There is an ever-widening gap between where we are going in the practice of design and longstanding assumptions about design education. I’m not talking about the often-heard debates of skills versus concepts, theory versus practice, or professional versus liberal arts education. Instead, this is about the disorienting relationship between the circumstances of 21st-century life and what and how we teach design; about the worldview of professional practice against which we devise the content and pedagogy of professional design curricula.
In the middle of the 20th century, students entered the field of graphic design through technical support. Under an apprenticeship model, they earned the right to create form only after serving time in the mechanical production of more-experienced designers’ ideas. Designers who were successful across a lifetime of form making occasionally gained access to strategic projects at the highest levels of business. They gained preparation for such work on the job.
In the later decades of the 20th century, technology collapsed the preparation of art for print under expert software. Networked communication demanded new skills in building and managing systems that have less to do with inventive form than with understanding users and technology. And once businessmen like Tom Peters discovered the power of design to differentiate otherwise similar products and services, there was no turning back; the strategic role for design expanded and demanded more expertise than could be gained from running a design office.
Design educator Sharon Poggenphol invokes German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in describing the first model of practice as “know-how.” The second is what Habermas calls “know-that.” Sharon describes this as the distinction between “design as a craft” and “design as a discipline.”
This transformation creates new pressures on design educationamong them, higher demands for graduate study and research, loss of territory to other disciplines on campus, and the need for diversifying curricular offerings among schools. At the most fundamental level, however, the problem is that college design curricula and the pedagogies through which we deliver them are based almost exclusively on know-how. They don’t acknowledge issues that drive emerging practices.
The AIGA, in collaboration with Adobe, formed something called the Visionary Design Council and charged it with describing the designer of 2015. That council identified the following trends for which there is ample evidence in the year 2008:
- Increasing complexity in the scale of design challenges
- Thinking about the people for whom we design as participants in the design process
- Emergent and remix technologies; designing social interaction
- The importance of understanding community
- The demand for a new knowledge base that supports new practices
This, on the other hand, is a list of longstanding assumptions about how design is to be taught. We inculcate new faculty in these traditions through their own design education and through presentations at conferences and journals. My goal in this discussion is to interrogate these traditional assumptions under the strong light of trendsto examine what we are doing simply by habit may not be the best way to prepare students for 21st-century practice.
- Students learn best through experiences that move from simple to complex
- Individual performance and control of outcomes are among the highest priorities
- The computer is an extension of traditional tools and media
- Underlying principles of “good design” are universal
- Graduate education in design should follow the model of the fine arts and be about refining visual skills
Trend: Increasing complexity in the scale of design challenges
Assumption: Students learn best through experiences that move from simple to complex
Design methodologist Christopher Jones wrote in the 1970s about a hierarchy of design problems ranging from components, through products and systems, to something he called “communities,” or interacting systems. Jones’s message was that the problems of contemporary post-industrial society reside at the level of systems and communities, not at the level of components and products. Implicit in this declaration is recognition of complexity, of an increasingly intricate web of interactions among people, objects, and settings.
We don’t have to look very hard to see that Jones is right. The accompanying chart shows accelerating complexity in the nature of problems tackled by emerging design practices. On the horizontal axis is a continuum of design outcomes, ranging from the design of single objects to the design of broader conditions for people’s experiences, which may or may not involve physical objects. The vertical axis is a continuum ranging from simple to complex problems, defined primarily in terms of the scale at which the problem must be addressed. We can locate traditional and new project types on this matrix, recognizing that the contemporary context argues for work at scales of increasing complexity and the engagement of people in experiences. We understand, for example, that logos have little value if not nested within a larger branding strategy. The iPod, for instance, succeeds over other MP3 players not just because of its cool form but also because Apple invented iTunes; it positioned the object within its own economic system. Amazon.com succeeds over other online booksellers not because of its display-screen appearance but because the company treats us as lifetime buyers; as researchers looking for related literature; as book critics; and so forth. As we move from designing discrete objects to designing experiences, strategies, systems, and services, we expand the complexity of relationships to which we must attend.
