Like Elizabeth Holmes, design students learn to present optimism over reality
As we enter the spring semester, higher education faculty are once again guiding students through the end of their academic journey, including, in design degree programs, building portfolios of projects that mark the culmination of research, analysis and synthesis around subjects of often profound social interest. importance. As we do, I hope the weight of the Elizabeth Holmes trial will loom large in our minds. His case offers a cautionary tale against the excesses of design optimism built on illusions of social innovation. Especially as design positions itself as a tool for positive social change – claiming to improve everything from food lines to health care to drought relief, especially on behalf of the most vulnerable among us including life is often misshapen by the well-meaning naivety of altruists – Holmes’ story is instructive of the ethical responsibility that designers must accept to be truthful, even and especially when it is most inconvenient.
by Holmes History offers us a window into the lack of regulation and realism in design innovation, where dreams of social change do not always match the skills of those who claim their expertise in achieving these goals. In MFA design programs that position themselves as educators of innovation design, this optimistic unreality is appalling. Too often, students are introduced to a practice of using visual design tools to present complex ideas about social change in persuasive and photogenic ways even (perhaps especially), when their proposals have little substance. They are glorious Potemkin villages of social good and technological optimism. And as such, many of these programs teach large-scale fraud.
Much of Theranos’ appeal was based on the “Brand Yourself” philosophy that has permeated design thinking since the late 1990s – the idea that everything and everyone should be optimally designed to be worthy of the brand. Designer, sell yourself. And so, Holmes was branded, including mimicking Steve Jobs’ style of dress and manipulating her voice for a podcast-friendly pitch, all while knowing that the product she was selling couldn’t perform as advertised.
Optimism, branding and presentation design have become too common tools in design education at the expense of criticality, responsibility and honesty. Students are often encouraged to model and render at high resolution products that cannot, will not, and perhaps should not work in the real world. An alumnus of the School of Visual Arts (PoD) MFA Products of Design program (who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly) shares:
In my thesis program, I was asked to speak as if I had a doctorate in psychology (I don’t) or my peers as if they had been doing scientific research for years. This was not only encouraged but required. We were never instructed to caveat our credentials or meaningfully link design work to expert research, other than reading a few articles or watching a TED talk. And, we certainly didn’t have the time or space to review designs with experts for confirmation and validation. The connection between the design artifact and the truly in-depth search results is often loose at best.
Students must, of course, be encouraged to unleash their creativity far beyond simply constructing solutions. They need the freedom to explore the disorder of their investigations and the speculative conceptual possibilities. But these speculations should be framed as inquiries, not end products filled with a full set of marketing and advertising campaign ephemera.
Another student (who also asked to remain anonymous) complicates this image by saying that “the need to ‘fake it until you make it'” is a way to get your foot in the door, especially for the BIPOC and women designers who already feel more invisible in the industry. She asks, “How could design teachers help students better navigate between honesty and employability? This request is addressed directly to university leaders, not to the student seeking fair career opportunities, to challenge an education-industry complex that forces emerging professionals to exaggerate their qualifications in order to be employable.
Why this matters is seen in the example of Holmes who, like innovation design students earning MFA degrees, seems to have internalized the value of presenting optimism over reality. The ideas that students study, prototype and tackle are often inspired. The challenge is not to stifle their creativity, but to ensure that the process explicitly mandates reality checks and critical honesty when something starts to sound a little too good to be true.
Alternatively, I have been aware of some exciting capstone and thesis presentations at San Francisco State University, Pratt Institute, and Drexel University in which the work was presented in the form of a dialogue, and while quite readable and thoughtfully rendered, was notably not smooth or scripted for a scene. In each case, there seemed to be both the space and the encouragement to address the issues rather than to exercise unearned expertise. These presentations are a relief to behold in their honesty and depth. But I’m afraid these are becoming the exception, as wiser presentation tools and platforms encourage students to do more effective work, and as more and more design schools present the work of students on social media as acts of self-validation.
As design educators and practitioners, we realize that design is persuasive. But we must not be so convinced that we pass it off as reflection. Often the articulation of thought through design can seem real before it is reasonably real. But we should not value – nor encourage students to value – the best-rendered form that does not correspond to discernible truth. We cannot persuade ourselves that the most beautifully rendered Potemkin village is, in fact, habitable. This is not a problem for students to solve on their own. If design educators teach our students to use their skills to tell the most beautiful lies, then we, as a community, are as guilty of fraud as Holmes.