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Graphic Design Education: A Crisis in Competency

graphic arts industry, especially advertising, is experiencing a technological revolution with the creating of rapidly-expanding computer and software developments. Higher education has responded to this change surprisingly rapid in comparison with changes in other fields - perhaps too rapidly.

Graphic design programs are experiencing a rash of negative publicity, especially from art directors and designers who complain that recent graduates are just computer jockeys. Graduates are accused of having a lack of serious knowledge and discipline in the principles learned from art history and criticism, visual communications, drawing, design, typography and other artsãin short, they cannot visually communicate. This "visual communication," (oft referred in olden days as "the magic") is the purpose of the field. Without visual communication, there would be no visual design.

The problem lies partly with the choice of faculty hired to meet student demands for graphics, particularly computer graphics instruction. The industry is downsizing, or "rightsizing" as one industry leader puts it. This is leaving a cache of the poorest visual communicators unemployed. Competent or not, too often a naive, academic world is impressed with even mediocre credentials, lack the ability to judge a portfolio, and is too easily "taken" by industry sales pitches. The academic world is also looking for a bargain, and as little as academia pays, this is steady income for fringe-talented, free-lancers used to living month-to-mouth. Records show that competent graphic designers today earn upwards of $70,000, why should designers go to education which pays only a portion of that amount for twice the work hours?

I recently saw one portfolio of very slick, computer-generated images combining typography, design, photography, and videography. The applicant had the gall to present the work as her own, without explaining that in industry, complex graphic presentations are a process of team effort.

The solution is simple. The applicant's portfolio and credentials should be scrutinized by a team of experienced visual communicators from professionals chosen from similar fields in both industry and academia. Attentive notes should be taken of the comments of this team and presented to the decision-makers. If no deficiencies are discussed, the team has a problem. When deficiencies are noted, they should be carefully written down and discussed with the applicant. A professional will already recognize his/her deficiencies and should be willing to improve him/herself. If the applicant is not, then the applicant should not be considered. This could also be an effective test. The applicant could be asked what areas he/she considers him/herself deficient, if the answer is the same or related to those discovered by the examining team, then the applicant is likely competent. A professional knows his/her limitations and deficiencies in this, a field too complex to be skilled in all areas.

To test other knowledge in graphic design, the applicant should be given a quiz of graphic design terms and principles, but not minor techniques. This could be chosen from a quiz given graduating students by the institution. But, better the quiz come from outside the institution, and designed to test the knowledge of graduates. The institution will desire the quiz to measure an awareness of "best practices," instead of "common practices." Or a quiz could combine the latter and questions from area industry professionals.

The field of education demands other attributes. These include dedication, loyalty, humility, consideration, teamwork skills, a love, respect and understanding of youth, and especially an appreciation of non-monetary rewards.