Transcript: Simon Pemberton – “The Best Way to Predict Our Industry’s Future is to Create It”

Transcript: Simon Pemberton – “The Best Way to Predict Our Industry’s Future is to Create It”


Do you believe design school graduates should enter the UX industry with the best possible preparation? That suggests that we as the incumbent industry practitioners have the ability and obligation to help them. But how exactly can we do this? It’s an inspiring and colourful topic, and we unpacked these ideas with design education leader Simon Pemberton and our community in our live panel discussion.

Yesterday afternoon was a dark and stormy one in Auckland, NZ. Winter has hit with full force and the lightning and thunder outside my window was a lively soundtrack for our live panel event. That didn’t put off our guest Simon Pemberton, however. Simon answered our questions like a trooper and the outcome was an interesting insight into some of the challenges that we are facing as an industry when it comes to education.

If you weren’t able to join the session then here’s your chance to catch up. Grab a coffee and take a break from your busy schedule to hear some thoughts on how we can help to be part of a movement towards positive change.

Session links:


Hawk: All right. Hello and welcome. This is the latest in our UX Mastery series of live panel events. I’m Hawk, and I’m joined today by Simon Pemberton. We’ll be discussing the future of design education and the part that we all have to play in it. We planned on sharing our discussion today with Marissa Mills, but unfortunately Marissa has been waylaid by some unexpected childcare admin. I also need to apologize for the weather here in Auckland, New Zealand, quite likely to see an amazing thunder and lightning display behind me very shortly. Fingers crossed!

Before we start, I’d like to apologise to those of you that tried to join us for our session a couple of weeks ago. Due to a technical difficulty we were unable to go live at that time. Sorry for anyone that had to reschedule, and thanks for your patience.
Quick housekeeping: please keep yourselves muted and ask questions at any time via the chat sidebar. You can open the chat sidebar by clicking the chat icon at the bottom of your screen and time permitting we may invite you to ask your question on video. This is obviously absolutely optional. Luke will hit you up via direct message to check in whether you’re comfortable doing that. If you’re not, I can ask on your behalf, but please shoot through questions as soon as you like via chat.

I’d love to start by formally introducing Simon and then I’m going to throw over to Simon to set the scene and give us a little bit of context around the subject of today’s session, before we throw it open to you for questions.

So let’s talk about Simon. Simon has over thirty years experience in both the design and advertising industries and has combined experience in the successful creation, development and implementation of brand identities and cultures. And his experience as the head of school at four leading design schools brings together a unique blend of creative and management skills within a successful educational environment. Simon is also a published author in a wide range of design magazines and recently published ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, which is a book and video documentary featuring interviews with 13 of Australia’s leading designers. Simon’s joining me today as one-third of Industryfish, the collaborative effort of three individuals who are passionate about people, design, and learning. And their mission is to create an environment that’s committed to building a culture of strong dynamic and effective design education in Australia.

So Simon, welcome. Thank you very much for joining us today. I’d love to get a bit of an overview on your thoughts around design education and why it is that we are responsible, and what we can do.

Simon: Thank you. And thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I’m looking forward to the conversation and in talking with the people who are joining us today. I think the main thing that I would like us all to talk about is —and I’ll probably use the word ‘community’ more than I should—but, what we can do as an industry, what we can do as a community, to support design education. It’s a truism, but I don’t think it’s given enough attention and there’s a lot of the detail around that because clearly students are our future, and clearly students want their future to be what we do. I think underpinning, some of the issues that I hope we talk about today is the fact that it even starts at high school — and I think we should include high school students, very definitely not just tertiary level or post secondary level, whatever, whichever way you like to refer to them— students in high school, because they’re beginning to think about their careers, but they are being taught by people who are, I’m sure, very talented, very committed, very smart, tick all the right boxes, of course, but who may not either have the time or who may not have the experience to understand the the design industries that students are thinking they might want to go into. I think as an industry there’s a lot we can do to support those teachers. And I think there’s a lot we should be doing. And to some extent the same happens at tertiary level. I’ve been heavily involved with tertiary level design education for a number of years now. All tertiary level design schools are required to have industry engagement as part of their accreditation and they all do, to be honest with varying degrees of success,varying degrees of depth, and also varying degrees of responding to any feedback they may get from industry.

Actually quite often not their fault because they have to have industry engagement to keep their accreditation, but they also have to follow very stringent educational guidelines, particularly degree-based programs, in terms of what they deliver to their students. And there’s often a conflict perhaps in terms of time as much as anything else between teaching students what they think they should know from the industry, but also to get them through their degree and pass all the academic stuff. It’s complex. So, given those two environments, the high schools and the tertiary level schools, I think there’s a lot we could —as an industry—we, could and should do to support the students in particular, the teachers as well, and that can relate to better quality graduates, which can only lead to a better quality industry. Seems to me to be a bit of a no brainer. And as far as I know, no one’s really doing this. Industryfish is very much hoping it can be part of the catalyst that helps this improve.

Hawk: You’re right. I was surprised that nobody seems to be doing this because it does seem like a prevalent problem, yeah.

Simon: As far as I know, no one is doing it anywhere in the world. It’s astonishing.

Hawk: You talked a little bit about not enough industry engagement, but what are some of the other issues with how people learn design and how it’s taught, maybe even some of the courses?

