Design education is ready for a revolution

Educator and designer Mitch Goldstein on banning grades, soft critiques, and design as a process.

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BY ZACHARY PETITLONG READ

Your introduction to the mind of Mitch Goldstein might have come via a simple Venn diagram—a tiny, perfect revelation about design, life, design education, or any combination thereof. A master of the design meme, Goldstein perhaps accidentally built a following around his Instagram posts and tweets while turning out thoughtful, cutting-edge design work underscored by his passion for process.

While followers indulge in his piecemeal pearls of wisdom, it’s Goldstein’s students at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he serves as associate professor, who we have reason to be most envious of. Freed of character limits, candid and fed up with the old-guard approach to design education, Goldstein is fueled by an all-consuming passion for his craft, and he sees no delineation between his teaching, his professional practice, the master’s in furniture design he is pursuing at RIT—any of it. Everything feeds everything—and the result is a different breed of designer and educator.

“I just always approached teaching as a very holistic part of my practice,” he says. “It’s not a separate thing I do. With certain teachers I’m friends with and really love and adore, the teaching is a totally separate thing. It’s just something that turns off when they leave campus. They do their job and they love it. They do it well. And then it’s done until the next time they have to do it. Whereas I see it all as one big thing. And that includes writing the book, that includes Twitter or social, that includes making the art.”

The book. For those of us who won’t ever get a chance to sit in on one of Goldstein’s classes, How to Be a Design Student (And How to Teach Them) which comes out tomorrow, is the next best thing. (As Michael Bierut puts it in his delightful blurb, “One of the things I regret most in life is that I didn’t have Mitch Goldstein as a teacher.”)

The book is an A to Z for design school, covering the critical nature of curiosity, collaboration in the classroom, the ins and outs of inspiration, and things further afield, offering a host of lessons for prospective students, current students, and design educators. From his voice to his refreshing perspective on the subject at hand, it’s Goldstein to the core—and here he shares his insights gleaned from nearly 20 years of teaching.

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[Image: Princeton Architectural Press]

Fast Company: Who was your most formative influence when you were a student at the Rhode Island School of Design?

Mitch Goldstein: Easily Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell. Easily, instantly. Nancy and Tom and then Matt Monk, who is now the dean at VCFA in Vermont. Brilliant guy. And obviously the other faculty were great too, and I learned a lot from specific people, but really I think those three helped solidify where I am now, especially Nancy and Tom. They’re friends, they’re mentors, and they really helped shape how I came to where I’m at.

FC: What was the biggest thing they taught you?

MG: It sounds really stupid, but that design is a process, not an outcome. What I learned from them was what I now refer to as an emergent process, which I don’t think is a term I invented, but basically you don’t start at the end. I think when a lot of students start a project, [for example] a poster for a festival, the first thing they do is ask, “Okay, how big should the poster be? What color should it be? What should it look like?” Versus going through a process of just exploring and doing formal exercises and things like that to generate ideas. And so what Nancy and Tom taught me is that the ideas can come from making—you don’t have to have an idea and then make, you can make and then have an idea.

And that was a moment where I was like, Oh shit. Really? And I started to understand that the process isn’t just this stupid thing you have to deal with to get to the end; the process is the point—it’s about the process. The outcome happens to be a cool thing you get paid for in professional practice, but the interestingness isn’t in finishing, the interestingness is in doing. And when I kind of caught that, I was like, damn. Because what that means is now it’s not just a race to the end.

FC: Digging into some of the content in your new book, you write that teachers and students are deeply intertwined—they’re not on two opposing sides. Can you riff on that for a moment?

MG: There’s sort of an understanding in schools that the teachers know the stuff, and the students don’t know the stuff. And so the student’s job is to get the stuff from the teachers and then present it back to the teachers to get an A or an F. I don’t think art and design work like that at all. I think maybe some hard sciences do. But my opinion is that design has almost no facts at all. It’s almost entirely based on opinion. Again, that’s semantics, but you kind of get what I’m trying to say.

And so I don’t see it as “I know the shit, the students don’t know the shit. Their job is to get the shit out of me.” I see it as “We all don’t know stuff and we all also do know stuff, just different stuff because we’re different people.” And so I see the room where the classes happen as kind of a really fun mosh pit of people banging ideas around and making stuff.

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[Image: Princeton Architectural Press]

FC: I love that you advocate that teachers teach not just in their comfort zones.

MG: Yeah. I mean, that’s something that seems so counterintuitive. It doesn’t make sense—of course you’re the teacher, you’ve got to teach what you know how to do. There’s a logic to that that makes complete sense. The reality is because we are in such an abstract field and in such an abstract kind of place in the world with what design is and how it affects culture and all this other stuff, I want the teachers to be teaching stuff they don’t necessarily know because they’re going to come at it fresh.

