Way Forward in Design Education: Fostering Friction, Frustration & Failure with Douglas Davis
23/11/22
Douglas Davis describes himself as “the professor who had no plans to go to college”. In a 30-minute conversation with him about his teaching practices and philosophies, I was struck by his wealth of knowledge about the design industry, his passion for using unconventional teaching frameworks and, ultimately, his care for students. 

 

Our conversation went in so many exciting directions that I could write several articles from it, but the theme of fostering friction, frustration and failure in the learning process stood out. And while this approach isn’t the most straightforward way to teach, Douglas reminds us that students are far better equipped to enter the world outside the classroom when they’ve been guided in their questioning rather than having been given all the answers.
 

Blurring the Boardroom and the Classroom

Douglas is the author of the book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, which helps to bridge the gap between creative design teams and business strategy teams. Most importantly for design educators, he’s shining a light on missing pieces in many institutions’ curricula: “I’ve always found it really weird that our [creative] school (for the most part) doesn’t teach business and the business school doesn’t teach how to inspire creatives.” 

 
Furthermore, Douglas points out that the skills that help someone get promoted as a designer are not the same skills they’ll need once they get promoted. “The client expects that everyone working on their brand to be strategic, but the training that made us all professionals on the same team to service that client didn’t equip us to talk to each other.”
 
 
In trying to help design students think more strategically, Douglas works to “blur the boardroom and the classroom”. He brings big-name clients into the classroom (Google/University of Oregon, Lenovo/Beijing Normal University and Puma/NYU to name a few) with real business problems for students to help solve. His approach provides students with the ability to become junior creatives, copywriters and art directors while they are in the care of his classroom, long before they enter into industry. 
 
Douglas believes that the myriad of challenges surrounding teaching today (for example, the need to teach virtually, time constraints in the classroom, unique student learning needs, etc.) can catch educators in the trap of giving students the answers or designing for them, while not factoring in the essential role that both frustration and failure play in the learning process. 
 
So how do we help students believe in this process, as well as believe in themselves? 
 

Emotions Are Our Super Powers

While client meetings can be intimidating and rejection of our work can feel downright heartbreaking, Douglas reminds students that their superpowers are feeling these emotions. “[Creatives can] translate the rational language of business into the emotional language of design, but we’re not taught to manage our emotions. We’re not taught that the same thing that gave you all of that creativity is your worst enemy when you walk into a boardroom full of people you don’t know. You’re now asked to bare your soul by presenting those ideas and you know if your pitch doesn’t go well, your ideas are going to die on the table.”

 
Therefore, much of his practice centres on reminding students to pay attention to themselves and their emotions, helping to normalize fear in the process. Normalizing fear requires opening up and letting students know that all professional, adult human beings also experience feelings of fear. Inspired by Chapter 14 in his book, Douglas created SLAY: A visual essay about successfully managing fear that helps acknowledge the fear we all feel in the creative process. Moreover, his approach is to help students learn how to trust themselves, even if they fail and how to work through ambiguity in the creative process. 
 
To help facilitate this, Douglas places students in pressure-filled environments, but he makes sure to acknowledge their fears and emotions throughout the process, reminding them that they can do this without him. “I try to spend the time convincing them that they don’t need me. That they can depend on themselves, that they can depend on the process and that they can depend on each other and their own resourcefulness.”
 

Failing Safely 

When asked how he balances normalizing failure to students, while also acknowledging the current mental health crisis, Douglas shared this: “I remind myself that we (as educators) are the most important students right now because we have the opportunity to either develop curriculum and environments that prepare our students for the future or we have the ability to create a curriculum that is a shadow of what the industry used to be.”
 
Letting students try, fail and try again, while they work under a modern apprenticeship model, is a way to invite harsh reality into the relative safety of the classroom. Being empathetic, helping students learn by doing and allowing them to feel the uncomfortable friction that often comes with the learning journey are all a delicate balance. “Social work is part of everyone’s job now as a teacher.”
 

Remaining Relevant

Throughout my conversation with Douglas, it was clear that he cares just as deeply for his professional design work outside of the classroom, as he cares for his students inside of the classroom and he aims to bridge the two whenever possible. 
 
“Working, teaching and learning are inseparable in a profession that keeps changing. So if I’m not willing to continue to be viable outside of the classroom as someone who can still serve professionally, then I’m in danger of not having anything to say to these students who keep seeing things shift.”
 
Brooklyn-based Douglas Davis enjoys being one of the variety of voices needed in front of and behind the concept. His approach to creativity combines right-brained creative problem solving with left-brained strategic thinking. Douglas is an Emmy Award-winning strategist who serves on the advisory boards of the Poster House Museum CMYK council, The Type Director’s Club, The University of Oregon’s Masters in Advertising and Brand Responsibility and City College’s Masters in Branding and Integrated Communications. He has found an international audience interested in his approach to blurring the lines between advertising, design and business education. In 2016, Douglas wrote Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, a title translated into Mandarin and released in 2020 by Beijing Normal University. He is the former Chair of the B.F.A. in Communication Design program at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn and holds a B.A. in Graphic Design from Hampton University, an M.S. in Communications Design from Pratt Institute and an M.S. in Integrated Marketing from New York University. Strategist, Author & Professor who depends on what day. Look out for Douglas’ forthcoming course about creative strategy produced by Domestika. 

Diana Varma RGD is an award-winning university lecturer and columnist by day and an avid podcaster by night, where she helps students connect their technical left brains, creative right brains and entrepreneurial hearts for fulfilling careers in creative industries. Specifically, she teaches in the areas of design, typography, print management, book publishing and interdisciplinary innovation. 

 

 

 
 
 
 
Credits: Nude Notes by Dean O'Callaghan, Co-Founder and Creative Lead at Night Sky Creative
 
RGD Members have access to Douglas Davis' talks from DesignThinkers 2017 (Toronto), 2020, 2022 (Vancouver) and 2 of his RGD webinars under the 'video archive' tab in the Members-only section