Simon: Um, well again, I think it’s by us as an industry being involved, but it’s going through the curriculum content. I think. I know there’s been various discussions about Phil Cleaver’s book “What they didn’t teach you in design school”, but you almost don’t need to take design, and this is a bit controversial, but if someone’s going to be a successful designer, or they already are, they already have an innate creative talent. Probably, or almost certainly. They also have the will to want to be a great design. Well they don’t have is all the other stuff – design as a business,  design and the people skills (and that’s a huge conversation right there), but in terms of UX and UI, all that stuff, at high school especially, and even still at tertiary level school, they don’t have the skills or the knowledge or the experience to understand that they aren’t designing only for them. They’re designing for a community, an audience, a client base. They’re designing to improve a business, ‘ROI’, the ‘bottom line’. There’s a whole world of stuff that they’re doing their work for, which is really not so much about ‘design’.

Hawk: One of the things that I notice from our community, especially, one of the most prevalent issues is that people coming into the community that want to get into design based roles, specifically UX design-based roles. Sorry – the thunder is quite outrageous! What I noticed is that they just really have no sense of direction. They’ve come from school, they’re excited about the idea of doing something, but they don’t really know what that something is, or what it involves. So it almost feels to me that there’s a bit of a disconnect between the teaching of topics or subjects themselves and directing people as to where they go as their next step. How do you think that we can maybe kind of confront that issue? It seems insurmountable in some ways.

Simon: Oh yes it is. I’m thinking on my feet here, so I reserve the right to change my mind, but I’m not sure that directing students is really something that we should focus on. This industry is changing so fast, and in so many ways that when we’re at the coalface we can kind of keep a handle on it, but for else it’s a bit harder. I think just giving them the skills to be able to know where they’re going, or to know the complexities of the environment that exists out there. I think probably a more important priority. So, support them if they have ideas about what they’re interested in, ambitions or areas of interest, we can certainly steer them in the right direction, to meet people, to find out more about what they’re going to do. But, can the education process — if it starts in high school and goes right through, we’re talking about quite a number of years — so this idea of directing, I mean, for example, who would have thought 10 years ago you could be a commercial drone pilot. It was a toy 10 years ago!

Hawk: Yeah.

Simon: So there are things we’re going to miss, if we try and be too prescriptive – I think is what I’m trying to say, so trying to keep open minded and inspirational, and the kids will find, the students will find, really, where they want to go. And where they want to go will find them too, actually.

Hawk: Yeah. I agree with you. One of the issues is, especially from a high school — if we’re talking about a high school as a starting point—then design is one aspect and then there’s obviously just so many other vocations. We’re focusing on design. How might this stuff specifically affect people that are designing digital products? Or a human-centred approach? How we different from some of these other areas or vocations?

Simon: If I’ve understood the question properly, Hawk, I think in terms of digital products, and the people listening will certainly understand this, this is all fundamental UX stuff, but really understanding who’s on the other side of the screen, that your work’s going to be on. It’s people skills. It’s being emotionally smart enough to understand how people are going to react. And of course it’s about the aesthetics, but aesthetics have to be driven by consumer responses, not via pure aesthetics alone. Um, you know, one person’s idea of cool is, is not necessarily somebody else’s. So, it’s really creating an education environment that’s all about helping people understand that it’s a big world out there full of complicated, complex people with their own aims and desires and how to make things work for them. And that applies to UX as much as it does to architecture, or really any aspect of design, I would have thought.

Hawk: I’ve got another question here. Given the state of the industry, what’s the potential that we should be growing in design students? What’s does a design student at the pinnacle of success look like for us? In what state do we want these people to be coming to us?

Simon: I think it’s the same state that we have always wanted—we always recognize it, but we don’t always see it—which is clearly having some talent, and that has to be the first thing. The second thing is being really hungry to learn. You know, all the radars are turned on. They’re listening hard, they’re watching hard. And there’s an energy that comes with that. You know, the top 2-3% of students that graduate from any course, you can just feel it in them. They’re itching to go. You can really feel that. And the other one, of course, is the ability to get your head down nd your bum up and just work hard when it’s needed. Thankfully it’s not all the time. You do have to do that as you do in any commercial environment these days. So I think those three qualities.

Hawk: Right? So sort of an energy and work ethic.

Simon: Yeah. Energy mixed with equal amounts of curiosity. And be really quite open and, not aggressive, but enthusiastic with that. Don’t piss people off with it, but inspire them with your hunger.

Hawk: So we have established this problem exists, hence your mission to change it, but is there a more helpful way that we could reframe the problem? And the complicating issues that you know, how to get it noticed, to try and get this message out and a bit more widespread?

Simon: I think it’s by, and here’s this word again, community. I’m getting a bit stuck!

Hawk: We love that word here at UX Mastery.

Simon: I think what we should do is very much—as an industry again—is to build a community which includes and focusses actually, to some extent, on our creative educators. People say, ‘what are the problems with learning about design?’ I think the question is kind of slightly wrong. It should be ‘what are the problems or the issues that we can help resolve about teaching design?’ If you look at it from that perspective you’ve got more chance of success. That has to be managed carefully of course, because we didn’t want to offend or upset those that are teachers, the bulk of whom do a good job, and whom are committed. So we have to be circumspect and supportive about that. But I, the teachers I know (and I know quite a lot of them), I know that if we as an industry go to them in the right way, offering them support, they’d welcome it. They’d absolutely love it. “Come to us”. Brilliant.

Hawk: This issue starts at a high school level, or at a school level. Are you seeining it coming through at a tertiary education as well? I ask because lots of tertiary education providers are specifically providing design education, and it’s a bit of a scary thought if they’re not doing that one thing very well. Do you think it is a high school issue? Or is it much, much wider than that?

