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20 courses I didn’t take in design school

As part of the conference within a conference for students, Michael Bierut listed 20 courses he did not take in design school (I think I got all of them):

Contemporary Performance Art
Traffic Engineering
The Changing Global Financial Marketplace
Urban planning
Sex Education
Early Childhood Development
Economics of Commerical Aviation
Biography as History
Introduction to Horticulture
Sports Marketing in Modern Media
Modern Architecture
The 1960s: Culture and Conflict
20th Century American Theater
Philanthropy and Social Progress
Fashion Merchandising
Studies in Popular Culture
Building Systems Engineering
Geopolitics, Military Conflict, and the Cultural Divide
Political Science: Electoral Politics and the Crisis of Democracy

His point was that design is just one part of the job. In order to do great work, you need to know what your client does. How do you design for new moms if you don’t know anything about raising children? Not very well, that’s how. When I was a designer, my approach was to treat the client’s knowledge of their business as my biggest asset…the more I could get them to tell me about what their product or service did and the people it served (and then talk to those people, etc.), the better it was for the finished product. Clients who didn’t have time to talk, weren’t genuinely engaged in their company’s business, or who I couldn’t get to open up usually didn’t get my best work.

Bierut’s other main point is, wow, look at all this cool stuff you get to learn about as a designer. If you’re a curious person, you could do worse than to choose design as a profession.

Reader comments

MZSep 16, 2005 at 3:07AM

While "Fashion Merchandising" and "Modern Architecture" seem to be quite interesting as well as needed for a designer, I think that "Introduction to Horticulture" is quite a weird addition to the list. The same goes for "Economics of Commerical Aviation". How many designers that finish these courses can actually benefit from them? I hope they're something you can opt-in only if you're interested.

PiersSep 16, 2005 at 3:43AM

MZ, I think you're missing the point. Bierut was not saying that those are courses he would or could have done at design school, he's saying that when working as a designer, you have to have a broad knowledge in a range of fields, so you can understand and meet your clients' needs. Therefore you might have to know a bit about horticulture or aviation if you are dealing with clients in those fields.

As someone going into the field of design, this is one of the most attractive and interesting facets of the profession for me.

Gunnar LangemarkSep 16, 2005 at 4:10AM

Also shows what we all know but tend to forget.
Those with different educations than yours are not ONLY educated in the specific topic that their title suggest.
Some of us tend to "narrow" our perception of a designer to "someone who has learned how to draw" just like people who learn that I'm an M.A. in film, media and rhetorics don't know that most of above courses would be a natural part of my education too.

JaredSep 16, 2005 at 8:46AM

The same is true of anyone with a good work ethic, regardless of the industry. No one works in a vacuum, and knowing more about your colleagues', vendors', and clients' industries only helps to make your work better.

No More SnowSep 16, 2005 at 10:12AM

It does make a nice argument for a budding designer attending a university, as opposed to a 'design school'

ToejSep 16, 2005 at 10:45AM

Designing is in fact a very small part of being a designer. My wife is a jewelry designer, but she has learned quite a bit about marketing, 'brand dna' (which I know is one of those buzzword phrases, but it's true; if you don't really try to know the brand inside and out, how do you design for it?), and always keeps her eyes open for what everyone else is doing in the fashion and luxury realms including clothing, jewelry, furniture, accessories, etc.

Design is an odd field, though. Much of it is very superficial, no matter what anyone says. A Tiffany setting engagement ring might be iconic, timeless, beautiful, etc, but it's still just a very expensive ring holding a very expensive diamond. And the ipod is much the same. What has it really done for my life beyond remove the clutter of cds in my car?

Jeff KokeSep 16, 2005 at 12:11PM

As a successful designer who didn't go to design school, I completely agree that a broad knowledge of many subjects is essential to success in the field. If you don't know about a client's business, you are obligated to learn as much as you can, either through conversations with the stakeholders in the company or through independent research (most often a combination of both).

TimSep 16, 2005 at 2:15PM

A diamond ring is totally different than an iPod-- aesthetics are only a part of the reason people buy iPods. I also wouldn't underestimate the value of removing clutter from your life.

Here's a list of things I came up with that i've learned in my web design career so far. Some I learned a little about, some quite a lot:

Business & Franchises
Investing (Stocks, Futures, Investment Trusts)
Real Estate & Mortgages
Energy Conservation & Power Grids
Product Design
Non-Western Religions
Government, Politics & Voting
Environment & Air Pollution
Automobiles & Automotive History
Transportation Networks
Tollway System
Phone & Computer Networks & Peripherals

Although I guess sales could be considered part of the job because you're always selling something to somebody.

grumpSep 16, 2005 at 6:34PM

haha you design geeks are so full of yourselves, really, i find it amusing. look at the most compelling services on the web today and look for the rennaisance man behind them. haven't found him yet? give you a hint, he was in computer science class when you wouldn't be caught dead there.

MZSep 17, 2005 at 3:04AM

Piers, I agree completely. I haven't explained myself as I should have as that is what I was hinting to with the "opt-in" comment. Naturally having as much experience and knowledge is the best possible thing but I know a myriad of designers and not one of them ever did work for anyone related with an airline. That's probably because my country has only 1
:) Anyway, very interesting comments so far.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.