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This article was published on March 24, 2018

You can’t learn design online

You can’t learn design online
Anthony Wood
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Anthony Wood

After working as a senior designer at leading ad agencies like Havas Worldwide, Anthony Wood transitioned into teaching design. Today, he is After working as a senior designer at leading ad agencies like Havas Worldwide, Anthony Wood transitioned into teaching design. Today, he is the Global Managing Director of Shillington Education, a comprehensive, immersive design school that transforms career changers and recent grads into fully-fledged designers within the span of 3-9 months. Shillington has campuses in Sydney, New York, London, Manchester, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

Today, the number of online courses, online certificate, and degree programs, and the scores of eager students, has grown exponentially in all disciplines — design included. Suddenly, instead of moving to a costly design capital like New York or London, students can learn the basics from the comfort of their own homes. With a few classes under their belts, they can build out their portfolios, start interviewing, and land a great job. The rationale is perfectly sound.

I may not be the most unbiased person to weigh in on the matter, as I teach design “offline.” But given that I understand the skills that successful designers must master (and how those skills are taught), I’m also more knowledgeable than most on which aspects of design can be translated into an online environment, and which cannot.

To put it simply, the “cannots” outweigh the “cans.” For novices, an online design education doesn’t replace in-person classes. Online-only students will likely find that their skills won’t live up to the standards required of professional designers. Instead, their knowledge will be peppered with holes and gaps, which could prove insurmountable in an agency setting.

Let’s examine why.

Online education isn’t as effective as it seems

First, online-only education has serious flaws. At Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), scientists surveyed online charter schools in 18 states. With this data, researchers compared the performance of students in web classes against a control group consisting of counterparts of similar backgrounds enrolled in physical classes.

The results were shocking. CREDO found that online charters were the equivalent of students receiving 72 fewer days of instruction in reading and 180 fewer days of instruction in math. The project director went so far as to state that it was as though online students did not go to school for the entire year.

This isn’t a perfect analogy, as this study covered only primary education (ages 5-18). One can argue that undergraduate (and postgraduate) students are far more motivated, and thus benefit more from online classes than their primary school peers.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Researchers at UC Davis found that compared to peers in traditional classes, Californian college students enrolled in online classes were 11 percent less likely to pass. Reasons include the ease of procrastination in online courses, as well as a lack of physical and social cues.

Besides, nothing incites panic in a teacher like glancing out into a classroom filled with blank stares or raised eyebrows. There have certainly been times when, regardless of how clear and articulate I found my explanations to be, students didn’t understand what I was saying until I explained things differently. But if you’re teaching online, you don’t have the benefit of confused expressions to guide you — not to mention the challenges associated with conducting hands-on demonstrations or providing personalized feedback.

Collaboration can’t be learned online

For design students, the nature of their discipline is a compelling case for avoiding purely online courses. In a web-only class, it’s difficult for aspiring designers to cover the most important competencies — which will make or break them as professionals. These include the ability to work in tight-knit teams, to develop synergy and efficiency, and to balance client demands.

Take an ad agency, which is built on the two-person creative team: one copywriter, who develops the text (copy) for the ads, and an art director, who creates visuals. The best teams have a unique relationship: a mind-meld, an uncanny alignment that allows copy and visuals to build off each other and present a unified, insightful message. I’ve certainly been in situations where each task was compartmentalized. The client brought an idea to me, I developed visuals, then sent my “design” to a copy editor to collect some words. Or, I was given the words and asked for an image. It’s possible to create a deliverable this way. But the final product won’t win design awards or lodge into the psyches of its intended audience.

In my experience, when one part of the equation is executed in a bubble, it’s by default overstated because it must convey the entire concept on its own. Likewise, its counterpart will be overstated, producing a bloated final product. The best campaigns are collaborative because neither the image nor the words state the intent in full. They are dependent, and meaningless if separated. Both work in concert to produce a succinct and memorable result.

In fact, my most successful campaigns have involved countless hours of teamwork between clients, copywriters, account managers, creative directors, social media strategists, and creative strategists. It’s impossible to cultivate this collaborative dynamic solely from an internet class.

At this point, readers may notice a possible loophole in my argument: learning online is inefficient, but online work is great. Hypocrisy?

Nope. Even if you can work on a remote team — many successful companies do use such teams — you can’t learn to work with others through forums or video conferences. These soft skills, which include active listening, persuasion, and conflict resolution abilities, can be learned. One NCBI survey shows that participants can improve interpersonal abilities by at least 25 percent. The key, however, is that soft skills aren’t improved online. Every soft skill depends on social cues (such as tone or facial expression) or clear, explicit communication.

Counterintuitively, remote companies require even stronger soft skills than regular workplaces. Online work environments can suffer from misunderstandings because there are fewer clues to work with. For this reason, even the most successful remote organizations use a host of technologies to compensate, such as Slack or Zoom. In short: if you haven’t learned to work with a collaborator (a copywriter, creative director, strategist, etc.) in a physical setting, how can you expect to learn that on the fly?

Another example is Skillshare’s School of Design. [Disclosure: I’m a managing director for an “offline” intensive design course.]

Though Skillshare students create excellent portfolios and are taught by highly qualified teachers, it’s not necessarily the best fit for those of varying skill levels. This is not to single out Skillshare, as they are offering some excellent courses with very talented teachers. But Skillshare can’t completely replace a traditional education — it can only supplement it. This is the case with all online design course offerings: they’re great additions for any designer to pursue, but incomplete and ineffective without the foundational knowledge that can only be acquired in a “offline” setting.

In a 2013 profile by Wired, Chris DeLorenzo of Johnny Cupcakes mentions that though Skillshare offers some quality courses and mimics an in-person environment as much as possible, the traditional face-to-face education of a studio is indispensable. In particular, DeLorenzo emphasizes that the ability to accept and implement criticism is part and parcel of a designer’s life — and a skill that can’t be learned in an online setting.

Beginner beware

Further, many web design classes assume pre-existing knowledge. Most of these courses are assignment-based: students receive a task and reference materials, create their designs, submit for critique, and repeat. Feedback comes from office hours or peer review on video chats or online forums. In many ways, these courses simply seem like the internet version of an in-person education.

But they’re not. Project-based learning is ideal for anyone who already has a background in design (a few semesters of introductory courses or even a degree), but is far from intuitive for everyone else. Skimming Skillshare’s website, one can’t find a unified curriculum, which helps beginning students build a solid design foundation and foster a sense of taste, two key skills critical to any professional designer. Though many of the courses are thematically similar, without coherent units, a newcomer can be overwhelmed by sheer choice.

The internet is a splendid thing, softening the tyrannies of distance with fiber optic cable. While its benefits are undeniable, an online-only design education is not the bargain it seems to be. Unless you need to plug holes in your existing skillset or have limited aims, relying on internet classes to become a full-fledged designer is not feasible. You’ll end up with a shoddy design foundation that won’t prepare you for the demands of a real-world, agency environment.