I want to make clear that the type of work at the experience end of the continuum is not just that of big business and is not void of artifacts. Even the “social” projects that take up so much of designers’ discourse require this level of engagement. I’m reminded of an AIGA conference in which Milton Glaser and Nicholas Negroponte shared the stage, commemorating their pairing 20 years earlier at the first AIGA national conference. Glaser passed out copies of his most recent poster for ONE.org, which showed a dark-skinned hand with fingers of various skin colors and carried the single typographic line, “We are all African.” Negroponte shared his first stories of MIT’s $100 laptop, which brought the world of the Internet to children living in poverty in developing countries. I was sitting in the audience with Hugh Dubberly who commented that design, in comparison to technology, had made such little real progress over the preceding 20 years. In a visual sense, these were equally elegant solutions, but their fundamental perceptions of the problem of poverty and what part design can play in addressing it are quite different. Why is this the case?
If the future is about an ever-expanding web of connectedness, how are we preparing students for meaningful work in this complex world? I’d like to suggest that we’re not.
I believe that design education, at the most basic level, views complexity as a “problem to be overcome through reductivist artifacts,” not as an inevitable and pervasive attribute of life in the post-industrial community. So if the future is about an ever-expanding web of connectedness, how are we preparing students for meaningful work in this complex world? I’d like to suggest that we’re not. Despite the obvious emotional impact of Glaser’s poster, he belongs to a generation in which the goal of design was to make things simple. Negroponte, on the other hand, is a technologist for whom the goal of design is to make the complex manageable and complicated things meaningful.
Almost everything about today’s design education is matched to Glaser’s worldview. We structure both curricula and projects in craft-based progressions from simple to complex, from the abstract to the contextualized. In typography classes, for example, we begin with the letter and then advance to the word, sentence, paragraph, and page. Sequences of typography courses are built on this simple-to-complex progression. When opening InDesign demands that students address the formal and interpretive issues of publication design simultaneously, how do you defer a discussion of leading and legibility, of the modernist preconceptions of software, of language? The only option is default, and what kind of typographic lesson is that?
The reality is that our strategy for teaching typography is residue from how students could comp type in predigital timesby drawing. It is the organizational structure for every type book since James Craig’s 1970 Designing with Type, but it holds less relevance for what students need to know about communication in a digital world. Typography today is a complex relational system that depends on the interplay of formal, technological, linguistic, and cultural variables. Yet we persist in teaching this progression of scale, isolating such variables within their own distinct conceptual frameworks and rules.
The same strategy defines how students progress in other studies of form. First-year foundation lessons begin with abstraction: point, line, and plane; color wheels; and paper-folding exercises. We defer discussions of meaning and context until later levels of the curriculum. Beginning students learn these abstract principles only through patterns in what makes their teachers smile; nothing about such studies resembles what students know in the real world, and as a colleague recently suggested, what the clients of design see in our work. So what if we begin with the familiar and complex?
At North Carolina State University we decided to take on this problem. We asked, what if we confront undergraduate students with the challenges of making things clear and meaningful, not making them simplewith understanding and managing complexity, not reducing itright from the beginning of their studies. And from our investigations, we learned that beginning students could articulate sophisticated positions on issues nested within complex systems and frame problem statements that drive their own work. There was nothing about the students’ skills and insights that argued for beginning with the simple or abstract and deferring the complex and applied until the upper levels of curriculum.
Trend: Thinking about the people for whom we design as participants in the design process
Assumption: Individual performance and control of outcomes are among the highest priorities
Computer scientist Gerhard Fischer, in an article titled “Beyond Couch Potatoes,” makes the argument that as technology expands, greater control moves from designers to the people for whom we design. Cognitive psychologist Liz Sanders describes this transition as thinking less of people as customers and users and more as participants and cocreators. And Henry Jenkins, of MIT’s program in comparative media studies, addresses the larger issues of participatory culture made possible by media convergence. Spend a few minutes on Facebook, YouTube, eBay, or Second Life, and you instantly understand who is in control.
So if our role as designers is less about crafting objects and increasingly about designing tools, systems, and the conditions through and in which others create their own experiences, what are we doing to educate design students about engaging the people for whom we design; about platforms that are adaptable and expandable as participants and social structures evolve over time; and about working in interdisciplinary teams that include human-centered experts? How much of our curriculum is devoted to collaboration and relinquishing control? And what is our model of design leadership?
