The crisis in 21st Century Graphic Design Education

Wake up graphic design educators, the Great Canva-age is coming. The democratization of graphic design for now millions of people is but one of many signs that disruptive technologies are set to question the very usefulness of graphic design professionals and with it the kind of education we provide the next generation of designers. 

Such proclamations immediately set in motion accusations of sensationalism and technological resistance, but as many scholars in Science & Technology Studies (STS) will attest, the history of human advancement is rich with stories of new emerging technologies disrupting everyday life. In the development of technologies such as the electric oven, female contraception or automatic seat belt indicator, we see the political resistance of humans to such new inventions, shaped as they are by other humans in research labs (cf. Bijker,W.E., Hughes, T.P., & Pinch, T.,1989; Oudshoorn, N., & Pinch, T., 2005 [1]). Up until now, such new inventions have served the graphic design profession very well – hot metal movable type, desktop publishing & computing and more recently the Internet have afforded graphic designers the tools to design posters, websites, exhibitions, brands, books and more to make a living; but for how long?

Last week I heard the Co-Founder of, Cliff Obrecht, declare that offers millions of people the chance to design for themselves without the limitations of becoming a professional designer, without the cost of an extensive professional education and all at the click of a few buttons. Canva is worth in the region of $345million [2]; it’s economic impact of removing all that design work out of the marketplace for designers trying to make a living could probably be more. Democratization for many may mean poverty for a few? Or vice versa?

What does the coming of the canva-age mean? We’ve been able to set type, build our own websites, print our own books for some time. Why is canva so different?

Canva is the Perth-born start-up that keeps growing. It claims to have 13.7 million users who have created over 98,180,818 designs (as at 9.04am, 13th December) since it’s launch 1204 days ago. It counts Silicon Valley design and tech guru Guy Kawasaki as it’s Chief Evangelist and has an impressive array of tech investors, including Bill Tai and Lars Rasmussen. The product itself allows anyone to register and login to create graphic design content for the web, iPhone or iPad. From a vast portfolio of illustrations, photographs and graphics, anyone can design (for example) a social media post, a presentation, poster, Facebook post, blog graphic, A4 print or 14.8cm x 10.5cm card for free. As the site proclaims – “empowering the world to design”.  

The problem with Canva isn’t the self-proclaimed power to empower millions to become graphic designers without formal training. Indeed Canva announced on the 6th November 2014 that it was launching it’s own online design school  (“Canva Design School“) as a platform, workshop series and teacher resource hub in partnership with a number of organisations such as Skillshare, Open Learning and General Assembly. The online resources include listicle-style “Top 20” or “Top 10” tips on creating great branding, letterheads, motivational posters, or social media campaigns. These resources are authored by professional designers affiliated to Canva. One such author – Maria Jose – is described as:

“…a professional designer and social media devotee. After a few years of working in boutique agencies in New York and Boston, she decided to trade in her morning runs for morning dives and moved down to the warm Caribbean. She is currently working on becoming a scuba instructor in order to find a way to merge her two loves: design and the ocean” ( 2016) [3]

Being a designer-author working for Canva certainly conjures up images of a idyllic and empowering lifestyle. The real problem with Canva is the disruption it brings to the graphic design profession and to design education: by empowering audiences and clients to create their own (no doubt good) designs, Canva takes value away from the next generation of graphic design professionals who might have been able to supply their services to industry. If a marketeer, with no design training, can create a cross-platform campaign for a new emergent brand, what place is there in the world for a young design graduate? Is Maria Jose’s move to become a scuba diver the unintended consequence of the commodification of graphic design like that promoted by Canva?

Maintaining Value

This problem isn’t necessarily something we should blame Canva directly for. Or indeed that we should campaign against. Canva is the inevitable consequence of social, cultural and technological progress. Such de-valuing of white-collar work has been taking place in other areas of commerce and industry for a while (think about call centres, software development houses and online retail). Canva is a problem that design professionals and educators have to confront head-on; how do we maintain value and saliency in the global marketplace? What new skills and knowledges do graduates require if such services are readily available to all? Who needs a graduate degree in graphic design if one can informally learn everything I need to create final designs through a few online lists, templates and video tutorials?

