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The 2 Things Missing In Design Education Today

In this article

“The result is an increase of cookie cutter design graduates that can only apply the UX process like a checklist but not think for themselves or understand the larger context of the methods and tools.”


Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook, shared in a 2017 Medium article the three keys to a successful product design career.

1. Craft and execution skills (>90% of current programs only teach this)

2. Product thinking

3. Influencing skills

Julie Zhou
VP of Product Design at Facebook

I got to sharpen the latter two skills while working as a Product Manager and being an Entrepreneur. I spend the majority of my time today as an educator today thinking how I can distill my product thinking and communication experience into classroom contact time. Before I elaborate on how this way of thinking has influenced how CuriousCore courses are conducted today, let me share with you how my journey as a Design Educator started.

How I started out as a Design Educator

Since graduating from design school in 2007, I’ve been frustrated by how little things have changed: from the curriculum to the delivery of programs. Between Dec 2015 and Feb 2019, before I left for my sabbatical in Europe, I had the opportunity to serve as part of General Assembly’s (GA) Singapore founding instructing team as a part-time User Experience (UX) Instructor. The opportunity gave me my first break to see if I would enjoy a career in education.

I recall rushing down after a busy day at work a few times a month to deliver an Introduction to UX Workshop to anywhere between 20 to 50 professionals. I derived much joy from interacting with the participants, several of whom went to build their careers in UX and one even became my intern at Razer and subsequently joined Grab as a Product Designer. One such example is Maverlyn Low, my ex-intern at Razer, whose full career journey from being an SMU Business student to a Product Designer at Grab today, can be read here.

How Design Education looks today

There are plenty of free and paid options to study UX today and LinkedIn ranks as one of the top 5 hard skills companies need in 2020. Herein, lies part of a bigger systemic problem, there is way much information and options touting content and awarding certifications liberally. The current state of UX education is a replica of GA’s bootcamp formula: learn as many of the latest available design software out there, work on unwarranted project redesigns (that may not solve a real problem) and build a portfolio website with written case studies following the given structure.

The result is an increase of cookie cutter design graduates that can only apply the UX process like a checklist but not think for themselves or understand the larger context of the methods and tools. Years ago that worked well for a period of time because there was strong demand for junior talent, that period is now gone and made worse because of COVID-19. The demand in Asia Pacific has now shifted towards mid-level talent (3 to 5 years) through my recent conversations with a handful of Head/VPs of Design in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia.

So what’s missing in UX design education
today? The current state of design education
lacks contextual mastery and soft skills training.

While I refer to the UX industry here, the questions I asked and points I raised in this opinion piece can be applied to any vocational school.

1. Contextual Mastery

“The more supportive the contextual and learner factors to strategy use, the higher the level of English as Second Language (ESL) proficiency.”

Excerpt from a thesis report titled, Contextual and Learner Factors in the Development of English Second Language Proficiency by Eric Bheakisenzo Mahlobo, University of South Africa

An approach I adopt is to teach beyond the given curriculum to build a stronger scaffold in the learners’ mind connecting the dots from research to design to testing. In the classes I am assigned to, I dive deeper into the context and nuances of the various methods in UX to help learners’ reflect and apply what they learnt in class constantly. My hypothesis is, an increased number of feedback cycles in class will help learners retain and internalise the concepts better.

I experimented with this approach as early as 2016 teaching for GA’s 5-day UX intensive program and have received feedback from several past students they haven’t found a need to attend another UX course based on a recent check in. Some of them now work in senior positions in organisations like Alibaba, Shopee and GovTech mentoring the next generation of design leaders.

2. Soft Skills Training through Quality Feedback

It’s not hard to find design schools and institutions which can impart the necessary theories and hard skills. However, only a few realise the significance of soft skills in producing great UX professionals. You can check out this article from UX Collective to find out how certain soft skills in UX are the differentiators in what makes a good designer great.

For those who are thinking of self-studying UX, I implore you to do more research about the assessment methods of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) you sign up for, the quality of the feedback you receive in your work is just as important as the quality of the content you study.

In the future, content will no longer be the
differentiator but pedagogy, feedback and industry
access will differentiate which design schools
produce effective designers with the necessary
soft skills who continue to thrive in the industry.

