It is well understood, among educators and parents, that the tipping point for a student deciding where to go to school is often independent of any professional criteria.

They’ve started to arrive in droves, so it must be October. Like tourists flocking to the beaches when the weather turns warm, parents and their high school-aged children arrive on campuses to check out design programs. It is well understood, among educators and parents, that the tipping point for a student deciding where to go to school is often independent of any professional criteria. The decision often includes perceived prestige of the university, where the student’s friends will attend, or how the collegiate sports teams are ranked. Of course, if those were the only criteria, there would be no need to visit multiple universities to make program decision. Assuming that strong design programs are what these young adults and their parents actually seek, what then makes a strong program?

The answer to this question varies, depending upon whether the respondent is an educator or practitioner, but it can be argued that a professional straddling both the academic and practical worlds may offer a third perspective. Design education is not all about making students “office ready”, nor is it about using metaphors instead of physical structure. It is about intelligent thinking, decision making, and skill capabilities. There are 117 accredited programs in architecture, 64 in landscape architecture, 144 in interior design, and 40 in industrial design; each of these programs maintain unique qualities and a “personality” that isn’t neatly packaged for evaluation. For these reasons, prospective students need to visit a campus to establish the appropriate “fit” for their personalities and objectives. The intangible qualities of a campus can be significantly impactful over the length of an educational experience, but strong design programs offer more than just atmosphere.

Three primary elements for evaluating the strength of a program are: pedagogy, faculty, and resources. Pedagogy is, of course, the most difficult to gauge for visitors; however, its mix of philosophy, technique, and sense of “mysticism” are the engine the drives faculty engagement and calls for the resources. A particular program’s pedagogy is developed over time, consequently exhibiting a sense of time proven thought. If the program’s pedagogy is changing with societal, personal, or professional trends, then the student gets the message that design decisions are whimsical and personal, lacking professional depth of thought. The “mysticism” refers to the many aspects of a pedagogy that are understood in time and practice and not necessarily revealed in sound bites or 30 words-or-less mission statements. A pedagogical base is the essential glue that holds the faculty together. It doesn’t imply that each faculty member is teaching the same content or even in the same way, but rather forms a unifying foundation for them to teach from. The analogy to a building’s foundation is not accidental; strength in belief and intent is the stabilizing component in turbulent and difficult times.

The faculty side of the mix appears, on the surface, to be more easily evaluated. Programs often tout their faculty’s educational background as confirmation of their knowledge base for teaching. Society in general, has accepted particular schools into their lexicon of prestigious institutions. This of course only tells part of the story; some of the best programs in the field may well reside in the lesser known universities. And cursory reviews of known prestigious universities may not reveal the diverse and relevant backgrounds the faculty may bring to a program. A professional education involves a cross-disciplinary interaction of skills and knowledge not necessarily held by any one faculty but by the mix of many. The particular knowledge base necessary for foundation design courses is not necessarily the same as for technical courses. consequently, the educational backgrounds need to be different.

It is the faculty who determine the necessary resources around the guiding principles of the pedagogy. They need these supportive resources to deliver knowledge-laden content and to develop the necessary professional skills of the student, including comprehensive dedicated libraries, diversified shop facilities, guest lecturers, and adequate research space for faculty and students. Urban or rural locations, study abroad programs, and scholarship funds for both basic and extra curricular activities are additionally available resources. When the faculty, in service to a fundamental pedagogy, actively engages these resources, great things can happen.

The three concerns mentioned – pedagogy, faculty, and resources – have hierarchical importance in that particular order. If faculty supersede pedagogy and are the most important of the three, then programs often revolve around the strongest personalities and their personal interpretations of a discipline. If resources are the dominant force, then the professional content is reduced to techniques and skills; this has been seen in many programs overly obsessed with computer programs or skills at the expense of complex thinking and depth of knowledge. For those reasons, pedagogy must be the leading concern, followed by the faculty and supported by resources.

Investigating specific programs in terms of pedagogy, faculty, and resources, while reviewing the overall quality of education of the institution as a whole, will encourage a more informed, professional choice for the start of a career.

-A. J. Davis