Academic journal article Visible Language

Leveraging Graduate Education for a More Relevant Future

Academic journal article Visible Language

Leveraging Graduate Education for a More Relevant Future

Article excerpt


Arguing that the 21st century context for design is significantly different from the previous century, a set of structural suggestions are posed that can leverage change. Administrative arrangements are questioned along with the lack of clear differentiation or performance expectation among design degrees. While widespread, confusing and contradictory ideas about research complicate the situation, the leverage point is identified in graduate education.

A LEVERAGE POINT is a place within a system where a small amount of change in force produces a great amount of favorable change in the output of the system. The most effective leverage point will be a shiftin the paradigm on which the system is based, which determines its goals, rules, structure and general culture. So if we think of design education as a system and can agree that there is currently a mismatch between what the system produces and what the twenty-first century context demands, then our task is to look for a leverage point that will shiftthe mindset of the system and produce better results.

THERE IS PLENTY OF EVIDENCE THAT TODAY'S CONTEXT FOR DESIGN PRACTICE IS SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT FROM THAT OF THE PREVIOUS CENTURY. Problems are increasingly complex and the goal is not to simplify things, as we did under modernism, but to manage them. Complex problems require collaborative work by interdisciplinary teams. Design is no longer at the cosmetic end of a decision-making food chain but a necessary partner with a variety of disciplinary experts. Among those experts are users, who play an expanded role in the development of content and form; increasingly, we design with people rather than for them. And because people are now involved as co-creators, the designer's work shifts from crafting discrete physical artifacts to developing tools and systems through which others create their own experiences. Because this work responds to a rapidly accelerating technological evolution, the stopping point for design moves from being "almost perfect" to "good enough for now." And as a result, the relationships among people, objects and settings constantly change, extending the demand for research that informs the next iteration of solutions.

These changes have altered how a young designer enters practice. In the twentieth century, design graduates began work in the technical service of more experienced designers. If they performed well, they advanced to form-making. And if they stayed in the field long enough, some earned the right to advise clients on overall communication or product development strategy. Today, there is too much to know about the management of technology to think of it as the steppingstone to some other aspect of design practice. Further, the democratization of the means of production and distribution through software and the Internet diminish the role of the designer as the gatekeeper to getting things made. And as design lost some of its traditional responsibilities in the last decades, it expanded its involvement in high-level business strategy, especially in the areas of innovation management, branding and service design. No longer do students enter a single definition of practice through a hierarchical sequence of responsibility.

These changes in the context for design practice are nothing short of transformational, but not well supported by a twentiethcentury, craft-based model of design education that presumes a designer is occupied primarily with the issues of form and the mass production of identical objects. Yet that is precisely the paradigm on which most contemporary design education is based. Students begin their studies with abstraction-projects isolated from the rich contexts in which design problems reside and that provide frameworks for action and judging the success of design solutions. They advance through undergraduate curricula tightly defined by products (books, motion graphics, packaging, etc. …

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