I graduated 2007 from design school and less than 50% of my peers have remained in the creative industries. This seems to be a common phenomenon based on straw poll surveys done with colleagues in the industry. With the increasing abundance in MOOCs and certification programs on UX, which can be found with a simple search in Google today, in which program should you invest your time, money and energy in? I’ve shared what the 4 things to look out for when signing up for a UX course should be in a previous article before. Do take a look if you’re still in the consideration stage of choosing your UX course!

The Birth of our 4-Month UX Career Accelerator

I experimented on a different andragogy (for adult education) on what started out as a private group coaching program I ran with some of my ex-students who are working adults. The focus of the part-time program was not on technical skills although my coaching clients learn from their peers and me as they work on real projects with real clients (mostly non-profits around the world). The content focus revolved around strategic product thinking and marketing communications. They also received feedback from their clients, curated experts and me throughout the four month period.

Today, this same part-time private group coaching program that started out with just 6 ex-students of mine has evolved to a UX Course called 4-month UX Career Accelerator with 4 resident instructors and batches of 15 – 18 students each. Each student gets to experience working with 3 – 4 real clients in their real client projects as part of the course. Our next batch opens in June 2021 and we’re accepting students into our waitlist now so do click the button below and submit the form at the bottom of the page to reserve your spot!

My Inspirations

Atelier Model

This approach is an a adaptation of the Atelier model practiced in vocational trade in the 19th century in Europe where an experienced tradesman takes in a group of apprentices and grooming them to be journeymen and eventually masters over a number of years. These apprentices usually started working on easy tasks at a young age, and over time, became journeymen after gaining knowledge and expertise before achieving the status of masters.

Many professional artists continued using this method despite the introduction and prevalence of academies, institutions of higher learning or honorary membership as a preferred method of training. These artists used students as they had been in ateliers where either the artist paid the student-assistants or the students paid the artist to learn from their expertise. We can see this master-apprentice system adapted today in big successful education companies today like Harvard as well.

This model certainly served as a huge inspiration for the Real World Education that is promised to students in our 4-Month UX Career Accelerator today.

Bauhaus Approach

I also took some inspiration from the Bauhaus approach of cross-disciplinary skills immersion. The Bauhaus was founded by Walter Gropius, an architect in Weimar. The idea of creating a “comprehensive artwork” known as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, in which all the arts would eventually be brought together was the root of the Bauhaus approach. This approach later became one of the most influential methods in not just architectural education but modern design as well.

My Role

In what started out as a 4-month experimental program done remotely, I played the role of curator, coach and mentor to help my coaching clients sharpen their thinking skills, position themselves in the job market and portfolio; all of which design schools seem to have placed very little emphasis on yet highly valued by hiring managers.

Some wondered if four months is enough to groom a professional considering that many have invested time and money in 1 to 3-year design programs? The truth is I didn’t know at that point but from the progress they were making thus far through their accelerated learning, I remained cautiously optimistic given the current economic climate. The only way for me to decide if this first group of coaching clients would do well in the industry with my method of coaching, especially with some of them being mid-career switchers, was with time. And true enough, with time, the results showed.

I’m proud to share that all 6 of my first batch of students managed to secure a job, be it a contract or a full-time position, in the field within months of their graduation per their expectations when entering the program with me. One student even got an offer during the program!

My Challenge to You

With all that has been said, I do hope to see some change across the industry and not just in the way CuriousCore conducts courses. My challenge to faculty members of established design schools are as follows:

  • Is your teaching faculty imparting resilience and have prepared strategies for graduating students coming into an impending economic recession and post-COVID era?
  • Do you have a career coach as part of your faculty and how are they measured based on performance? Do they prepare students on CV writing and interview skills?
  • How do you know if your student portfolios are ready for the industry?
  • Do members of your teaching faculty know the strengths and weaknesses of each student and have advised them how to position themselves and think ahead?
  • How do students practice higher order thinking and communication skills throughout their coursework?
  • How regularly do you consult a pool of independent industry experts who do not sit on your school’s board to do an audit on your curriculum and its delivery?
  • When was the last time your school’s staff interviewed the needs of hiring managers?

Industry practitioners and educators, open to hearing your views in the comment section below. If you are a design professional and this resonates with you, please feel free to distribute these ideas and questions.