It’s that time of year again, when academic institutions start posting faculty search announcements, luring professors out of the comfort of their “research semester” (aka summer break) and placing them firmly on the hunt for a better gig. I’ll admit it. I’ve looked at the posts. I’d be a fool not to. Even though I have a great job that I love doing, I’m at a point in my career where a higher placing job wouldn’t be completely shunned, and the only way to find them is to look. It’s also a good way to keep tabs on the competition, but that isn’t the point today. The point is I see a trend. One that should be shared, if not openly discussed.
In looking through the latest rounds on higheredjobs.com, I came across a post from a renown art and design school asking for applications. Listed in and amongst the typical submission requirements (vitae, letter of intent, portfolio of your work, portfolio of student work, and the blood of a freshly sacrificed lamb), this institution also made it clear that all applicants must be able to explain their views on the future of design education in the 21st century. And it isn't the first time I've seen this prompt.
I find this an interesting notion—“the future of design education in the 21st century.” If you think about it, this is 2016—we’re 16%, almost 17% into the 21st century, which means that the “future” is already here.
In fact, those born in the year 2000 are almost of voting age; an age where they can determine their own future. Were this century a person, they’d be making their own “future plans” right now as they fill out college entrance applications and frantically cram for their SATs. So maybe we shouldn’t talk about the “future of education in the 21st century” as if it’s an up and coming concept. Instead, maybe we should be looking at how education has evolved, and how we might take advantage of that to craft a more meaningful way to educate students.
Let’s start by looking at the last century.
Right now, we’re facing a number of the same issues our ancestors faced just 100 years ago. At the turn of the 20th century, we saw the creation of the Modern movement, trumpeted by the Weimar School, ultimately moved and renamed to become the Bauhaus. At this point in time—roughly the same “time” we’re in now—the Bauhaus positioned itself as a hub for cultural and artistic revolution. It was the “authority” of what design was going to be for the 20th century. And it filled its faculty with forward-thinking experts willing to share their knowledge.
The Bauhaus faculty educated their students using a master-apprentice model, where students learned at the hands of the master, gaining insight into why they work the way they do in the process. This was a revolutionary way of teaching in an academic setting, built off of the tradesman model, where smiths would learn a specific skill alongside a master who had been crafting their skills for years. (Interestingly enough, in turning away from the past, the Bauhaus actually built itself off of a centuries-old practice—how “futuristic” was that?!?)
Beyond this, the Bauhaus sought to bring design to the masses, turning away from the single-piece handcrafted mentalities of previous generations, leaving us with factory-produced "luxury designs" anyone could afford—though the reality of that dream never really came to be within the designs presented by the school. But the Bauhaus gave us even more than mass-production and a desire to turn away from the past. It provided fundamental design thinking skills, helping students and design professionals develop design processes that would yield unusual—never before considered—results for the problem at hand, ushering in an age of innovation and invention that we are still living to this day.
Today, much like these times in the 20th century, more and more companies are looking for workers who can think outside of the norms. And to fill this need, they look to designer, as these are the people who have been trained to think more critically about any given problem. This is evidenced in the creation of schools teaching design thinking, companies building design thinking into every client interaction, how people think about staffing their offices, how new companies are building their futures or recreating themselves entirely anew.
This presents us with a unique opportunity since it means that design education holds the potential to define the path of innovation in the corporate world for years/generations to come. So rather than ask about the future paths of design education, perhaps we should be asking about the future needs of the corporate world, and how we might lead the way to meeting those needs in the classroom.
Look around—the future is now.
We are in an exciting age of collaboration with professional communities. No longer is the lone graphic designer expected to toil away setting type by hand, or argue with printers about color matching. Today, they tend to find themselves working in teams, perhaps on environmental installations, working alongside architects, interior designers, and industrial designers. Or maybe they venture into the ever-growing world of interactive design, and find themselves teaming up with behavioral scientists, anthrpologists, and product designers. Or, maybe they aren't actually graphic designers at all, but instead are corporate employees who have been exposed to ideas of design thinking, and want to apply this information to their work in a more comprehensive way. Or maybe they were graphic designers, but now find themselves teaching design, trying to find the best ways of engaging their students and colleagues using any and all available tools.
More and more we see employees of all kinds in the professional environment who find themselves well equipped with design thinking skills, but lacking other more specialized skills that might help them meet the needs of their employers and teams. This is by no means a failure on the part of the academic environment, since we can only teach so much in our limited time with each student. But it is something we should be willing and prepared to address as we move forward.
This is not to say that all design education should expand curriculum infinitely to meet all of the existing and potential problems in the corporate world. To do so would be highly speculative and potentially boring. The more information you provide in an educational experience, the less specialized that information can become. Like a Swiss Army knife—this "handy" device has only one or two decent tools on it. Any more than that, and you suddenly have a heavy keyring and nothing more.
We don’t want curriculum to become a Swiss Army knife, overwhelming students with so much information that they come out at the end a Swiss Army Designer with a paper degree and only a superficial understanding of what that paper actually helps them do. Instead of trying to provide everything and everyone to the students, maybe we should look around for ways of connecting existing ideas on a broader scale, shrinking the world as we need to based on the needs of our task at hand.
The design community (and, by association, design education) is a network of experts in various fields and specializations. By the very nature of their different specializations, each member of this community has a unique way of approaching a problem, as well as a unique insight into how that problem might be solved, and how the solutions might be used by society as a whole. This means that we don't need to know (or teach) everything. We just need to know which connections to tap.
What if, instead of expanding curriculum, or altering curriculum to embrace the next, new, hottest trend, we actually worked on developing those connections into an actual community network beyond professional affiliations? Instead of looking at our competition as an opponent, what if we looked to them as a partner? What if we expanded our databases to look beyond alumni and faculty, and began including local firms, manufacturers, clients, and the lot? What if we admitted we don't have all of the answers? But instead, pointed students to the right resources when they needed them? Or found ways of teaching new skills and ideas when they become needed?
In this case, the university becomes a hub, providing a foundation of design understanding upon which the students can build successful careers. It becomes a moor to the design world when they need to expand on those skills in a more protected environment, such as through continued education, conferences, or workshops. It becomes a beacon to the professional world that attracts new voices and talents who want to share their knowledge. It becomes a community of learning and sharing that expands design and design education beyond the 21st century.
Maybe, just maybe, by bringing the masses of design together, we can help design and design education grow up into something that's bigger than all of us, yet accessible to all. Wouldn't that be something?