A Blueprint for Design Education 2.0

I often like to get myself into a spot of teaching, collaborating with and critiquing students. I find it enhances and consolidates what I have learned in my career in Design. I do recommend that designers, especially the senior ones, take some time off work to rub shoulders with people in a learning environment.
But I digress.
During some of my short exchanges at academic institutions, I noticed that most design educators have to struggle with juggling and managing studio projects and yet still maintain the academic requirements of tertiary institutions. Many times these requirements do no align.
So I had and interesting thought.
Is it possible that the foundation of structured rigorous learning that academic institutions are built upon, is not really conducive for the more fluid project based and lateral thinking style of a design studio?
If so, what if we had the opportunity to create a design program from scratch without any influence of, for example, a University’s grading system or research requirements? What sort of learning environment would that be?
If think I was the creative director, I would firstly call it simply Design School, not D-school or B-school or some other fancy name. The school will operate on a few simple premises that can also probably apply to most disciplines of design, except maybe Architecture.
Firstly there will be no grades. Yep, there will not be a number or alphabet attached to your design work. Ever.
Next there will be no subjects or classes to take, actually that is incorrect, there will be only one class and that is Design Studio. Everything else that is required will be taught within a Design Studio environment.
Thirdly, all of the design student’s work will be split up into modules or projects, that will eventually add up and become potential additions to a graduating designer’s portfolio.
With that entire premise in mind, let us take a look at this fictional design course in more detail.
1) Structure
The course will run for 4 stages or years (perhaps even more), each with a specific objective in mind. During each stage, classes will be run in the form of design projects that are designed to give the student competencies that reflect the year’s objective.
However, students can take as long or as short as they like. The course fees are calculated based on the number of projects taken on at each stage. While each year is flexible, the projects will run at a fixed schedule.
Also, the course will be open to everybody, no portfolios required for admission. Interestingly, I think I would like to give the educators the opportunity to “fire” the students that they think are not performing or are not serious about doing good design.
The four stages are as follows and should be no surprise that they are similar to a typical Design Process.

Stage 1: Foundation
The crucial first year will focus in equipping design students with basic design skills and theories. I would imagine projects to include form studies, perspective and rendering, sketching and still life, design theory, art history, market study and consumer behavior as well as various trips to allow exposure to the world of design.

Stage 2
: Development
This second year will take the initial skills learned in the first stage and build on them. Students will start to work on projects that revolve around the design of actual products. Considering their “young” nature the projects will often be of a low or lower technology nature. The objective this year is also to get student designers into a design mode, and this can be done by ensuring that these second year projects run in short 2-3 week intervals. This means 6 to 8 projects a semester, or up to 16 or more products designed in a semester year.

Stage 3
: Detailing
In the all too important 3rd year many students start to get tired and slow down. To avoid this, the projects should be instead even more challenging. At this time students should be at a maturity level to take on projects with higher complexity levels. Therefore, projects run at this stage should give the design student sensitivity to Material Technology, manufacturing constraints, product configurations and ergonomics. Instead of attending traditional lectures or classes, students lean about such constraints through a hands-on approach on projects and site visits all wrapped with some design theory. I always found Multi-disciplinary Industrial Design Education weak in trying to tie it all together. In this case, there is no need to “fight” for time with other classes as the projects are designed to teach what the lectures used to do.

Stage 4
: Process and Management
In this final stage, the objective is to pull it all together. Students will be encouraged to better understand the design process and perhaps come up with their own. The focus will be on the strategic nature of design, and will include business strategies, design management skills, marketing and branding initiatives, sustainable eco-design strategies, and down stream product realization issues. At this level, students should be working on real world projects under close collaboration with an industry partner.

2) Educators
I think here we can make a big distinction and difference from traditional design education. All projects will be lead by a team of lecturers that comprise of 50% from Industry and the other 50% from the course administration. The course administrator will focus on ensuring the curriculum of the student and their learning welfare is maintained. The Industry lecturers will likely be experts in certain fields or skills. The Industry lecturers will be responsible for brining a real world angle to the projects. Curriculum development will be a joint effort from both Academic and Industry lecturers.
3) Assessment
Finally I like to close this discourse with some thoughts on Assessment. As I alluded earlier, there will be no grades given. How a student does during a project will be determined by a panel of “clients”. All projects will be marked as either pass or fail. Simulating a real world environment, success depends on weather a client hates it or loves it.
Now, to move from stage one to stage two, a student first has to pass all the projects undertaken. As projects are designed as a reflection of skill and growth, the success of a student will directly correlate with the quality of a project’s delivery. Students will need to then compile their projects and make a case to a “Stage Assessment Panel” to see if they have the skills and motivation to be considered entry into the next stage.
Design students will also have the opportunity to re-take or re-do projects, as in this education system, failure and mistakes must happen so that the students can learn from them.
I think you should now get a good idea on how this unique design course would run. The ultimate emphasis is to ensure that design students remain not only relevant to industry, but also have a good range of projects for their graduating portfolio.
This article has actually taken me quite many months to write with much of it spent mulling over a few points. So I do look forward to your feedback and hearing your thoughts soon.

