New challenges of Design education

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Basic and some emerging needed skills for becoming a Designer today.

Designers who have been involved in the design community for more than 15 years should have noticed how much the role of design has changed, moving from being merely an artistic activity to being an activity that ‘makes everything possible’. Traditionally, designers’ most frequent jobs have involved making things look nice (or nicer), creating or improving brand identities, translating information into various forms (like infographics, magazines, etc.) and designing websites. Designers’ tasks are much broader now. More and more companies and organisations from various industries and sizes have designers working in their teams, not doing traditional design work but actually working with and in the same projects as other professionals (of many diverse backgrounds). To some extent, while before designers were seen as artists, now designers seem to have been rediscovered: they aren’t artists anymore, just making things pretty, they are THE ones able to make BIG changes in the world or at least leading those changes. This is why designers are increasingly being hired to join interdisciplinary teams and help tackle a variety of challenges from social problems and rethinking business plans to advising in economic issues.

This change in the role of designers has been emphasized with the popularization of the term design thinking, which has generated deep interest in the way designers do things among non-design communities (e.g. business, marketing, engineering). This is also having a strong impact in design education: greater demand for becoming a designer is generating multiple options for students and professionals to learn designers’ way of thinking and skills. For example, there is a quite diverse range of design-related courses and workshops imparted by universities and by private professional organisations which focus on design processes and thinking approaches (e.g. design thinking), design fundamentals (e.g. graphic design, typography) and on more specialised fields (e.g. information design, service design, user experience design). Another huge change in education has been the addition of design-related courses (still mostly as elective courses) to cross-disciplinary university programmes like computer science, law, psychology, economics and engineering.
While this wave is bringing design closer to a wider population, it is also creating new needs that should be folded into the education of future generations of designers to help them be adequately equipped.

Rethinking Content & Skills

Until recently, design has been mostly taught in artistic or architecture contexts to students with a certain baseline preparation or knowledge assessed through some kind of portfolio. Teaching the same content to non-design students involves different challenges. At the same time, the new role of design is demanding much more specialised skills than those of a purely visual and technical syllabus. All this indicates that design education should be prepared for these new demands: How can design be taught in a non-design environment? How should these courses be taught? What contents should be included in their syllabi? What other key content should be included? What theories or frameworks should now be the most relevant ones?

These are some areas of design education that may require attention:

  • Skills. Designers see the world differently (e.g. colours are not just colours! Shapes are not just shapes!). Teaching this way of seeing the world involves training students in a wide range of specific topics and capabilities including semiotics, visual and graphic literacy, technology, rhetoric, art and design history, typography, morphology, communication theories, cognitive theories. This knowledge is essential to tackle the complexity of basic design problems (e.g. poster design, book design, packaging design, systems design). On top of that, we should also consider adding classes to address emerging needs: process thinking, sociology, psychology, anthropology, research methods, among others.
  • Learning journey. Design is a complex discipline, which goes beyond the mastery of tools and technology. Like other disciplines, there are principles, theories and methods that need to be learnt and internalised in order to be a good designer. Learning this knowledge throughout four years (often the length of undergraduate degrees) provide the student with the necessary time to deepen their understanding of the new concepts. Each year students explore a deeper layer and different aspects of design. When this time is compressed to six months (or even three), it would be unrealistic to think that the same level of depth or experience would be learnt. Short courses should focus on basic, introductory design concepts only, what indicates first the need to determine what those key concepts might be.
  • Class format. While design needs from theory to better understand the whys behind decisions and processes, it is a highly practice-led discipline. It is imperative though that students learn to read and find in books (yes actual books!) the answers they need, but it is equally important for them to put into practice the theories and principles they learn through hands-on exercises. Classes should accommodate the two needs maybe by encouraging conversation and discussions during lectures, and providing some theoretical context during more workshop activities.
  • Environment. Teaching design in an environment that historically has not been exposed to the way designers think or work can be hard. Design students need space – from big classrooms to big tables. While they often need craft related materials, they also need to be visually stimulated and challenged. The more they have to go around actually looking for stuff and thinking how it can be reused or adapted for different needs, the more creative skills they will learn.
    On the other hand, having a combination of design and non-design students may help create a common language which can be a preparatory experience to work in cross-disciplinary teams in the real world.
  • Teaching approaches. Teachers/educators should also rethink their strategies and adapt their teaching methods and approaches to properly address each of these areas: What is the best way to teach theoretical knowledge in a practice-led discipline? How can we use design jargon with non-design students? How can we teach design in small classrooms with no or limited resources? How do we teach design in a foreign culture? 

Understanding Culture

In some countries, education is open to any student of the world (who can afford it). This brings cultural components also into the equation of education. Culture influences teaching in many ways. Some key cultural components to consider are students’ way of thinking, universities/colleges history and traditions, countries’ idiosyncrasy, and education system approaches. Recently, I watched ‘Some Kind of Beautiful’, which although it isn’t the deepest movie, it does communicate this cultural component of teaching very clearly. Pierce Brosnan plays the character of a very successful and experienced English teacher who relocates in Los Angeles for personal reasons. Initially, he finds a teaching job in a community college where he struggles to connect with and motivate American students in his class. He soon realises the huge cultural difference between British and American cultures. While in England, his classes were crowded and students were enjoying every aspect of them, the picture was a very different one in America. Towards the end of the movie, he decides to change his teaching strategy and learn more about the students’ interests, until eventually he reverts the situation and finds his dream job.

The point reflected in the movie is particularly relevant in design education. The meaning of shapes, colours, icons may dramatically vary (or even be the opposite) from one culture to another. At the same time, the frequent use of references from a country’s design history may not be relevant or known for students who did not grow up in that country.

Design, like other disciplines, demands the learning of specialized knowledge. To avoid design being taken away from designers, we need to make sure that future generations are as well prepared and equipped as they can be. For that design teachers and educators should be fully prepared too to adequately train these designers. And also design professionals should be constantly revising their tool kits to make sure they have the key skills they need to tackle emerging needs.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: A (more) complete picture of Design | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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