Design Education & The Myth of Innate Talent

In his essay, “Graphic Design Education as a Liberal Art: Design and Knowledge in the University and the ‘Real World‘” Gunnar Swanson opens by comparing graphic design students to college basketball players stating, “Not just the reaction is comparable, the whole situation is. Measuring the success of college sports by the number of players that go on to play professionally often leads to players being cheated out of a real education and a chance for a satisfying life.” In the name of “fairness and survival” he proffers to relegate graphic design, literally, as a liberal art credit. Not a mere acknowledgement of graphic design as a field of multidisciplinary research, but suggesting that graphic design courses should be of no more consequence within a graphic design program as any of the other “liberal arts” courses. As he says, “Philosophy teachers, for example, do not measure their success based on whether the majority of their students become philosophers. By contrast, ask teachers of graphic design about students who don’t make careers in design related fields. Most often they are seen as failures.”

I personally do not believe this approach is solving any real issues concerning the success and failure of graphic design programs and its students but is instead seeking to alleviate the symptomatic grief of the dominant paradigm within design education. The justification being based on the assumption that:

  1. Design education, regardless of good intentions or student commitment, can only teach so much.
  2. The majority of schools are teaching at a nearly even standard of quality.
  3. That the most effective educational approach to design has not only been discovered, but is being practiced by these schools and the results are of no fault of that educational approach.

Here is the first installment of my thoughts and findings in regards to this mindset of resignation…

Design Education Can Only Teach So Much

In the book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin, deeply-held beliefs and assumptions concerning innate talent, genius and excellence are confronted with a large body of scientific research of the last 30 years. As a result, an overwhelming amount of insights have been discovered about talent and genius, and while the findings don’t construe the attainment of excellence as a simple matter, it has conclusively dispelled the notion of divine bestowment, genetic inheritance and vitriolic “you either have it or you don’t” attitudes. Essentially observing that every great performer that ever lived started from nearly nothing and have had to sweat and bleed, often under the careful eye of an accomplished and well-trained teacher, for thousands of hours before they reached a level of excellence. Take Mozart for instance who is considered by many to be the definition of a child prodigy and born master. His father Leopold Mozart was himself a famous composer who had developed an authoritative approach on violin instruction that remained influential for decades. He was also a domineering father who dedicated himself to teaching little Mozart music from the ripe age of three.

Research has consistently found that great performers across many fields ranging from business, science, art, and music, have all “spent many years in intensive preparation before making any kind of creative breakthrough.” Research at Carnegie Mellon University identified more than 500 notable musical compositions and discovered that only 3 of those 500 works were produced in less then 10 years of rigorous practice, and those were produced after 8 and 9 years of practice. A similar study of 131 famous painters found a preparation period of 6 years required before creating anything that the outside world noticed, this includes Pablo Picasso. As the author Geoff Colvin states, “If talent means that success is easy or rapid, as most people seem to believe, then something is obviously wrong with a talent-based explanation of high achievement.”

However, simply practicing or carrying out an act over an over again does not result in improvement, much less excellence, this would mean that every artist would eventually reach the brilliance of Pablo Picasso after x thousands of hours of practice, which is obviously not true, much like driving a car every day doesn’t make us brilliant Nascar drivers. Colvin differentiates general practice as mere repetition and deliberate practice as intensive training aimed at “continually perceiving more, knowing more, and remembering more” about a specific field. The learning curve of the first approach plateaus after a certain threshold of competency is reached and thereafter stabilizes within the comfort zone while the latter remains permanently in the area between the comfort zone and the perplexing zone (which is where things are far too complicated for it to be of any practical use at the current stage of development).

The book, Talent is Overrated, uses well-established models of deliberate practice that have been developed in fields in which practice is critically important. These are all easily transferrable to almost any endeavor and the book does list some use cases and examples outside of the traditional applications.

  • The Music Model is based on performance in which you gather relevant references of excellence to compare with and then work your way towards that ultimate goal.
  • The Chess Model is based on studying a particular problem, developing a solution, and then comparing that decision with the decision taken by a master of the craft.
  • The Sports Model is based on conditioning highly specific areas that are fundamental to the field, simulating volatile real-world situations, and then receiving constructive feedback.

Great performers also develop a vast and resourceful mental model covering the entire spectrum of their field to a point where they are as fluent in their field as they are in their own native language. Many observers of this in action attribute the skill to an almost super-human intelligence and memory, but research has shown that outside of their field, these great performers have average intelligences and memory. Much like a limited english speaker would be envious at how fast and easy I can put together sophisticated sentences in english, but this is not attributable to any superhuman powers of intelligence or memory that I possess, but rather a learned fluency. Similarly, most of us would have no trouble visualizing the letters of an  advanced english word such as “ambidextrous” but we are amazed with a chess player who can visualize multiple moves in advance.

