This post is the first in a series exploring the state of motion design education. We’ll look at the issue from multiple angles, asking ourselves and the community some tough questions:
- What’s working? What isn’t?
- What can we do to improve motion design education?
- Are the old educational models still relevant?
- How does technology influence education?
This first post is my personal take (okay, a rant) on the issue as a designer and businessperson. In future posts, we’ll be talking to schools, entrepreneurs and students about their perspectives.
Please leave your own thoughts in the comments, and we’ll take them into consideration as we build out the series.
Note: Thanks to public and private comments, this post has been updated to correct misleading and/or inaccurate information. A change log can be found at the bottom of the post.
6 challenges facing motion design education
1. We still don’t have a good working definition.
While “motion graphics” seems to be giving way to “motion design,” the field is still painfully difficult to define. That’s also one of its most attractive qualities. Motion design is a seductive blend of graphic design, filmmaking and animation. It doesn’t get much sexier than that.
But for educational institutions, that’s a problem.
Each discipline comes with its own pedagogical lineage, progressions of coursework that have been battle-tested over decades in the classroom and the real world. In graphic design, for example, long before you lay out your first web page, you’re likely to practice life drawing, dabble in art history, wrestle with color theory and experiment with the rules of composition. This makes sense. It works, usually.
Unfortunately, if you smash together multiple disciplines to create a motion design curriculum, you’ll snowball each discipline’s requirements into a towering mess that would take more time and money than most students are willing or able to commit.
Two approaches: the bubble or the maze?
To combat this, some institutions, like Ringling College and the Savannah College of Art and Design, have crafted dedicated departments around motion design. On the plus side, this approach lets schools build custom tailored curricula and faculty, picking and choosing from motion design’s ancestral roots. But it also runs the risk of isolating motion design students from related disciplines, creating a pedagogical vacuum that could, over time, quietly suffocate the department.
Another approach is to include motion design coursework within broader programs like Computer Art (SVA)* or Graphic Design (Art Center). While this situates motion design within a larger framework and gives it some intellectual grounding, it also means that students must stumble their way through a maze of tantalizing tangents and frustrating cul-de-sacs.
A clear, shared definition of motion design would help give schools the power to focus and rethink courses of study.
Where to begin (according to little ol’ me)
It’s easy to forget, but “motion design” is short hand for “motion graphic design” or, slightly rearranged, “graphic design in motion.”
In the 12 years I’ve been writing about motion design and hiring young motion design talent, I’ve found that students with a strong foundation in graphic design tend to do better over the long term. Granted, they get off to a slow start with software and sometimes struggle with the language of animation, but in the long run they fare well.
Any relevant entry point can work (animation, visual effects, filmmaking, etc.), but I believe that graphic design gives students the best shot at a career that is less likely to smack into a glass ceiling after 5-7 years of professional practice.
*Amendment: SVA Chair John McIntosh pointed out in the comments: “[While] motion graphics was an area of concentration in the Computer Art department 15 years ago, SVA has steadily migrated that area to the Design program.”
2. Lack of diversity points to a larger problem.
Without a reliable industry census, it’s hard to know just how bad the diversity problem is — but it’s definitely not good. I’m left to rely on anecdotal evidence gathered from my direct experience with schools and recent graduates.
The gender gap seems to be slowly narrowing, with more female students finding their ways into motion programs. When it comes to “students of color” (not a fan of that phrase), progress has been painfully slow. If you look at the demographic data for schools (SVA, Ringling and SCAD), you’ll see encouraging distributions across the student bodies as a whole. But at the departmental level, motion design — like visual effects — suffers from a preponderance of white and Asian students, with very few other ethnicities represented. (Again, based on anecdotal evidence.)
As cultural institutions, schools not only have an obligation to promote diversity, they’re ideally positioned to do so. Schools (should) operate outside of the normative momentum of industry, which means they can (should) do whatever they can to reshape it for the greater good.
3. Undergraduate programs are too short.
In the United States, undergraduate design programs at fully accredited universities are typically four years long. The first two years cover liberal arts requirements (writing, humanities, sciences) and foundational artistic studies (art history, color theory, drawing, etc.). During the second two years, students dive deeper into their area of focus.
The challenge for motion design is that its inherently hybrid nature begs for more time. If you’re going to seriously understand both graphic design and filmmaking or animation, you can’t simply add courses to the catalog. You must give students the time and space to learn and practice across disciplines. There are no shortcuts.
4. Good faculty are hard to find (and keep).
The central challenge of any applied arts field is finding good educators. There are two schools of thought (pardon the pun), and institutions tend to embrace one or the other:
- The best educators are those actively working in the industry.
