Article: American Design Schools Are a Mess, and Produce Weak Graduates

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums EDUCATION Article: American Design Schools Are a Mess, and Produce Weak Graduates

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    Thomas J. Johnson

    In reply to the article, I say, “speak for yourself…”. I went to Colorado State University for my BSLA and found the education to be exceptional. Three of my four professors were from The GSD and the fourth was a mind-blowing illustrator. The program was very “process” and design oriented but the assigned projects required you to become technically proficient as well. There was a lot of emphasis placed on drawing and developing that hand-mind connection. They also encouraged us to explore and incorporate technology into our design process. It was specific enough that we knew what we had to get done and loose enough that we could make it our own.

    AutoCAD was not a huge priority though. We had access to it of course but it was rarely required on projects. We learned the basic drawing techniques and became familiar with x-refs and blocks but the professors stopped there, knowing that our first employer would want to teach us “their” way of handling files, naming standards, lines, hatches, etc. The programs goal was to create designers, not CAD monkeys.

    The best undergraduate LA programs have a unique emphasis. Some are design oriented and others are more technical/construction oriented. In my mind, the wise offices would choose students from each school of thought. The designers will learn from the technicians and vice-versa creating a stronger whole. 

    To say that design schools are a mess is casting a wide net. Sure some are, some aren’t. I’m proud of my education from CSU and our graduates have done well for themselves. Design schools are what you make them. There’s a lineage built upon generations of classes. The freshmen are only as good as the seniors they emulate and by the time they are seniors they’ve surpassed their mentors. There is only so much professors can teach in 12 hours a week… they can point you in the right direction but the students have to possess the drive to explore and push themselves the other 50 hours that week. If there is a problem with design schools, the problem lies just as much with the students as with the institution. Good design doesn’t just happen. It takes a spark which only the student can provide, followed by; research, exploration and finally execution. Professors can nudge and guide along the way (if they are consulted) but they can’t hold your hand through the whole process… or do the work for you.   

    Noah Mabry



    also i think this article was really focusing on industrial design which is a bit of a different animal.

    Tosh K

    Agree with the previous replies.


    Both architectural schools i went to had a transition in curriculum, both to address weaknesses related to its core pedagogy and the new methods of working in digital media.  There were several classes that were not taught in a cohesive fashion as a result, but graduates as a whole could produce and show their work process from research to concept through developed ideas.


    Design schools vary so much (pedagogy, market) and all go through periods of transitions, but it’s unfair to state that they’re a mess as a whole.  Accreditation committee members are more fit to address this question.

    Socorro Alatorre

    in brief: is not about the institution is about the student

    in the article there is a mention that it doesn’t matter where you went to school is about how you perform and what are your skills, and also your enthusiasm… the weakness we see now a days is just a reflection on our own culture and how lazy and demanding the new generation has become – I guess due to the economic bubble we had – but hopefully with this new economic tight up we will start seeing more hardworking and creative people.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I have to wonder if academia is more and more filled with people who went to school and only leave to go to academic related events. Maybe the writer’s point is that the teaching, and therefore the student, is misguided by lack of knowing what exactly is needed. But much in the same way, this writer is defining the function of all design schools by how well they meet HIS needs.

    I would contend that real cutting edge design is and always has been lead by individuals who because of OR despite their education and experience have the ability and imagination to go beyond. I’d go further to say that these gifted designers are few . Much larger numbers of people trained to support them are necessary and will make up the vast majority of the people being educated and trained in design as would naturally be the case.

    Furthermore, is every design project one that extremes in design are appropriate, let alone necessary?

    Can anyone describe their professors by what they accomplished as built work in the design field?  Mine all wrote books or have great looking unbuilt design plans. Perhaps they can’t teach what they don’t know. Raising the question of why Gadi Amit is not either training his interns or becoming a professor himself. Perhaps the others who are capable of providing this education are also too busy being designers to give it up in order to teach. Maybe it is because there is better money for talented designers to be designing here while there may be better money in education instead for those in other countries. 

    Tanya Olson

    Though I don’t know about industrial designers, written right there in landscape architecture (and architecture and engineering) practice acts is an internship of some duration, which indicates an (appropriately) incomplete level of education and with it carries the responsibility of mentorship from the firms who hire new graduates. If you want someone who is ready right out of the gate, hire an experienced practitioner.

