Edited by Julie Lasky

New Contexts/New Practices: Six Views of the AIGA Design Educators Conference

Photos: Alberto Rigau, Liese Zahabi with volunteer graphic design students from NC State

Held October 8–10, 2010, at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the AIGA Design Educators Conference “New Contexts/New Practices” offered a panoramic view of a transforming profession. By investigating how developments in technology, business, social priorities and even the very definition of design have roiled the field, the event sought to map a new, relevant landscape for design education and practice in the 21st century.

This mission was supported by a unique format. The conference, which was organized by NC State graphic design faculty, was divided into six topics: changing conditions, shifting paradigms, social economies, design research, interdisciplinarity and designing for experience. Each topic was introduced to the entire body of attendees by a provocateur, who raised questions intended to set conversations in motion. Such discussions focused on the trends, dilemmas and opportunities inherent in each subject area and involved the provocateur along with a group of scholars, or co-authors, selected by the conference organizers based on prospectuses submitted before the event. Each co-authoring session was led by a moderator and recorded by a writer. Conference attendees rotated among the different authoring sessions and were given opportunities to participate. At the event’s conclusion, the moderator/author pairs presented summaries of the six sessions.

A crucial aspect of this format was that ideas generated during the three-day colloquy found a life and audience beyond it. Final presentations are posted on the conference website. In addition, the writers, employing their unique perspectives and voices, have synthesized their observations into the six reports that follow. Taken together, these essays provide a detailed overview, and their impact is being proliferated through simultaneous publication on Design Observer, Core77 and AIGA Voice.

Thanks to the conference organizing committee — Denise Gonzales Crisp, Meredith Davis, Amber Howard, KT Meaney, Matthew Peterson, Santiago Piedrafita, Alberto Rigau and Martha Scotford — for raising these important topics and extending the ripples.


By Jon Kolko

The discipline of design has been undergoing dramatic change for decades. Yet design educators have been slow to evolve their programs, with the following problematic results:
— Design students learn tired and irrelevant methods and techniques
— Students and parents generally fail to realize a “return on investment” from an increasingly expensive college education
—The production of design knowledge through scholarly design research has not been able to evolve at the pace necessary to manage the complexities of our world and culture

As provocateur within the Changing Conditions: Emerging Practices conference segment, Shelley Evenson described the changing qualities of culture and society and the new demands placed on design educators in driving specialization toward fields like service and interaction design. The segment’s moderator, Christopher Vice, unpacked how these cultural shifts have led us to a point of necessary change, where we must actively and aggressively reframe design education in order to best meet the challenges facing our world and culture.

The Cultural Background: Moving Beyond Artifacts
For most of the field’s history, educational programs in graphic design have taught students how to create artifacts — how to develop printed posters, brand elements, pamphlets, postcards and signage. This work involves a number of core competencies, including but certainly not limited to color theory, two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design, typography, composition, printing and prepress, packaging, digital prepress, logo and mark creation. But the world has changed, and professionals rarely focus exclusively on printed material. In the last 20 years, the overall landscape of design has shifted:
— From single artifact-systems to design language systems, focusing on a unified visual and semantic message across multiple printed pieces
— From one-way communicative artifacts, such as brochures, to interactive artifacts, such as software
— From designed artifacts to “design-thinking,” where the focus of the design process is applied in the context of large-scale business, organizational or cultural problems
— From commercial goods toward service, emphasizing time-based, human and more experiential qualities of designed offerings

The Opportunity, and Strategies for Realizing It
There is an opportunity for design education to change in order to respond to the above shifts, and to better prepare students for the realities they will face as they graduate from college or university.

1. Recast the Foundation
Nearly every design school in the United States and Europe begins with a focus on foundational studies, where students learn the base elements of design that include two- and three-dimensional design, typography, color, composition and more. These courses typically are studio-based and follow in the footsteps of Bauhaus education: students learned by doing, and the “doing” was often long, arduous and methodical.

We propose to dramatically reframe or completely eliminate required courses that focus exclusively on issues of typography, color, composition and other base design skills. The elimination of these courses is significant in freeing space for other, new skills, given that the entire first year (or one-quarter of an undergraduate’s education) may be spent on this type of activity and learning. Of course, altering or removing these classes comes with a cost, and even mentioning this is heretical in most design institutions. Yet it seems that a student may be better served with a Helvetica A4 template and a warning to avoid typographic explorations until post-graduation, than with hours of Prismacolor type exercises.

2. Specialize and Differentiate
It is increasingly clear that design has reached a critical mass of generalists, and a more systematic approach to specialization is required to face the challenges and to train for the competencies described above.
Focus on service design or interaction design. Shelley Evenson explains that “service design is about providing the resources for people in a system to learn, adapt and share the knowledge they gain about the world with other pieces of the system.” It’s an ecological view of design. It focuses on touchpoints and relationships, as these touchpoints become increasingly complicated (often through technological advancement), the shaping of interactions — the directive of behavior, through interaction design — becomes more critical as well.
Focus on participatory design — “design with.” As designers increasingly turn to the complex problems of society, such as the emerging areas of social innovation, a truly collaborative approach to design is required. This recasts the designer from a position of power or authorship (“I design for you”) to one of empathetic collaboration (“I design with you”). In this model, a designer supports the natural creativity in others, offering scaffolds by which others can express their ideas, needs and desires.
Focus on traditional design specialties — such as industrial, graphic or transportation design — but with a narrow emphasis (such as human factors, typography or car interiors, respectively). It is naïve to think that typical design activities, such as branding, print design or advertising, will simply disappear. But they have already morphed and advanced at tremendous speeds; to be competitive in these disciplines, designers need to offer a depth of specialty in a narrowly defined area of emphasis. This might mean educating an industrial designer to have comprehensive and deep knowledge of anatomy, anthropometrics and other human factors knowledge (at the expense of CAD skills, or knowledge of production techniques, or other traditional areas of industrial design).
Additional foci. These focus examples are provided to be provocative, not to define the extent of specialization required in design education. There are countless specialization opportunities.

