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Like Elizabeth Holmes, Design Students are Being Taught to Present Optimism over Reality


As we enter the spring semester, faculty in higher education are once again guiding students through the end of their academic journeys including, in design degree programs, assembling project portfolios that signal the culmination of research, analysis, and synthesis around topics of often profound social significance. As we do, I hope that the weight of the Elizabeth Holmes trial looms large in our minds. Her case offers a cautionary tale against the excesses of design optimism built on illusions of social innovation. Particularly as design situates itself as a tool of positive social change — purporting to improve everything from restaurant lines to healthcare to drought relief, particularly on behalf of the most vulnerable among us whose lives are often ill-shaped by the well-intentioned naivete of altruists — Holmes’s story is instructive of the ethical responsibility designers must accept to be truthful, even and especially when it’s most inconvenient.

Holmes’s story offers us a window into the lack of regulation and realism in design innovation, where dreams of social change do not always comport with the competences of those who proclaim their expertise at achieving those goals. In MFA design programs that position themselves as educators of innovation design, this optimistic unreality is dismaying. Too often, students are being initiated into a practice of utilizing the tools of visual design to present complex ideas about social change persuasively and photogenically even (perhaps especially), when there is little substance to their proposals. These are glorious Potemkin villages of social good and technological optimism. And as such, many of these programs are teaching fraud at scale.

Much of Theranos’s appeal was based on the “Brand thyself” philosophy that has permeated design thinking since the late ’90s — the idea that everything and everyone should be optimally designed for brand-worthiness. Designer, sell thyself. And so, branded Holmes was, including notably mimicking Steve Jobs’s sartorial style and manipulating her voice to a podcast-friendly pitch, all the while knowing that the product she was selling could not perform as advertised. 

Optimism, branding, and presentation design have become all too common tools in design education at the expense of criticality, accountability, and honesty. Students are often encouraged to mock-up and render at high resolution products that cannot, will not, and possibly should not function in reality. An alumnus of MFA Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts (PoD) (who has asked to remain anonymous in order to speak frankly) shares:

In my thesis program, I would be asked to speak like I had a doctorate in psychology (I don’t) or my peers as if they had been conducting scientific research for years. This was not only encouraged but required. We never received instruction to caveat our credentials or meaningfully connect the design work to expert research, outside of reading a few articles or watching a TED talk. And, we definitely did not have the time or space to review designs with experts for confirmation and validation. The link from design artifact to truly deep research findings is often loose at best.

Design renderings for marginal innovations; a design initiative at SVA’s MFA Products of Design program asked students to consider how design innovation might mitigate the harms of social and political polarization; from the Products of Design Interdependence project book (2018), brand collateral designed by an SVA graduate student

Students should, of course, be encouraged to unleash their creativity well beyond simple solution building. They need the freedom to explore the messiness of their inquiries, and speculative conceptual possibilities. But those speculations must be framed as inquiries, not finished products replete with a full complement of marketing and advertising campaign ephemera.

Another student (who also asked to remain anonymous) complicates this picture, saying, “the necessity to ‘fake it till you make it’” is a way to get a foot in the door, particularly for BIPOC and women designers who already feel more invisible in the industry. She asks, “How might design faculty help students better navigate the disjuncture between honesty and employability?” This request falls squarely at the feet of academic leadership, not on the student seeking equitable career opportunities, to challenge an education-industrial complex that requires emerging professionals to exaggerate their qualifications in order to be employable.

From the Products of Design Interdependence project book (2018), reading materials published for affect

Why that matters is visible in the example of Holmes who, like the innovation design students earning MFA degrees, seems to have internalized the value of presenting optimism over reality. The ideas students are investigating, prototyping, and grappling with are often inspired. The challenge is not to impede their creativity but to ensure that the process explicitly mandates checks on reality and honest criticality when anything begins to look a little too good to be true.

Alternatively, I have been privy to some exciting capstone and thesis presentations at San Francisco State University, Pratt Institute, and Drexel University in which work was presented in the form of a dialogue, and while quite legible and thoughtfully rendered, were notably not slick or scripted for a stage. In each case, there seemed to be both the room and the encouragement to engage with the questions rather than to perform unearned expertise. These presentations are a relief to behold in their honesty and depth. But I worry that these are becoming the exception as savvier presentation tools and platforms encourage students to make slicker work, and as more design schools are presenting student work on social channels as acts of self-validation.

Students of social design and product design are required to make hi-resolution branding and product renderings regardless of the conceptual naivete of the actual products or services under development. From the Products of Design Interdependence project book (2018), brand campaign materials designed by an SVA graduate student

As design educators and practitioners, we are aware that design is persuasive. But we should not be so persuaded by it that we allow it to pass for thoughtfulness. Often, the articulation of thought through the medium of design can look real before it reasonably is real. But we should not value — nor encourage students to value — the most well-rendered form that does not comport with some discernible truth. We can’t persuade ourselves that the most beautifully rendered Potemkin village is, in fact, habitable. This is not a problem for students to resolve on their own. If design educators teach our students to use their skills to tell the prettiest lies, then we are, as community, as guilty of fraud as Holmes is.

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