What I Learned in Art School (Is it Design Thinking?)

Published on Author Christopher Fahey

Yours truly, art student at Cooper Union in 1993.

I’ve been in some interesting discussions lately about “design thinking“, in particular with respect to the question of education: How are business and design educations relevant to the management of a design-centric business?

One of my core objections to the “d-school” concept is that most of the curricula emphatically don’t teach design skills. Instead, they teach “design thinking”, which is said to be a way of approaching problem solving that is inherently different from, I suppose, business thinking.

Well, like a fish who doesn’t know that he is wet, I have no idea what it is like to not be a design thinker. And I suppose that, conversely, a lot of people who talk about design thinking have no idea what designers are actually taught. Are we really taught different skills than our MBA counterparts? Is there really something unique about what designers are taught, about how we think?

To answer those questions, I thought it would be useful to simply talk about what I learned in art school. I’m not talking about the specific skills and crafts — I learned how to cast acrylic resin, how to weld steel, how to do 3D modeling, how to paint in fresco, and how to etch a circuit board — although I do strongly believe that hands-on design experience is crucial to being a good design leader.

Instead, I am talking about the broader and more resonant skills I’ve learned that have helped me both as a designer and as a business person.

This is meant to be a dialogue. If you went to art school, did you learn these kind of things? More importantly, if you didn’t go to art school, did you not learn these things?

Without further ado: In art school, I learned:

  • How to champion and defend my ideas.
  • How to distinguish between personal and professional critique.
  • How to respectfully and constructively critique my peers. How to attack the ideas of my colleagues and still have drinks with them that same night (and maybe even sleep with them — hey, it is art school)
  • How to test drive a hundred different ideas through sketching, cobbling, and envisioning them, before finally settling on which one to go ahead and build.
  • How to tell when I am done a project that could just as easily be improved endlessly.
  • How to tell when an idea that is precious to me is actually holding me back. And then to feel good about throwing it away.
  • How to have the confidence to present my ideas in public without fearing that they will be stolen. And how to take it in stride when they inevitably are.
  • How to distinguish between taste, technical skill, and empirical efficiency.
  • How to detect bullshit, and to avoid generating it myself (note that not all art school grads learn this).
  • How to go the extra mile to make something high-quality.
  • How to recognize talent in my peers.
  • How to collaborate with my colleagues effectively to reach a common goal.
  • How to be deeply competitive without being a dick.
  • How to make something new just for the sake of being new.
  • How to build off of, and give credit to, the ideas of my predecessors both contemporary and in history.
  • How to save ideas that I’m not ready for and keep them for future use (usually in sketchbooks).
  • How to start all over again from the beginning.
  • How to teach all of the above.

I’m sure I could go on. Let’s just say that I definitely apply a lot of these lessons in my job every day, both in my own designs and in the way I work with my teams. Does this make me a design thinker?

19 Responses to What I Learned in Art School (Is it Design Thinking?)

  1. Totally coincidentally, I was browsing Scott Berkun‘s essays about interactive design and management, and I noticed that a great deal of his writings deal directly with these same art-school-like topics, including:

    Scott’s essays are a great way to revisit some art school lessons, or to get a taste for what you might have missed.

  2. check out that mop! heh.

    seriously though, i do think i learned specific non-design related skills at art school, but i also tend to think that “design thinking” is more of a result of designer self-promotion.

    yes, we look at problems differently; i just don’t know if it’s by as much as some people like to think. art school graduates all have the expressive gene, which gives us — to varying degrees — a different take on our surroundings while walking through life.

    but that doesn’t mean that only art school grads have that ability.

    i dunno. i don’t dig fluffy terminology that much to begin with. it reeks of marketing jargon to me.

  3. Another part of the discussion as we all seem to be in web design/development is how ‘developer thinking’ enters into the mix ??

  4. @twhid: That’s true. A design thinking article I checked out recently noted that “design” is used just as much by engineers as by experience designers, but I doubt that the thinking behind engineering design is quite the same as the thinking behind user experience design. But engineering thinking has long been a part of corporate thinking, hasn’t it? Of course, one could argue that design thinking has long been a key part of corporate thinking in the creative industries (fashion, music, movies, art), too, so the argument that design thinking is something new and alien to the corporate world would sound silly to the CEO of, say, Disney or Calvin Klein.