Changing Design Education
We are a culture that increasingly questions consumption and advertising, which are at the heart of industrial and graphic design disciplines. We rely on a dynamic and constantly evolving technological platform that touches all aspects of life. There is an increased demand for service-based jobs as our country re-evaluates economic sustainability. People are demanding quality, reflective and meaningful experiences in their world.

Yet design education, as a whole, hasn’t embraced these challenges and opportunities.

To be direct and explicit, educators who have taught the same foundation studies courses for years will need to dramatically revamp their courses or face irrelevance. Educators who have repeated the same kerning and hand-drawn letterform exercises will find themselves teaching at a school that simply isn’t focused on typography anymore — and tenure notwithstanding, these individuals will find themselves without a role. Educators who are unwilling to retrain themselves will be replaced.

If you are one of these educators, or you work at one of these programs, you may acknowledge these necessary shifts, but find personal action to be difficult. It is difficult. And it’s difficult because the shift is large, fundamental and of critical importance. You’ll need to read, and take courses, and attend new conferences; you’ll need to re-build yourself and your expertise in a new light. You’ll go from knowing all of the answers to not even knowing the problems.

But it’s no longer a matter of choice. Because if you aren’t able to find a new opportunity, a new specialty, and embrace the topics described above, you may soon find yourself alone or replaced. Our subject matter is too important, and our role too fundamental, to leave to the traditions of even great educational movements like the Bauhaus. The subject of design is the humanization of technology, and as long as technological advancements continue, so the pragmatic and day-to-day jobs of designers will continue to morph. And so must design education continue to evolve.

Jon Kolko is an associate creative director at frog design and founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.


By Holly Willis

A vital next step in design education centers on taking seriously the notion of systems and systems thinking, which are inherently transdisciplinary, holistic and focused on the interrelationships and patterns of things, not on fixed and isolated parts of a larger process. This means embracing dynamism and emergent possibility as core to design methodologies as well as to design education. What does this mean with respect to curricula, pedagogy, assessment and teaching spaces? And how does this shift affect the designer’s identity?

David Thorburn’s provocation framing the Shifting Paradigms: Tools and Systems topic was an imperative wrapped in historical perspective and can be easily summarized: Get over it! Our current moment, as unsettling as it is, and as unique and apocalyptic as it feels, repeats a host of previous junctures in recurring cycles of disruption and stasis that punctuate the previous 200 years of Western culture. Thorburn’s perspective embodies a core sensibility in his field, namely, media studies, which tends to dismiss both the pitiful announcements of imminent demise and utopian desires for a radical break in favor of an ecological view attentive to transition and evolution, and to a mingling of tradition and innovation. Indeed, these are the themes of the book Thorburn co-edited with Henry Jenkins titled Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, which traces a series of earlier moments of technological change. “The turmoil of the early film industry should offer a kind of comfort,” soothed Thorburn toward the end of his talk.

Thorburn’s eloquent invitation to consider the past offered little solace to the group assigned the task of thrashing through a topic that in its title alone encompassed three vast and knotty terms: tools, systems and paradigms. No less than Heidegger, Deleuze, Derrida, and, more recently, Giorgio Agamben, have taken time to define these ideas in the context of philosophy, and in design, Hugh Dubberly, Meredith Davis and others have similarly tackled the terms in a more specific realm. All three words gain additional intricacy in that they are shared by disparate disciplines, from systems theory to anthropology, from human computer interaction to biology, economics and business.

It’s no wonder then, that the ensuing dialogue was prickly, passionate and ultimately all over the map. Anne Burdick’s moderation centered on discerning some modicum of specificity in the use of terms, and we began by articulating our sense of each. Initial emergent themes acknowledged the accelerated pace of change, the rise in the complexity of the issues at hand for designers, and the need for a systematic transformation within education at a time when budget cuts prohibit such change. Consensus formed around key shifts in the paradigm of design generally, and in design education specifically (with “paradigm” here borrowing Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 definition of the term as a set of ideas shared by a community).

“Graphic design was about creating artifacts and we’ve moved past that to now creating contexts in which activities happen, in which people participate collectively,” said coauthor Barbara Sudick from California State University Chico. “That’s very different from when we made discrete artifacts.” Stacie Rohrbach of Carnegie Mellon, another co-author, concurred. “We don’t use the word ‘graphic design’ anymore. What we’re teaching our students is detached from an artifact. They may create an artifact, and it might be finite, but often it isn’t. Instead, it’s about building cognitive structures; it’s a meta-level activity.” But how practical is it to teach this, asked Jen McKnight, a coauthor from the University of Missouri in St. Louis. “If half of the university design programs are located in art schools, are they suited to do systems work? Are they ready to let go of the artifact? Are they ready to divorce themselves from ‘graphic design’?”