However fluency should not be confused with rote memorization as any student who has taken a foreign language course and is confronted with holding an involved conversation with a native speaker can attest. True fluency means being able to use “multiplicative models in which the values of some factors alter the importance of others” such as the grammar, syntax and punctuation (as well as gender and tenses) of a language to the extent that it is intuitively felt. Michel De Certeau takes this a step further in his book, The Practice of Everyday Life, by describing “everyday creativity” as the difference between knowing a language (competency) and being able to use it expressively (performance).

Design Principles Mind Map

This is a mind map on the basic principles of design that I'm currently developing

Creativity and Mind Maps

The human brain is made up of more than one million, million brain cells. A single brain cell can receive incoming pulses from hundreds of thousands of connecting points every second. After a given message or thought is passed between brain cells a certain number of times a neuronal path is slowly formed, resulting in the cells branches reaching out towards the connection and allowing the thought process to occur faster and with less effort. The book, The Mind Map Book, by Tony Buzan describes how the human brain essentially establishes what it learns by remembering:

  • Items from the beginning of the learning period
  • Items from the end of the learning period
  • Items associated with things already stored
  • Items that are emphasized as being significant
  • Items that are particularly appealing to any of the 5 senses
  • Items that are of particular interest to the learner

Each bit of information entering your brain and whenever you taste a fruit, smell a rose, listen to music, watch a stream or touch a loved one is represented in the brain by a central sphere from which radiates millions of hooks. These hooks are nothing more than associations with an infinite array of their own links and connections. A mind map is an external representation of the brains natural architecture and can be applied to any area where improved recall, creative brainstorming, and systems-level thinking would be helpful. An effective mind map will contain:

  • A central image
  • Main themes of the subject extending from the central image as branches
  • Branches containing key words and images that are associated with the higher level branches.
  • The full range of cortical triggers: word, image, number, logic, rhythm, color, and spatial awareness.

In my opinion mind-mapping should be taught in design school, at least as part of a larger course dedicated to creative thinking because the mind map utilizes and systematizes all of the skills commonly associated with creativity, imagination, and association/creation of ideas. However, mind maps and creative thinking is rarely, if ever, discussed in depth and then only as a passing wave of the hand. More often students go through 4 years of university education with teachers that simply continuously pressure students by demanding that they “wow them” and “be creative” while offering, at best, a passing mention of elementary brainstorming techniques.

In an ideal learning environment where creativity is central to the activity students should be taught advanced brainstorming techniques and than be required to present their brainstorming work at an early stage of each projects development for review. This is for the same exact reasons math teachers insist that students show their work for full credit: because they want them to demonstrate the logic that they used to reach their solution, allowing the teacher to ensure that their students’ logic is correct (or reasonable), effective, efficient, and thorough.

Schools that don’t teach or evaluate brainstorming work in their creative programs may be inadvertently basing their instruction on the concept of the ever-elusive bolt of lightning from the heavens that strikes unannounced to produce that unpremeditated eureka(!) moment. Students who are taught using this approach are not learning, they are coping, and while I give students who survive under these circumstances my congratulations, I do not envy them. By logical extension schools that base their teachings on this notion of divine inspiration, whether its deliberately or not, should be obligated to offer courses on how to burn incense for the muses, make offerings to zeus, and howl at the moon as part of their comprehensive standard course of instruction.

Can Design Schools Create Brilliant Designers?

Schools don’t have any control over how much time entering students have spent practicing deliberately, but they can operate under the principles of deliberate practice and make a point to produce students that know how to continue developing their craft following the principles of deliberate practice and who have also fully developed a well-informed personal process for creative thinking.

Gunnar Swansons’ point would have been much better served by using foreign language teachers in his analogy, as they are forced to live with the fact that most of their students won’t become truly fluent in the language that they teach. But this is not because foreign language can’t be taught in a class or that students can’t learn to be fluent in a second language if they lack “the natural talent” for it, but because many schools don’t require the kind of rigorous study that is required to become fluent in a foreign language for most of their students.

However this should not be the case for students that are majoring in a foreign language. Within this context the most irresponsible resignation of a schools’ objectives would be to simply relegate the core curriculum to another liberal arts credit under the lackluster pretense of “fairness and survival.” What is graphic design but the expressive use of a visual language with its own grammar, punctuation and syntax?

Apart from the principles of deliberate practice and creative thinking, design schools should also adhere to, and continue to actively develop, the highest forms of design education philosophies and methodologies. Prospective students should also be wary of the proliferation and pitfalls of graphic design taught as a mere vocational skill. Just as teaching students microsoft word won’t produce great novelists, simply teaching students how to use photoshop won’t produce the next generation of design talent either. After reading the collection of essays in, The Education of a Graphic Designer I have discovered that many of the leading designers, design educators, and design philosophers have spent much of their time describing what I call the 4 C’s of a quality design education: Concept, Context, Craft, and Complexity, which I will cover in another post.