Simon: I think it probably is an issue of high school. Part of the problem, part of the challenge that we face, is for students who think at high school, who think they’re interested, or even know know they’re interested in design, is to help them understand what they think design is. Or for us to understand what they think design is, so we can really support them. The way to do that—and Industryfish is about to embark on exactly this journey—is to go and talk to the high school students, and you ask them questions about where are they getting that knowledge from? What sort of levels of support are they getting from parents? Are mum and dad creative? Someone in the family? And then add whatever the learnings are from that research to the knowledge and experience the teachers have.

My knowledge of high school teachers in the design space is more limited. In fact, probably fairly limited to be honest. I know quite a lot, but I don’t know hundreds. And many of the ones I do know have a fine arts background. They get kind of corralled into doing the creative arts, if you like. But it’s not their fault that they may not have the skills or the knowledge or the experience to know how to help students. And if the student wants to build a website or do something in the digital environment or in any of these other spaces, they may struggle, you know, to really help them in a good way. Because we all know if we struggle in subjects at high school, we’re often put off them and focus on other areas. So it’d be a shame if we’re losing potential talent just through that.

Hawk: Yeah, absolutely. So who are some people doing good things in this space, what’s being done by the various sides. I’ve got a couple of examples but I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Simon:  When you say people, do you mean institutions or…

Hawk: The examples I’ve got down here are Mike Montiero in the States with his “Design is  job” and “Dear design student”. Phil Cleaver from Pentagram “Things they don’t teach you in design school”. Julia Debari from our own community (I used that word!) has shared a link as well too a a slack channel that’s currently challenging these ideas. I wondered if you had some other examples of people that are doing good things, or examples that we could follow.

Simon: No, is the short answer. I mean, Mike Monteiro, yeah genius of course. Really interesting. And lovely that he commits his time and energy is to create an all the videos that he does, and the other stuff that he puts out. Thought provoking. A lot of it to be honest, we probably know about and probably instinctively understand, but as is often the case in these instances good to be reminded and to hear someone articulating what we’re thinking. And same with Phil Cleaver’s book. That was published a few years ago, and again, just reminding us. So the reason I’m saying no, which was my short answer, is that as we said at the beginning, none of these people, as far as I’m aware, and if there’s someone listening or watching now, it’d be a thrilled to, to learn more about it. That is actually doing stuff that’s helping support the teachers. There are a lot of people talking about issues, and what’s missing, what’s not missing, strengths and weaknesses, but it’s the ‘doing’ part that I’m now interested in — in this idea of building a community base, coming from us, as an industry you’re in. And I think that’s the missing part. So, as I said when we started, I don’t actually know anybody who is doing that ‘doing’.

Hawk: Right. And that’s what you’re doing at Industryfish?

Simon: That’s absolutely our intention, yes. And we have started, albeit gently so far, and slowly, but we’ve certainly started. And the conversations that we’ve had with our industry connections, I mean completely unsurprising from our perspective, but they’ve all been saying “Yes, great idea. Of course”, and being very supportive.

Hawk: It would be interesting to hear some of your business strategies because I imagine that there are people listening now, and people that will listen to this recording in the future, that just go “Hell, you know, I one-hundred percent agree with Simon, this is an issue. But you know, what can we do? What can I do? What does an initiative look like?” Because there’ll be people— and obviously our audience is not just Australian based, I’m not Australian myself—so, what kinds of things can other people do?

Simon: Well, I think the things that we’re talking about now. Work out how big a chunk people are prepared to bite off, and then go for it. So for example, if you have a local art school or a local high school or your students are going into high school and if you’re a practicing creative/UX/graphic designer/it doesn’t really matter. Engage with the teachers certainly and just offer support and just find out what keeps them awake at night. That’s a cliche question, if there’s anything. But also if they can, try and talk to the students. The way that I’ve approached doing that. I mean, when I was Head of School it was easy, I would just pull my weight around and talk to the students. But now, you have to go through the teachers of course. But it’s to say to the teachers that you would love to talk to the students about what their hopes and fears ar, what their expectations are, get a good understanding of how they’re thinking and feeling about what they’re doing, and that whatever comes out of that, you’re comfortable sharing with the teachers, so that they can kind of improve what the school or college is trying to do. So that hopefully then becomes non-threatening for the teacher.

Hawk: Right, yeah. That would be an important approach as well because people would come out reasonably defensive if you went in with the strategy of “Hey, you guys are creating this issue for us”. Yeah.

Simon: It’s not always going to be an easy path to tread. But driving us forward is the fact that we want better graduate outcomes. So this is a completely non-political, and if we can talk to the teacher enough for them to understand that this is absolutely apolitical, then hopefully they’ll relax and become part of that same community.

Hawk: Yeah.

Simon: And we as an industry can ask the questions to the students that the teacher frankly can’t, because the students… if a teacher asked students questions, the students—as we all would when we were students too— will want to tell the teachers to a large extent what they think the teachers want to hear, not what they’re actually really thinking. So we have to do it. The teachers can’t possibly do it to the same degree of success or integrity of depth that we can as an industry.

Hawk: Yeah. Good, I’ve got a great question again from Julia Debari (Julia is a member of our UX Mastery community, as I also mentioned, and she has a lot of experience with, with all the different design options that are out there,especially around online learning, and we’re talking about after high school) and she’s asking because of the wide range of options, what are your thoughts on licensing designers on some kind of regulation or some kind of, well, yeah, licencing is the right word really.

