Welcome: New Designers

August 27, 2010

Next week is the start of a new semester in Communications Design, as is many other design programs across the country and around the world. Thousands of students are starting their design careers in classrooms, a little nervous, confused, and a little bit stressed out. On the other side of the coin they are excited, passionate and ready to go. One good thing about the academic calendar is that the fall semester is about new beginnings, rebirth and a clean slate. I thought that I would read to our sophomores these two quotes by Marty Neumeier, President of Neutron about the world that, as designers, we have to work in.

“Thanks to unprecedented marker clutter, differentiation is becoming the most powerful strategy in business and the primary beneficiary of innovation. So, if innovation drives differentiation, what drives innovation? The answer, hidden in plain sight, is design. Design contains the skills to identify possible futures, invent exciting products, build bridges to customers, crack wicked* problems, and more. The fact is, if you wanna innovate, you gotta design.”

* A wicked problem is a puzzle so persistent, pervasive, and slippery that it can seem insoluble.

This is the world you are designing for:

“… where customers control the company, jobs are avenues of self expression, the barriers to competition are out of control, strangers design your products, fewer features are better, advertising drives customers away, demographics are beside the point, whatever you sell you take back, and best practices are obsolete at birth; where meaning talks, money walks, and stability is fantasy; where talent trumps obedience, imagination beats knowledge, and empathy trounces logic.”

Now we are ready to start learning about design.


A couple of times a week I get something from my investment brokerage firm in a plain white envelope. Inside might be an annual or quarterly report, an addendum to an earlier report, changes to these reports and other materials directly related to my investments. Generally, I open the envelope and take the contents and flip through the pages of 1-column, 10 point text in long paragraphs broken up by some tabular matter. Sometimes paragraphs are set in ALL CAPS! Lately, when I pick up the mail and sort it, these mailings from the brokerage firm go directly into the paper recycling box.

Does anybody read this stuff? I take my investments seriously because Social Security might not be around much longer and these investments are all I have to live on for the years after I officially stop working. These mailings are unreadable, and I love to read. All the formatting of type and layout says, “Don’t read this shit and don’t worry about it because the lawyers, the brokers and accountants have taken care of everything.” Oh, yeah, this really makes me feel better to know that the ones that got us in this economic mess don’t really want us to understand what they are doing with our money and how well they are doing it.

Quite a few years ago I had a large insurance company as a client. I will not name them because since then I have found that most insurance companies behave in a similar manner. My design studio was contracted to the repackaging of a substantial disability product line, which to insurance companies, means lots and lots of paper and things to hold the paper.

I looked at of all their and their competitors previous packages and found them incomprehensible to anyone except maybe a seasoned sales agent. After reorganizing, color coding, and creating clear info graphics to aid in comprehension, I moved then to the text. Some well placed and well written heads and subheads helped to navigate the reams of information. I then read the body copy, many times, and created a brief summary or abstract to be placed at the beginning of each piece. Now if the average person were to be handed this brochure or folder, they could easily understand what was the main message without taking the vast amount of time needed to read the entire piece.

We were really proud of this because no other insurance corporation was as transparent and clear as these pieces were. Well, I found out why. When our comps were reviewed by the client, the legal department sent back a simple answer, a sticky note on the top of our comps that simply said, “NO!” So much for trying to make all this legalese mumbo-jumbo comprehensible and transparent for the sake of the end-user. I would venture to say that I am not the only designer that tried to change an industry bent on using customer ignorance to their advantage.

I still get this crap, I painfully try to understand them but then end up tossing them into recycling. At least in their next life they might be used to make something new where we are able see the truth.

Build on their passion.

July 25, 2010

Our backbone course is the 18 credit Design Problems, made up of half juniors and half seniors to encourage and enable mentoring. The concept is simple: each credit represents a substantial design project with extraordinary depth and breadth.

But it is the students creating their own unique problems is what makes this class extraordinary. The student’s select problems that inspire, arouse their curiosity and are passionate about. One thing I have learned is that students having ownership and authorship in their work, perform better. They are very proud of coming up with projects that are innovative and entrepreneurial.

We encourage the students to clearly define their problem, then execute their best possible solution(s) in a form reflecting the their particular interests. It might be a publication, a packaging project, an information design system, a retail design, an advertising campaign, a website design, an integrated branding system, an exhibit design, and so on. Each project is, in essence, a student’s own personal independent study. Instead of a student reporting to a faculty advisor once a week as done in traditional independent studies, we put them in the classroom. Lot’s of them.

This facilitates learning from each others process. The entire class will be completely involved with each of the student’s individual projects which completely involves them in all aspects of design through the process of weekly critiques. Classes are long and arduous with each student presenting their project(s) and the students and faculty critique of the work.

We want them to be complete designers first, then to see how the design process can manifest itself through diverse media. In their senior year we encourage the students to extend a couple of their favorite projects resulting in vast depth and breath of a single problem that couldn’t be accomplished in an average time slot in a semester. These completed class projects make up the majority of content of the student’s portfolios, which result in the class portfolios that are as different from each other as our Syracuse snowflakes. Most are renaissance portfolios, a little of everything. Others are specialist’s portfolios, focused on the students’ passion about an aspect of design that they feel they want to pursue.

