Choosing the right institution for Design Studies

Published: 29 June, 2017

Categories: General

Choosing the right institution for Design Studies


Helen Bührs is the Managing Director and shareholder of the Inscape Education Group and founder of Four44 Creative ecosystems

Why is it that some people always land the ‘right’ relationship, find themselves in the ‘right’ situation with the ‘right’ opportunities and outcomes? And others, just don’t.
I think the difference is mostly that those who land the ‘right’ anything have understood what is presented to them. Made an intentional choice about who they want to involve in their lives and what they are prepared to strive for and settle for. It’s about knowing your own values, understanding your own expectations and objectives and aligning them to that of your relationship, situation or opportunity.
It’s about NOT just jumping in. It’s about gathering the right information, judging the content and then committing.

Can this thinking be applied to choosing the right institution for your studies? Absolutely. Enrolling at any institution is just like entering a relationship. There is a commitment required from you for the relationship to be successful. A long commitment, often years. You may be fearful, excited and overwhelmed. You need to understand your own expectations of the institution. You need to ensure you align with the values of the institution. You need to ensure that your objective is that of the institutions. Similarly, the institution needs to determine your suitability too.Choosing where to study is often a challenging task because there appear to be many excellent options available. How do you pick the right one? You start by doing some investigation.  The following is a list of things you should consider compiled partly by Juliette Cezzar an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the BFA Communication Design program at Parsons / The New School and partly by me.

Note: For the purpose of this article, we will assume that you have already disregarded institutions that are not accredited and registered.

Start at the top

For each institution you’re considering, read the mission statement and programme description. While these may be aspirational, they represent what success looks like in these programmes. Does it describe an environment and method of study that’s consistent with your own aspirations? Does their definition of design match yours? If there are claims about what you’ll learn or go on to do, are they factual (look for examples or success stories), or are they just feeding into what prospective students want to hear?

Be realistic about your finances

You should know the true cost of any institution including the required equipment for the duration of your studies. Consider the tuition fee per year for the full programme (3-4 years). Some institutions will become more expensive after the first year, whilst others maintain a flat fee year on year including inflation. Purchasing equipment for design studies is expensive and is mandatory if you are serious about becoming a competitive designer. Most institutions will require you to source equipment, textbooks and software over and above the fee they present. Whilst other institutions will source them on your behalf, making them more affordable for you. Finally, any money invested in your studies should lead to an educational experience that lasts, not just an immediate career outcome. Your last job is as important as your first.

‟Enrolling at any institution is just like entering a relationship. There is a commitment required from you for the relationship  to be successful” – Helen Bührs

Understand the Qualification

Know the difference between qualification types; Degrees, Diploma’s and Higher Certificates are undergraduate programmes that lead to postgraduate studies typically at an Honours or Masters level. Within each qualification type you will be presented with, for example a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Design. There are significant differences between these degree programmes. Your institution of choice should be able to explain the differences to you to ensure you are making the right choice for your needs.   

Read the curriculum

A curriculum is a series of courses that build upon each other towards mastery in a subject. While you may not understand all the terms, you should be able to infer the structure. Is there a clear core curriculum of required courses that are geared towards the discipline? How do subjects relate to the core? Does the programme emphasize something in particular, such as systems, personal voice, social justice, business, process, or portfolio preparation? While it might sound ideal to have a lot of course choices, you may not always get what you want, and too many options could also mean not graduating with the professional competencies that were promised.

Read course titles and descriptions

Do the courses sound current and relevant for the environment we live in today? Are you required to take, or would you have access to courses that cover design for a wide variety of media, including interactive media? Or will you be directed to specialize in a particular sub-domain? Courses should span concept, methodology, and theory as well as technique, and beyond the first year, should provide opportunities to demonstrate independent thought and making that bring those things together.
If all of the courses lean towards how-to, or are all described as if they’re introductory courses, you won’t attain the same depth or mastery as your peers at other institutions. Look for opportunities to meaningfully apply learned technical skills by engaging critically with the world. The ability to ask the right questions and make connections between unrelated things will outlive any kind of technical knowledge.

Visit the campus

If it’s an online environment, ask to observe a class. Can you picture yourself there for the long term? Is the mission communicated by the staff the same as the one publicly posted?
If you can, talk to students. It’s important to know what life is like for them outside of their studies. Do they work? Do they have internships? How far do they live from campus? Do they spend time with other students? Do lecturers spend time with students outside of class? How many students are in each class? Do they interact with students from other programmes? You can ask staff many of the same questions, but students are more likely to respond with specifics and will know the ups and downs of their experience.

Who are the lecturers?

You will spend most of your time engaging with lecturers and your peers. Since most classes are small and critique-based, students work very closely with lecturers in design institutions. Are most of the courses taught by part-time faculty, full-time faculty, or graduate students? How many faculty have Masters degrees? How many are actively practicing? Look for portfolios and profiles online. Is there a specific school of thought or approach? How current are they in their work and their thinking? Outdated critiques, even from great teachers, lead to work that can be out of touch with current design practice, while faculty new to teaching or to the discipline may have difficulty connecting. Working with a variety of faculty is often the best measure against both extremes.

Student work

What kind of work are the students making? Remember that what you’re seeing has been selected to promote the school. Does it demonstrate a high level of thinking? Current practice and theory? Impressive technique? A program’s values will be evident in the selection.

Student opportunities

What support systems are in place for students. Do the students have good relationships with their lecturers and peers. Does the institution present opportunities for students through International Student Exchange Programs or engage and collaborate with industry to offer industry relevant input. Does the institution require students to complete Work Integrated Learning.

Size matters

Smaller groups of students allow for personalized interaction within the classroom. However, class sizes that are too small limit a class dynamic and prevent spaces for healthy competition. A good balance is required, specifically in design education.

Graduate input

Institutions may seem constant, and have great impact, but are constantly changing. A successful graduate from a decade past is not a predictor for the quality or outcome of a particular programme, especially given how much the professional landscape has shifted. Additionally, staff, and current students at any institution will always tell you that students do well after graduation, because for the most part, they only hear from the ones that do.
Contact recent alumni and ask what their classmates are doing, what kind of person would do well in the programme, and advice they would give for someone going through the same programme.

Consider the location

A school in a city means access to lectures, internships, and cultural experiences, but will also have less space to work, more sharing of resources, potentially long commutes, and other concerns and distractions. A school in a rural or suburban area won’t be able to offer the same spontaneous experiences, but will offer an abundance of time, space, and concentration, making it easier to focus on your work and connect with fellow students in a less anxious environment.

Did you find this article useful? Let me know your thoughts, so I can guide my next article to suit your needs. Please do comment in the comment section below