The discussion of tools was more slippery, and followed the Möbius strip of determinism to assert that new tools inform our perceptions and experience, just as cultural needs give rise to new tools. However, key to an understanding of contemporary tools is that they, too, are no longer discrete artifacts, but are just as often platforms and systems. In that vein, Isabel Meirelles of Northeastern University rejected the idea that our new tools consist of software applications and computers. “This is such a narrow view of tools. I really believe that all we can do in design education, especially in undergraduate education, is understand the ideas. So I have a problem with this idea that ‘the tools are changing.’ That’s only true if you define the tool in a narrow way.”

In summarizing the first two hours, moderator Anne Burdick responded to the nascent anxiety about design identity and asked, “Are we defined by our outcomes, or are we defined by the activity of design itself, regardless of outcome?” She continued, “In general, we’ve seen a shift from an autonomous, cohesive practice to one understood as networked, social and politically situated; open and permeable; even dynamic and changing. Where do we go next?”

For Sudick, the next step is taking seriously the notion of systems and systems thinking, which are inherently transdisciplinary, holistic and focused on the interrelationships and patterns of things, not on fixed and isolated parts of a larger process. This means embracing dynamism and emergent possibility as core to design methodologies as well as to design education. “This may be a hotspot,” she asserted, pointing to an idea that could be mobilized by conference participants immediately. “The behavior of a system reveals itself over time — can we use this concept in thinking about how we do assessment with students? Can we look at their behavior, their patterns, and then understand what those behaviors mean?” Others took this up to suggest curricula characterized by flux rather than stability; classrooms that are open and permeable rather than closed and finite; teaching materials understood as participatory platforms that are modular and extensible; and pedagogical practices founded on perceiving the larger system rather than isolated entities within that system.

Speaking with respect to an earlier definition of design centered on problem-solving, Burdick noted, “The problem with problem-solving is that you’re looking for answers as if there is an end,” pinpointing the teleological perspective ill-suited for a paradigm characterized as dynamic and in the process of becoming. In place of this forward-moving quest that presumes an end, Thorburn advised the opposite. “We must attend to the past as avidly as to the future,” he cautioned, sustaining the corrective put forward in his provocation. However, rather than looking either forward or backward, perhaps systems thinking might be useful here, which insists that we forego hypotheses and the reductionism of closed systems, and instead value the generative potential of the system for helping produce emergent ideas. Indeed, the entire "New Contexts/New Practices" conference was itself devised as a kind of system, moving away from the framing of hypotheses and the delivery of finished and complete thoughts in the traditional conference panel format to the opening up of a dialogue designed to be dynamic and generative.

Holly Willis is director of academic programs at the Institute for Media Literacy at the University of Southern California.


By Peter Hall and Alice Twemlow

As part of his NC/NP provocation, John Thackara set out a grim picture of the global situation from which educational reformers must proceed in their mission to change design education. One reason societies fail, he said, citing Jared Diamond’s Collapse, is that their elites are insulated from the negative impact of their own actions. Similarly, we are bewitched as a culture by a “high entropy concept of quality and performance.” Thus bewitched, Thackara added, “we waste astronomical amounts of energy and resources and in the process are destroying the biosphere upon which all life, including our own, depends. Most of these high entropy products, services and infrastructures, and the resource flows and emissions that accompany them, would not have been possible without the input of creative industries and especially designers.”

The problem of how to proceed was the topic of discussion among participants in the Social Economies: Enterprise and a New Cultural Geography session following Thackara’s presentation. We have surely moved beyond our late-20th-century obsession with protest at the level of the sign (as coauthor Maria Rogal of the University of Florida put it, “The world doesn’t need another poster for peace.”) Adbusters may still be an effective rabblerouser, identifying our “doomsday machine economy” (the higher the GDP the faster we degrade the biosphere), but consumerism is surely better addressed through collective action than through protest. Thackara’s position is that designers have an important role to play in a growing social innovation movement. They also have the skills to “cast fresh and respectful eyes on a variety of situations and reveal the material and cultural qualities that may not be obvious to those who live in them.”

Examples of social innovation — from establishing seed banks to recycling foreclosed buildings — are plentiful. But how exactly is this kind of activity embraced in the classroom, in the current, ageing curricular structures that were set up in rather different ideological settings?

Judging from the responses at the authoring session moderated by Alice Twemlow and Peter Hall, we are at the very early stages of this project, in the U.S. at least. While social innovation and community-based initiatives may be blossoming around the world, design educators seem relatively ill-equipped in terms of methods, protocol and administrative support to send students out into the field to help these initiatives or work on new ones. Nagging doubts lurked behind projects provided as examples by some of the coauthors — efforts to engage students with communities in, for instance, Mexico and India. Were designers exactly what these communities needed?

The difficulties are clearly exacerbated by a prevailing, global (mis)conception of design’s exclusively commercial imperatives, compounded by a tendency for designers to imagine themselves problem-solving in isolation. True design problems are “wicked,” to use Horst Rittel’s term: complex, contingent, uncertain but urgent, and constantly shifting the longer and closer we study them. They require interdisciplinary teams and they call not for top-down responses that “solve” the problems once and for all, but for the implementation of potential solutions, ad hoc, in prototype, and subject to change. In Rittel’s terminology, solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, but better, worse, good enough or not good enough.

