Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

The UX Design Education Scam

October 25, 2010

If you emerge from university today with a web design degree, chances are rather slim that you’re employable as a user experience (UX) or web designer. Maybe you learned a lot of stuff; it’s just probably the wrong stuff. Congratulations, you’ve been defrauded. Hope it didn’t cost you or your parents too much.

The game changed. Higher education didn’t…and it won’t. In fact, it can’t. Today the appropriate path for UX design education goes around, not through, nearly all universities and colleges. These institutions should be ignored in favor of actually-relevant UX design education options, which most often means self-directed study. If you disagree, as too many do, it likely means you’re either uninformed or insane (as I’ll demonstrate later). No, I’m not giving up on these institutions prematurely. We’re deep into the game and only the misguided among us are still playing it. Those who have been paying attention know that the game is actually long over.

To be fair, a primary reason university and college programs cannot change to remain relevant is because the technologies, standards, and practices one must understand in order to remain employably-relevant are changing on an annual or even monthly basis. Academic institutions have proven that they’re usually incapable of keeping up even with decade-to-decade industry evolution (typically remaining a good decade behind in many industries). It should not be surprising, therefore, that the sorts of frenetic changes occurring in the information design professions present insurmountable barriers to an institution’s degree program relevance.

Yet all of this accounts only for the technical reasons for academia’s inability to adapt. The more problematic issue has to do with deliberate institutional recalcitrance at the idea of modifying or evolving degree program curricula, even in the face of ongoing expert, professional advice. Most academic administrators and instructors simply will not entertain the notion that design brought to the web is anything other than some sort of programming. Typically, students might get one semester of a milquetoast design course, but there the design ends; and seldom if ever are vital psychology, ethics, or sociology courses included.

Most academic administrators and instructors simply will not entertain the notion that design brought to the web is anything other than some sort of programming.

Sadly, the institutional definition of a web design course is one where some tool—usually Dreamweaver or Flash—is taught. Those who understand the UX design disciplines know that teaching Dreamweaver to web design students is like teaching typewriter to creative writing students. A typist does not a writer make, yet throughout academia the definition of web designer approximates to “tool jockey.” Clearly, university administrators, instructors, and curriculum advisors must not be trusted with design’s future and most universities should cease receiving tuition fees that allow them to pretend that they can. And yes, the presence of tuition fees indicates evidence of co-conspirators in this scam…more on that in a moment.

Note, however, that these institutions can offer relevant instruction for certain components of a design education; many of which are required for preparation as a UX designer. But that’s not what universities and colleges are selling. Instead they deliberately lie to their students, prospective students and their parents, saying that they can provide a relevant degree program—with either the promise or the implication that graduates of these programs will emerge employable. In my experience and that of many others I’ve spoken with, and as observed by others whose words I’ve read, this is a demonstrable fallacy. My personal experience is anecdotal to be sure, but in more than 5 years of hiring in the web design profession, having reviewed something on the order of 200 resumes, I have come across one (1!) individual recent graduate that was employable at the agency I owned or worked at. I’m talking about a crime here. I’m talking about fraud.

This is not an error of ignorance or wishful thinking. The acts and lies perpetrated by the individuals running and employed by these institutions are most often deliberate. In the absence of deliberate lies, nothing short of gross negligence is involved. Presented with the very clear evidence that they are and will remain incapable of keeping up and offering relevant programs, the administration members of these institutions and the heads of these programs have chosen to lie straight-faced to the source of their livelihoods in order to maintain income and the ruse of academic relevance. In the real world, this is known as fraud.

This system as it exists today cannot be fixed…and it’s not just the fault of academia. Many in the design professions have become willing enablers of this broken system. Design professionals who are the product of academic education, even though they’ve acquired their UX skills outside of school, too often can’t see past their academic allegiances. These folks have long demonstrated a foolish faith in the capabilities of myopic institutions. Today, even faced with compelling facts to the contrary, these people still believe that academic institutions can change. As such, they are slaves to a lazy and foolish notion, and do harm to their profession and to the young people interested in pursuing it. Professional interest in academic degrees and hiring degree requirements sends an increasingly destructive message.

Collaborative insanity

It is widely understood that the practice of repeating the same action or process over and over and expecting a different result is a clear definition of insanity. The professional UX design community is largely guilty of this insanity. Design professionals have long lamented the shortcomings of academic design programs, especially over the past 10 years and especially with regard to UX design education. Many design professionals have called for change. Many have spoken with and worked with educational institutions to try and usher in that change. I’m one of them. Yet most UX design students are still being tricked into irrelevant classes and curricula.

I have worked directly with academic design program faculty, I have had numerous detailed discussions with design program professors, and for years I have even served on a college web design degree curriculum development panel. In all of this I have learned that nothing changes. Nothing changes because nothing can change in that environment. That’s how it’s set up to operate. I gladly acknowledge that there are a handful of special institutions that operate in a different manner than the typical university or college. They offer relevant programs, but these are rare institutions and they play differently than the rest of the recalcitrant children. As with any consequential situation, the people involved are the difference. Make a note: people, not systems, comprise the qualitative elements of change.

Wake up

The time for political correctness, courteous patience, and the benefit of doubt has passed. The vast majority of institutional UX design programs are nothing short of scams. We must stop casually entertaining academic fraud and professionals must stop assisting in the scam. We must stop trying to change what clearly will not be changed and concentrate efforts where they will yield results. We must encourage and cultivate proper, relevant programs elsewhere and/or encourage self-directed study and give that path the respect is deserves.

As consequence, however, agencies must cease placing undue emphasis on their prospective hires’ degree credentials. Today, degrees are largely meaningless and therefore worthless with respect to UX design acumen. A degree as a shibboleth for entry into our profession is a tired irrelevancy clung to by the very same lemmings who would proclaim that the emperor does have clothes, and for the same cowardly reasons. Agencies that ignore the individual in favor of the diploma deserve the unprepared employees they’ll garner (much more could be said on these matters). This appropriate abandonment of university and college UX design degree programs has further, logical consequences and requirements that I’ll leave to you to discern (else my essay will continue ad infinitum). Surely, most of you are smart enough to figure them out.

The future is not dim; it’s bright, but universities and colleges have nothing of value to contribute in the context of UX design degree programs outside of the à la carte design and psychology courses they can offer, which form the foundations of that pursuit. But we must cease dialog with these institutions, for a worthwhile dialog requires something other than one interested party and one blind, deaf, unmalleable party, cowering within an ivory tower behind a brick wall and surrounded by a moat, fearful of losing the false cloak of competence.

A follow-up article with suggestions for educational paths to follow was subsequently published on Applied Arts.

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