    Oh, thats right, you want to PAY internship wages without the chore of “teaching”…..

    If critical thinking skills are indeed hard to come by its more likely a result of an overall cultural change at all levels of education not a failure of design programs. Or it could be the incomprehension of the author that formal education is only half of the game – there are some things you just can’t learn in school and they shouldn’t waste your time trying to teach you.

    Personally, I’ve been amazed by some of the thesis projects I’ve seen since I graduated – much more complicated, comprehensive and, well, breathtakingly rendered than my poor old hand-watercolored project. But thats in LA, not industrial design.

    Heather Smith

    I graduated in 2008 and aside from my design business, I work as an instructional assistant for the University of Idaho’s College of Art and Architecture.  That is to say, I run the tech. shop (wood shop) evenings and weekends.


    What I see today is what I experienced as a design student and as an English teacher (long ago). 


    Simply put, what students produce in school is related more to what they bring to school, rather than what they are taught.  Programs are full of prima donnas and crybabies, and a few students who want to learn, want to understand and want to be treated like adults.


    That said, I think I received an excellent education.  What I lacked in natural ability, I made up for in hard work.  I had excellent instructors who emphasized process (generating design metaphors and narratives that informed our projects through to the end) and stressed the importance of a technical understanding of design, as well as an aesthetic understanding.


    Those who succeeded academically were also typically older and were completely lacking social lives.  Go figure!


    Heather Smith

    I think you bring up a good point.  Aside from learning the “basics’  students are now required to learn all the new digital modeling techniques.  The bling.


    When I was in school, I saw many students who were distracted by all the bells and whistles of digital modeling and as a result had very poor design process and outcomes.


    You cant polish crap and call it gold.


    Gadi Amit is interested in the emotional appeal (the form) of his designs. This is a very “right brain” thing and the blame shouldn’t be put on the schools.

    If you just graduated, know where you belong. Don’t apply to Amit’s firm unless form-making is your forte 🙂

    Trace One

    IMHO the incompetence this guy is detecting in graduates is due to emphasis on computers and other toys, which allow one to produce incredible looking plans that are completely empty of thought….

    I think my school was great . Most of the professors were seriously working professionals – Bob Hanna was in the midst of Canary Wharf in London, Andropoggon designed the most gorgeous entrance road I have ever seen (to Morris Arboretum), the dean of the architecture school at the time was the architect on a new building going up  across the street – which actually ended up with a technically impossible window that added thousands of dollars to the design..hee hee..

    but it was almost a requirement that the professors were pretty much part-time teachers – their own companies were the other half of their lives..Delta Group, our engineering teachers, had designed a park in Philly we all visited – right now, the Chairperson of the department, James Corner, is obviously a working professional. I could go on..

    So I don’t know where this intense contempt for academics is coming from..Academics, in my experience, are all working, and you really can’t get the job without having a built track record..

    We all also benefitted from the professors being working professionals – the back and forth for summer jobs and being hired after graduating was a real tradition.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I think that is great. I wish that were the case everywhere, but it is not. There was a question mark at the end of that statement and I appreciate you answering that question.

    Jason T. Radice

    The article is spot on to my experiences both with schools and the quality of recent graduates. I had written about this for my LAM article, but had to cut it out due to space constraints. Mr. Amit is correct when he states that students leave schools only with process education, not DESIGN process education. So much time is spent teaching the tools  (AutoCAD, SketchUp, Photoshop, and especially GIS) that there is little time left to teach good design or the finess of the profession. Sure, the presentations look great, but upon basic inspection, there is no design there. Nothing is thought out, and the students cannot defend their work come jury time. Even the jurys have gone soft! We must “be nice” and “respect the effort.” Tell that to your eventual boss, tell that to a client. Many schools are concentrating on style over substance, a fact surprisingly admitted to me recently by a professor or two. 


    I consider myself lucky to have gone to school at the transition point in the early 90’s where I had to learn to draw, I had to learn design process, I had to take courses that broadened my design base (theory, seminar, and lecture courses) and not locked in a studio making pretty drawings, copying a design style out of LAM. As well, computers were just coming into their own (besides CAD) where they were used for graphics, presentation, and modeling

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