Design Education: Interview with Nathan Shedroff, Designer & Educator

By September 7, 2011Posts

Coming to the Bay Area not long after graduation, I met many young and highly successful designers both with and without college degrees. I’ve heard some people say that it’s hard to find a “good” designer. That led me to wonder what they mean by “good” designer and how much of a role, if any, formal education plays into that.

My first interview on design education is with Nathan Shedroff, both a design professional and a design educator.

1. You’ve done a tremendous amount of work within experience and interaction design, information architecture, and other interactive media within the web industry; you’ve also done work in automobile design. You plan strategy for start-ups, speak at conferences, and you chair the MBA in Design Strategy at CCA. How does your design work shape your education work?

These days, the two are the same. Since I don’t consult much at the moment, my design work is to design education: our programs (the DMBA, the Fellows, and the Dual Design Degree), my speaking and workshops, and my books. All of these are designed experiences for helping people see new opportunities and processes. One of the things that has come out of our recent discussions about design and design thinking in the business and design worlds is that more than merely products and services are designed. Business models are designed, organizations are designed, events are designed, etc.

2. As a design school graduate yourself, and with the growing popularity of design programs (including new programs in interaction design and user experience), how do you think approaches to or expectations for design education have changed?

The biggest change is in characterizing the role and purpose of a designer. It used to be that designers were taught (and still are in some design backwaters) that designers were auteurs who were supposed to remake the world in their image, often to miserable results since many people don’t want to live in the worlds many designers envision. Many designers’ products are terribly unsuccessful for this reason.

Instead, when you look at design exponentially, the designer’s role is more of a curator or conductor. It’s not for us to be prescriptive of how our audiences and customers should react to our design decisions (“Doesn’t everyone love mauve and Optima?”). Instead, it’s our business to know what decisions trigger what kind of reactions and to curate the myriad decisions to create the experience we desire for our customers and audiences.

That’s a big change in design. It doesn’t mean that designers become mere engineers of these triggers. There’s still incredible craft and inspiration needed to identify them, choose between them, and pull them into a meaningful whole. But, the intent is different, as is the sophistication we need to address the world through.

3. Thinking back to when I was in school, a lot of incoming students think that being a designer means knowing how to use design software. I frequently hear other professionals complain that recent graduates don’t have any of the critical “soft” skills in areas like client communication or strategic thinking, or in areas like research and business analysis. Do you see this as well, and if so, how do you handle it?

This is changing in many of the leading programs, but, historically, design students (both undergrad and graduate) haven’t been taught organizational skills—chief among them, communication and leadership skills. This has caused us to be misunderstood by our peers and our reaction has, mostly, been to further remove ourselves from the rest of the business. We build swank enclaves within larger organizations that are great to live in but are insulated from the issues, needs, metrics, and even vocabulary used by the rest of the organization—including our clients. When designers complain about the decisions made by “marketing” and the “bean counters”, we really don’t have anyone to blame except ourselves, because we’ve taken ourselves out of those conversations and concerns for decades.

If we want the influence we believe we deserve, if we want the impact we think we can have, we need to engage in all aspects of the organization that impacts our decisions and the success of what we design. We need to better understand the material physics, the engineering, the business models, the financial capitalization, the environmental impacts, and the customer needs if we want our visions to survive once we’ve tossed them over and hide behind our Post-It™-bespeckled white board walls.

4. This is probably true of any field, but it seems like there’s an adjustment/adaptation period between learning the foundational skills in school and then trying to apply them in a professional setting, with the added context of client interactions. What are some ways design educators can help their students better make the transition?

One of the central points of design is that you learn by doing. Too many non-design schools take a hands-off approach to teaching design and design thinking. They teach it like they might teach history of business or economics. You can’t learn about design thinking without learning-by-doing and that scares a lot of non-designers. The design process seems direction-less sometimes. It seems like you might be just spinning your wheels. It certainly doesn’t seem “efficient” or reliable or even repeatable. But, this is because it’s a process that leads you down a path through ambiguity. You can’t disambiguate things without some mess and design thinking and the design process is a proven, reliable journey through that mess, toward something useful, appropriate, and often fantastic.