A broad consensus emerged that students today need a global perspective, and that the best way to gain that is through study-abroad programs. Yet it is not particularly clear that sending U.S. design students overseas to lend their skills to, say, a burgeoning tourism industry in Ladakh, India, is a “good enough” response to the larger wicked problem of global inequities. An interdependent view of globalization notes how much economic disparities and environmental catastrophes are the result of Western economic systems. As Vandana Shiva noted in 2000, we’re in a situation where “resources move from the poor to the rich and pollution moves from the rich to the poor.”

Perhaps design education is at a stage of development comparable to the first phase of ethnographic research, when Malinowski established that living with the people one was studying was preferable to armchair observations from afar. It took subsequent generations of critical thinkers to detect a tendency to exoticize the Other in such projects, and for an “anthropology of ourselves” to emerge. Not to deny the pedagogical value of an immersive overseas experience, but U.S. design students can learn a great deal from studying the social inequities and environmental catastrophes on their own backyards. At the same time, the adoption of ethnographic methods by designers is not without its own problems, suggesting that closer ties with anthropology departments might be warranted. AIGA’s own “ethnography primer” outlines a situation in which design professionals are working alongside ethnographers rather than trying to mimic what ethnographers do. In the academic world there is no real good reason why a better integration of the disciplines can’t be achieved.

There are, however, plenty of bad reasons prohibiting interdisciplinary work on campuses: academic silos and bureaucratic procedures that seem designed to inhibit the free flow of ideas between departments. As coauthor Debra Riley Parr, of Columbia College in Chicago, asked, “What are the boundaries that define what is visible in current design regimes; and how vested is the academy in policing or reproducing these divides?” This, perhaps, was the specter overhanging the discussion: the tension between fresh ideas about teaching and learning and large, stale, bureaucratic infrastructures. Within design education, the tension is primarily between the needs of the new cultural landscape and the demands of an ageing curriculum crafted around Bauhaus principles. As Ricardo Sosa, of the Tecnólogico de Monterrey in Mexico, noted, it may be worth considering that many of these principles are counterproductive to today’s challenges.

The goal of the conference, however, was not to culminate in communal handwringing, but to come up with a set of actionable items, which the organizers dubbed “hotspots.” Evidence abounds, in fact, that designer educators are ever resourceful in their efforts to make learning relevant and urgent, and in their ability to "fudge and nudge" existing educational infrastructures toward necessary and impending reform. The following points are offered by way of a tentative conclusion to this end.

Curricular Workarounds
Every educator and academic administrator knows that there are ways of finding room to maneuver within ageing curricular frameworks. One example, aired at the conference, was to teach an interdisciplinary design studio class on systemic thinking by scheduling separate business, design and engineering classes in the same building. In the spirit of Rittel, it seems appropriate to respond to the wicked problem of design education with such ad hoc solutions.

Mediating Objects
In the design studio, collaborative learning can take place by setting team assignments to build prototypes on very short deadlines, and then use the results to develop an inquiry — rather than the other way around. Svetlana Kasalovic provided an example from Moorpark College, where student teams were told to build a model of a sustainable city, using foam and cardboard, in 30 minutes. Kasolovic provided a theoretical framework for the model as a “mediating object” using Lev Vygotsky’s activity theory, underpinned by Vygotsky’s notion that the relationship between humans and the world is mediated by artifacts. A simple summary of this approach is embodied in IDEO’s mantra, “prototype early and often.”

Mapping can function as a bridge between traditional graphic design practice and the wicked problem, as a means of researching problems, synthesizing and arraying findings and unfolding possible responses, often in exquisite, graphic form. But we must always be aware that maps quickly accrue the air of authority and appear finished even when they are meant to be contingent or in process. Maps should be seen, as Thackara noted, as “tools humans use.” Their great potential is their ability to bring grass roots movements together and make information accessible. Examples at the social economies session included mapping food carts in Chicago, street vendor legislation in New York, and various projects to track and research the flow of materials and labor that go into everyday objects around us.

Ignorant Schoolmaster
One does not need to be an expert to map a problem. One need only model curiosity and investigative drive to encourage students to explore the complex interconnections behind things.

Research as Portfolio Piece
At the risk of presenting a glib response to a complex issue, we believe that it remains possible that the need for a critical discourse in design programs is not entirely at odds with the pursuit of technical virtuosity and a marketplace demand for job-ready portfolios. If the new curriculum emphasizes method, process and a “good enough” philosophy of tackling complex problems, then this work must be presented in as persuasive and glittering a light as the logos and slick renderings of the old portfolio.

Study Abroad Through Virtual Corridors?
Carbon-friendly alternatives to the study-abroad course are emerging, born out of economic necessity and cheap communications technology. Graduate students at the London College of Communications and University of Texas at Austin, for example, recently explored collaborations through a “virtual corridor” — webcam space that opened up during class times for discussion, leading to Second Life–based projects in which transatlantic teams studied urban space in both cities, in virtual and real space.

Network to Existing Data Sets
The proliferation of information calls for new ways of interpreting and arranging it, yet design studios are often organized and taught with students approaching their research topics from scratch. While it makes sense to instill a sense of ownership and curiosity about research among students, stronger ties to other disciplines and bodies of knowledge would mimic real world scenarios, in which designers commonly inherit research findings and data sets. Paradigmatic examples include the work of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University on prisoner data provided by the Justice League. The Many Eyes website also includes a dazzling array of visualizations of off-the-shelf data sets.