  5. @Chris: Yeah, ‘design’ is a very large field. I suppose I’m thinking more about visual design — 2d-4d visual design. AFA visual design goes, I’m not sure how much I agree with what little I’ve read about ‘design thinking.’

  6. Dear Chris:

    Thank you for this list. You’ve elegantly qualified what myself and a couple of colleagues were trying to enumerate as what we learned from Art School.

    You are right, not all of these are taught in art departments, but the better the school, the more of these are taught.

    In addition, I’d add two concepts:

    1.) The few books I’ve read on the subject define creativity and design as “problem solving through lateral thinking” and “creative organization for better communication” respectively. Now, neither of these things can be taught simply through words. They must be demonstrated. This is the reason why so many designers bear the “stamp” of the art school they trained at or the town they live in.
    Therefore, the tutor’s job involves not only the core concepts you mentioned (ie speaking and working like a designer), but also how to see like a designer.

    2.) Teaching creativity is a somewhat tougher matter. But, contrary to what many NY and LA-based artistes would claim, it can be done. The best metaphor I’ve heard would be to compare it to a muscle in the body, or a kind of intuition. The more you are forced to use it to solve dilemmas, the more developed it becomes until eventually it has the strength to ask its own questions.
    This was the essence of how I was taught to design, and how my colleagues teach the next generation of 1st years. It seems every art department in the world uses a format of design challenges (or projects) to push the students not just to learn a technique, but to ask questions. The better the design of these projects (and the greater the level of finesse the tutor displays), the more effective they are.

  7. I have a very roundabout educational path: I started in architecture school, then got almost done with a combination of anthropology/architecture history, before I dropped out for awhile and then went back to art school — where I started in graphic design but ended up with a degree in film/video and performance.

    I think you had a better design school experience than I did in some ways. I felt that architecture was better taught than graphic design as it was research focused first. Before paper even touched pencil you learn from observing the past, how cities come together, debate what is beauty. Etc. Etc. GD seemed a lot more sink or swim and I found that annoying and left.

    What did I learn in film/video/performance that I don’t see you mention: how to work collaboratively as part of a team, how to assign roles and split tasks, how to organize a project. I also learned throughout my art education: how to ask questions of fellow students, of professors, and to take control of the process of my education. I also learned how to conceptualize ideas. And how to think about a problem in a little bit different way.

    Unfortunately, I’ve never figured out how to let go of the things that I’ve made. I struggle with this on every project to this day.

  8. Thanks for the link!

    But you might have noticed I’ve stopped talking about design thinking directly, maybe in the same way that once painters know how to mix colors it’s not worth talking about directly; more productive to talk about how to apply it.

    Example: if you do internet consulting like we do, there may be managers/business development folks having initial conversations with a client to determine what the project is going to be, then the project kicks off and the design (of the artifacts) gets done. But if you put design people into the biz dev process and/or change that process to be less a conversation about negotiation and more a workshop about idea generation, then we open up possibilities for everything that happens downstream. It’s more fun, potentially more profitably, and a simply example of injecting a more creative approach on a traditional business process.

    Or at least I think so, thoughts?

  9. excellent thinking. i have degree in painting/drawing and yet somehow, i ended up a professional web designer (and most recently, a creative director). i work and have worked next to graphic designers who went through the design program proper, and i find very often that they really didn’t learn anything more or different than i did with regards to composition, being critical of my work, and most importantly, knowing when you’re done. if anything, i consider myself a step ahead since my design thinking wasn’t fed to me by a jaded professor or affected by a competitive peer. but, i’ve always said that a particular degree means very little – it’s what you put into it that you get out of it.

  10. I went to business school and have hung out at a couple of design schools. Here’s what I learnt in business school – just some random thoughts, slightly tongue in cheek, for contrast to your art school list,

    1. Some kind of number must be used to justify decision making – the more the merrier – conjoint analysis is a complex yet numerical way to justify the use of a slanted brush versus a straight brush in product packaging decision making for example. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjoint_analysis_(in_marketing)

    2. “Business is war” metaphor is prevalent, competition is brutal is assumed, the rest follows.

    3. Everything that can be monetized – yeah you even learn strange new jargon – will be monetized. Profit is the bottomline for every decision.

    4. Plans are not prototypes and must be followed. Imagine having to build your first concept sketch or to be unable to change your first prototype. “Tweak” is not a word.