I would argue that the current basis for much of design education is individual performance, ownership, and a belief in designer control. Our frequent location within a school or department of fine arts reinforces this perspective. And as faculty we do little in our construction of student projects to undermine the notion that the role of the designer is as the arbiter of meaning and value, both of which are presumed to reside solely in “good form.” We invite design speakers to our programs to share their personal portfolios and to tell war stories about what they were able to “get past” a client, inculcating students in a we/they culture. For the typical design student, clients and users are exotic others, understood from the student’s own observations and assumptions, not through much input from real people. And even when the student is aware of different demographic groups as potential audiences for design, there is little comprehension of the uphill task of persuasion.
David Rose shared this model with several of us at an AIGA Experience Design meeting in Telluride several years ago. I’ve never seen it published, so I’m going from a sketch on a cocktail napkin. David’s model describes the transformation necessary to take someone from “not being ready to know something” to “being an advocate” and suggests that different channels of message distribution may more or less be appropriate in reaching people at different stages of acceptance. Think about Glaser’s poster, “We are All African,” or any of the social-message projects that permeate today’s design studio classes. In what way do they demand the deep understanding of audiences so necessary for achieving this transformation? And just who is going to argue with saving the whales? So where in these “social” projects do students learn to reconcile the competing values that are so typical of today’s design challenges?
How we get students beyond the issues of cultural motifs or symbols and to the humbling work of understanding contexts, values, and behaviors other than their own is the challenge of designing for a global community.
Trend: Emergent and remix technologies; designing social interaction
Assumption: The computer is an extension of traditional tools and media
I’ve come to think that if I hear the phrase, “The computer is just a tool” one more time, I will shoot myself. This is the ultimate “know-how” viewpoint. I am eternally frustrated by books that segregate discussions of print from discussions of interaction design and by courses that isolate the design of screen displays from the larger technological systems and experiences of which they are a part. We are confronted daily with evidence of how technology mediates and transforms our perceptions, intentions, reasoning, and actions.
In the majority of college and university design programs, however, we have “curriculum by accrual.” The study of digital media is tacked on to a print-based armature; students get to networked communication courses only after they have met their traditional requirements in print and only if the human and material resources of the program go far enough to support additional coursework. As a result, these digital media classes frequently encourage the transfer of print-based values to the screen. Faculty complain that there is too much to teach, yet are unwilling to reconsider the time spent in traditional content leading to media-based work. So just as my American history teacher in high school never quite made it through World War II before the end of the school year, the technological education of graphic design students runs out before they fully understand designing for a digitally mediated world. They’re left with thinking that Web or interaction design is about buttons and page flipping or about making things move.
If we understand the role of technology as the mediation of our interactions with people and the world, not just as visual representation, we design differently. Working from the original writings of Russian psychologists in the 1920s and 1930s, activity theorists describe human beings as motivated to influence something; human plans underlie human actions. This notion demands that the scope of analysis for interaction design be extended from the mere execution of a task to the meaningful context of people’s interaction with the world. If Google thought only about executing the actions of keyword searches, it would be far less successful as a company. But the ways in which Google allows us to customize what we’re looking for, to find meaning in the popularity of certain sources, to view concepts from a variety of representational perspectives depending on our motives and use, and to share and collaborate acknowledges the larger context of our activity and the effects we hope to achieve.
I would argue that all design is the mediation of interaction and that we can begin teaching that concept at the earliest levels of the curriculum. Graphic designer Massimo Vignelli’s design of the Audubon Field Guide to Birds is no less a database than shoes.com. The graphic instructions for assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA or using a prescription inhalant are no less interactive than the sequence of actions necessary to use computer software. And all are connected to larger social contexts and users’ motives to influence their environment.
In design schools we tend to view curriculum as a collection of content categories. We define courses by the objects made (motion graphics), segments of practice served (Web design), or technical processes employed (Photoshop), not by the students’ developing awareness of concepts that transcend these categories, by critical or problem-solving frameworks, or by the intended mediation by design. Again, such courses are about know-how, not know-that. In this environment, technology is rarely positioned as transforming cognitive perceptions and social practices; it remains a tool, an effect, a venue.