Simon: Hi Julia, first of all. Licensing in the context of this? I’m not sure I’ve understood the question.

Hawk: I’m assuming, Julia correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming that she’s talking about creating some kind of overarching qualification indicator, is that right?

Julia: Correct. Just like architecture or something like that.

Simon: Okay. So getting into the area of things like accreditation and stuff, Julia?

Julia: Yeah. Or just a licensed or body, like you have for architecture and you have to take continuing education credits to keep your license, things like that.

Simon: It’s a contentious issue, Julia. I have been the national president for the Australian Graphic Design Association – it was a little while ago, but I was two and a half years, and the state president for New South Wales, and it used to come up quite often at that level, too within AGDA. The DIA (Design Institute of Austraia) I know I do something as well, which is sort of similar to what the architects are doing. I personally think it’s a good idea, because, if nothing else, it speaks to the idea of currency in practice, but there are a lot of people who worry about it. It’s absolutely essential in architecture because if a building falls down people are going to die. It’s unlikely we’re going to kill anybody, although not impossible I suppose. It’s a complex issue, but in principle I think it’s a great idea. But if it were to move forward,I think education (and supporting education, as you would have understood by now because that’s my agenda) must be part of it. So I don’t want to use the expression of “giving back”, but it’s that principle of being involved in where we’ve come from to help shape where we’re going to I think is really important one.

Hawk: Great. Does that answer that for you Julia?

Julia: Yeah, I just wanted an opinion. I know it’s a very divisive topic.

Simon: Well, my opinion, Julia, is absolutely. But it has to be done thoughtfully and it has to be done for actually the right reasons. But yes, I personally do. As I’ve said there’ll be a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me.

Hawk: I do, for the record!

Simon:  The other one that I always have difficulty with is this whole notion of work experience. We’re getting off topic a bit perhaps.

Hawk: Let’s do it. It’s important, yeah.

Simon: I’m so not a fan of students having to do work experience. And again, a lot of people don’t agree with me, including a lot of students and, interestingly, a lot of their parents. I understand the notion that going into the studio for two weeks or two months or anything in between, might give you some insights into what’s going on in the industry and for those students are really heading out to do it, then fair enough, try and organize it. But as far as I know, 98% of the time it’s unpaid. That’s controversial. But also I think equally 98% of the time it’s probably a complete waste of time because you’re never going to become a long term member of that environment you’re in. The people in that environment and know that, so they’re never going to take all that seriously. They’re going to like you if you’re a nice person, they’re going to enjoy having you there. They’re going to love the coffees you go and get for them. But the actual learnings, I think, are probably fairly marginal. And if you do work on any projects which hopefully along the students would, these are not projects they’re going to really be necessarily very helpful for you as a portfolio piece because when you finally get a job somewhere else, these are not projects they are going to want you to work on. So I think it comes with some very mixed blessings from the professional point of view. And a lot of downsides in terms of your time. So if you’re gonna spend two weeks or two months, I think there’s an awful lot that a student can do that would be more productive, more valuable and more educational more inspiring than just sitting in someone’s studio and not getting paid for it.

Hawk: I’d love to hear to hear what some of those things might be. I’m curious. Speaking to the work experience, I agree with you. especially around the unpaid aspect. But I also think that there is a big part, uh, to work experience, which is kind of taking away the, the pipe dream. I’m going to be an architect, I’m going to be a designer, I’m going to be this or that and hey, this is what it actually looks like to do a week in the life of this job. You’re not going to change the world next week. You’re going to do a lot of little shitty things. And so I think that that aesthetic of it can add some value, but I’m more interested in hearing your ideas around what would be a better way to utilize that time for our students.

Simon: Well, first off, there’s something thats a bit glib. Use that time to be a better student. Work harder, work on your student projects in more depth with more integrity, with more vigor,  rework (if you have the time) projects that you’re working on, just focus on the quality. Just be the best you can be. You’re never going to be a student again. You never going to have these opportunities again, so absolutely max them out. But probably more usefully in the context of what you’re asking about, Hawk, is for schools to think about—and I mean high school and tertiary schools—to think about a better way of insisting that their students (if that’s what they want to do) have a work experience environment. So that might be, organizing a period. It could be a month, that could be two or three months. Once the students have graduated, it could either be free or a small bolt-on program that students can then do on their way into the industry once they finished the period. I think thought through properly that has a lot of merits, because the students can stop then thinking about being a student and start focusing on their future. But within the learning environment, within a two or three or four or five years context in high school, I’m really not convinced it has a great deal of value. I’m really not. I mean, go on trips to see studios, listen to all the industry people who are coming in and listen to their stories. But do you need to go into an expensivly fitted out, open-plan office and see rows of computers to really know whether you want to be a designer or not? I need some convincing.

Hawk: That’s fair. That’s very fair. It segways nicely into another question I’ve got here actually. That goes back to just speaking to my point before about there being a very big difference between being a school kid with, with a perception of, of what a career and design looks like. and the reality. So how can we teach design graduates and understanding of the more holistic side of “design as a business”? I guess is the best way to put it.

