THE BLOG

"Designed by . . ." a Creative and Innovative Workforce

11/18/2013 06:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

We're well into the fall season at this point--definitely my favorite season. As a life-long academic, the fall represents a beginning to me, not an ending. Think of when you were in kindergarten or first grade, hungrily eyeing that brand new box of crayons on the first day of school, a colorful symbol of the ability to create something new.

I began tackling the issue of the liberal arts conundrum in my last column in this space, posing the question: If employers believe liberal arts skills are highly desired in employees, why did humanities and social science majors experience higher levels of unemployment during the recent economic downturn?

It's just as alarming that art and design majors are also ensnared in this riddle. Creative problem solving is part of the "secret sauce" of the U.S. economy and needs to continue to be fostered in our educational systems, but unless we confront the liberal arts conundrum our nation is in danger of capping the rich vein of inspiration, imagination and innovation that has made America the envy of the world and attracted generations of immigrants.

Just as studying and closely reading a poem or film in a humanities course can develop creative problem solving abilities in students, confronting an artistic or design challenge will do so as well and perhaps even better. Visual or performing arts students not only must create essentially a blank slate, but must present results publicly, explain and defend their work, and learn to accept direct feedback--often in a public forum. Art and design making is increasing collaborative and global--fostering additional "21st Century skills" of the type purportedly valued by employers.

Take a look at the employment figures for art and design majors. According to a recent report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce looking at employment and salary by college major, unemployment rates for recent graduates were 11.4 percent for film, video and photographic arts majors, 10.5 percent for commercial art and graphic design majors and 10.1 percent for fine arts majors. That compared to an overall average unemployment rate of 9 percent for recent graduates. And coming in with much lower unemployment rates during the economic downturn were recent computer science majors, at 7.8 percent, and mathematics majors, at 6 percent.

At first glance, the argument appears compelling: steer clear of majors that lead to greater unemployment, especially majors in the art and design fields. But this ignores the vital contributions the art and design fields make to our economy when it comes to sparking the creativity and innovation required to generate new products, new processes, new businesses and whole new industries.

As I mentioned in my previous column, China is actively exploring how to shift from its highly specialized and technical form of higher education to a more American style that incorporates broad knowledge, leading to critical thinking, creative problem solving and collaboration. Art and design is a key component of this broad knowledge.

It is no surprise that "Designed by Apple in California" has become a de facto global anthem for the privileged place for design and innovation in the U.S. economy, regardless of where products are manufactured. Extending art and design education broadly throughout society is critical to feeding the innovation machine that in turn is the most powerful fuel driving the U.S. economy. Art and design education should be promoted, not shunned.

Undoubtedly, pursuing a postsecondary degree and choosing a major are important economic decisions. But it's important to keep in mind that employment patterns can change rapidly in today's ever evolving global economy. Choosing a major based strictly on today's employment patterns is no guarantee of a job tomorrow. But choosing an overall educational course that instills creativity and critical thinking skills and the ability to learn and adapt to new circumstances and information will always prove valuable.

Some points to consider:
• The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) provides an alternative view of employment patterns of art and design alumni. A recent report issued by SNAPP based on data from 14,000 arts graduates indicated that an overwhelming majority of alumni are satisfied with their current jobs, are satisfied with their ability to be creative in their jobs, rate their educational experience as "good" or "excellent" and would attend their institution again.
Richard Florida has written extensively for years, and has built a consulting practice, on the relationship between certain creativity index variables and economic prosperity.
• Daniel Pink, who wrote A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, observed that that the number of people earning a living in the art and design fields is growing, pointing out that "graphic designers outnumber chemical engineers by four to one." Pink also coined the phrase "the MFA is the new MBA."

Earlier this month, a Forbes.com column asked, Can Studying Art Help Medical Students Become Better Doctors?"

The columnist, a medical school professor, observed that, "It seems that students with more 'right brain' qualities--related to imagery, visual and drawing skills--have begun to emerge as more successful in today's digital, image-based world of medicine. . .the data are quite convincing that people that think in pictures may actually have greater innovation and greater creativity than people who think in words."

Affordability, value and future employment are important considerations in choosing a college or university and a major, but they are not the only important factors to keep in mind. Current and temporary employment trends are only one factor. We need a nuanced view that doesn't lose sight of what has worked so well for us in the past and will continue to spark creativity and success for decades to come. We need to take out that new box of crayons and figure it out.