  • Parvez

    July 17, 2008 at 12:24 am Reply

    a very good post,
    and a well-researched one

  • Ali

    June 27, 2008 at 8:29 pm Reply

    Being a recent graduate of a design school myself, I read this article with interest. I think the 4 stages are good, but the 3rd stage (in my opinion) should last 2 years. My third year went by way too fast and then I was expected during the 4th year to perform at a professional level, and with professional originality. You are absolutely right on about interacting with industry professionals as early as possible. To observe, interact, and get advice from professionals would have been immensely helpful.
    Great article.

  • Marc Rapp

    June 25, 2008 at 6:03 am Reply

    Just found this on FutureLab.
    Congrats. Again

  • Filip

    June 24, 2008 at 8:48 pm Reply

    ^_^ Don’t look to hard for MDA students, there’s only like 5 to 15 of them in each year 😀
    Maybe that’s why they (we) can afford working this way.

  • DT

    June 23, 2008 at 10:19 am Reply

    Hi All, thanks for the feedback. I’ll try my best to address them.
    @Bill – great point, in reality any process is a good process if the end result is a success. But what I meant here is to suggest that students who take a conscious effort to learn the process and/or develop their own will take them much further than the majority of design professional who don’t seem to know how they got to their design solution end point.
    @Raj – Thanks for your comments, and best of luck in your studies. Please let me know if you need any more pointers.
    @Filip – Appreciate your points, and don’t worry about your spelling, I understood you fine! I’m really happy to see that there are schools already looking at something similar to what I had proposed. However I still see that traditional education institutions might have some problems with it. I will be keeping my eyes and ears out for MDA for sure!

  • Filip

    June 20, 2008 at 9:14 pm Reply

    Hi, yes very good thinking indeed, but think some more,…
    Although it’s a nice idea, it’s not as unique as it seems. My school (I study ID) has a program that is quite comparable with yours.
    one big difference is that our program consists of 5 years, were the 4’th year (1st master) consists merely of a work-placement in a real design environment, and the 5th year (2nd master) is a project year, in which the students work on different projects (thesises, both practical and theoretical) on a more independant basis then before (much like your 4th year).
    Next to that, we don’t have this much projects, more like 7-8 a year (all taking 6 weeks) (1st grade has more, like 20 projects, but they are much smaller) some of them are set up in coorporation with some factory, design-studio or organisation, Some are connected to a particular subject (pe ergonomics). Some are more practical (works), some are more theoretical (visions).
    Quite a lot of our educators, are next to teacher, designers or achitects themselves, so there’s a lot of practical input. Most of the projects are in fact lead by a team of teachers.
    Another difference is that we do have theoretical subjects (material science, art history,..) but it’s a nice mix ^_^
    next to that we also do have grades (going from 1 to 20, not A,B,C,..), but that’s just a more practical way to fire students who are not good enough. And these grades aren’t given by customers, but by the teachers themselves, who are in a better position to compare your work (in form and function, technique, material,..) to the market standards. (Because we often work with factory-people, their opinion is important too, and they are usually the first to come in contact with a new product, not the client)
    Well, I don’t know if this is quite what you meant with your article (?), but that’s what I thought about it.
    If you would like to know: I’ from Belgium and my school is called MDA (media & design academie) http://www.khlim.be/mda ^_^
    and sorry for my bad spelling 🙂

  • Raj

    June 20, 2008 at 1:26 pm Reply

    Hi DT,
    there is a great piece of homework one by you. Perhaps the best homework i have ever seen on design education. I have become a great fan of yours already. You have answered my answers in words, I was in a dilema of acceptance to do away without portfolio to convince people, it might be still hard to do that way,however there is an acknowledgement. I shall be taking this up very seriouly for my future commitments on design education.
    Thanks again,

  • Bill

    June 20, 2008 at 12:34 pm Reply

    Are you looking at a career switch? Ha. I like your views on this. Maybe students will graduate when they found a company willing to take them onto the real world?
    “Stage 4: Process and Management
    Students will be encouraged to better understand the design process and perhaps come up with their own.”
    Yes most educators see the design process as a prove of student’s design ability. They ended up forcing students to do it that way, forgetting the process is only a guide for good design. I’ll think regardless of which process you took, as long as the product is a good one, it is a good process.

  • DT

    June 20, 2008 at 12:10 pm Reply

    Hey Marc,
    Nice to hear from you, yes always a pleasure. Please keep in touch.

  • Marc Rapp

    June 20, 2008 at 12:00 pm Reply

    Great post. Great advice. I’ll be linking to this one.
    Always a pleasure.

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