It would be overstating the unintended consequences of Canva if we saw this product/service as the significant threat to the future of the graphic design profession. After all, as I have written elsewhere on this blog , it is changes in the way we consume and contribute online through social media that questions of authenticity, authorship and legitimacy (in news and education in particular) emerge. Canva, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Behance have all challenged pedagogic and design practice.  However, Canva represents the zeitgeist – the desire for on-demand solutions to immediate problems, in a (seemingly) free economy [4]; an anti-establishment product developed by the top 1% of the establishment. Throwing vitriolic at Canva though isn’t enough. Finding ways to respond to such disruptions is.

How might we react to such developments in an age of ‘now-ism’, where a University education is a commodity increasingly under threat from click-bait, list-icles and some other social media paradigm yet to emerge?

Dealing with complexity

As far back as 2008, Meredith Davis published an article in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) peer-reviewed journal, interactions. Titled “Toto, I’ve Got a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” the article was based on a keynote address at an earlier AIGA conference in which Davis outlined the need to redesign learning for the 21st century. Davis’ argument for changes in the way we teach for and with design was based on earlier work that AIGA and Adobe had collaborated through an entity they called the Visionary Design Council which described the designer of 2015 [5].

This picture of the designer of 2015 was prescient. There were already signs of the following trends in 2008:

  1. Increasingly complexity in the scale of design challanges;
  2. Thinking about the people for whom we design as participants in the design process;
  3. Emergent and remix technologies; designing social interaction;
  4. The importance of understanding community;
  5. The demand for a new knowledge base that supports new practices

(Ibid: 28)

Through a simple diagram, Davis showed how the work of the designer has become more complex; and focussed on experiences rather than artefacts:


From simplicity to complexity; from artifact to experience (Davis, M, 2008: 31)

With the trend towards complexity, Davis argued that design education – in both curricula and structure – has adopted a world view that is stuck in the past: a craft-based [my emphasis] progression from simple to complex; from the abstract to the contextualised. She cites the AIGA conference in 2005 when graphic designer Milton Glaser presented a poster for showing a “dark-skinned hand with fingers of various skin colo[u]rs and carried the single typographic line ‘We are all African'” closely followed by a presentation from Nicholas Negroponte who shared his vision for MIT’s US$100 laptop bringing the Internet to poverty stricken developing countries (ibid: 30). These key figures exemplify the new millenia: Glaser belonging to a generation in which the goal of design was to make things simple and Negroponte belonging to a generation where the goal of design “is to make the complex manageable and complicated things meaningful” (ibid: 30).   cf.[6]

Interestingly, in dealing with this increased level of complexity Davis suggests that design educators should look at the design of their learning programmes and consider familiarizing students with more complex problems earlier in their courses. Citing teaching in typography, Davis suggests that we perhaps focus on the drawing aspect of typography found in pre-digital times when we should consider that typography today “is a complex relational system that depends on the interplay of formal, technological, linguistic and cultural variables” (ibid: 30). When considering student learning at a course or year-level, Davis reveals how work at North Carolina State University recognised that beginning students “could articulate sophisticated positions on issues nested within complex systems and frame problem statements that drive their own work” (ibid: 31). What we often save for latter parts of the curriculum we could perhaps introduce earlier.

What have we learnt?

This call for a deeper, richer, higher level of design graduate isn’t new. Indeed, here in Perth in 2000, Ken Friedman delivered a keynote address at the Re-inventing Design Education in the University  conference during which he explored “[i]n the language of complexity theory, many of today’s design tasks involve complex adaptive systems. One way to think about these systems is a design science approach to design education”(Friedman, 2000:22) [7]. Friedman goes on to define ‘design science’:

“Design sciences are technical or social sciences that focus on how to do things to accomplish goals. Design sciences emerge when skills-based professionals move from traditional rules of thumb or trial-and-error methods to the use of theory and scientific method. Many forms of design are at this point now”. (Ibid: 22).

Friedman called for a move from the traditional arts-and-crafts approach to an education based on theory and research. Seeing how fields such as business, information science, communication and engineering have managed to respond to “the requirements of a new era” (ibid: 14), Friedman expands on his ideas for a design education for the future, acknowledging that design has until now been treated either as the craft of making something – a page, a book, an object or an artifact – or as a “knowledge-intensive process of selecting goals, developing and executing strategies to meet those goals” (ibid: 22). He calls for a “hybrid professional trained with a broad view” that draws upon a number of disciplines including design leadership, philosophy, psychology, physiology, sociology of knowledge, research methodology, information studies, strategic design, critical studies and the history of ideas. For Friedman, “the new discipline required for design is as much a branch of the human sciences as a branch of physical science of applied engineering” (ibid: 25).