Trend: The importance of understanding community
Assumption: The underlying principles of “good design” are universal
It wasn’t until I lectured in South America a decade ago that I really understood the dilemma of globalization and designing for communities other than our own. I was part of a group of American presenters, including several who suggested that design efforts at globalization were simply a euphemism for selling American products in less-developed countries and that efforts should be taken to preserve cultural specificity. And in fact our discussion was right next door to one by Landor on ramping up the marketing of Coca-Cola in non-Western nations. Later, over dinner with designers from Uruguay, we were asked, “Who are you Americans to say that people in our country should not have Heinz ketchup, if it is better than what we produce ourselves?” In other words, our mistake was in valuing historical consciousness to the exclusion of life goals.
This potential problem of misreading communities isn’t restricted to work in other countries; it is present every time designers are asked to work in or for a culture other than their own. How do we resolve the tension between retaining cultural authenticity and a desire for progress? And what do these communities tell us about the issues that really matter in design?
Anthropologist Dori Tunstall describes the characteristics of online communities that surpass a simple collection of shared tools and venues:
- historical consciousness
- life goals
- organizational structure
To define a community in terms of only one dimension is insufficient if our purpose is to foster online interactions that are as rich and robust as those in the analog world. How we get students beyond the issues of cultural motifs or symbols and to the humbling work of understanding contexts, values, and behaviors other than their own is the challenge of designing for a global community.
Trend: Demand for a knowledge base that supports new practices
Assumption: Graduate education in design should follow the model of the fine arts and be about refining visual skills and concepts for practice
In 2005 Metropolis magazine polled 1,051 design practitioners, faculty, and students in a variety of design disciplines about their research practices. The article confessed that what respondents think constitutes research ranges from deep investigations of user behavior to picking color swatches. But however these respondents defined the activity, this is some of what they had to say about its role in their work.
- 81 percent of professionals said they engage in research on a regular basis in their practices
- 70 percent of professionals said they don’t collaborate with students on research that is important to their business
- 69 percent of university department chairs said research is an integral and required part of their curriculum
- 35 percent fund faculty research through internal university grants
- 22 percent of practitioners don’t share their research with people outside the firm
- 29 percent publish only at conferences
- 17 percent of faculty publish in books
- 4 percent publish online
- 80 percent identified sustainability as content with the highest research priority, but they also ranked systems theory as the lowest priority
What these statistics tell us is that there is little engagement of schools in research that relates to professional practice; there is limited success in gaining external funding; and about half the research done in universities and design offices is never disseminated in archival form and is therefore unavailable to students, scholars, and other practitioners. We have to do a whole lot better if, as in other disciplines, academic research is to shape thinking in the field and move it forward. And as Sharon Poggenpohl ably demonstrated at the AIGA conference in Denver during fall 2007, the U.S. is way behind other countries in developing its design-research culture.
So how do we build a research culture and the discipline of design if graduate-program curricula are based primarily on studio models in fine art? From where will these researchers come and under what standards will their work be evaluated? And how are they prepared to accept research obligations as university faculty?
This is an enormous challenge for the field. It requires not only fine-tuning the missions of graduate programs and criteria for the tenure and promotion of faculty but also greater understanding by employers of what graduate students can bring to the table. It also means we need to reexamine the measures through which we admit undergraduate students and build their academic competencies for later graduate study. As a field we need to support the growth of doctoral study and efforts to disseminate the growing body of research.
These issues are only the tip of a very large iceberg. There are other traditional assumptions in design education that demand our attention: that all students should be doing the same thing at the same time; that the obligation of students is to execute the faculty brief but never to author their own; that design students don’t read. It is going to take a unified effort to address these and other challenges. At a time when more students elect design for university study than ever before in history, it is easy to congratulate ourselves that we must be doing something right, and I do believe that we provide a very special college experience. I also concur that the artifact and form really matter. But I want to suggest that the next generation of design faculty and design professionals will need to do much more than their predecessors; that we must redesign learning for the twenty-first century.
Meredith Davis is director of graduate programs in graphic design and head of the Ph.D. in design program at NC State University’s College of Design. She is a fellow, 2005 medalist, and member of the Visionary Design Council of the AIGA and a former member of the accreditation commission of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, for which she has authored a number of briefing papers on design education.
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