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On Learning Software at Design School

As educators, what is the most effective way to teach our students the tools and technology of design?

On one hand, I feel that students appreciate me teaching them the tools of the trade in a classroom or computer lab setting. My preferred way to facilitate this is by giving short demos of just a few specific topics, and then have the students immediately apply what I taught by having them create a simple deliverable based on that day’s lesson. I try to limit my instruction to about 20 minutes, and then give them one to two hours to work with a very specific, clear goal in mind. I encourage them to Google for help, ask their more knowledgeable classmates, and generally not be afraid to help themselves before asking me. I can be sure that they are all actually learning to use these tools because I am in the room helping them do so.

On the other hand, I am certain some students are bored out of their minds during these demos, and either a) already know the software, or b) don’t know the software, but would rather be pointed to a Lynda.com tutorial to learn on their own time. I am a huge fan of Lynda, and have learned a great deal of software and coding with it. The idea of me giving students an outline of chapters on Lynda, and then having them learn these tools at their own pace, whenever they want, and only what they don’t already know, sounds appealing. It puts the onus on the students to educate themselves with faculty guidance (which I am a big fan of as well).

On the other other hand, I also know that students are all different, and all learn in different ways. Some students might love in-class demos, and others might hate them. Some will leave software training to the last minute and never get around to it. Others will simply not bother. Some will become obsessed with the tools, and put too little importance on concepts.

While I do believe that design education is about far, far more than software, I also believe that students have to learn how to make their ideas into a reality—and that much of that ability in 2015 is based in knowing how to use software. I do not think core design classes should focus on software, in the same way you do not take a class called “Charcoal Stick,” you take a class called “Drawing,” where in order to execute your ideas, you learn how to use a charcoal stick. Being skilled in your tools does matter, and it is a part of your education as someone who makes things. As Elliott Earls likes to say: Skillz pay the billz.

© Mitch Goldstein /