Simon:  That obviously has to start within tertiary level education. It absolutely has to. A big challenge I understand for a lot of curriculum content writers because they’ve got all this other academic stuff that they just have to get over the line to keep their accreditation. And of course in the university space, accreditation means spending. So this is politically and strategically and financially fraught, but that’s what we have to do. So do we have to go to the, accrediting authorities? Probably. And talk to them as well? That would apply to every country in the world, I would think. So yeah, bringing much more focus on all the aspects of design that we have already talked about a little bit this morning, about design being a business, absolutely being a business, and that it’s not really that we create lovely things (or hopefully lovely thing all the way through), but it’s commercial enterprise and to understand what that means and the responsibilities that brings both in terms of running a business, but in terms of what you’re designing for your audience, it’s imperative. And most design schools tend not to focus on that nearly enough. And I think a lot of those would argue that, you know, that something that students will need to learn once they graduate and that they’re trying to teach students to be the best designers they can be. But that’s a slightly shallow promise because being one of the best designers means having a bit of an understanding about business, about the commercial pragmatics of being in a business. The one we all know about the student who joins the studio but then spends way, way, way too long trying to do something. Because they’ve had 12 weeks experience at university and college to do that logo. No one’s ever told them we’re going to do it in two days. And then stand up and present it up to four or five times. And it’s a shocking experience still now. I believe that in 2019 know this is kind of, this is old school stuff. Yeah, absolutely.

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Hawk: From Julia: “I live in San Francisco, California,” (and this is a problem, believe me, that extends well, well beyond the boundaries of California) “and no one will hire you without examples of real work”. So coming back to that portfolio, but not a contrived portfolio, a portfolio of stuff that you’ve done. And for Julia, that’s even university graduates. So how as an industry, can we be proactive and break that cycle of ‘we’re not giving you a job because you’ve got no experience’, and ‘we’re not giving you a experience because you won’t give me a job’. How do you think that we can help to combat that?

Simon: Julie if you’re still listening. Thank you again cause that’s such a good a question.

Julia: Yeah. Sorry. I live in a bubble.

Simon: A big bible, if you’re asking questions of this calibre, it’s fine. I’m impressed. Again, for fear of sounding like a stuck record, I think we as a community should go into certainly tertiary level in terms of portfolios, perhaps the high school level as well. And help students create opportunities to do live projects. It can’t be that hard in, it can be projects that we worked on and that will support the teachers as well. So again, it takes some managing, but we all have loads of work experience, loads of projects, loads of briefs that we can do that we can help students with. And as part of that also helps students understand what type of work they want to do. I think it could be really valuable pathway, certainly very supportive for those teachers, in theory and in practice I would hope, very supportive for students. So let’s us in industry, just get in there and really, really help these kids. Yeah. I’m sorry, I’m calling you kids. I don’t want to sound patronizing. Students.

Hawk: Nice! I’ve personally got no problem with being called kid. But that’s really helpful, and that’s the same kind of advice that we try and give here at Ux Mastery as well – go in and offer to do some pro bono work, go in and talk to your local school, your local museum, or hand off that project that you don’t have time to do yourselves to a student that’s got some time to run with it. And there was so many opportunities out there to do the work. I often hear pushback from people that don’t want to go and approach organizations, but you’ve kind of got to. Cause that’s, that’s also a big part of being an employee. You’re going to have to start learning to do that kind of stuff at some point. It’s not all about designing. So yeah, I encourage everybody to do what they can to find real world examples.

Simon: And actually a fairly easy, or an easier, way to start with that too, Julia, and to you, Hawk, is charities. They love creative and they, they haven’t got the big budgets to pay for creative. So any support you can get from them and they often will support it. And it’s often a very pleasant experience. I’ve done this a few times for students, for charities and not for profits because the people who run these are fairly illiterate in terms of design, probably, just because that’s not their background. So they usually learn from the process and, and as a result, really enjoy the process, which is really uplifting for the students too, in a way. A classic that’s coming to mind, I’ve done a few, was for the Tram Museum here in Sydney and these lovely old codgers—trams, so men, unfortunately there were not very many women I met, but that’s the way it is—they were just the fact that students would even want to spend some time thinking about doing some design work for the Tram Museum was kind of, you know, their faces lit up. They thought it was amazing. And then when they saw the standard at work, they just… you know? These were men became boys again. It was fantastic to see. And how lovely a response is that for the students? To know that you can have that kind of effect on people. Great! It’s brilliant.

Hawk: I’ve got a question from Rick. I might have to put my own spin on this. Work experience can indeed be problematic (which we’ve already discussed, obviously) and he’s saying it’s probably better for schools to teach UX design (which is to a degree what you were saying) But he’s saying the problem is what do we learn? Do we learn art? Do we learn programming? Do we learn business? How do we encapsulate that into a valuable topic that that does take a student to somewhere valuable for the next step. I hope that is what you were asking, Rick?

Simon: Yeah, that’s a good question. Thank you. Rick as well. The answer I think I want to give is probably not going to be that useful. I think it’s going to be a bit of a pipe dream, but in a perfect world, what I would like to see us doing is going to ask the students, first of all. But then also, what areas are they interested in? And then try and support them rather than be prescriptive about, well, this is what you have to do. Are you mentioned it in the world of medicine? Or are you interested in science. I mean, I don’t know what the questions are even, but to ask the students. Because if we go in feeling prescriptive, about it, or with a particular mindset, we run the risk of the students not being engaged because they don’t particularly feel interested in what we’re talking about, or missing an opportunity. Back to the drone pilots: if we went in saying, okay, we want to teach you these skills. But this kids sitting there at the back of the class thinking, shit, I love flying drones. But if we hadn’t talked to him or asked him about that, he would have missed the opportunity with our support to become a drone pilot. Yeah, right. So I think trying to go in and with questions before we go in with answers. It’s idealistic, but I think if we can try and do that, then it’s going to be more constructive actually for everybody.