Piggyback on Existing Initiatives
If one extends the sentiment from data sets to community projects, it certainly makes sense for educators and researchers to seek out existing social innovation projects rather than start from scratch each time. Some extraordinary initiatives have come out of design programs, only to wither once the semester is over. One recent example, Growlots Philadelphia from the University of the Arts was an ingenious online social networking tool for rooftop, yard and empty lot farmers to share resources. Launched last spring, it now sports a calendar devoid of events and a stagnant blog.

The Art of Hosting
A key conceptual shift is required in our thinking about outcomes, which moves design away from the creation of artifacts to the staging of events. The Elos Institute is a nonprofit organization founded in 2000 by architects and planners in Brazil, who aim to help transform communities by engaging young people in collaborative games leading to rapid and high-impact actions. Thackara characterizes its Oasis game as a combination “charrette and barn raising” that could culminate with the creation of a public space, a daycare facility, a recycling initiative. The key, however, is the art of hosting the event, a project that requires new listening skills of designers — an anathema to previous eras of celebrity designers and their declarative modes of operation.

Clarify Learning Outcomes
New approaches to design education require new assessment methods; tackling complex problems and facilitating community-based projects requires, obviously, teamwork. But progressive curricula often (usually) inherit a grading and testing system poorly equipped to evaluate student progress in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams. Again, teachers are good at developing workarounds: peer evaluation, continuous assessment and use of blogs and social media serve to monitor student strengths and weaknesses.

No More Parachuting
One imagined goal of a design program in the new social economic landscape would be to engage with “communities of practice,” to appropriate a term from the activist planner Nabeel Hamdi. “Practice,” writes Hamdi in his book Small Change, “is about building densely interconnected networks, crafting linkages between unlikely partners and organizations, and making plans without the usual preponderance of planning.” For networks and linkages to be self-sustaining requires we wriggle out of a pedagogical framework that initiates and concludes projects each semester and rethink old philanthropic notions of “parachuting in” to help communities. Instead, we need to plan frameworks that can sustain a hand off from year to year, which, of course may be a goal that takes several years to reach.

Peter Hall is a design critic, co-editor of Else/Where: Mapping with Jan Abrams, contributing writer for Metropolis and Print, and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.

Alice Twemlow is a writer, critic, and chair of the Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.


By Deborah Littlejohn

Design needs a robust research culture that enables designers to participate in new arenas on equal footing with other, more established disciplines. Research in design could help identify and articulate evidence-based grounds for effectively establishing its unique expertise, but first design faculty and professionals require skills in research. There is an urgent need for reflexivity in design education and fresh perspectives on pedagogy. Faculty can begin by interrogating long-held beliefs and practices in three critical aspects of professional preparation: how to think, how to perform and how to act with integrity.

Increasingly, it’s the designer’s job to talk to others. In large projects involving multidisciplinary teams, that dialogue requires designers to externalize their positions and ideas with logic and the support of research, as well as understand the positions, research and logic of their colleagues. While a closer relationship between design and research has become vital, many creative design fields lack the crucial institutions and expertise that characterize a research culture. This view served as the backdrop for provocateur Sharon Poggenpohl’s question: Are we teaching students to grow into this perspective, or are we supporting the development of thousands of boutique designers?

Pressure to “discipline the design discipline” through a more robust research effort comes from within and beyond the academy. Nevertheless, co-authors in the Design Research: Building a Culture from Scratch session, moderated by Judith Gregory, cautioned against accepting traditional academic structures without question: established disciplines have been reflecting upon their own scholarly practices — and looking at design in the process — for a reason. At the same time, participants acknowledged that a formal research culture would help legitimize design in the eyes of the academy (and those who fund research). Building, organizing and articulating research into a body of knowledge is carried out by professionals with specialized training in the philosophies and methods of inquiry. Design faculty rarely have this experience, and they are disadvantaged when they can’t frame design research for their colleagues in other fields — or understand the research methods and outcomes of other disciplines. Design’s “research illiteracy,” as Poggenpohl called it, was demonstrated on several occasions in the open discussion sessions when “research” became equated with “methods” — and particularly, with scientific methods. Before design can develop a robust research culture, it will have to overcome this blind spot and acquire some new habits of mind.

Interrogating Design Culture/Understanding Design Research
Participants identified several practices and assumptions in design education that need examining: that “making” is opposed to “research”; designers don’t read; and the only purpose of education lies in preparing design students for the profession — demonstrated in vague distinctions between graduate and undergraduate study and lack of engagement with other academic disciplines.

Design education isolates itself from academic knowledge communities to its own detriment. Non-majors are seldom permitted to take design classes, while inflexible design curricula provide few opportunities for exploring other disciplinary perspectives. Course work superficially engages with knowledge from other fields, and many faculty look down on importing theories and methods from other disciplines in design. Good theory, however, should be applicable in different contexts, and research methods are not the province of any one field. The perception that research has no value for the profession, and that researchers belittle practice as a “lesser” activity, persists.       

Coauthors addressed design’s anti-discursive streak. Few peer-reviewed journals are available in which to disseminate design research, and there’s not much awareness of — or participation in — existing venues: the result is that research findings from multidisciplinary collaborations in design appear in the journals of other disciplines with small credit for design. There is also a lack of reflexivity in design pedagogy: faculty simply teach as they were taught. Students aren’t asked to externalize or systematize the creative process, especially for non-design communities. Doing research — a practice that is both systematic and external — is seen as anathema to designing, and creativity plays no role in research and theory.

