Redesigning Design Education: Better Together

EGR381 Students – Spring 2019, Princeton University

These are interesting times for design. Those who have been involved in design higher education for more than two decades have seen how internal and external factors have influenced the education of designers: students, types of projects, the practice, the world, to name a few. Slowly, design education has been responding to increasing complexity and systemic transformations, and shifting towards more constructivist, andragogical (adult focused), and collaborative teaching approaches. Unlike, ten years ago, now it is common to see design programs offering project-based learning rooted in real-world problems, increased student-teacher interactivity, stronger user-centered research focus, and an expanded curricula focused less on artifact driven problem solving strategies, and more on open-ended, unframed problem solving approaches.

However, the core of design education remains the same.

Interestingly, nowadays everyone –design and non-design educators– seems to be interested in fixing higher education or is campaigning to rethink the education of designers. These are only a few examples where discussions about design education are taking place:

  • Conferences, articles, papers: The two-volume special edition on Design Education recently published by She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation illustrated the interest of the community for change and evidenced multiple views on how change could look like. This topic has been and is central to many design conferences.
  • Panel discussions/conversations: Discussions about the next phase of design education have become commonplace. The three-part conversations also organized by the She Ji Journal and the Lucerne School of Art and Design aimed at discussing ways to bring ideas for change into the classroom.
  • Initiatives: Several small and large scale initiatives have formed in the last 12 months or so, mostly focused on identifying critical design competencies, understanding new design needs, and developing guidelines for content and pedagogical recommendations. Two of these are The Future of Design in Higher Education, and Future of Design Education.

As someone deeply interested in design and higher education, I’m thrilled to see so much activity around the topic. The existence of so many efforts is unquestionable positive, but they have also surfaced two recurrent concerns:

  1. Some of these discussions are not new and some topics remain unaddressed. This reinforces my belief that no major or radical change in design education has occurred yet. For example, the master-apprentice model is still the main approach in most design schools, and many educators are still questioning what research is, and whether it is needed in design.
  2. These are parallel efforts rather than combined efforts. Multiple disconnected initiatives perpetuate silos and do not help develop systemic change. For example, no-English speaking educators are often excluded from these discussions, and radically different ideas suggested by younger educators are harder to be heard.

Working together can lead to systemic change

Redesigning design education is a systemic challenge; thus it requires a systemic approach. Small changes, like updating course syllabi, help but these will not make a significant difference in the bigger picture of higher education. To better prepare designers to deal with future challenges, the higher education system needs to also change and adapt to the emerging needs. Everyone in a university –from leadership to students– needs to be onboard and willing to to do things differently. To me, a new pedagogical model is needed in design education. The more I work with self-determined learning (heutagogy), the more I see its value for today’s world. This model can help design education move away from standardized approaches and “a one-size-fits-all experience”, and towards more individualized modes of learning based on what students learn, rather than on the time they spend in a classroom. As Wehmeyer and Zhao (2020) state, institutional support is essential to enable conditions for such a model to flourish.

Self-determined learning is based on the premise of shared-ownership (students and teachers working together). This condition helps create a better and more empathetic society as both teachers and students learn how to “think beyond their own interests and consider the interests of others and the community as a whole,” explain Wehmeyer and Zhao (2020). In this context, design students would acquire the needed competences and capabilities to succeed in the 21st century: collaboration, creative thinking, flexibility, problem sensitivity, autonomy, cross-disciplinary thinking, and systems thinking.

We –design educators– could set the example, and start practicing the needed future skills by working together and:

  • Not letting the past define our future actions
  • Being open to new, different perspectives
  • Combining efforts and building on each other’s ideas
  • Looking outside design and collaborating with other disciplines
  • Taking risks and making major changes

If you are a design educator and would like to contribute your ideas for rethinking and redesigning design higher education, get in touch.

Some of these ideas are further developed in my article published in the second volume of She Ji Journal, and co-written with Karel van der Waarde: Looking for Alternatives: Challenging Assumptions in Design Education

Wehmeyer, M. and Zhao, Y. (2020) Teaching Students to Become Self-Determined Learners. ASCD.

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