To achieve such an education (certainly within a three-year degree programme) may prove to be a complex problem of it’s own. In a four-year honours programme perhaps not. However, what Friedman’s short analysis of design education in the US, Europe and Asia revealed back in 2000 is that the complexity that Davis was to later encounter in 2008 and we now encounter in 2016 is not only with us but likely to drive a university-based design education into the ground. We must therefore create learning programmes that provide not only industry but society as a whole with graduates capable of the invention and problem-solving skills required of both a more technically complex but also a more (at once) devisive, wasteful, discriminatory, selfish and harmful society. Friedman saw the subsuming of design education into a university environment (rather than an art-school one) as to be a potentially positive opportunity, one where design research and practice might start to apply the scientific method, theory and practice to cope with the complex problems of a new era. Yet still – across the US, Europe and Australia in particular – we see design education locked into an art/design faculty administrative building, isolated from a wider university campus community where the benefits of a broad world view in human sciences, physical sciences and technology is just a building away. Since 2000, in WA at least, little has changed for the better.

Inter-disciplinarity for survival?

It is at the juncture of disciplines that interesting research and teaching occurs and this is no better illustrated than by Meredith Davis’ work in the field of HCI where her 2008 article is drawn. Alongside researchers like Hugh Dubberly, Ben Shneiderman and Don Norman, Davis has pushed the field of graphic design towards a more design science direction. That is, in being able to contribute to the field of HCI, where computer scientists and social scientists tackle issues related to new technological developments that encourage humane usefulness, researchers and teachers like Davis and Dubberly have used the principles and philosophy of design to enhance the field of HCI. For example, Dubberly has developed a series of ‘concept maps’ that use design principles (type/information graphics) to explain complex ideas. His map for A Model of Brand  (below) shows information design at work reaching new scientific audiences.

Hugh Dubberly (2001) A Model of Brand available from:

Dubberly has visualised other complex concepts and ideas, including Bruce Archer’s 229-step Design Process, a model of Alzheimers Disease (with the Global Strategic Design Office at Johnson & Johnson) and How Organizations Track Customers for CIO Insight Magazine (see

Just as design educators and researchers are making their impression on HCI, so too HCI researchers raise a number of issues that resonate with graphic design. In the September-October 2016 edition of interactions, in an essay adapted from Designing the User Interface: Effective Strategies for Human-Computer Interaction (6th Edition), Shneiderman et al (2016) outline what they see as significant challenges for HCI researchers. These challenges are not too dissimilar to those that face graphic design researchers and educators and of the 16 that Shneiderman et al present, the following I see as being shared by the two disciplines [my comments added] :

  1. Develop a handbook of human needs. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the 1940’s provides some guidance, establishing a foundation of survival and safety, embracing love and esteem, and supporting self-actualization that realizes personal potetnials. However, a contemporary and detailed handbook of human needs would help in the refining of designs and invention of tools or services.
  2. Shift from user experience to community experience. User experience designers have cleverly invented interfaces and processesthat support work, communication and fun. Now there is the opportunity to shift to community experience design, social media participation, game theoretic mechanisms, and motivational strategies to engage growing communities in constructive ways. Successful examples, such as Wikipedia or citizen science projects, show what is possible, but the common outcome of community experience design is insufficient response, raising the question of how to make more consistently successful outcomes. This shift is mirrored in the theory shift from emphasis on micro-HCI to macro-HCI [and, note: from micro-Graphic Design to macro-Graphic Design].
  3. Refine theories of persuasion. Theories of persuasion could lead to more rapid progress in smoking cessation, obesity reducation, medication compliance, and cancer prevention. A periodic table of persuasian strategies would chart the micr-structure of motivation for designers who create applications [and communication] for individuals, friends and family, colleagues and neighbours, and citizens and markets.
  4. Encourage resource conservation. The needs of a growing population will have to be trimmed by efficient strategies for reducing the use of water, energy and natural resources while increasing production from renewable sources. User interfaces and community engagement will play key rols in providing feedback that encourages winning strategies.
  5. Advance the design of medical devices. Researchers have been rapidly developing medical devices that go far beyond current hearing aids, pacemakers, body sensors, and data-recording tools. As implanted insulin pumps, vision-restoration systems, prosthetic limbs, brain-computer interfaces, and nanodevices maturem user interfaces to monitor pwrformance, log activity, and enable appropriate controls will be required. 
  6. Support successful aging strategies. The growing population of older adults want to maintain their health and independence while aging in place, They could benefit from interfaces that collect data from sensors, encourage healthy diet and exercise, promote social connectedness, and enable balanced involvement from caregivers. How might the growing Internet of Things help older adults improve the quality of life?
  7. Accelerate analytic clarity. The big data movement is generating a high volume and a variety of data whose analysis could lead to a better understanding of the invisible processes in business, community grwoth/decay, learning, and public health. Supported by well-integrated interfaces [and publications] and statistical techniques, this better understanding could result in more confident and bolder decisions that improve individual, community, and planetary welfare.
  8. Amplify empathy, compassion and caring. Human relationships flow more smoothly when empathy is expressed for others in appropriate situations. Similarly, compassionate and caring actions make life better for individuals, families, and communities. Understanding and encouraging such behaviours could mean more hope-filled and satisifying lives for many.
  9. Secure cyberspace. Criminal activity and privacy violations threaten to undermine user participation in every form of transaction, participation, political engagement, and tool usage. Designing for usable privacy and security will help ensure that benefits are retained, intrusions minimized, and expectations of safety realized.
Adapted from Shneiderman et al, 2016: 24-25 [8]

