The Challenge of Challenging Today’s Design Students

“I have taught design for 15+ years at two research universities and one master’s granting university. Therefore, I feel comfortable talking about design education and design students. As I continue to post to AIGA STL, I will do my best to not talk too often about the specifics of my current school; our pedagogy is one way of doing things, but not the way of doing things.”


Societal norms, technology, and life experiences are often bigger challenges for a design educator than teaching design itself. Specifically, the current generation of design students is part of the generation that “…was not allowed to skin their knees,” as Dr. Arthur Levine puts it in a 2012 New York Times interview. In design, I feel this concept manifests itself in many ways. I will talk about two of the ways. One way students avoid pain is when they ask for advice on a concept before they do any sketching, mock-ups, proofs, etc. By doing so, they will create an “approved” concept that will not be criticized or rebuked; there is no potential for the loss of skin from the knees. Another way design students avoid skinning their knees is in relation to design work/jobs. At my three different teaching appointments, I was constantly notified about design jobs on campus. One might think that students would be knocking down my door looking for the ever-coveted experience that many jobs listings ask for. Nevertheless, it usually takes some direct one-on-one conversing to get students to apply for these jobs. I surmise that these students feel that they might skin their knees if they apply for the job, but are denied. However, if a faculty member contacts the student directly, and tells them to apply, they know that they are walking into a safe environment because someone sees potential in their skill, where they may not. For me, having to acknowledge and address the safety net that most students have been provided has been an unexpected challenge in my years of teaching. The current students are not less talented, not less enthusiastic about design, and many even relish being challenged. However, most have been protected from peril their entire lives, and we must slowly, but surely, cover the design basics, but also instill confidence and a willingness to fail.

Where does that leave me? I feel that as a design educator, I now have additional responsibilities. I must stay engaged and up to date. This includes design trends, technology, and pedagogy. I need to fight the assumption that students know more than I think they do just because they have been brought up with the Internet.; 18-21 year olds are still green when it comes to the world and broader concepts. Lastly, I need instill an understanding of design, its methodologies, and its outcomes, but also have to get these students to skin their knees a little bit, even get them to think it is a little fun doing it.

By Robert A. Lopez,
Associate Professor, Design
Southern Illinois University Carbondale

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By By Robert A. Lopez, Associate Professor, Design Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Published September 19, 2016
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