A (more) complete picture of Design


Tomorrow’s picture of design education: Balance between the thinking and the doing of design

In the last 15 years, design education has dramatically changed. Generally speaking, at the beginning of 2000s, design education was pretty much the job of art and design schools, and mostly had a learning-by-doing approach, involving hands-on studio-based assignments. It was rare to find a design course heavy on “lecture” format classes, unpacking the design process, or discussing what methods were most appropriate than others. Most assignments were highly framed: e.g. your team should design an editorial piece for this client and to this audience, or design an advertising campaign for a clothing company which makes shoes for children. Critiques and feedback were mostly focused on formal and communicational aspects, such as whether the message was visually strong, the use of colour appropriate and visually balanced, the choice of graphic language and typographic decisions adequate for the type of message, etc. The focus wasn’t on understanding how ideas were conceived, but on analyzing the solution.

Probably eight or nine years later, this picture started to change. The majority of students attending design classes were still mostly those who were attracted to the more visual and formal components of the discipline, those pursuing artistic and design related paths, and those who wanted to become professional (graphic, textil, industrial, etc.) designers. At the same time, perhaps due to the increasing number of more theoretical work and the need to successfully tackle emerging unframed design challenges, there was a growing interest in understanding the design process and methods.

Since then, the picture has rapidly changed again: the thinking started to become heavier than the doing. Art and design foundation courses started to emphasize the need to learn process and methods, design schools started demanding knowledge and process skills as part of their admission criteria, universities started advertising design graduate courses for non-designers (MBA programmes adding design principles, and courses for professionals were the first ones to emerge). Because of the larger number of non-design students interested in design courses, the focus shifted towards the initial stages of the design process (the thinking) rather than focusing on teaching visual and more technical skills (the doing).

This evolution led us to today’s picture of design education: a strongest emphasis on teaching and a greater demand for learning the thinking rather than the doing.

The thinking of design

Today everyone wants to think like a designer. On the one hand, for non-design students and professionals there is loads of value in learning this way of thinking. It helps develop a fresh and unconventional way of approaching problems and seeing the world. I see this shift every week with my students who are mostly coming from psychology, computer sciences and engineering backgrounds. They develop creative and team skills, how to defer judgement and select ideas, how to think more visually and externalise ideas, and how to prototype and test ideas. For design students, going deeper into process and methods helps better understand the impact of their decisions and how to improve their practice.

On the other hand, if we only focused on teaching the thinking part of design, we would be providing an incomplete picture. To some extent, this would only be half of the story. There is a rich spectrum of visual tools that students should learn and use to successfully analyse data, visualise thoughts and ideas, prototype concepts, tell stories, facilitate understanding, etc. To teach this set of tools, a qualified body of instructors (e.g. professional designers) and practice-led teaching approach are needed.

The doing of design

To some extent, the formal or visual aspect of the discipline is less popular beyond the design community, and the way designers work (their practice!) isn’t so commonly being taught beyond art and design schools. However, the doing is an important part of the design discipline as it helps practice techniques and internalise frameworks. The fact that design tools are easily available and can be learnt by anyone who is good at working with computers (which today means a huge segment of the population) seem to have made people underestimate the role that cognitive principles, colour awareness, information processing and other design principles have in design and particularly in the visual communication of information. As a result we have many pseudo-designers working as professional designers but without the proper training and education that is necessary to understand and effectively practice every aspect of design.

By only learning either the thinking of design or the doing of design, no one can become a designer (in the entirely meaning of the word). Design thinking skills do not replace skills acquired in a more traditional design education. To some extent, a narrow view of design thinking can misrepresent the value of professional design and also mislead on the promise of design practice and on the understanding of designers’ skills and capabilities. A direct consequence of this situation is the amount of poor design examples that can be easily found. As Dan Hill strongly argues design is more than a set of tools, it is a mindset that involves practice. And “practice is something that takes years of, well practice. Of experience stretched taut across numerous contexts and clients; of constant, near obsessive engagement with the world.”

The picture of the future?

At some point in the last decade the thinking and the doing of design took different paths. Today, some courses only teach the latter focusing on technical skills (e.g.learning  specialised software), while the former is often taught by instructors and professors who aren’t designers (but are coming from business or engineering domains) and consequently are unaware of the role of practice. As Buchannan suggested almost 25 years ago, design challenges have become much more complex and unframed. This is why to successfully address current challenges we need to rethink design education and strengthen the quality of design practice. By working towards a more balanced picture of design, in which both its thinking and doing are equally important, the full value of design will be acknowledged and practiced.

To crystalize this picture, I believe that a change coming from inside the design community is imperative. We (design professionals, educators, students, researchers) should be the first ones to provide the much needed care and clarity to communicate this complete picture of design, and help others understand our needs, our potential, our thinking and our practice.

– Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design issues, 8(2):5-21
– Hill, D. (2014) Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary. Strelka Press


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