The Design Education Bottleneck
Ed Dorsa, IDSA | Virginia Tech
Design education is between two rocks and a hard place. The first rock is public funding for
higher education, which is in the decline across the country. The second rock is the demand
generated by more and more incoming freshmen who every year want to study design.
Unlike private enterprise, which has its own problems, and is laying off employees as it struggles
with reduced demand, those of us in the public sector—education, government and
healthcare— struggle with reduced resources and belt tightening at the same time that demand
for our “product” and the customer base continues to grow.
The reduction in public support for higher education has been going on for the past two decades
and this year it is down again. All indications are that public funding will not begin to increase
again soon, if ever. As a result, in most public institutions faculty numbers are static or in
decline as they try to reduce costs by offering early retirement, generally to their most
experienced teachers. This has an especially detrimental impact on design education which is,
as a result of the studio model, teacher intensive—with small class sizes (compared to lecture
classes in other curricula) and high contact hours.
Combine this with the fact that every year more and more students—qualified, talented
students—want to become designers. At Virginia Tech, which is a relatively young program,
there were 13 students in the graduating class of 1999 (my first year teaching here.) Last year
we graduated 32 students. That number was supposed to be our target number in a two‐faculty
studio, but it is rapidly becoming the low side of average for us. Our sophomore class this year
was 38 and the attrition rate will only be one or two. But increased demand and reduced
resources is only one side of the overall problem.
The hard place is the increasing complexity and specialization of what we teach. Industrial
design is growing more complex by the day as new and important information becomes
available and requires inclusion in our curricula...