Corporate Education, Design Strategy, Design Thinking, Education, Technology, UX

The Rise and Fall of Corporate Education

By Jon Kolko

Corporate design education is a saturated business. Some of these educational programs take the form of workshops and training in-house, often led by a design consultancy, while others are third-party bootcamps 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 six 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 $675. Nielsen Norman’s is $12,000 for a single day UX workshop.

Our team at Modernist Studio offers educational design training to large corporations, too. The difference is our training model is 100% custom designed for the teams we’re serving—and our training focuses on design strategy, service design, design-led product management, sketching, and research: the competencies that make a designer a designer, rather than a one size fits all “ux” or “design thinking” course. Sometimes our programs are day-long introductions, while others stretch over months as we work shoulder to shoulder with teams to implement the training on real projects cycles—we have a huge demand for this type of work.

The Rise of Design Workshops

There are a few identifiable reasons for the rise of design workshops and the demand Modernist is experiencing.

Design has been realized as a legitimate, thoughtful, useful profession—though it took a while for us to get here. A  New York Times article from 1985 (authored at perhaps the peak of garish consumerism) 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 has tapered off 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 This is evidenced by the significant growth in design hires. 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 (!). This scale is indicative of perceived need, and that’s indicative of perceived value.

Design thinking is perceived 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, 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 upon reaching middle management, who may fear the change associated with new style of working (and may be fatigued by constantly instructed to chase new cures for all woes). As those managers reflect on how to institutionalize the design process into their teams, they 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.

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, a recent banking client we partnered with has experience owners in charge of “bill pay”, “lost card”, or “onboarding” workflows. These experience owners aren’t designers in a traditional sense—they don’t make wireframes, or prototypes, or build brand and identity packages. Instead, they manage teams composed of a variety of competencies, all focused on the way someone pays a bill, handles a lost card, or signs up. It’s a management role more than a typical form-giving role. Yet they need to be well versed in the language of design in order to drive meaningful change in those experiential areas.

I celebrate the growth of design as a more ubiquitous, broad competency. Becoming a designer is transformative—it’s a powerful, fulfilling, and often magical profession. A major part of this personal transformation occurs when people come to terms with, and grow acceptance of, their creativity—when they realize they can make things, and sometimes those can be really poor, but through critique, iteration, and practice, their work becomes better and better. That experience is professional growth, sure, but more importantly, it’s human growth: it’s about growing in identity, wellness, and self-value.

I also value the growth of design because I’m tired of interacting with awful products. I graduate school in the late 90s, I took a class with Randy Pausch, focused on building usable interfaces. Delightful, powerful, valuable, or strategically relevant weren’t terms we attributed to digital products, because the table stakes 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. Some major brands seem to 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 experiencing 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?
The way these workshops are being introduced is concerning—both as classes taken outside an organization and as training brought into the organization. I wonder if someone can be trained s to be proficient in “design”—or, in anything, for that matter—in a training workshop of days or weeks.

What is Proficiency in Design?

What does “proficient” mean, and what are the goals of the company hiring the trainers?
Most of our corporate training partners fall into two categories:

  • They want practical, tactical skills their teams can immediately apply—they want their employees to learn skills that will be used and applied on a day to day basis. Proficient, in this case, is the ability to actually do service design, or sketching, or research.
  • They want the team to become proficient in speaking about and critiquing design work, and in integrating design into a larger organizational 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 within a team.

It’s difficult to become competent in something over a year’s time. At Austin Center for Design, the educational journey is 440 course hours spread over 8 months. Students begin with little to no design background, and end with competency in interaction design. They can join a design team after graduation as an effective worker, often in a lead role. But let me tell you: even with a time-tested curriculum, it’s an uphill battle. Students 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 night working on projects. Think of the commitment they make to gain proficiency. It’s foolish to imagine a manager at a company having the same expectation for their teams after just a few days or weeks of training.

So, what is a realistic expectation for a 1-2 week-long workshop in design education?

  • Participants will be able to tag along on a design project without being completely confused.
  • They’ll be able to begin integrating use the language they’ve learned, begin to understand what people are referring to during the design process, and understand the value of core principles like empathy, storytelling, and iteration.
  • 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 if taught well, they’ll have gained a passion for the power and excitement of design and will be curious to learn more.

Proficiency, in this case, is to be proficient at being a novice. That’s a strange thing to say—aren’t we all novices at things we don’t know? In fact, it takes work to be a successful novice—of overcoming the problem of “I don’t know what I don’t know.” After taking a few week-long workshop in design thinking, it’s safe to say that the participants now know what they don’t know. And that realistic awareness of knowledge, and the lack of it, is tremendously valuable for those responsible for integrating design into their team. It’s not, however, of great value for people who immediately expect to start doing design work.

What tends to be lost in short programs is craftsmanship—details. A consistent criticisms of design thinking is that it’s not design doing, and without design doing, we have nothing. I agree. Students must to learn to make things. This gives them a respect for the medium they are using, an understanding of the importance of details, a pattern language of design problems to draw from, an intuitive sense for how to go about solving a problem, and so-on.

General Assembly charges $3950 for a one-week online program in User Experience. 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. I simply don’t see how they can live up to their claims. It’s a disservice to their teachers, who are faced with an impossible task, and for their students, who are paying exorbitantly based on high expectations for unreasonable outcomes.

The crowded corporate education and design thinking landscape has the Modernist team actively resetting our own expectations of our training abilities. One such adjustment is we’ve expanded our more traditional corporate training programs to include an offering coined “Creative Director on Demand” in which we offer ourselves to the students for a bucket of hours—time they can spend in any way they want, as they require support. They can call or email us for refreshers on content, advice on a specific project, or even to do the work for them while they ride along as apprentices.

This offering has offered valuable benefit for students, helping move them from proficiency in knowing what they don’t know to becoming more competent making things. By leveraging the old master/apprentice relationship of working under and near an expert—providing a supportive and encouraging shoulder to lean on—it extends the foundational skillset learned in training to something more deeply understood.

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.