Hawk: Yeah. Great. Um, I guess along the same lines from Rick, um, we know that lots of courses focus on tools or on processes. Is that a helpful approach in your opinion? How do we know which course, which process, which set of tools, which approach is the right one for us?

Simon: Again, it’s the right question to be asking. Actually UX is not my background. I know a little bit about it, but it’s not my core skill. But I think my answer would be, irrespective of that, not to worry so much about what software or what technical skills to teach, we have to do some of that, students have to learn some of that. but it’s the  higher levels of thinking perhaps rather than the pragmatic skills. So creative thinking, design thinking, lateral thinking, different ways of approaching, how are you consult, particular communications or design issues? And again with UX almost in particular really, really work hard on the whole customer experience and the CX thing. But do it from a customer’s perspective. So from the other side of the screen, not from your side of the screen. You can learn a particular software, you know, those of those on the planet that learned QuarkXpress 100 years ago and I’m sure now are really good in InDesign. So it’s, it’s not really the technical skills you need. It’s all the other stuff. You have to work in a studio, I understand that. So you do need technical skills, but I don’t think it needs to be a priority.

Hawk: And those things are reasonably easy to learn reasonably quickly as well. Whereas some of the overarching strategies and frameworks take a lot more time and a different focus.

Simon: And these these days, I mean, I’m not so sure. I’m not so confident, I guess in the UX space, but if you’ve mastered one software or one particular piece of technology, the chances are you’re going to get onto the next one really easily and quickly, or fairly easily and quickly. It’s not gonna it’s not going to break your balls, but if you don’t understand all that other stuff then your balls are already broken.

Hawk: Yeah. It’s not a good space to be in, I’m sure. What we tend to see in our community is a lot of people asking questions about bootcamps. You know, which bootcamp is best for me? They’ve come out of high school or they’ve come out of a kind of tangentially related degree and they decided they want to get into a design role. And so they’re kind of sideswiped by these massively expensive bootcamps which pretend to be all things to all people. Do you have any thoughts about that as, as the kind of middle ground between high school and industry? Is that the right approach? I know that’s a difficult question. But that’s the one that I’m probably confronted with the most at the moment.

Simon: Of course, of course, and then making the question even more muddy, if you like, (I’m not sure if that’s quite the right expression) but some bootcamps are really good, some are rubbish. Um, and then make it even more complex is some people go to one bootcamp and and love it and others will go to the same one and get absolutely nothing from it. And will say they hated it, so you know, wow, in theory it’s a great idea. Of course it is. I think the secret to having any success is have a look at the outcomes that the bootcamp is offering, but really have a look at them. And even talk to some graduates if you can and be selfish about what you want out of it, and make sure as best you’re able, that where you’re going to end up after your boot camp, whether it’s two weeks or 12 weeks or however long it might be, that you’re going to be, you will have moved forward in a way that you’re happy with. And that represents value for money because its obviously a lot of money. It is difficult though. I know of some quite clearly where I’ve spoken to people and they’ve said one of the best things I ever did, but someone in the same class said don’t do it, they’re rubbish, quite literally polarized opinions at each end of the spectrum. So never easy.

Hawk: And I think for the audience that is listening as well. I think one of the perceived benefits these days, especially in UX  bootcamps is the portfolio of projects that you come out with. What Julia and I are seeing more and more now is that employers aren’t even looking at these graduates or these projects because, let’s be honest, they’ve all got the same project. Um, and so it’s become such a narrow size that, that it’s lost its value all together and these people are paid thousands of dollars for this waste of paper.

Simon: And I think that’s really important. If that’s one of the outcomes when you’re doing your research, walk away. Save your money I would suggest.

Hawk: Yeah. Yeah,

Simon: That sort of thing was happening at tertiary level schools, and actually still is too. How many of us had been to student exhibitions from art schools and we’ve seen where they all had to design a book cover or they all had to design a poster. You know, it’s just heartbreaking stuff.

Hawk: Yeah. Yeah. Agrees

Simon: If someone went through them, they’d never go back.

Hawk: The other challenge that we face, as designers and UX designers is a lack of mentorship and a lack of really personal guidance. And that’s one that Luke and I’ve been struggling to crack as well. In terms of how do we support our audience to find this kind of mentoriship. Our community does it to a degree, but there just seems to be a real shortage of genuine mentors. Julia’s suggestion is that more companies need to do mentoring. What are your thoughts about that?

Simon: I couldn’t agree more. But again, I thinkthat can happen if we start building a community that includes teachers. And then mentoring just automatically becomes part of it. Cause at the moment there’s no environment that allows this conversation that we’re having right now, that includes teachers. I’d be fascinated to know if there’s any design teachers in the audience today. I would guess there probably aren’t, maybe some people today had done some teaching or do some part time teaching, but um, you know, let’s, let’s really go and embrace the teaching community as our friends and as an investment in our future, which is our graduates and have these conversations. It’ll all become much easier, much, much easier. But yeah, mentoring. 100% Really, really valuable stuff.

Hawk: What we’ve been discussing so far this polarized aspects of education and of industry – really quite disparate rather than kind of the same spectrum where we are always learning. It’s not “Right. I’ve done my education and now I am a professional” Maybe we need to reconsider what that spectrum looks like, and think about education as a continuing journey through the workforce.

