The Integration of Contextual Studies in Academic Design Curricula
Naomi Gornick, Professor, I/IDSA | University of Dundee, Scotland, UK
Introduction: The Design Debate in Practice and Education
Designers are in the spotlight. There has been an acceleration of design endorsement by companies and consumers over the last two decades. Design is now more pervasive and at the forefront of modern consumerism. Many designers are reappraising their roles and wish to make a more profound contribution to a larger range of discussion embracing consumer, market, and global issues. Individual experience in business life can enhance designers’ frame of reference, but it is designers’ basic education that will continue to determine how well equipped they are to enter debate on current key topics.
There is an expanded new world opening up for designers to enlarge their range of activity. Whether designers choose to take up new roles or not, the expectations of their position in business life has become significantly heightened. Their opinions and advice are going to be required more than ever before. Design consultancies are already rising to this challenge by broadening their horizons, enlarging their frame of reference and by ensuring their message gets across in corporate life. Designers with a view to the future are developing processes to humanize innovation and creative problem solving by working with colleagues from anthropology, sociology, engineering, business management, and forecasting research. We need to ask how many of these trends are reflected back into the education of young designers.
As a result of these shifts, new design roles have been created both in consultancies and more especially, in design teams within client companies. My original aim, in the late 1980s, was to create ‘new design professionals,’ design-based graduates who could work alongside their management counterparts at senior levels in organizations. This has now become a reality. From the master’s programs I initiated at the Royal College of Art and Brunel University, graduates are working in organizations such as Nokia, Procter and Gamble, Eurostar, British Airports Authority, and the Design Council. Today, design skills are a major factor in turning corporate knowledge and technology into concrete practical solutions.
There is a small but increasing number of new experimental design programs being established internationally. These are taking place at institutions including the Institute of Design at IIT, Glasgow College of Art and Design, Zollverein School of Management and Design, Cologne International School of Design, the Design School at Stanford, Rotman School of Management, and Unitech, New Zealand. Generally speaking, each of these initiatives seeks to broaden traditional design education. Some are noticeably issue-based, particularly in the areas of sustainability and the environment. A remarkable number of students in key international design colleges are now tackling projects related to sustainability and ecological issues. The spring 2005 edition of Innovation highlighted several excellent academic examples in the USA. In the UK Brunel University Design Degree show last year, 60 out of 90 industrial design student projects were product solutions to resolve ecological problems.
At the same time, both client companies and design practitioners searching for new staff expect design graduates to have a higher level of all round knowledge in order to operate successfully in today’s world. At one time it was thought that new graduates could learn ‘on the job’, now, with a rapid pace of change and increased competition, design graduates are expected to be well prepared before they start work. There will be an increased market for design in environmental issues and corporate social responsibility. How well is design education managing to include
these developments in curricula when many consultancies are still debating a departure from traditional directions?