The cliché “designers don’t read” was contentious. Coauthors argued that the ability to “read” the visual is an important design skill, and it’s not that designers don't read — they aren’t taught to read critically. Design students spend their time learning how to produce rather than think critically. They move through endless project cycles without being asked to reflect on the “what” — or “how” — of their learning. Coauthors noted that student assignments rarely ask provocative questions, focusing instead on formal outcomes. Questions arise from the ability to reflect critically about what is known through reading existing literature.

Curiosity, criticality and creativity are research habits of mind. Reflective behavior is discursive thinking — it proceeds by argument or logic, not intuition. Research (whether carried out in science or design fields) is fundamentally guided by questions that identify, as Poggenpohl pointed out, what is unknown, but would be valuable to find out. Asking questions is the hallmark of curiosity; coming up with good questions is as much about creativity as coming up with good design. The more designers learn to question and articulate their practices, theories and methods — especially to non-designers — the more rigorous the field will become.

Cultivating a Research Culture
Before design education can instill students with inquiring habits of mind, faculty will have to dispel the myth that research is a foreign, uncreative — and boring — activity. For them to see the value of research, students need frameworks for connecting and applying theories and methods in their studio work. Research “tool kits” in the freshman year can introduce students to the purposes, practices and goals of inquiry. Interdisciplinary respect can be established by allowing students from other disciplines into design programs and would create conduits for mutual learning. Faculty must also develop a few habits of their own — beginning with regularly reading design research reports and incorporating research findings in coursework. Teaming up with experienced researchers from other disciplines will strengthen research skills. These “knowledge buddy” partnerships carry the added benefit of increasing the likelihood of successful grant seeking.

A culture of design research can serve the field by establishing “the visual” as a serious topic of inquiry, by identifying practices that interest other disciplines and by providing grounds for design’s point of view in research. Prototypes are a (visual) form of knowledge very different from other disciplines. Visual representations of knowledge from other areas — for example, education — in design forms like textbooks, websites and software interfaces, offer rich areas for exploration that would connect design issues with the concerns of other fields. As design builds its research literacy, designers will become better equipped to pose provocative questions about the assumptions and practices of other disciplines — as well as their own. Designers will need to understand their collaborators’ questions as an opportunity to learn rather than a critique.

Advancing design as a discipline concerns challenging the constraints of design culture by asking provocative questions of current practices and the assumptions that undergird them. In the words of provocateur Rick Robinson, designers have to “Destroy your discipline! Keep it strong!”

Deborah Littlejohn is a doctoral student in the PhD in Design program at NC State and a contributing writer for Eye Magazine.


By Julie Lasky

At this "New Contexts/New Practices" session, no one challenged the importance of cultivating partnerships between disciplines. Yet there was much concern about how the (almost by definition) protean quality of interdisciplinarity could be introduced into schools and professional practice. And what would be gained — and lost — in the transaction.

The word “interdisciplinarity” is almost impossible to pronounce. Rick Robinson, provocateur in the session Interdisciplinarity: Making Ourselves Attractive to Collaborators, stumbled over it repeatedly as he ventured to question the merits of mixing together different kinds of aptitude, particularly in a single career. “I am an expert. I spent an awful lot of time and attention and effort to get to my place where I can do what I can do,” Robinson, who holds a Ph.D. in human development, said. “And you’re not. On the other hand, … I know where my expertise lies, and I know what I appreciate in other people is their expertise.”

“Interdisciplinarity” may shove too many syllables into one lexicographical jawbreaker, or too many experiences into a single CV, yet, as conference co-organizer Meredith Davis noted in her introduction to the session, it’s a “buzzword of the 21st century.” “Design problems are too big and complex to be solved by one person,” Davis said. “Work and life are wrapped up in webs of connections that are both dynamic in their configuration and far reaching in their consequences. It is no longer possible to separate social from economic, cultural from technological or physical from cognitive.”

The ground beneath designers’ feet is shifting. As the problems they consider lap over the edges of conventional practice, extending into media such as architecture and digital products, and provinces such as social and physical science, designers must either become proficient in a larger number of subjects or learn to collaborate with experts from a wider spectrum of disciplines. Robinson is clear about which path he prefers: “The way disciplines affect each other is more interesting to me than the way one interdisciplinary person can affect a field,” he said. No discipline is monolithic; rather, it’s a container for competing ideas that gain primacy at different times (such as the see-sawing between nature and nurture in debates about evolutionary biology). Robinson advocated the maintenance of “a core” whereby “people learn to be extremely good at what it is they’re doing” yet practice expertise in a “broad and exploratory perspective.” Finally, he urged, practitioners must be willing to “break that core.”

In the authoring session moderated by Dori Tunstall that followed, participants expressed concern with interdisciplinary engagements that recast, and even threatened to deform, the designer’s identity. What are graphic design’s unique contributions to interdisciplinary partnerships? Does it receive as much as it gives in such exchanges? Is graphic design a sub-discipline being menaced with collapse under the growing, hybridizing influence of “design thinking?” Should its core be maintained as distinct from related branches like industrial design and architecture? Or should prefixes such as “graphic” and “industrial” be eliminated to support a more general idea of design?