Teaching design, even to designers, requires this doing and working with “real” projects or for real organizations can be helpful in preparing students for what they may encounter when they work professionally. However, school is also a place to experiment (and it should be safe to do so). Too many organizations that approach design and architecture programs are only after free work. Working only on “real” projects—those just like what you might encounter in the working world—isn’t appropriate, for both the students and the organizations. Design programs are trying to prepare students for what they will encounter in the next 5-10 years (if not their lifetimes), not the current situation.

5. If you could set up an undergraduate core curriculum from scratch, what coursework would you require of students? What skills would be essential for future designers?

It really depends on the focus of the design degree. For example, I might approach a degree in graphic design differently than industrial or interaction design. The components that I would make sure are present, however, no matter what kind of design field, include:

  • a course on sustainability and systems thinking (probably in the second year) that is reinforced through reviews and critiques in every project after that (all the way through graduation)
  • one good course in business that addresses collaboration, professional communication, leadership, and organizational culture
  • a course on typography, regardless of design degree, since that’s the essence of graphic design and visual communication
  • a course on design research
  • a course (or at least a good unit) on color theory
  • a series of core skills courses on drawing, sketching, rendering, 2D and 3D forms, model-making and prototyping
  • a course on interaction (and not merely interactive media)
  • one on storytelling
  • a unit or workshop on presentation skills, reinforced with feedback after every presentation for the rest of the degree

6. What would you encourage incoming freshman to look for in a design program? Any red flags students should be aware of?

I think there is a lot of variety between how different schools approach learning. One thing I find odd, and troubling, is the move to add “sustainable design” degrees. EVERY design degree should be teaching at least one course in sustainability and reinforce all of the projects they assign in all courses with sustainability criteria (across not just ecological but social, economic, and cultural impacts). At the undergrad level, I don’t think that there’s really enough deep specialization to warrant a distinct design degree in sustainability and if a college hasn’t already integrated sustainability into the curriculum of their standard design degrees, they’re behind the times—calling into question the efficacy of all of their teaching.

Students should look for programs that offer the opportunity to go both broad and deep—especially to collaborate across disciplines. And I don’t mean just design disciplines but, hopefully, collaboration with engineers, business majors, scientists—even medical students. For example, CCA has had a 20 year collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Haas business school and graduate engineering school. Students from all three organizations work together for a semester on truly multi-disciplinary teams. It’s one of the most unique and valuable experiences a student could have. For that matter, design is less and less a sole endeavor and more than ever a team sport. Programs that teach real collaboration skills (as opposed to merely throwing students together) and require them to work on teams—for at least half of their projects—will better prepare their students for the professional world.

Students should also be wary of courses that teach basic tools like Photoshop or InDesign. You should be spending your money (and college is expensive) on courses that teach theory, ideas, and processes, not tools. You can learn to use these on your own really quickly. Go through the tutorial and just explore—especially in the context of an assignment. If you really need the extra direction, buy the tutorial at or take a course at a community college. Don’t waste your money on a tool course at a more expensive design school—save that for courses that teach you your craft. The exception might be for truly complicated tools, like the more professional 3D, CAD, or professional film compositing and FX tools.

About Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff is the chair of the ground-breaking MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, CA. This program prepares the next-generation of innovation leaders for a world that is profitable, sustainable, ethical, and truly meaningful. The program unites the perspectives of systems thinking, design and integrative thinking, sustainability, and generative leadership into a holistic strategic framework. Students learn to create innovative products, services, and policy, as well as new business models.

He is a pioneer in Experience Design, Interaction Design and Information Design, speaks and teaches internationally, and is a serial entrepreneur. His many books include: Experience Design 1.1, Making Meaning, Design is the Problem, and the upcoming Make It So.

He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BS in Industrial Design from Art Center College of Design. He worked with Richard Saul Wurman at TheUnderstandingBusiness and, later, co-founded vivid studios, a decade-old pioneering company in interactive media and one of the first Web services firms on the planet. vivid’s hallmark was helping to establish and validate the field of information architecture, by training an entire generation of designers in the newly emerging Web industry.

Nathan is on the board of directors for Teague and the AIGA.

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