” is quality.
To be clear, I don’t mean quality of instruction. The instructors at these emergent programs are my peers and they are, by and large, competent designers. Many are competent teachers and put their heart and soul into their teaching, just like great teachers at any other academic program.
And I don’t even mean the quality of the student work that emerges from these programs. On the whole, student portfolios do not show good work—at best, they show good thinking. The point of a design school—at a university or in a bootcamp—is not to produce great design artifacts. It’s to teach students.
After interacting with graduates from the programs I’m describing—looking at their portfolios, interviewing them for jobs, watching them solve problems, and discussing their experiences with them, the quality I worry about is preparedness—being ready to apply the educational knowledge to real design problems. There are exceptions to any rule, but the overarching lack with an overly fast education model is that students have not developed a pattern language for design problems.
That is a problem I want to help change. In my 20 years as an educator, working with around 800 students, I’ve identified some qualities of design education that are fundamental to growth: Process, Method, Humility, Craftsmanship, and Patterning. I’ve written about many of them and I want to address the latter here.
What Is a Pattern?
A design problem wavers between being well-formed and ill-defined. We create models to frame problems and put boundaries around them, so the problems become tractable. The models are torn down through critique and reflection as creativity leads to new ideas and the exploration breaks. Constraints emerge and are defined and redefined by a variety of stakeholders. Inspiration comes and goes, and all the while, we are limited not just by logical constraints like time, but also highly emotional limits like passion, confidence, and inspiration.
Throughout all of this, patterns are the backbone of how a professional, well-practiced designer reacts to a situation. An experienced designer has “seen something like this before.” They’ve been tasked with an impossible interaction problem focused on the dreaded three state grey checkbox or asked to build navigation structures around incomplete or incongruous taxonomies. They’ve produced detailed specifications that were ignored by developers. They’ve presented strategic work to their boss’s boss’s boss, and had the meeting go sideways to the point of shouting. They’ve been told by leadership to remove the Opt Out button. They’ve had clients walk out.
Of course, not all of the experiences are bad. This experienced designer has also worked next to developers through the night, making design changes on the fly, to ship on time. They’ve run participatory design sessions in complex environments, like airports, or doctors’ offices, or power plants. They’ve gone to China to see their work coming off the line.
Their experience has led them to develop ways of conceptualizing and framing problems, and pieces of problems, while simultaneously working to solve those problems. These are patterns, and we can think about them in two conceptual spaces. One is in the actual solving of the design problem: patterning in the problem. The other is in the context of the exploration: patterning around the problem.
Patterning in the Problem
When designers work on solving problems, they continually move back and forth between doing things, reflecting on their actions, and making adjustments. Throughout this process, the work artifact “talks back” to them. They see their drawing made real and can then respond to and iterate on it.
Donald Schön describes this in Problems, Frames and Perspectives on Designing:
“The designer asks himself ‘What if I did this’, where ‘this’ is a move whose consequences and implications he traces in the virtual world of a drawing or model. Making a design move in a situation can serve, at once, to test a hypothesis, explore phenomena, and affirm or negate the move. In each function, the evaluation of the experiment depends upon what Geoffrey Vickers has called ‘the designer’s appreciative system.’”
These “moves” are the actions a designer takes. In an interaction design problem, the move may be about detailed decisions, like where to put a button, how to structure a form interaction, what navigation paradigm to use in a hands-free context, or how to handle voice inflections from accents. The move is a decision, but not a fixed or permanent one.
Sometimes the move is more process or strategy-oriented, like “ignore that particular requirement even though we were told it was immovable” or “hold this in mind over here, while working on this seemingly unrelated thing over there” or “tip the table over and start again.”
These moves are driven by pattern knowledge. They aren’t random trial and error, nor are they logically selected from a list of all possible moves. They are decisions made in the context of a problem, informed by other similar problems and solutions.
