Steven Heller | Interviews

Douglas Davis Peers Into the Future of Design Ed

Photo by Alberto Vargas

The recent Covid-19 crisis has hit educational practice like a ton o’ bricks—an unimaginable disruption. Most art and design schools have taken to ZOOM, Canvas and other learning online learning programs to continue some semblance of normalcy. One of the articulate voices on how the current situation will impact the future is Brooklyn-based Douglas Davis, an expert in the concept, marketing plans and digital strategies of education. As author of Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, Davis regularly contributes to the design discourse. Currently, he is Chair of the BFA in Communication Design (COMD) program at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, and serves on the advisory boards of the University of Oregon’s Masters in Advertising and Brand Responsibility and City College’s Masters in Branding and Integrated Communications. Here are his pre-COVID-19 thoughts on TBWA/CHIAT/DAY NY's podcast The Disrupter Series. I asked him to chime in, offer some crystal ball predictions, and otherwise foretell the problems facing design education once Covid19 subsides and a new normal begins.

Steven Heller: I am reminded of the scene in the film “Annie Hall,” where a young "Alvie Singer" (a,k.a. Woody Allen’s young alter ego) refuses to do homework because, he says, the world is coming to an end. His mother takes him to the family physician, Dr. Flicker (chain smoking a cigarette), who says that it won't happen for millions of years. Well here we are, in the midst of COVID-19. Has the world of design education come to the end, at least, as we know it?

Douglas Davis: The short answer is Yes! But Before we dive into why, I’ll state that my answers are as much insight into what’s factoring into my decisions today. So, as the details of this crisis evolve, I’ll doubtless come to additional conclusions. The purpose of the analysis that follows is not to be right, it's to prepare options for the possibilities.

Every hour that passes seems to validate the late Clayton Christensen’s assertion [on disruptive innovation] from 2017 that, “50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.” The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our concept of time, and the last seven weeks feel like dog years. In the time it’s taken me to answer your questions, my views have shifted. This crisis is unique because to flatten the curve or slow the spread literally means to draw this out over time so as we succeed in slowing this public health crisis down, the economic damage moves faster and faster. Response teams at agile universities understand this and are acting accordingly. Just the other day, the Boston University postponed reopening till January 2021 with Oregon State and University of Arizona potentially following suit. So to answer your question, Yes, the world of design education has come to an end as we knew it, at least for now because everyday life has come to an end as we knew it for the foreseeable future. Design Education is a category that is not immune from what happens in the overall business of Education. But this virus is the disruption that will prove Christensen right about college failures sooner and The San Francisco Art Institute seems to have been the first in our realm.

SH: You've devoted the better part of your career to teaching graphic design. What do you tell students who ask what's next for the field (and for them)?

DD: In teaching students how to think vs what to think, my answer to what’s next has always been creative people must learn the language of business. I argue this in my 2017 article learning the “Wrong Lessons: Design Education in the age of Disruption.” In that article, Kate Ling, a former COMD student says it best when she stated: “School’s job here is to teach the constant and then prep the student to have the changes.” In my view, the pandemic has only made the business concepts a creative must understand even more important. So what’s next is that it’s even more important to step into the shoes of the small business owner that has just seen the business they’ve built evaporate. Their economic way of life has become completely uncertain as they scramble to obtain the loans from the maze they’re calling a stimulus package that has now run out of money (Congress is supposedly working on round two). When a creative person can see that people still need things, they’re just at home if they can be. Businesses in many cases can still provide those things. Our role is understanding we are all operating under increased pressure, fear, and uncertainty and factoring in the importance of safety before we think through the new channels, purchase process, and delivery logistics. If you’ve ever had a client change the scope in the middle of a project, you can find your way through this. So COVID-19 did not cancel our profession.

SH: What do you think...do we continue to learn the same way? The same stuff? Within the same timeframe? Will our students get jobs?

