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Design education at Notre Dame – it has potential!

| Friday, November 8, 2019

If you know any Notre Dame design student, it’s highly likely the major they began college with wasn’t design. It would be on the more surprising side of things if they had, in fact, come to Notre Dame for the design program. It isn’t very large and simply isn’t very well known. 

As someone who added the industrial design major after already coming to college myself, I do appreciate I found a major that allows me to do what I’ve discovered as my passion: creative problem solving. But there are a lot of opportunities, too, for the rather forgotten design major to grow into something even greater — specifically at Notre Dame.

The technical and aesthetic skills of design that are more intensely taught at art institutes, as opposed to traditional four-year universities, do appear to be a competitive advantage on the front end of design education. However, professors at Notre Dame are always emphasizing the importance of a well-rounded designer — who can tackle design problems through ideation, research and problem solving more than focusing purely on its visuals. 

While ideal in thought, this doesn’t quite translate as successfully in the real world. Especially as job searching becomes increasingly relevant, I’m finding a few more ways that Notre Dame’s “well-roundedness” seems to be hurting more than helping. 

This past fall break, I attended Advanced Design’s SQ1 Conference, a design conference in San Francisco where design students could had the opportunity to visit design consultancies and network with peers and professionals. I found that while everyone would say grit and intelligence are crucial to types of designers they hire, the bottom line is that those qualities never really outweigh skill. 

So, maybe it’s just the imposter syndrome speaking, but do Notre Dame design students have what it takes to compete with everyone else in the competitive pool? One of our professors said himself that students could get the design degree doing the bare minimum required — 32 credit hours — but realistically, that alone would never get them a design job. 

This does seem concerning, but there is also something special about Notre Dame’s design program that I know I have personally benefited greatly from. I’m an industrial design and sociology double-major, with a minor in digital marketing, and even if I wasn’t officially under these categories, Notre Dame is fairly supportive in allowing design students to supplement their creative interests with an academic complement.

But this leaves the department at kind of an impasse. Students should be able to develop their design thinking just as much as their skill, but how do you allocate enough time to develop both? How can the school better support students pursuing a combination of academia and art? 

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a matter of time. This might be an example other majors can also relate to, but why are two classes required for both philosophy and theology each? Are two sciences the absolute best use of credit hours for a design major? General education is, of course, absolutely necessary. But could there be more flexibility or exceptions to planning the best education for each major? The design curriculum, especially, receives little attention, and although more efforts have been made to stay up-to-date, it could be even more effective.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about design, it’s that — contrary to popular belief — it isn’t about how pretty you can make something. It’s all about how much value something you actually create can bring to real world issues and problems. I believe a traditional university education brings so much to a designer’s career, but the combination of academics and creatives need to be better implemented. Design is unique because it requires innovation and a desire to make a physical difference to the everyday problems that others might only be able to observe or study. And I think Notre Dame has the ability to make the best use of its resources to truly make a perfectly well-rounded and quality designer, if the university would invest a bit more specific attention to its very unique needs. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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