What’s unique, powerful, and fascinating about this way of thinking about design activities is that in the hands of a professional designer, the application of these patterned moves seems supernatural. They look intuitive: the designer is making these moves instantly, quietly, and with such a quick give and take reactiveness that the decisions seem thoughtless or carefree. Watch an experienced interaction designer build out wireframe flows or a visual designer produce a new brand identity, and it’s like watching, on one hand, a well-choreographed play, and on the other hand, a flawless machine.
This expertise requires previous experience solving similar problems. No building, toaster, website, service, or policy is identical, but all toasters have something in common. Patterning in the context of a problem means having a readily available set of moves, the instinct and muscle memory to select the most appropriate moves for the particular problem component, the competence to select a move effortlessly in the flow of problem solving, and the appreciative system to almost instantly see how that move has impacted the emergent design decision and course-correct if the outcome isn’t desirable.
Patterning Around the Problem
Patterning also exists in the political, organizational, logistical, and cultural context of design. Just like patterning in the problem, patterning around the problem is about “moves”—just longer ones. Rather than changing a drawing, these patterns are about recognizing the need to change the actual project demeanor, cadence, or approach.
Consider these examples from a few business colleagues:
“I’ve been on a few research programs now. We always have 20 participants, scheduled in one-hour blocks, with 30 minutes in between. But this time, the lead researcher scheduled two hours in between. I asked her why. She told me that the content would be a lot harder to synthesize, so we were going to debrief in a coffee shop after each session for much longer than usual. I asked her how she knew since we hadn’t started yet; she said ‘I just know.’ And she was right!”
“I’ve noticed that my creative director will jump into a meeting and ad-lib, but over the last month with our new client, she’s been using slides. I asked her why, and she was surprised by my question—she hadn’t noticed she was doing it. When she thought about it for a few minutes, she explained that the client had a ‘PowerPoint culture’—without slides, she wouldn’t have been taken seriously, so she adapted a new behavior in response.”
“I was pissed. I designed some flows, and they got shot down by the product manager. But my project lead told me not to worry; in a few weeks, she said, the PM would be asking for them. And she was right. How did she know?”
These scenarios point to a more senior practitioner predicting what would happen in the future. It’s not just that they have more information of visibility into where the project or company is headed—these people experience research topics that are complex and need more immediate synthesis, companies that value delivery style over content, and product management that is heads-down focused on Now, instead of on Later—and they have tried different approaches in the past so they know what will work best the next time they encounter a similar situation.
Pattern Knowledge Is Tacit
Experts often have a hard time explaining their expertise around pattern usage. During one of my first projects working at frog, a creative director told us to redo work at the last minute, because, “It wasn’t going to work with the client.” When I asked why, he couldn’t explain it, and what’s more, he knew he couldn’t explain it. But he was right.
Think of expert designers exploring an idea while using Sketch, Figma, or Photoshop. They are moving so quickly because they are drawing from inherent knowledge rather than making a series of calculated, logical decisions. If you ask them what they are doing, they often need to stop and think about it because what they are doing involves recalling situations that were similar and leveraging models and concepts that worked, or didn’t work, in those other situations—and it happens so quickly that it often appears effortless.
When We’re New, We Have No Patterns
Without pattern knowledge, we’re left with several ways to approach problems. One is to simply follow a method or process step-by-step because it worked once, or a respected colleague or leader said the method works. Another strategy is to copy. If someone posted something on dribbble and it got a lot of positive comments, it’s probably a good idea, so a new designer may decide to borrow it. And another is to just guess and do something—anything—and hope for the best.
These are all strategies that are effective in an educational context, but they are not effective ways to work in practice. No matter their level, and no matter how junior they are, I don’t want people on my team who are blindly following a process, mindlessly copying what they see, or shooting darts at a board. And so, I expect even the most junior talent I hire to have established some rudimentary form of approaching a problem that goes beyond these techniques. I expect them to have developed a small but useful patterning language for when they experience a certain kind of design problem, and to use that pattern language effectively.
To begin building a foundation of patterning, a designer needs to have worked through enough problems to start seeing similarities and differences. They need a body of work from which to see the overlap of examples.