DD: I haven’t seen any thought leadership from professional organizations on this point so I’ll be thorough on how COVID-19 affects design students of color. Starting with jobs: Unfortunately, the students of color and immigrants that our profession needs to ensure a variety of solutions for client problems could find that design education is no longer a priority in this pandemic. In the past three weeks, 22 million Americans have lost their jobs so far. Sadly, by the time this interview runs, that number, like the death toll, will have risen exponentially. My colleague Rebecca Riveria said it best in her Facebook post, “Just to be clear: We are not working from home. We are at home during a crisis trying to work.” She’s right.

In our Communication Design program at New York City College of Technology, we’re asking some big picture questions with respect to can we teach the same things, the same ways in the same timeframe to our student body? As you know, the pandemic forced a one-week shift to virtual classes that transformed our homes into offices, home schools, and daycares. Even in the solid middle-class households, there may be some device sharing among working parents or student siblings or there could be an inability to claim quiet space to learn in your NYC closet. Expensive or private schools will need to consider this as well; but the answer to it is adopting the existing model of building technology like laptops or cameras into the tuition. At public programs, the ability to change the business model is even more essential to success but red tape will make it will be even harder to do. When we consider our student body—a wonderfully diverse mix of students of color and first-generation immigrants, who may not have the tools—things get complicated. Things like: Can you have a drawing class without paper and pencil? Is it possible to really learn what F/stops and shutter speeds do with a camera phone? If there are more students in a household than devices, does it even help that courses are asynchronous? How will we know we are preparing the students for competition? Asynchronous or synchronous course distinction is the least of our issues. Every school must quickly understand that this crisis requires that we willingly disrupt our own modus operandi, think of what experience we want for our students and then reorganize and invest around the priorities that make that possible. In 2-days of canceling insight classes, my team convened an emergency strategy session where we diffused operations among the whole team so that I could focus on forecasting and new systems. We then took an audit of all of our functions and asked/identified as many questions as we could. In 3 days, we reconvened, decided on our priorities in this moment, redefined our learning outcomes, and reorganized the way we managed our internal communications. This hints at my thoughts on timeframe.

As it pertains to how this affects students, there are so many underlying factors that need to be considered to answer your questions. My initial analysis is that the socio-economic status of many of our students will ensure that they’re bearing the brunt of this public health and economic crisis. A percentage of our students are undocumented and have now lost their jobs in foodservice. Many of them will not receive a stimulus check. Many we serve were already in financially strained households that include young and old extended family members. In this dynamic, some are a vital part of their household income that has now become even more dangerous to pursue, because of the risk of bringing the virus home. As a result of this, I suspect many of our students will need to reprioritize and therefore factor out post-secondary education right now. I hope they return. The students that will return will spend all the family has to go to school, and I respect the hurdles they will overcome just to show up without the ability to purchase supplies. Their family will pick up the slack of investing in their future and this, will in and of itself, be a challenge to meet them where they are and help them become contenders.

SH: Is there any silver lining?

DD: I do believe we will inherit BFA students from private programs in the area because of our degree parity with design schools. We are the public path to a creative career that offers an alternative to those who will begin to rethink design school tuition bills in this climate. This is great for us, and yet they will bring with them private program expectations on our systems, technology infrastructure, and will probably expect the option to take in-person and online courses. Our only hope of retention is to ensure that wherever they encounter COMD’s brand, it is a quality experience whether on campus or online. So, we are still working out the answers to these questions. I’ve cancelled summer classes and focused our team on spending the summer to create a quality digital experience. Most importantly, I’m advocating daily above my head for a set of streamlined processes and dedicated support to help us figure this out.

SH: Is online learning, which has been expanding and improving over the past decade, an alternative, a panacea, or just an interim stop-gap?

DD: My analysis in 2017 touched on the idea that online learning for creative students would be a bit harder to disrupt or become a preference over the on-campus experience: “When applying this to the aesthetic profession, taste is often regional. There’s no substitute for networking, and the judgment needed to make sound creative decisions can’t be taught at a distance.”