Certainly, no one disputed coauthor Paul Nini’s charge that graphic designers suffer from low self-esteem. Nini, a professor at Ohio State University, pointed out that the session’s very subtitle, “Making Ourselves Attractive to Collaborators,” betrayed a self-denigrating attitude. Leslie Atzmon, of Eastern Michigan University, was the most vocal among a group of participants who insisted that if designers are to build a persuasive case for the value of their contributions, they need to engage more seriously in research as the basis for a critical discourse conducted both internally and with interdisciplinary partners. Chris Myers, of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, said, “Critique is a unique environment to [bring] out the collaboration. But I think we have to do a better job in teaching people how to argue, discuss, evaluate information and evidence.” Agreed Geoffrey Fried, of the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University: “It has to go beyond a conversation about form.”

Robinson, however, noted that designers tend to overlook the field’s long habit of analytical discourse in the form of classroom critiques and studio charrettes. Such efforts are perhaps disregarded by their practitioners because they’re not documented in scholarly publications. And yet, Robinson suggested, they represent “a strong design tradition that academics could learn a lot from.” Among the virtues of the design critique and charrette, Tunstall agreed, is their additive, dynamic qualities. These activities unfold through time and involve group process. “Critique in other traditions is mostly summative,” Tunstall said. “In design it’s formative, allowing you to improve the next iteration.”

Especially germane to interdisciplinary collaborations is the fact that graphic designers are trained to bridge different styles and levels of understanding. If a single core competency can be identified, it is communicative ability — particularly the construction of messages that raise consciousness, sensitivity and conviction. University of Illinois professor Jimmy Luu ventured that a good designer brings to interdisciplinary collaborations the power of empathy. “You understand different frameworks; see and mash them together.” Invoking a Navajo term for an attorney interceding between tribal interests and the government, Myers referred to “’the one who speaks for the people who cannot speak well for themselves.’ Essentially that’s what we do.”

Designers, in other words, possess skills and engage in practices, acknowledged or not, that should smooth the way for interdisciplinary collaborations. The larger question remained of how to actuate interdisciplinarity, or more challenging yet, teach it. “How do you structure a curriculum or remove barriers to provide more opportunities for interdisciplinary skills to be developed?” Tunstall asked. “Is it a project or a class? What is the mechanism within the curriculum that allows it to happen?” Myers emphasized the value for an instructor to “model interdisciplinary behavior” through “the habit of research” as part of a mode of inquiry. Tunstall recalled his reference to “the one who speaks for the people who cannot speak well for themselves” when she concluded that “interdisciplinarity allows for the development of empathy, which can even be built from difference. When this happens is when a new methodology and new language can happen.” Added Robinson, “It’s not just a matter of borrowing or stealing language from other disciplines, it’s developing languages that connect.”

Tunstall summed up with the statement that interdisciplinarity “is not a class, it’s an opportunity around inquiry and understanding.” She suggested that the conversation’s next iteration be in a more interdisciplinary context — conducted with engineers, artists, businessmen and the like.

Julie Lasky is editor of Change Observer, a channel of Design Observer that focuses on design and social innovation.


By Andrea Codrington Lippke

What does it mean when graphic designers are increasingly made to feel that their skill-sets are inadequate in the face of such monolithic entities as the “changing media landscape"? A breakout session on experience design plumbed the depths of the resulting identity crisis and posited a way forward. While it’s clear that graphics educators needs to shift their focus from the single artifact to the multiple pathway and teach students how to play well with others, is the call for breadth and depth in knowledge a call for superhuman abilities?

Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a graphic designer. I have, however, written about design for the past 20 years and feel that I know a few things about design in general and designers in specific.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. I attended my first design conference in 1993 as a young editor at I.D. magazine, having just migrated over from art publishing. It was a national AIGA shebang in Miami and it was as good an introduction as any to graphic designers and their concerns.

While the exact details of the conference are lost in the mists of time, one memory sticks out: Michael Bierut standing on the stage speaking about what a tough time he had getting his aunt to understand what it is that he does for a living. It was a lament that seemed to ring true for most members of the audience, who nodded or laughed in recognition at the Pentagram partner’s experience. And who could blame them? Graphic design developed traditionally as a liminal practice, existing at the intersection of art and science, craft and technology, personal expression and consumer persuasion.

Designers, I found out quickly, often felt like in-betweeners and, as such, tended toward identity crisis — or at least seemed to when gathered en masse at AIGA events. I tried to picture gastroenterologists huddled together at AMA conferences worrying about the world’s perception of their life’s work, or writers at a PEN summit fretting that they’re misunderstood by commissioning editors.

Of course it’s hard to be caught in the middle. Marvel Comics picked up on this sense of marginality when it first introduced a superhero in 1974 called the In-Betweener. The good news is that the In-Betweener stands 15 feet tall and is able to manipulate cosmic energy to alter reality to achieve nearly any effect within his influence. The bad news is that he’s under the absolute control of Lord Chaos and Master Order, and his life is spent trying to keep those opposing forces in balance.

The In-Betweener

Based on my recent experiences at “New Contexts/New Practices,” never has Lord Chaos had so much truck. Organized for the express purpose of exploring “how design education can both reflect changing conditions and shape future practices in a reconfigured communication landscape,” the two-day event was awash in anxiety. Exploring such topics as interdisciplinarity, technological flux, changing social geographies and design research, the conference posited the question of how educators could go about assuring graphic design’s relevancy in the 21st century.