2 responses to “Design Education & The Myth of Innate Talent

  1. It has been a couple of decades since I wrote the first article mentioned and quite a while since I’ve read it so perhaps my memory has failed but it seems that you missed a basic point. (Make that “the basic point.”) There are many good rebuttals to what I wrote. I’ve made some myself. Basing a retort on the claim that I was “suggesting that graphic design courses should be of no more consequence within a graphic design program as any of the other ‘liberal arts’ courses” is, I am fairly certain, inconsistent with what I wrote.

    My claim was that liberal arts education has fallen apart in a world where the notion of a body of knowledge shared by all “educated men” no longer exists. In response to the lack of a shared body of knowlege, we have created a system akin to a Chinese restaurant menu where you choose one from column A and two from column B. As a result, we ask 19 year olds to integrate knowledge in a manner that we, as teachers, fail to do.

    A possible solution to this is to find a subject that is the nexus of many fields of knowledge and treat it as such, thus demonstrating the integration we are missing. Graphic design is one excellent candidate to be that subject.

    I did claim (and I still believe) that this would be good for graphic design (even though liberal education is the target of the proposal) but I did not claim that all graphic design training should adopt my suggestion.

    I’d have to know what you believe are the “real issues concerning the success and failure of graphic design programs and its [sic] students” to know whether it would aid in “solving any real issues” but the idea that I suggested that graphic design would under any circumstances become just another “liberal arts class” misses my criticism of the recent state of liberal education. Objection to the very notion of just another liberal arts course was the core of my argument.

    I don’t have a clue what “the symptomatic grief of the dominant paradigm within design education” means so I can’t comment on what might alleviate it.

    Gunnar Swanson
    Greenville, NC

  2. Dear Mr. Swanson,

    First of all I have to say that as a student posting my writing out to the great ether of the Internet, I was very excited to receive a response from you. This is a rather lonely blog that only gets a few dozen visitors each day, most of whom come for irrelevant video game charts that I posted some time ago. I did understand the central thesis of your essay, “Graphic Design as a Liberal Art: Design and Knowledge in the University and the ‘Real World'” and found it to be brilliant and inspiring. However, it was not my intention to respond to the central thesis, but instead to concentrate on the implications of the two analogies comparing design students to college basketball players and design teachers to philosophy and literature teachers. It just so happened that I found the analogies that you gave to illustrate the reasons of “fairness and survival” for reconsidering the basic premise of graphic design education as appropriate springboards for my essay addressing society’s, and specifically graphic design academia’s beliefs and assumptions regarding creativity and talent, as I understood it from the book, “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else,” by Geoff Colvin.

    I admit that in my fervor I may have overstepped that fine-line by concluding that you were suggesting “graphic design should be of no more consequence within a graphic design program as any of the other ‘liberal arts’ courses.” However, this was my initial reaction as a student of graphic design when I read the contrast made between philosophy or literature teachers and graphic design teachers. Explaining that the latter aren’t as inclined to measure their success on whether or not the majority of their students go on to work in relevant fields, as graphic design teachers are apt to do, and indicating that there is something wrong with that idea. The reason behind my reaction to that may be because it wasn’t immediately clear to me whether you were referring to students majoring in philosophy, literature, and graphic design, or to students who are merely taking a philosophy, literature, or graphic design course for additional breadth. The bottom line is that I believe graphic design students are not like college basketball players. Also, that graphic design teachers, or programs by extension, should feel like failures if large portions of their graduating students aren’t going on to make careers in graphic design or a related professional field.

    As I’ve pointed out in another essay that I posted, I understand and wholeheartedly agree with your essay’s main point which emphasizes the importance of teaching or studying graphic design as a field of multi-disciplinary research, as opposed to teaching graphic design as a mere vocational training program. I was addressing the two analogies, in context, but to the exclusion of the central thesis, something that I might have failed to stress and point out in my essay. Now, more than ever, graphic design programs should be implementing rigorous programs in order to create designers who are able to distinguish themselves through their scrupulous and accomplished conceptual work, along with a mastery of the craft, from the scientific backgrounds of computer technicians and the leisure play of bedroom designers that have encroached on the field with the advent of the digital era.

    As a student of design, I have great ambitions to find my own personal style, and to make my mark, so I have been interested in the concepts of creativity, inspiration, and talent. In the spirit of Mark Salmon and Glenn Gritzer’s suggestions for integrating liberal arts into the core design curriculum, which you mention in your essay, I am currently conducting field-research at a local art studio and community center for a cultural anthropology class to learn how working artists define creativity, inspiration, and talent and how their experiences in the professional art world has shaped those definitions over time. My ultimate goal is to fully integrate the ideas presented in the design philosophy, principles, and education books that I have collected, including The Education of a Graphic Designer with your essay, and the new findings on creativity, inspiration, and talent found in books such as Talent Is Overrated into a practical methodology for training for greatness in design, something that I approach knowing that there is no straightforward solution.

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