And so I love teaching new classes, which almost always suck the first time, by the way. I taught a class this past fall that was horrible. It was maybe my worst class I’ve ever taught, not because I suck or the students suck. It just wasn’t good. It takes time to dial a class in. And so I think that by changing your projects up, changing what you’re teaching, maybe trying a brand-new class you’ve never taught before—not necessarily in a discipline that’s alien to you, but in a discipline maybe your “expertise” is not in—that’s actually really valuable because you are going to bring an insight to it as you see it with fresh eyes like your students do. Whereas somebody who’s been doing it for 30 years just doesn’t have that freshness. It’s just not possible.

FC: I’m curious, what do you feel is the biggest mistake you’ve made teaching?

MG: Grading. I am awful at grading. My mistake with grading is, if you look at my Rate My Professors page, which is mostly really good reviews, five people are like, “It’s an easy A.” And I’m like, “Fuck, that is not what I’m trying to do!” The struggle is that I fundamentally don’t believe in letter grades. I just think they’re silly. It just doesn’t make sense that I’m going to submit 15 weeks of work and failures and stops and starts and things that you tried that didn’t work and then other stuff you tried that did work, and I’m going to give you a letter. It’s bullshit. It doesn’t mean anything, except that it means something to the parents—a lot—and it means something to financial aid and stuff like that.

So there is a relevance to it, but since I sort of fundamentally disagree with it on principle, grading is a nightmare for me. I think I’m getting better at it over time. But I don’t like telling a student, “Look, you spent a hundred hours on this project and 50 of them were trying something that didn’t work.” To me, that’s an A, not a D. Because I think it’s about the process and the exploration.

You can’t get really good without failing. I think you can become average without failing. I think you can become sort of adequate without ever really failing. But I don’t think you transcend past that without really screwing up real bad. If a student tries something and it totally bombs, but they really pushed it, they really took a risk, they really went for it, and the actual final thing they made wasn’t that good, to me that’s like an A—not a C or a D. Other people look at it the opposite way: It’s only about the end, the deliverable, because “the client is paying you for the deliverable, not the process.” I personally think the client is actually only paying you for the process, and the deliverable is incidental because anybody can sort of generate the deliverable.

And so with grading, I think art and design school should be pass-fail, period.

FC: This whole line of thought is making me think of the section in the book where you discuss the difference between educating and training students.

MG: Yeah, I think that’s actually super important. I hear a lot of people say, “I was trained as an artist” or “I was trained as a designer.” And I’m like, Are you sure you were trained? Because I think you were educated. And there’s a very big difference there. Again, unfortunately a lot of this shit is just semantics. It’s so stupid that it just becomes about vocabulary. But the idea that you walk into a classroom to be trained to lay type out is different than going into a classroom to be educated on how to use typography. They’re two different ideas. And I think it’s a really important distinction more on almost the meta level, on a macro level of the approach you take as both an educator and as a student. There’s nothing wrong with being trained. But I personally believe that if you’re at school, you want more than training.

You could be trained online in Udemy or Skillshare. That’s training, which again isn’t inherently incorrect. It’s just not the same thing as education. It’s a different set of parameters. And so my assumption, my belief, is that students are at college to be educated, not trained. The reality is some of them really just want to be trained, and they don’t need to be in college at all. They’re just kind of wasting their time and money. All they want to do is sort of wake up, go to their 9-to-5, flow text into InDesign, cash the paycheck, and go home. And that is a completely valid, totally legitimate way to approach this profession. You don’t have to be Michael Bierut to be good at this.

It doesn’t have to be your entire life. It can be a 40-hour-a-week job. And then you get to spend time with your family and your kids. That’s a totally reasonable attitude to take. Obviously my attitude is slightly different. I’m more in it than others are. But I think it’s a really important distinction. And so I kind of say on day one to the students, “This is not just, here’s the software, here’s how you set type, have a good day. That is not what we’re doing.”

FC: What do you see as the most controversial opinion in the book? Or the one that will perhaps get you the most pushback or generate the most dialogue?

MG: Boy, that’s a good question. I think there are probably a few. In the chapter about critiques, I kind of make it very clear that I don’t buy this idea of brutal crits or harsh crits. I think that’s a toxic bullshit idea. Some people are like, “No, I actually want brutal crits.” And I’m like, “No, you don’t want brutal crits. You want useful crits.” If a crit is critical and it helps you make better work, that’s a useful crit. If a crit just makes you feel like an idiot, that’s stupid. That’s a waste of time for everybody. And I actually think that critiques like that that are harsh and brutal are far more about the ego of the person giving the crit than anything else. It’s about them establishing sort of an alpha dominance.