Simon: Exactly. I mean, as you were making that point too, I don’t know where this came from, but I was just thinking of the sports industry. The coaches and the managers (the teachers) are there all the way through. They are part of that community and are as much a part of that community as the fans are as well. I mean, they get it. We so don’t. We’ve kind of come compartmentalized, you know, when you’re in a box at high school, you’re in another box at tertiary level, and then you’re in the industry box. Crazy. Let’s get rid of those barriers.

Hawk: So what is it as an industry, that can we do to make hiring managers more open to who they hire? Kind of going back to that, I’m not going to look at bootcamp graduates because they all have the same project. So I’m not going to look at people that haven’t done this. I haven’t done that or haven’t got experience. What do you think we can do to blow that apart a little bit and, and soften those boundaries, all those barriers to entry. Hard one.

Simon: I think probably not very much. Okay. I think we have to see this as a long game and that the end game is worth it. So let’s go and invest our energies now, starting in my opinion, at the high school level, and start building up this community so that. If we started right now, in theory, in three, four years’ time as these graduates start coming through, this will be much less of an issue. I think, right now, however, and I’m tap dancing here a bit, so forgive me, but we can certainly make sure we start conversations within our existing communities. UX Mastery can talk about it more, AGDA can talk about it more, the DIA can talk about more, and Julia and all the other people in the states can talk about this more and get the conversation going. But actions always speak louder than words. So let’s get in there, let’s start gathering these people up and brining them in, you know, and, and, and making them feel like we’re joining their community too. We mustn’t be patronizing about this, we want to be as much a part of the teaching community as we want them to be a part of us.

Hawk: Nice. Again, Julia (and gosh, you’re full of all the good questions, Julia) what did you want to ask us?

Julia: Oh, you want me to say it instead of just you reading it? You’re really good at articulating what I say.

Hawk: Well I can do it if you want?

Julia: Yeah, you’re better at it than I am!

Hawk: You just want to laugh at my accent! Simon, Julia asks what your opinion is of teachers with industry experience vs academics. So she has seen teachers that have awesome experience, but aren’t particularly good at translating that into education or into teaching. What are your thoughts on that?

Simon: Dead right. I also have seen lots of seriously lovely people who are very talented creatives, scarily bad in the classroom. Not their fault. You can either relate to the students or you can’t. Actually I’ve just said the wrong thing. The students either relate to you or they don’t, it’s got nothing to do with you. Um, as we all did when we were 15 to 18, we formed opinions about who thought we can learn from and respected in a heartbeat. And that’s the way it is. And they can try and be as cool and as knowledgable and as open as they wanted but you know, you switch off. So, that’s in trial and error thing. You just have to be honest about it. I’ve had to let lots teachers go, which means I’ve let designer go who’ve said I’d love to do teaching. And it’s really tough. Many of them are friends of ours, friends of mine, but you just say, I’m sorry, but as talented and lovely as you are, it’s not working. Yeah, it’s really hard. And academics, trained teachers, yeah. Generally probably pretty good because they know how to teach, but they’re the people that need our help because then you can help them with the industry stuff. Luckily quite a lot of industry people who offer to go and teach, they get paid for it, of course, and a lot of them are, are good, and a lot of the students relate to them, and do learn a lot from them. But Julia is right. There are quite a number that don’t. So I don’t think we should put pressure on ourselves for suddenly all of us to become teachers. I think the pressure should be for all of us to help the teachers. And that includes industry practioners too, we can support them as well? No question about it. No reason why they aren’t part of the equation because they are us.

Hawk: So I’ve got a challenge, or I guess a ‘challenge’ might be the wrong way to put it, but we’ve got Moses from the chat, who is asking, “What criteria are you using to form your opinion?”

Simon: To form my opinion about forming a community?

Hawk: Maybe we’ll ask Moses for some clarification on that and I’ll pose this next question to Simon in the meantime?

Moses:  Hi Simon. It’s Moses from New Zealand. The criteria you’re using for your opinion on that teachers with industry experience versus academics. At the moment in New Zealand, the teachers are striking because they’re not getting their wages on par with the local industry. But again, that’s not the question. So what criteria do you use to form or as a basis for your opinion that you’ve just offered?

Simon: My opinion on practitioners sometimes being problematic as a teacher? Or? I just want to make sure I’ve understood your question Moses.

Moses: Well you’re sort of offering an opinion with teachers in the industry experience versus academics. So the teachers with experience, and those with just experience, how do you compare them both? The academics and the teachers with industry experience? What part you already use to make sure? Your opinion on both?

Simon: I don’t think making a straight comparison is actually that useful, Moses because they’re coming into the process with different experiences, different backgrounds and different things they can offer the students. I think teachers want to be paid a more realistic wage, and their professionalism is absolutely legitimate. There is never big money available in education as we all know. So it’s a hard one, but I think the right to ask for more respect about what’s being done as a teacher is absolutely correct. And, and I think governments the world over should acknowledge that. I think they kind of do, but meanwhile they got roads to build and hospitals to build, and bullets and stuff. So it’s, it’s a hard one. But I don’t think you can make a straight comparison. So I think the focus is probably on people who are actually teachers and less focus on industry people coming in to support what they’re trying to do.

Moses: Thank you, Simon.

Simon: Pleasure. Thank you for being part of here. Good.