What really makes them unique is that each student’s portfolio is an example of their personal interests and passions, it is a direct reflection of them. So when a potential employer responds very positively to a portfolio, they are responding directly to who the student is, not just a design solution to a project.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

The content in our Design Strategies class is student driven by our juniors. On the first day of class, we ask the students to come up with their most important questions about design that they want answered. Anything goes, everything is fair game. We get hundreds. The class pick twelve. We assign 12 teams who will then research the problem, come up with answers and present them to the class each week. This class is about creativity and strategies for getting many answers to questions, very right-brained.

The following semester is very left-brained. The Design Project Management class is again run by the juniors and takes on the role of an actual design firm. The players are CEOs (us, the faculty), teams, managers, senior and junior designers, account execs, bookkeepers, secretaries, and, of course a real client. We have taken on design projects from small non-profits, like the Harriet Tubman House, a historical museum, to a branding project for the international financial giant, JPMorgan Chase. In this class, learning is under fire with live ammo. At the end, they present their proposals to the client. It’s a win-win situation: our class learn a lot in a short amount of time and the client get 20 + designers for 12 weeks solving their problems. In the summer we follow up with interns from the class implementing the class work for the client.

If you give the students the freedom to determine their own future, they will be responsible and do extraordinary things. If they know that they have the power, not us, to educate themselves, they will rise to the occasion.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

For all you typophiles, here’s a sign for your studio:


On our first day we take head-shots of the student’s and have them fill out a questionnaire about themselves. I read the questionnaires and memorize each name with a face. During the second class I usually stand at the front of the class looking directly at each one of them so they can read my lips as I say their name.

They are no longer anonymous, I know their name before they can remember mine. It is a lot of work for me but they immediately realize that if I do extra-ordinary work to learn all of their names in a week, I then expect them to work hard too. Simple gestures like this are very powerful. They never forget it, the program bond starts there.

The entire faculty must review your student’s work often, by that I mean the end of every semester. We even review our sophomores at mid-term. The review sheets rate them on design skills, conceptual skills and along with and more importantly, their attitude. This document is for the student’s eyes only, not to be sent home or to the department and furthermore, it’s not a grade. It is an instrument to show the student where they are successful and where their problem areas lie so that they can accurately address them.

Even more importantly, it also allows the entire faculty to instantly see:
How the individual student is doing in the major
How the class is doing as a whole.
How the faculty are doing.

Their last review is the week before graduation when the faculty take all their finished portfolios to the Syracuse University Townhouse in New York City. We invite over 2000 design professionals and Syracuse alumni to “review” the portfolios and leave feedback for our graduates. We then place that feedback directly into their portfolio on graduation weekend. They are off the bus running! Some are working by Monday, most within the month.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

Photo: Stephanie Hart

The entire faculty of a design program should be on the same page and work as a team. Therefore, all of the faculty must buy in to your program’s strategies and goals, this is the hard part but is well worth it in the long run. Any goals that are set must always put the students first, they are the end-user, so make them happy.

Team-teach all of your classes in your major. This allows every faculty member to have a clear holistic understanding of the program, rather than their own little part of it. You can work better as a team if you know what the what the left and right hands are doing. Put faculty where their strengths do the most good teamed up with another faculty with complementary strengths that create a unique powerful class environment that couldn’t be experienced by using a solo teacher.

Team-teaching reveals that there is not just one answer to a problem, that there exist many alternate perspectives and solutions. There are no right answers in design, only solutions that work better than others. Team-teaching is sometimes like tag-team-wrestling, enabling us keeping the content and energy at a very high level because we constantly hand off topics and play off one another’s comments. This enables us to cover much more content and our contrasting viewpoints and experiences make critiques stimulating.

We all agree to disagree, but are on the same page programmatically. You have to keep the ego in check where content is king. Our students see the faculty working as a team, it supports the team-building skills they will need when a team project appears, and we have lots of them. In fact, their first project in the major is a team project.

In that very first class in the major, we combine all our sections together in one huge class in the auditorium that is team-taught by the entire full-time faculty from the major. This reinforces that there is no individual ownership of a class, we all have ownership.

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)

Don’t teach, coach!

July 14, 2010

Photo: Glen Lewis

What I do is closer to coaching than teaching. My hero is Syracuse University Hall of Fame basketball coach, Jim Boeheim.

For over thirty years I’ve watched his “tough-love” style of coaching make winning teams. I appreciate the way he yanks a player out of the game immediately after a dumb move, gets right in their face and tells them what they should have done, a wonderful teaching moment. He is a master at getting the most out of all his players.

In practice coaches put their students in situations that closely resemble the actual competition. This gives them every opportunity to mess up and learn from their mistakes yet also encourages them to take risks. It can be a little messy and unpredictable but so is design.

Example: We don’t grade anything until the bitter end. This allows the student to redo a project that may have been trashed in a critique. They can redo a project as many times as they want. We will only grade the final revision, noting the student’s effort and progress to improve the quality of the project.  They must be very careful about time management, robbing Peter to pay Paul, because the new projects shout for attention too.

Learn by your mistakes and make better failures. We love to say and our apologies to Nike, “Just re-do it!”

(This is an excerpt from the paper presented at the 2010 UCDA Education Summit at Lawrence KS by William Padgett)