Matt Imus - UX Design and Research

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On Design Education And Work Ethic

March 5, 2014

One of the most profound experiences as a design educator has been seeing a few smart students continually struggle, despite having a great work ethic. They come into every class having put an exceptional amount of time and effort toward refining their projects into complete, detailed documents. Yet the work is mediocre - lots of polish on flawed concepts with poor design fundamentals.

Why does a subset of smart, articulate, and hard working students routinely produce uninspired, mediocre work, while their more typical, seemingly less motivated and prepared peers often complete inspired, high quality work? Why are the hardest workers so often unable to perform at a high level?

While hard work and success clearly correlate, the exceptions are always disconcerting. When my students encounter a difficult problem, I encourage them to question the basic premises and find an idea that more elegantly solves the design problem. This approach works well for the majority of students. Yet when subset of smart professionals begin to struggle, they rely on the old tricks that got them into college in the first place: work harder and longer. When ability fails, bludgeon the problem with work ethic. This approach in isolation is toxic to solving design problems.

One root of this problem may lie in the educational tradition leading to a college design program. In high schools, an array of subjects are taught, all requiring different sets of problem solving approaches. Yet one lesson is almost universally true: if you put in the time and effort, your problems will be solved.

This is particularly true in math and science: The initial skills are difficult to learn, but their application (at this level) is fairly straightforward and does not require great creativity. When problems are presented in a familiar form, students who have mastered the necessary skills will succeed. Learning these skills is difficult, but those who meet difficulty with time and effort can follow the pattern of learn and demonstrate all the way to an A.

While less true in the humanities, this strategy remains fundamentally useful. While synthesis is a larger part of these fields at this level, struggling students can still bludgeon their difficulties with hours and effort.

Design and art break this strategy. As opposed to a math approach that requires mastery of techniques and straightforward application, design necessitates an opposite approach. Solving a problem requires an elegant idea at the core of every solution. Hard skills like software knowledge enable completion of the idea, rather than providing a fundamental structure. Synthesis is the core of design and art. Synthesis is not the kind of thinking that can be forced with long hours and extra effort - often this is detrimental.

Why do bright, seemingly capable students so often cling to work ethic and hours alone, when this strategy can be so harmful? Why is it that students of more typical motivation level will readily try multiple approaches to solving a design problem?

My theory is that the brightest students discover the strategy of work ethic at a young age and never needed anything else. When they encounter trouble, family and society at large reinforce this work ethic. This single strategy is sufficient at solving problems throughout their public school experience. Development of another problem solving strategy was never necessary, as it was for most other students.

Faced with novel challenges in college, these seemingly smart, professional young people are, to their great disadvantage, left with only one problem solving tool. As educators, we will often placate these struggling students with generous grades, reducing the guilt of our own failures. This robs them of another sign that their approach isn't working.

Without a clear signal that change is needed, this subset of our brightest, most motivated design students will continue to struggle. Without providing honest feedback, we are doing no favors to this kind of student. They are the most difficult type to defy, yet the ones who need it most. With honest and open dialogue about their work's shortcomings, we will and be rewarded with a bright student who can take on any challenge.

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