In September 2015, researcher Lara Furniss published Beyond Discipline – a well-rounded account for why design education is in crisis. Through a series of interviews with leading studios, the author found two interesting facts. First, that designers are in the midst of reinventing their role; and second, that the design process itself is being transformed. The ability and responsibility studios and individual designers have to prepare themselves for these major changes has given rise to new skills. Among them are agility, fluidity, iteration, the need for a participatory and collaborative approach, and the ability to shift between traditional and emerging disciplines. The new role of the designer seems to much resemble that of an innovator – a risk-taker who embraces challenges, reviews and bounces back from failures, all the while having skills that can be applicable to various creative fields.
Echoing Helsinki Design Lab’s Legible Practises, which stated how stewardship was the new role of a designer, Furniss states how radical changes in theory and practice require equally radical changes in design education. The new set of skills she highlights are difficult to teach in a classroom, and at a time that creative education as a whole is being overlooked by governments, while students are being asked to choose one primary field of expertise, it seems that strictly academic solutions are harder to draw.
This growing rift between design education and practice has been voiced by emerging leaders in the design world. Holding a largely educational approach and a mouthful of both criticism and advice, designers like Craig Oldham started offering their disruptive and innovative approach for creative learning. L. Furniss and others also suggested designers choose flexible programs and institutions that allow them to shift between mediums and learn new skills. With that, it is apparent that a crucial gap between the classroom and industry experience remains.
Dafna Sharabi, one of Wix’s lead designers, has always been interested in how one might teach web design today. Working closely with professionals from many disciplines, like developers, writers, product managers and event planners, made her realize that the title “web design” incorporated much more than it suggests. She started collecting notes about educational programs and listening to colleagues and friends talk about their experiences. It was when Wix decided on creating a summer intensive program, the Design Playground, that she realized she could contribute with a teaching that would focus on web design, while at the same time attempting to narrow the gap between theory and practice. She joined forces with Vuong Tong, an NYC-based designer and MA graduate of the University of the Arts London, who had similar perspectives about design education.
The focus of the Wix Design Playground program is teaching web design through experiences and real-life projects that will ensure participants develop a wide set of skills, that reach beyond technical applications. Collaboration, transferable skills, working with new techniques and mediums, and a flexible and innovative approach were core values for Dafna and Vuong while constructing the program’s syllabus. Their educational approach was hinted at in the program’s title, meant to bring together industry expertise with creative freedom.
Handpicking the faculty
Their first step in building the syllabus was understanding who their educational staff would be. Working in a large company, there is a vast knowledge base and areas that connect with web design in a practical way. Dafna states: “When you start working with different clients – product managers, marketing, developers – you realize there are so many great ways to deal with problem-solving in a project. We also wanted to introduce them to just how broad the scale of designers is, and even those working primarily on web design have a unique skill set and niche role. We decided to bring the designers and experts from Wix to work with students on projects, and through that, facilitate their own discovery of interests and ideas.”
Alongside Wix’s mentors, it was important for Dafna to introduce the students to the industry’s top influencers. “We decided to incorporate additional inspirational talks and workshops by designers like Debbie Millman, Jessica Walsh, and Adam Kurtz, to offer as much perspective as possible.”
Thinking big and small simultaneously
Alongside creative workshops from a wide range of experts – artists, art directors, zine creators – it was important for Dafna to envision not just the goal of the program, but also consider the atmosphere and environment as well. “Putting together lessons, workshops, field trips and mentor sessions, while constantly imagining how each moment of each day will look, is extremely important. Planning starts from the big picture, but that’s just the starting point,” she explains.
To initiate the process, “we divided the whole three-month period into three projects, then decided on the content for each month. Next, it was broken-down into weeks and finally envisioned what each day would look like, hour by hour. This is when you truly understand if you are missing something. You have to dive deeper, envisioning the happenings minute to minute.”
Helping emerging designers find their way
Once the method, values, and foundation were decided upon, it was time to bring it all to life. The first project was for a temporary tattoo company, Tattly, where the assignment was to create a splash page for the shop. Dafna and Vuong wanted to jumpstart the program by introducing students to the needs of a real client. The fact that this specific client would be attached to a creative product, answered even more of the program’s goals. The second project was to team up with social-good companies and NGOs to design each of them a new website. This enabled students to continue practicing working with clients, while at the same time designing for a good purpose. The third and final challenge takes everything the students learned up until this point – the talks, the sessions, the field trips and workshops – and apply it to their own personal portfolios – yet another important step towards bridging academy life with reality.
Work was integrated with recreational or personal activities aimed to inspire students – but also employ all their creative and crafty skills. Learning by doing isn’t an innovative idea by itself, but Dafna and Vuong were motivated by the attempt to make students realize everything they do – from celebrating a student’s birthday to creating paper masks – is a creative approach they can bring into their work. “On the first days of the program we hosted a 3D paper mask workshop by Lobulo, in which students created masks that express their insecurities,” says Dafna. “This is a great foundation for any collaboration – being exposed, sharing your skills with colleagues, and collaborating to be able to manifest a vision.”
Finding meaning through challenge
While changing the content an education program offers might help, this discussion at large gives rise to the question – is there a way to change not only the structure but also the approach itself to creative education? Designer and prominent figure in this discussion, Craig Oldham, describes the crucial need to transform the entire way creatives communicate with one another. Identifying the needs of both students and senior designers, Oldham remarks that designers should change their attitude, and instead of being nice to one another, they should be exchanging meaningful information. Meaningful, as Oldham puts it, means insights about problem-solving and anything the listener can relate to, process, and apply in their own work. On changing the fundamental approach towards design education, Oldham says: “When I was studying, we’d have the good and the great visiting us every Friday to give a talk on their practice. You’d see all this amazing work, but have pangs of self-doubt, thinking you could never be as good as them. I decided that if I ever had the privilege of sharing my experience, I’d remove that ‘veil’ and talk about the human experience. I wouldn’t show my work – I get bored of the work. I’d talk about what I’ve learned.” Exposing the challenges, questions, insecurities, failures and solutions that derived from it all – would make the conversation more ‘meaningful’, for emerging talent and pros alike. These experiences enable us to then individually push boundaries further, giving rise to refreshing questions, empowering new talents – and radically changing the industry in the process.