- The best educators are those that can focus on the art of teaching.
Ideally, this dichotomy wouldn’t exist. The best educators would be those who can both work in industry and teach. But in reality, maintaining that balance is incredibly difficult.
As someone who has taught motion design at the undergraduate level, I can tell you that it takes huge chunks of time to prepare classes and give students the attention they deserve, both in and out of the classroom. This is especially true for foundational classes that require a blend of lecture content and studio time, as you can’t simply “wing it” and hope to make a difference in a student’s life.
The problem with part-time faculty in industry
While the benefits of hiring faculty that are also working in industry are clear, there are glaring problems with that approach that aren’t often discussed.
The first problem is that working “part time” in motion design is rarely an option. You might have gaps between freelance gigs, but when you’re on a job, your hours are likely going to be long and sustained over several days, leaving little time for class preparation or thoughtful critiques. Even if you have a full-time job with limited hours, shoving class prep and evaluation into your evenings and weekends — while doable — is not ideal. It means you must “find” time for your students instead of simply giving it to them.
Having a bias towards “working” faculty also means inadvertently biasing against motion designers in non-traditional contexts, such as fine art. If it’s important that faculty be recognizably entrenched in the practice of motion design, that usually means they’re doing something that is conventional, something within the expected bounds of commercial motion design practice. This implicitly indoctrinates students in a narrower definition of motion design and incidentally contributes to commodification of the field overall.
The problem with full-time faculty
Of course, full-time faculty have their issues as well. It’s easy to drift out of touch with industry trends or miss emerging technological opportunities from within the cozy confines of academia’s walled garden.
But is that really such a big problem?
Most students tend to believe that the value of their education is measured in how well they can navigate After Effects or Cinema 4D upon graduation. They feel that their professors’ duty is to teach them how to mimic the latest spot they saw on Motionographer, to give them a “bag of tricks” they can use to wow future employers or clients.
The worst thing a school could do? Agree with them.
It is the noble duty of a design school to challenge the idea that mastering design is equivalent to mastering software. This means demoting tutorial-style teaching to second-class status and promoting design education as priority number one. Clearly, students need to learn software, but that need should be met as a non-credit offering in a lab environment and/or via teacher’s aids who’s sole duty to is to provide software support.
5. We need good producers, too.
Each year, I meet recent graduates suffering a kind of existential crisis. Here they are, saddled with incredible debt from an education in design, but while they were in school, they discovered something shocking: they like organizing people more than pixels.
They don’t know what to do with themselves. I try to reassure them that they haven’t failed. Rather, they’ve positioned themselves to become something just as exciting and valuable, an excellent producer.
Producers have a bad reputation in motion design, probably because there are so few good examples of them. But the truth is that without good producers, no studio would survive for long. Good producers bring the best out of their teams. They know when to champion or challenge the client. And by getting projects done on time and under budget they allow studios and agencies to thrive.
But as far as I can tell, there are no motion design programs offering education in producing or project management. This is baffling.
Amendment: SCAD offers “SFDM 721: Studio Business Practice” as a graduate course. Undergraduate students can take this course as independent study (and many do).
6. It’s too damned expensive.
In the United States, art and design schools are incredibly expensive. Here’s a quick sampling of undergraduate tuition and fees at leading schools offering motion design programs:
* Additional costs include estimated housing fees and other required fees by school
That’s roughly $200,000 for a four year education. By comparison, it costs about $250,000 for a four year degree at Harvard.
The solutions to this are varied and thorny. My favorite option? Public universities, which are substantially cheaper than private art and design schools, are missing a massive opportunity to serve a burgeoning need for motion design education. I’d love to see more serious motion design programs at state and city schools.
What’s your take?
I’m only scratching the surface here. Some of the questions on my mind:
- What do you think is working/not working?
- If you went to a traditional design school, are you happy with your decision?
- Who would you like us to interview for future posts in the education series?
Next up in the series, we’ll talk to Michael Jones, founder of Mograph Mentor, about new models for education online.
April 22nd, 2015
- Since I am not currently teaching in a classroom environment, I removed “educator” from the paragraph describing myself. Including it originally was misleading, and I apologize for that.
- Paragraph amended to “5. We need good producers, too.” to point out offerings that address project management education.
- Paragraph amended to “1. We still don’t have a good working definition.” to include clarification about SVA’s Motion Design program.
October 22, 2015
- Changed the post title to “6 challenges facing motion design education” instead of the slightly combative “6 problems with motion design education.”