The answer seemed to call for no less than the creation of a new breed of design superhero. Part anthropologist and user-experience expert, part film producer and communications theorist, the designer of tomorrow will be emphatically “T-shaped,” with a broad range of knowledge and deep expertise. At least this was the case in my session, Designing for Experience: Settings and Behaviors, which dealt specifically with the realm of experience design. Part of the problem, of course, is a lack of concrete definition. What exactly is experience design — or, as one coauthor asked, what is not experience design? “Everything can be experience design depending on intent,” he said, which got more than a few murmured assents. “Experience design is something we’ve always been doing but didn’t know the name for,” said another.

Now I’m all for empowering designers — and design educators — so that they can move into this brave new world with boldness and confidence, but isn’t this simply an immodest estimation of the graphic designer’s role in contemporary culture?

“What a terrible and interesting challenge,” summed up one coauthor. “We’re now expected to apply design practice to domains in which designers formerly didn’t play a role, and utilize skills, theory and knowledge that come from other areas.”

Is it fair to expect graphic designers — who become such from an innate talent and nurtured expertise in visual communication — to take on, even in part, the role that can otherwise be filled by professionals who have their own degree programs?

When David Small, the session’s provocateur, confessed that he had never hired a graphic designer to work on his complex interactive installations — preferring instead people who are “good at three or four different things,” like urban planners, social scientists, biologists or architects —the audience reacted as if he had impugned the entire profession.

But what of graphic design’s tried-and-true superpowers, those things that are already within its reach? Amid the betwixt and between that day, only one brave soul stood up to inquire after the role of the pursuit of beauty in the current conversation, and he was met with an almost hostile reaction, as if aesthetics were antiquated — a vestige of the past.

Granted, graphic designers have long had to convince their clients that what they do is more than art, that it is bottom-line-enhancing, even if it takes the shape of a great-looking identity system, brochure or ad campaign. Now that experience design has de-emphasized the artifact in favor of the experience, multiple pathways are mandatory and medium-agnosticism is true religion, graphic designers seem to swing ever closer to the social-science spectrum of things.

The fact that the graphic design profession is changing dramatically is incontestable, as is the need for appropriate tweaks in design education —especially if it means training professionals with greater literacy, more flexibility and better collaborative skills.

But as an outsider with a vested interest in seeing the profession flourish into the future, I think graphic designers should take a deep breath before biting off more than they can reasonably chew.

The best idea I heard all day came when one participant suggested that her students really just needed to get off their computers. “I get them to read a book, go to the research library, take a walk, and make things just to make them.” All the ingredients, in other words, of being a well-rounded human.

Even superheroes, it turns out, have their limitations — as the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe points out. “While possessing sufficient power to alter reality on a cosmic scale,” it reads, “the In-Betweener is not all-knowing or infallible. Indeed, within the parameters of the In-Betweener’s existence are both power and weakness, knowledge and ignorance.”

Andrea Codrington Lippke is a Brooklyn-based editor and writer specializing in design and visual culture.

Posted in: Education

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Comments [8]
This was an extraordinary conference, and a defining moment for AIGA and Design Educators. The quality of the presentations were TED-worthy. Thank you Denise Gonzales Crisp, Meredith Davis, Amber Howard, KT Meaney, Matthew Peterson, Santiago Piedrafita, Alberto Rigau, Martha Scotford and Julie Lasky. It was a thrilling experience to be there and witness, first hand, the remarkable and necessary work being done.
debbie millman

For those interested in some additional thoughts from a participant in the "Social Economies: Enterprise and a New Cultural Geography" session: My thanks also to the organizers and attendees!
Kenneth FitzGerald

Yes, there's a problem. Now how are these educators going to fix it? I feel like your 6 Views write-up is a good start, but there needs to be a follow-up. Less talk, more action. Any examples of schools who are getting it right?

Dave has a point. I study in a very small-scale design institute that prides itself on independent thinking and critical practice. This institute asked me to write a review for a recent conference, which it organized. And I did.

Unfortunately, its not what they wanted; they wanted a dry and descriptive report on speakers and their projects. My review, which included personal opinions and critical analysis, was refused. Lots of talk, but no walk.

Forget the pressure journalists have in being critical at, say, The New York Times, if small indie design schools can't be critical, where can one be?

Rick Robinson's quote "Destroy your discipline! Keep it strong!" is fantastic, by the way.

As the world and society evolves, the school should from time to time check at the likelihood of changing the curriculum that suits to the needs of the students and society.

I refer to this conference in an essay I wrote for the Eye magazine blog:
Steven McCarthy

A conference such as this one is a credit to NCSU, who are fortunate to have the extraordinary influence of academics and visionaries such as Meredith Davis (amongst others). The views and insights expressed by all who participated are through-provoking, timeous and encouraging - thank you for your energy and cohesion- read additional thrilling material at (

The notion of world citizenship should, however, also be considered in the mix. I think that all too often Americans forget that they are in an extremely fortunate position to have organisations with such influence as AIGA, Design Observer, Winterhouse and others, where thoughtful and provocative discourse takes place, driven by the resourcefulness that Americans are known for.

World citizenship and the role we all play as educators, designers and opinion generators is an equally critical consideration. I would contend that you should begin to see yourselves as part of broader socio-cultural grouping that includes the other 6.7 billion of us who are not American, and engage in a forum that includes those whose resources are meagre, but whose passion and resolve is as intense.

Thanks again for the outstanding richness of intent that issued from the conference. It has been hugely valuable in addressing curriculum development issues at my School.
Bruce Cadle - NMMU South Africa

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