These nine of sixteen challenges that I see facing graphic design from the world of HCI highlight the interdependency of research fields to help tackle meaningful problems but also allude to a much larger ‘to-do list’ for the graphic design profession. If similar challenges were explored in the built environment, business and biomedical science (for example), our list in graphic design would grow ever larger. It highlights, once and for all, how our concerns about mere logo design and corporate identity are dwarfed by those more complex issues surrounding – for example – the design of entire, functioning healthcare systems.

What to do about Canva

Arguably, the acknowledgement that graphic design practice has evolved from simple to complex, artifact to experience, provides us with the heuristic tools to cope with challenges thrown up by socio-technical developments such as Canva.


Promotional email received by the author, Wednesday 14th December at 8.58am

Canva can provide us with faster designed templates “for every occasion”. But can it design entire user-centred systems for health care, wayfinding systems for cultural festivals or dashboards for self-driving cars? It cannot. A graphic design graduate trained with complexity in mind can. Just as design and art schools of the 20th Century in the US and Europe had to cope with rising nationalism, modernity, consumerism and austerity, the 21st Century Australian graphic design school may need to confront the everyday (yet profound) disruptions still to emerge and meet them head-on: providing new designers with the skills, knowledges and experiences to deal with the proliferation of data, tools, ethical dilemmas and meaningful problems; finding causes to champion, voices to represent and users to collaborate with.

The argument can only be won against disruptions like Canva if we can prove that despite its seemingly (questionable) democratic intent it is likely to deny thousands of new designers a source of livelihood and then prove that – with the right balance of technical, creative and theoretical knowledges our graduates can provide value to their communities in a way that Canva never could. The specifics around curriculum content, design and delivery are still to be fleshed out. The work of Davis, Dubberly, Shneiderman et al may provide us with a sketchy framework through which we may begin the mighty task in hand.

[1] Bijker,W.E., Hughes, T.P., & Pinch, T. (1989) The Social Construction of Technological Systems, MIT Press: Cambridge MA.
Oudshoorn, N., & Pinch, T. (2005) How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology, MIT Press: Cambridge MA.
[4] Free for some. Costly for many.
[5] Davis, M., (2008) Toto, I’ve Got a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore…in interactions (Vol.XV.V) September-October 2008, ACM: New York. Also available at:
[6] Davis draws upon this example again, illustrated by images from Glaser & Negroponte’s respective presentations, in Graphic Design Theory (2012), Thames & Hudson: London.
[7] Friedman, K., (2000) Design education in the university: Professional studies for the knowledge economy in Swann, C., & Young, E., (2000) Conference Proceedings of the International Conference on Re-inventing Design Education in the University, 11-13 December 2000, Curtin University: Perth, WA.  
[8] Shneiderman, B., Plaisant, C., Cohen, M., Jacobs, S., Elmqvist, N., Diakopolous, N., (2016) Grand Challenges for HCI Researchers in interactions Vol.XXIII.5, ACM Press: New York. Available from


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