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[Image: Princeton Architectural Press]

FC: I’m always thrown off by professors who kind of thrive on creating that environment.

MG: It’s just so unnecessary. I think that there are so many holdovers in design education from modernism, inevitably a bunch of powerful white old men kind of dictating how this all works, and this and that. And so I think there’s a lot of baggage there. But I have no interest in making people feel shitty if their work sucks. I want them to understand why the work isn’t good, and then how to maybe get better at it.

FC: In the book you discuss how some students and designers pursue specific solutions because that’s how famous designer X, Y, or Z did it. I’m curious how you regard the notion of hero worship in design.

MG: I think it’s good and bad. I think that I really am lucky to have Nancy and Tom in my life to look up to and be like, I want to be that good one day. I think the problem is when it becomes a sort of deifying. Nobody is beyond reproach. And so this idea that with our heroes, it’s just rainbows and unicorns falling out of their butt 24 hours a day, is insane. And the reason why is that it’s toxic.

Because what happens is, if you’re a 19- or 20-year-old college student and you’re comparing yourself to somebody who’s had a 40-year career, you’re only going to be disappointed. You’re going to be like, Oh shit, I’ll never be that good. Well, talk to me in 40 years and we’ll see if that’s true or not. I like having goals and I like having someone to look up to and I like having aspirations and I like seeing somebody doing work at a really high level, [but] what I don’t like is, “This person’s work is so good, it’s absolutely flawless. It’s perfect. I’ll never be that good.” That is not the game we’re playing here at all.

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[Image: Princeton Architectural Press]

FC: I love in the book how you also dispel the notion of the “heroic all-nighter.” What are some of the other toxic design myths that you see?

MG: Oh my God, that might be the next book, to be honest with you. There’s so much toxic mythology. The all-nighter is a perfect example where it’s just this thing that, again, in the ’60s, the ’50s, the ’40s, it was this sort of rite of passage that you did these all-nighters and you toughened up and you became a good designer by struggling through it.

I was also originally in architecture school when I was 18, when I got out of high school. I went to Syracuse University for architecture school, and it was made very clear to me that you’re going to do one or two all-nighters a week every week during the semester. It’s not even a conversation; it’s just what the expectation is. If you’re not doing all-nighters, you’re not doing enough, which is just so absolutely absurdly idiotic. I can’t even verbalize how stupid that is. So stuff like that really pisses me off. I think there’s this idea of hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle, work. You’ll sleep when you’re dead.

That is just insanity. And what I’ve learned in my years as I’ve gotten on, and I’m not a good adult, but I’ve learned that self-care is actually crazy important. And so sleeping is really important. It sounds really silly, right? But I would rather a student have slept than worked their ass off. Because the stuff they do at 2 in the morning isn’t good. It’s just not there.

I think there’s also this idea that unless you work for a super-cool studio in Brooklyn with free avocados, you didn’t make it, or if you didn’t get a job at Google or Apple or Figma or any one of those big 10 tech companies, you didn’t make it. There are certain people who “win” design school because they got their Wieden+Kennedy job, or whatever it is.

Stuff like that drives me nuts because it’s so unnecessary. It just adds stress to everybody. It doesn’t get anybody anywhere, it just makes them feel shitty if they didn’t get one of these sort of coveted 10 jobs or whatever.

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[Image: Princeton Architectural Press]

FC: What do you feel is working best in design education at the moment?

MG: Something that educators are doing really well lately is being super, super inclusive and paying a lot of attention to voices that are not their own. It shouldn’t have to be news, but because humanity does dumb shit, it is news that letting other people who are not generic, upper-middle-class white men have a voice is so important. It’s one of those things that’s so important, it shouldn’t even have to be verbalized. It’s just inherent in life. And yet it’s worth saying. That’s been really good. As faculty in general, we are very open. We want to hear other viewpoints.

We want to hear from people who don’t see the stuff the same way we do. We want to have people who are neurodivergent, people who maybe come from a totally different sort of home life than we came from. I want that. I want different voices. This sounds really stupid to say it like this, but one of the best things about RIT is there’s a huge deaf population here. I think it’s the second-biggest deaf population in the country. So I get to—and I’m saying this, I get to, it is a privilege—to teach deaf students every semester. They bring a different voice and a different perspective.

And so what I have learned is how crazy important that is. Be they deaf, be they neurodivergent, be they a different race, be they a different gender, be they a different anything. It’s so beyond important. I feel like as faculty, we’re doing pretty solid with that. I think we’re really accepting what people have to say. I think we’re respecting people’s opinions a lot more than we used to. I think we’re sort of accepting, Oh, maybe this isn’t the only way to do X, Y, or Z. And so that has been awesome. It’s been a joy to get to witness that happen.