While design schools are making a difference and are held in high repute, many are not convincing practitioners that they are relevant to today’s changing practice.

While design schools are making a difference and are held in high repute, many are not convincing practitioners that they are relevant to today’s changing practice. They lag, say professional firms, as places where practical learning takes place for today’s challenging times. These findings may surprise few. Firms that employ tens of thousands of professionals say that, too often, schools don’t seem to care about the audiences that employ their graduates. DI’s client satisfaction survey reveals that there is too little satisfaction with today’s schools.

Is there hope?Definitely—say certain leaders in education and private practice—and they say so with convincing testimony and passion.

This is our Leading Schools Survey’s third year. It surprised us that design schools in major cities didn’t generally score well with the area’s leading firms. With the proximity of real life laboratories, world class designers, and attractive internships, why should this disconnect exist between practice and education?

Why can’t the opposite be true? It can, say students, teachers, and deans. Research tells us that architects and designers can have a high opinion of the design schools in their area. When two way communication is clearly a priority, design schools often get high marks for teaching quality design, studio education, cost—budget performance, and teaching leadership. Agonizing, slow progress is being made say large firm roundtable CEO’s. Several colleges seem to be charting an exciting new course—a new morphing of relevance toward the changing practice design. A few examples deserve special mention.

1. University of Hawaii—Manoa. This school’s innovative new seven-year Arch.D. program is appreciated by local, national, and even international firms — especially those in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet, the NAAB continues to blunt the program’s edginess by threatening to suspend accreditation not because of the professional degree’s quality but because of the degree’s name. The NAAB granted accreditation to the school but only officially approved the bachelors program. Firm leaders love UofH’s advanced concept. Given a chance, this program can make a huge difference in today’s practice. It’s a model to emulate.

2. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It’s an amazing symbiosis between practice and education. Even firms from surrounding states give this program top marks. More than 50 design firms currently come to recruit and find the students there to be “super-qualified” for practice positions. The continuity of the leadership and faculty imbue an attitude of design excellence in each graduate and the profession’s level of trust grows annually.

3. The University of California-Berkeley. The Dean, faculty, and staff have mended fences with many of the practitioners in the Bay area and raised significant sums of money (over $50 million dollars between private and public sources) to improve the college’s facilities and programs. A leader in teaching about innovation, technology, and environmental areas, U Cal Berkeley has become a model for change management and thus professional firms are getting involved and speaking favorably about it today. We suspect that the best is yet ahead.

In feedback to our surveys and from what we hear on our visits to leading firms, the colleges and universities teaching design are earning grades that range from A to F.

Overall, there is room for optimism. A morphing is taking place that takes seriously, and is responding to, the changes needed by the design professions. These schools are building bridges with today’s successful firms and are teaching leadership, collaborative design, CAD 3-D and 4-D, and practice management success. They are teaching the next generation of design thought leaders who, as we expect to see, will weave even tighter relationships between practice and education in the future.