Hawk: You’re welcome, Moses. And I guess along the same line, um, what we are noticing is that organizations like General Assembly are starting to approach designers sometimes in our community, sometimes outside. (Sorry, I just got excited because the sun’s come out.) What advice do you have for those people that just decide to take this offer up and therefore start to become design educators? Arguably good ones. What advice can you give them, about how they start to challenge these issues that we’re seeing. What advice would we give to people that are new teachers to kind of break down some of these barriers?The question I’ve got here says, “do you have specific advice about at least in terms of more longer term view as to how we can improve results for students?

Simon: Predictably I’m going to say let’s invest in the education industry. But I guess more immediately places like GA, almost in particular too, given that we’ve named them already. I think if you’re considering wanting to get involved in education through the process, through something like GA, be clear in your own mind about why you’re doing this, and who you’re doing it for. It’s very, this… I could end up in trouble over this… very clearly they are doing this because they are a business. It happens to be they are in the business of creative education, but it’s a business first and foremost. Anyone who’s worked with GA would know exactly what that means and what that feels like. So that aside, and you can’t blame them for that and that’s their commercial pragmatism. That’s, that’s okay. I have education running through my veins, so I had mixed feelings about how I feel about that, but I get it. I certainly understand that position. So I think, yeah, just be clear about what you’re trying to do as a teacher and exactly what it is you’re teaching. Is it just more of the same or is it something actually useful that the students can really relate to? Um, and also ask yourself as you’re putting your content together, if you were to present this to a panel of industry board members, what kind of review would they give you? Would it be one that said, okay, this is useful? Or is this one that says, okay, this might earn a few dollars, but actually I use what is in terms of the student experience. I think if you can go through that process yourself and come out the other side feeling as though you’re onto something, then have a crack at it, and then do the other thing which some teachers may do at GA. But I suspect not many do or do properly – follow up with the students and make sure he get the feedback properly from them, not from GA, about what he thought, what they got out of this. Easier said than done, but just to make sure that what you’re teaching is what they wanted.

Hawk: Cool. Well Julia is a brilliant example of somebody that’s come from industry and taken this education career pathing and I strongly agree with her. She chose that as, as a third option. Once you get to that point in your career where you’re looking at becoming a principal, when you look at becoming a manager and you look at what your next step could be, then I think that it’s a strong approach from us. If we start to encourage people to consider educators or teachers as, as a third career path and it’s probably not something that is thought of often enough. I often give advice to people who are sort of stuck at that. What should I do now? I’m intermediate, I’m senior and I kind of want to be a down a particular path. And, becoming an educator isn’t one that’s often raised, and therefore we just don’t have enough and not strong indicators. So, yeah, I encourage people to consider that as an option that is, as valuable, if not more valuable than than a manager or a team leader or a or principal of an agency.

Simon: As long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. Not doing it just because you’re afraid of freelancing or you’re running out of work, for example, The old adage is “those that can, do. And those that can’t, teach” Unfortunately still kind of exists out there a little bit. And also harder and harder these days is – and I don’t know what it’s like in the States Julia, but certainly in Australia, I don’t know what it’s like in New Zealand either. But you as a teacher, you are now required to have minimum level qualifications in a number of area if you’re teaching in a higher education, you have to have, well in theory you certainly have to have a degree and ideally you have at least a masters and not many graphic designers yet. Well it’s changing. But not many graphic designers have those levels of qualification. So that can make it more complicated. So back on my old soap box, I think yes, by all means do that if that’s what you want to do. And if you can find an environment where you can do it, but equally support the teachers and make our contribution that way. Not necessarily by standing in front of the group of students.

Hawk: Right, solid advice, right. We’ve reached the top of the hour. I guess I will ask you what key takeaway you want to leave people with. You’re not allowed to use the word ‘community’… Haha, yes you are

Simon: Actually, it’s it’s a nice challenge. I’ll try not to, I think keep this conversation going, keep thinking about what we can all do in our industries to support education. And talking, talking is always good, you know, just keep the conversations and talk to teachers, talk to students, talk to parents of students. So the more we learn now the better equipped we’ll be as we do start moving into getting engaged more with students. Um, so I think anything and everything we can do to start off – step one, learn from the students, what do they actually want rather than us telling them what we think they want to know, what do they want to know? Start there. Easier said than done. I’ve said that a few times, but um, I think that would be really useful. And then based on the level of interest we’ve had today and the amazing questions we’ve had, We’re on to something here. As an industry we’ve kind of waking up to this, this could be really, really fun and certainly really valuable. Yeah. Um, and not a difficult way for us to build our industry’s future. It’s not going to be hugely time consuming. It’s talking and working with stuff we already know about and we’re talking and working with a bunch of students who want to join us so they already love us or they’re interested in us. What’s to lose? This can only be a good experience for everybody.

Hawk: Well then thank you so much for your time today. Simon, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. I encourage anyone that’s listening, or that listens in the future, then wants to continue this conversation to either jump over to our forums, or contact us. You’ll find you’ll find Simon at, is it?

Simon: dot co

Hawk: but if there are any questions. I’m happy to field them and put them through to Simon, but otherwise, yeah, I hope to continue the conversation, and figure out how we can push through some strong ideas here. So thanks heaps Simon for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Simon: Thanks to you and Luke for the opportunity—and also, more importantly, for everyone who’s out there—thank you for giving up the time to be part of this.

Hawk: Yeah, absolutely.

Simon: I hope most of you got something out of it.

Hawk: I’m sure everyone did, and thank you very much, Julia and Moses and Rick for your awesome questions. Cool. All right. Take care. Enjoy the rest of your day everybody.

Simon: Thank you. Bye!

Hawk: See ya!

Written by
Luke Chambers
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