Where can you get the best design education?

by Idris Mootee

My rankings PLUS places that do well at d-school + b-school

Where can you get the best design education?by Idris Mootee

I spent a good half-day in London at the Royal College of Art last week and lunch with Nick Leon of Design London. We exchange views of design thinking and the world of design and where it is going. Also met with some other faculties and plan to feature some of their work in the upcoming issue of the M/I/S/C magazine. Will write more on this next week.

Design thinking can power up strategic business innovation and change design education, but no one can agree on how to teach its methods. It is not exactly a very good time to be graduating from design schools as thousands of graduates pour into the job market this year and many industries are still in a flux. But the positive side is design is gaining importance in business probably the first time since the early days of the industrial revolution.

There are reasons to be optimistic but also concerns. I’ve interviewed about 30 designers/job applicants the last two weeks and come to the same realization that most of then are not equipped for the real world. Many design schools are struggling to find the balance between craft and thinking and some schools have not idea of what real world skills they would need. Lacking in formal and rigor methodologies is a still a challenge; some still resist the idea of needing a methodology. There are plenty of designers out there, industrial, graphic, architecture, urban planning, interactive (not enough information and service design) and definitely not many design thinkers. It is easy to assume that coming out from a design program one must be a design thinker. Not true at all, it is definitely not the case.

You don’t need to study in design school to be a design thinker, many young designers graduated with aspirations to use design to drive change and realized they are just in the business of communications – a poster (even a really good one) don’t change the world. “Design for Social Change,” sounds exciting, and when I ask them “How?” I usually get 5 minute of dead silence.

Everywhere graduates are emerging from new interdisciplinary graduate programs that integrate art, design, technology, and business. These young men and women are supposed to be trained in “design thinking.” but mainly are just new ways of pushing creativity rather than thinking about new ways to solve problem. They are two very different missions.

Some schools simply bring students together from different schools or departments and allow them to do some cross-disciplinary project work. Example would be the exchange program hosted at INSEAD for Art Center students to take MBA courses for 4 months. INSEAD students can study with the design students in the eight-week ‘Strategies for Product and Service’ elective, offered through the 10-month MBA program.

To train people how to be a bit D-school meets B-school, the Royal College of Art is way ahead of the game in terms of training design thinkers of tomorrow. I would say this is the best graduate level design thinking education you can get today, compare to anywhere in the world. The Master’s in Design program from IIT (Chicago) is also worth a mention for those who prefer wind than rain.

The Cox Review: Creativity in Business was commissioned by the UK Treasury to look at enhancing UK business productivity and resulted in the forming of Design London, an international centre for interdisciplinary design led innovation that teaches, researches and delivers radical new practices, tools and processes to transform the way organizations innovate. Design London brings together creativity and expertise in design from the Royal College of Art, engineering from Imperial College’s Faculty of Engineering and the business of innovation from Imperial College Business School.

It was the first and still one of the very few schools where design is a core component of every MBA students curriculum, not just an elective course, and where MBA students, postgraduate students of design from the RCA and engineers and scientists from Imperial complete a common program which includes executing challenging innovation projects over several months.

I was excited to hear from Nicolas Neon at the RCA in London what they are doing there and it is almost exactly how we want to train our people at Idea Couture. I think this is the model where other schools should replicate.

Since RCA only offers graduate (Master or Doctorate) programs, if you want to have a good design foundation, here are the lists of best design schools in US and UK for you to consider (there are many good ones outside UK and US and I don’t know enough about them):

UK Top Ranking Art and Design Schools 2010 (Source: Guardian Top 10 list)

  1. University College London
  2. Oxford
  3. Brunel

US Top Industrial Design Schools 2010 (Source: The Idris Mootee’s ranking)

Stanford is considered more of an engineering school rather than industrial design school and that’s why I did not add it to the list, you can add that to the list probably as one of the top three. And then I have two #3’s)

  1. Art Center
  2. Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
  3. Carnegie Mellon
  4. Pratt Institute


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Idris MooteeIdris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.

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  1. The discussions in the business media about “design thinking” is starting to get a little silly. And talking about good/better/best programs has to be taken in context. Best at doing what? It depends on what the student wants to achieve with the education.

    Business organizations are in business to get customers, and to get a customer one must first find an unmet need, then create a solution a customer is willing to buy. It is as simple as that. The process of getting through these 2 elements is complex.

    Education in the field must not just focus on products and services, it should focus on business models, processes, partnerships, growth platforms, channels, brands and customer experiences. They are all tied together even though they can be studied individually.

    Programs that focus on understanding human drivers will help their students find human problems. These problems can be in the context of consumers, within organizations, within governments, etc. Understanding the context of the human problem is key. In the end, that is all business and design can accomplish, solving human problems in useful and affordable ways.

    For example, the Institute of Design in Chicago is focused on teaching tools and methods to find human problems and frame solutions that are viable, feasible and desirable. “Design” in their context is about creating effective and compelling customer experiences, products, communications, systems, and services. Discovering social, cultural, emotional, cognitive and physical human drivers are at the center of this education

    Linking business education to innovation should focus on both creating strategy to set the vision of a company, and design to create strategic alternatives that can increase profitability.

    Two other programs that approach this linkage appear to be Case Western Reserve and Rotman’s school of business.

    What I have seen happening over the past few years is design school students being hired heavily for communication design roles in digital environments. That seems to be where the jobs are at this time. CPG firms appear to hire design school students for their ability to find new customer needs and craft potential new solutions. B2B and socially oriented firms would to well to find out what is being taught in these programs and put it to good use as well.

    Design programs teach students to create new solutions. Business schools teach how to manage an organization. Bringing the two together will help executives find better ways to grow their companies.

  2. I like and agree with your article, but you missed 2 of the most influential design schools; The Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and the d.school at Stanford. They are at the forefront of design thinking and train design thinking at the Masters and PhD level.

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