This experience doesn’t have to come from a formal educational program, but a good pattern is established with guidance and critique, and that’s hard to get on your own. Posting work on social media is a disaster for real problem-solving strategy development, as the echo chamber of “good job!” reinforces cosmetic patterning and features that are seen in many other designs—similar product dashboards, button gradients, and parallax scrolling, for example. Education—good education—builds patterning skills through an ongoing set of mentor/apprentice experiences, and implicit in the patterning is critical thinking about the pattern selection, use, and most importantly, adaptation.
A Pattern Is not a Template
Design students need to learn ways to think about solving problems—a pattern is a way to approach solving a problem. A design curriculum needs to provide students with enough concrete experiences that they can start to build muscle memory around problems so they can start to say to themselves, “I’ve previously experienced a problem that was kind of like this, and I tried to solve it.” Building those experiences means they are starting to develop a foundation of design abilities.
How many experiences are enough? I don’t know. But I know the answer isn’t one, or five, or 10. And these experiences don’t happen in days or weeks, they happen in months and years. The student needs time for introspection and external critique. They need to see the results of their approach and marinate on what worked and what didn’t. And then they need to take on the same type and style project, or exploration, or interaction, again and again.
My biggest concern with workshops and bootcamps and hack days and the majority of the non-traditional learning programs is that they are just too short. And the unfortunate reality is that many people who need the vocational training and want the jobs and should be employable and are transitioning to a design career aren’t given enough time to learn. They don’t have the economic luxury to take a year or two off for a longer program, or if they do, the economic logistics of running a school means that a one-year program costs more—a lot more—than a 10-week program.
So, there’s the crux of the problem I see with the landscape of non-traditional design education. The value proposition promises speed, low cost, and employability. It is impossible for it to consistently deliver on all three fronts. It is disingenuous, even with the best of intentions, to claim that someone can become a designer in 10 weeks, and claims like this are harmful to the profession.
What Is the Answer?
There isn’t a purely entrepreneurial answer to this problem. I don’t know how to make a new company, or product, or service to teach design that is fast, cheap, and effective. I ran a school for seven years, and constantly struggled with the balance of this issue. We have not solved it on a local, institutional level. Our grads are very good and highly employable (or “well patterned”). But our program is too expensive and too long for many, which results in a poor socioeconomic mix of students, and that’s a huge problem.
But I have two systemic suggestions, the first likely a pipe dream and the other very achievable.
First, let’s work to make non-accredited vocational education free to students, and shift the burden of cost to corporations or taxpayers. If these programs are fully funded through work-study or outright grants—like many graduate programs in the US—students can afford to attend them for a longer duration without feeling pressure to immediately jump into a job.
This already exists for accredited programs and it should be true for non-accredited programs, too. Non-accredited programs still need to be regulated and managed for quality and against predatory practices, without being forced to comply with static and dated guidelines, burdened with accreditation and assessment paperwork, or forced into a rote and cookie-cutter model.
The regulation of these vocational programs should mandate a length of study—not in credit hours, but in actual in-class and out-of-class duration—and assess the follow-through on placement promises. A longer course of study gives more time for practice and time for patterns to build. And a regulated set of promises means that schools can continue to receive subsidized educational tuition only if their students get the jobs that were promised to them. Identify a minimum salary requirement for these programs, and a timeline to achieve it. Hold the school to the same outcome-based expectations as public universities, but remove the oversight on the actual content. Do this all in the name of affordability—making these programs inexpensive or free.
Next, let’s stop hiring designers if they can’t demonstrate more than a set of methods or a rote process. I have seen so, so many companies turning to these fast programs for volume, simply because they are scaling their teams quickly. As leaders, we can control growth. We can push back on our business as they ask for more, faster. We can grow carefully and methodically. We can interview with more precision. We can question portfolio decisions in-depth. We can push the educational market to change their offerings to match placement needs. If there’s demand for a designer who has a certain set of skills, then vocational programs will educate students to have those skills. Industry should drive these skill-based programs, not the other way around. And when we look around, “we” are “industry.”
We need educational innovation, but not at the expense of quality. Students need the space to develop problem solving strategies. Speed is not in our favor here. Let’s all slow down.