    5. The customer is a wallet not a user.

  11. Is your list supposed to make us feel like sh**? Do you feel like sh** for becoming aware of these things? These are two bigger questions that have not been addressed above, and the reader could be rewarded more (or upset more) if you touched on the pros / cons of these things you learned. Various Design Canons (yes, with capital letters) will tell us that this is the right way, that is the wrong way. Time, technology, individual, and institution all drive these right / wrongs. So for god’s sake, is one way better than the other: designer vs. design thinker? If you learned how to amass your ideas into a sketchbook, and never have them amount to anything, is it a bad thing?

  12. @Tselentis: I don’t see why you ask those first two questions. What in the world makes you ask such things? The idea that someone might feel like shit about becoming aware of anything is completely bizarre to me.

    For the record, the answer to both is an emphatic “No!” All of the things I listed are, to me, positive things.

    Also, as I’ve said, I personally don’t see any difference between “designer” and “design thinker”, and I generally feel that the whole idea “design thinking” is a bit of a gimmick. If anything, that was my point — that designers and even fine arts students learn “design thinking” already.

    With regards to your last question, if by “you” you mean me, Christopher Fahey, then the answer is yes because I am ambitious and want to accomplish things (and, in fact, I have). But if by “you” you mean all designers or people in general, then I simply can’t answer your question because I have too much respect for different peoples’ different life goals to tell them what is good and bad about what they do with their ideas.

  13. Great list Christopher. I’ve been thinking recently that concentrating on the kind of skills in your list is much more useful than teaching hands-on crafting skills at art school. It’s different for everybody of course, but I bet a sizeable proportion of graduates end up in work in which they don’t use the skills they learned at college. So why not have college be a place where students acquire a broad base of skills like those you list and a variety of others, leaving more of the hand-son skills to be learned on the job during the rest of their lives?

    I’m not 100% convinced of this yet and, as I say, it’s certainly not right for everyone, but I think it changes slightly how we think of the purpose of art schools.

  14. What I Learned in Engineering School after 4 years:

    – If your professor asks a question in class, under no circumstances must you raise your hand to answer.

    – All papers written must have long and obscure titles, very few pictures, and long mathematical formulas containing subscripted greek variables with little to no description of what they mean. Oh and they must be hard to read too.

    – Everything you ever predict on paper, will always be 10-20% off from measurements in the lab

    what a waste of time

  15. On a less serious note, I’m currently attending art school and here is a small list of things I like about it:

    1. No math classes, ever.

    This is why I’m going for a BFA instead of a BA. I hate math classes! We also don’t have to take any foreign language classes. Basically, instead of a liberal arts education where you take a bunch of requirements and eventually start to specialize in your major, we start out specializing (design, dance, theater, music, art) and then get even more specific (interior design, visual communications, motion design). Oh yeah, and we sprinkle in some humanities and sciences classes to make the accreditation boards think we are getting a well-rounded education. These include the freshman foundation H&S classes that are graded on a pass/fail basis (what a joke), literature classes such as “The Evolution of Faust,” and science classes such as “Trees and Forests” (WTF?). But no math.

    2. Doodling is encouraged.

    Well, maybe not ALL the time. But we do have to draw a lot. For instance in one project where we had to come up with 20 sketches of ideas in two days for a class project. Or all the drawing we had to do in Graphic Representation. And obviously I’ve been doing a lot of drawing for my comic class.

    3. Everybody is slightly insane.

    This is generally true, but more-so at art school. Or at least people are more open about being weird, strange, and crazy. You can fly your freak flag all you want, whether loudly or quietly. It keeps things interesting. Thank God. Just say “no” to business school.

    4. Strange art projects live in the hallways.

    There are always paintings, photographs, and sculptures scattered around. Occasionally they involve nudity. Sometimes they are creepy. For instance there have been pairs of childrens shoes scattered around last year and this year. Strange. Sometimes they are big and silly. Like the human-sized rabbit and mutant-ninja turtle made out of paper that were battling it out on the fifth floor. Good times.

    5. You can wear a tail and nobody cares.

    You may be wondering if I have worn a tail to school. The answer is no. But there is a student I’ve seen around who DOES wear a tail on a regular basis. Like, every day. I’m curious about it, but I also have the feeling that it is more fun to wonder why he wears it than to actually talk to him about it.

  16. True ‘higher education’, regardless of the discipline will teach way beyond the textbook. Glad to see you obtained an excellent education.