Design Education Now!
Text: Kathrin Spohr (email@example.com
The first Advanced Design Project I ran at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, which was sponsored by Nokia, involved the Graphics and Product Design Departments at the college working together, and they needed a mediator. This particular person, a former head designer at Texas Instruments, was intended to arbitrate in possible communications and responsibility conflicts between the graphic design and product design students taking part as an interdisciplinary project of this nature was an absolute novelty at ACCD. And boy, did we need him. Without him Nokia would certainly never have seen any clever ideas for future communication devices on time. That was in the late 1990s.
Nowadays interdisciplinary working is an important aspect of the curriculum at most design academies. As Ilka Helmig, Dean at Aachen University of Applied Sciences explains, “our degree courses are becoming increasingly inter-linked. Our MA ‘Communication and Product Design,’ for example, which we are offering from 2011 on, combines 2D and 3D design elements and provides the basics for tomorrow’s complex design field.” Peter Naumann, Dean of the Faculty of Design at Munich University, also confirms that “there has been a shift from specializing in one particular field and the associated handicraft skills to more flexibility, an interdisciplinary approach, and an open-minded attitude to the design discipline as a whole.” So there is a mood of change at design schools, and not just because the old-style German degree course has more or less served its purpose and is being replaced by Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, but also because the world is changing rapidly, is becoming ever more complex, more global, more multi-media. Different products and their specific functions are fusing more and more with one another – traditional forms of teaching no longer fit the bill. Design academies worldwide are responding with new structures and curricula. Holland’s most advanced, for example, the Design Academy Eindhoven, openly advertises when recruiting that it trains “versatile designers.” It has no separate departments, students do not graduate as a graphic or product designer. “Man and Activity,” “Man and Wellbeing,” and “Man and Communication” are some of the eight inspiring degree courses that sound nothing like education, but in which it is nonetheless possible to get a BA. Köln International School of Design (KISD) pursues an even more radical approach: With its BA and MA in “Integrated Design” it offers a complete non-linear, cross-disciplinary, and project-oriented degree course. Anyone wan-ting to complete it needs to be highly independent from the outset, as the less structured a degree course is, the more self-initiative is required to find one’s own way. Networking is another way of making the study of design compatible with the 21st century: Parsons New School for Design in New York benefits from a “multiple-school structure,” links eight schools with a broad-based focus – for example music, dance, management, and social research – even with, in some cases, international sites, with a view to “promoting cross-disciplinary thinking and provide answers to the dynamic changes in design and art, business and universities.”
Let us cast a glance back to the 1960s, when the world was divided clearly into disciplines. Alexander Neumeister, one of the great German industrial designers, who shaped numerous ICE trains and the Japanese high-speed train Shinkansen 500, recalls: “I had a mixture of technology and medicine in my mind, found architecture interesting, occasionally strolled through furniture shops, drew cars and had no idea what I wanted to be later. And then there was a lecture about industrial design at the employment center. It was not that interesting but I was immediately hooked. I suddenly saw a way of combining all my various interests.” And so in the 1960s Neumeister found himself at the now legendary HfG Ulm. Anyone deciding to study design today will
not fare that much differently from Neumeister. Though nowadays everyone is familiar with the word “design,” most people do not know what studying design actually involves (which has something to do with the fact that design still often is misinterpreted as styling. “Making something beautiful” was part of, if anything at all, the 1920s, when Frank Alvah Parsons, then Director of the Parsons School of Design, developed his concept of “making everyday products beautiful”). Furthermore, the choice of national and international design schools is so large and the fields they specialize in are so diverse that even insiders do not know which way to turn. So how is someone starting their studies meant to make the right decision? These days, precise planning is called. While on the one hand the inter and cross-discipline approach has the upper hand, on the other, more and more highly specialized courses are merging: The Department of industrial Design at Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Kiel, for example, concentrates on Medical Design; Burg Giebichenstein in Halle offers Play Devices and Learning Aid Design, while the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences recently introduced Exhibition Design. Almost every institution is attempting to position itself in the market by means of some specialist course: There are small departments in which there is a personal atmosphere. And there are academies such as the HfG Karlsruhe, the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) in Switzerland, and the Design Academy Eindhoven that have “produced” several designers of one-offs, whose creations are to be found at the world’s large furniture fairs. That is no guarantee of one’s own success – though this particular “quality feature” does play a role in the decision. However, the decision alone does not yet mean that one can embark on the study of design: Now, as then, prospective students need a convinci-ng portfolio and to have passed the entrance examinati-on. Which criteria are used nowadays to select them? Ulrich Hirsch, who until the beginning of 2010 worked at Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Kiel, says, “We want people with a thirst for knowledge, with ideas their own, who do not have an image of design that has been dazzled by the media.” An open mind and curiosity are anyway important tools for design. What is new is that students need to be prepared for change at all times. Volker Albus from the HfG in Karlsruhe says that “while certain subjects and principles always stay the same, approaches, behavioral patterns and technology are changing permanently.” And Rosanne Somerson argues that “our students need to be able to leave their comfort zone. They have to be extremely flexible and be capable of combining things that in the past had nothing at all to do with each other, as nowadays there is no longer just one road to success.” Ilka Helmig from Aachen also confirms that “alongside skills in their own particular field students ought to devel-op strong powers of initiative and a high level of perso-nal responsibility.” Independence has always been important and desirable, not just in design, but you could grow into it slowly. Now-adays, even right at the beginning, it is more important than even before.