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Of course, it is impressive to see someone enjoying success in spite of his or her
lack of a formal education. But in design practice, is it really that surprising? Given
the largely service-oriented role that design plays, one could only expect that the
closer you are to mainstream thinking, the more likely you are to enjoy popular
acclaim. Conversely, the more specialized one’s knowledge and skills, the more
difficult it is to achieve mainstream success. Uncritically celebrating the success of the
self-taught designer, without qualifying such success, only serves to undermine our
own credibility and history.
It is not my intention to single out self-taughts as parasites on an accommodating
host, as the majority of them are ethical and responsible people. But a few
high-profile self-taught designers exemplify an anti-intellectual undercurrent that has
been grumbling away in the design community for some time. The proliferation of
design schools, particularly the ones with graduate programs, have engendered a
reactionary backlash. When was the last time you heard a design star talk about the
importance of design education to practice? In contrast to the precocious vocabularyabusing
graduate student, the plain-talking self-taught designer represents a
reassuring alternative to constant change and increasing complexity. Perhaps this is
why some of the harshest criticism in design today is no longer directed at the
undereducated, but at the supposedly overeducated.
The self-taught designers are not a big problem because there are not many of
them, and most self-taughts are quick to exploit relationships with well-educated
partners or employees. Our more serious problem is the fact that there are so many
educated designers who view design education as a necessary evil instead of a lifelong
commitment. As the saying goes, “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Unfortunately, too many designers are content to depend on just a little bit of
knowledge. They are confident that they can learn most of what they need to know
on the job. They fail to understand that design education today is much more than
vocational training—it is a process of discovery and renewal.
Anti-intellectual designers are critical of design education, even though they
have absolutely no idea what goes on there, except in the design programs that have
not changed in twenty years. Before new ideas and explorations are even developed
and fully articulated within design education, they have often been dismissed as illconceived
or just plain wrong by uninformed critics who are insufficiently prepared
to understand what they are discounting. The true source of their anxiety is not the
new ideas themselves (which they usually misunderstand), but the fact that they
represent a change in design thinking