COVID-19 changed our plans and I’m actively exploring if it has changed my use of the word “can’t.” I think it’s obvious that now design education as a whole beyond the leaders in this digital space need to prepare for the option where we ask students: if they are on-campus or a digital student. I mean this particularly for the majority of schools, us included, that scrambled to shift from the on-campus experience they’ve built their reputations on. We will return to some familiar routines, sure, but the time that will take will leave the existing education model broken. Every single one of the classes in my program is above the current recommended interaction limits. As Dr. Fauci says, “the virus will choose the timeframe” so I won’t offer any predictions, but the 12 to 18 months it will take to develop a vaccine, the international travel restrictions, and terrible way the United States has handled this on a national level will all wreak havoc on the argument that it’s not a risk to go to art school. So this is an interim stop-gap that will need to be seen and supported as the startup period for a design school online longterm plan. It is no longer possible for the profession to change with the maneuverability of a speedboat, and academia to change course at the rate of an aircraft carrier.

SH: I'm continually asked whether graphic design is still graphic design? I say, we have to look at the practice before Corona (BC)? How had it changed from five years ago? What will change five months from today?

DD: I’ll go back even further for insight. This time is completely different but reminds me of 1999 when I entered the industry. I was still at Pratt learning design from some of the best in the world, and yet at that time, only one or two of them had worked in the digital space. Back then, when someone said they were a designer, it was 99.9% understood you were discussing print. At the same time, the internet was in full swing though you couldn't go to school for web design. Designers could choose to learn the web but most didn't and that was in no way seen as a risk. It was normal. As you know, in January 2000 the dot bust happened. In 18 months, when the economy came back the shift was clear and reflected in the question: Which are you, a web designer or a print designer? I don’t think it matters what the profession is, I think it matters more what you are. And COVID-19 is asking: are you a canary or are you a caterpillar? One of these will die holding onto what was and one of these will morph into whatever the profession requires to survive.

I had planned to take this summer off, but this situation keeps evolving in ways that have made it clear that will not be possible. Beginning this May, like the past two summers, I will be strategic planning. To do that, I’ve already begun the daily process of uncovering what questions will help me get a complete sense of the problem we face. As designers, we all know that if you can’t define the problem, you can’t solve it. What we do with this time now will determine what programs and careers survive this pandemic.

SH: Teachers are supposed to pass on their skill sets. But also add wisdom to their students' lives. What wisdom can you impart at this moment in time?

DD: Though Covid-19 has accelerated time here’s what has not changed.

1. Ugly is everywhere, just like before, because 2. There are more design decisions than there are visually literate people to make them. (Which is why the wrong Mrs. Universe and the wrong Best Picture were announced on Live TV. It’s also why the Supreme Court had to decide who was president in 2000. There are so many more examples.)

But this third reason is the one I’d like creatives who’ve lost their jobs to remember. We all must navigate this to survive as your professors survived previous recessions and you will survive this one. If you’re a current student or the Class of 2020: You’ll utilize the skills you’ve gained to figure out how to begin your careers in a pandemic. Right now, we’ll all learn from each other how to hustle entirely from home, deliver flawless Zoom pitches, and what a creative professional is today as we figure that out. Professional relationships with those invested in your success are even more important now than ever before.

SH: I've been asked if I would pursue a design education after this phase is over. I try to be optimistic by saying disruptions are good, like forest fires clear away the waste. So yes, I would. What do you say?

DD: Of course, but that’s an easy answer because my choices are now behind me. This is a really hard question for students or young professionals looking to enter the industry today. As that Medium article argues, some will opt out of beginning their college career in a global pandemic. I can’t say I blame them but the opposite is also true, this moment when everything is being rethought will be our best opportunity for design innovation. Jump in with both feet to help define what design education will become. We need you.

SH: It's obvious to me that you care deeply about being an educator and educating designers. What gives you the will to carry on?

DD: I do. So many people were there to cheer me on because they believed in me before I believed in myself. So now it’s my turn, and if professors are cheerleaders for their students, then my skirt is the shortest.

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