Pedagogy: 21st Century Design Education Manifesto

Due to the proliferation of technology, software, and tutorials, people can practice as designers without having a degree. Design programs within universities must utilize their setting and connections to create an experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere, especially considering the continuing rise in tuition costs. Design education must be structured for opportunities beyond what can be attained from an independently purchased software suite and a long weekend. Practicing pedagogy to accommodate collaboration, developing a communication skill set over mastery of tools, and mentorship will produce designers who can face real world situations and survive ongoing shifts in the field.

After braving a job search in a recession stricken economy, I conclude that design is still misunderstood and undervalued by many as superficial visualization, which can be dismissed or eliminated completely. Designers without training can unintentionally exacerbate the longstanding fight for credibility with lower quality work or ill-advised behavior, like accepting speculative work. Despite my struggles to find a job, I understood the value of my profession:

We do more than make things pretty.
We do more than run software applications.
We do more than decorate.
We do more than obey clients.
We do more than logos.

From my perspective as a future professor, our pedagogy must promote these ideals to produce well-rounded designers that will promote and increase our value as a field. The self-taught designers are not without value or virtue as a whole; however, it is presently the responsibility of design education to set the standards of the field until a system of licensing is instituted. Notably, design education programs within universities are in a position to connect with professional practice, prepare students for life beyond academia, and increase the credibility of the field across disciplines thereby addressing the demands of the 21st century. Presently, the field is in a state of rapid change and complexity that seems unlikely to dissipate; thus, students must be taught a skill set that is transferable and enduring.

Collaboration is necessary when addressing systemic and complex issues; thus, producing designers who are isolationists with difficulties communicating ideas to others is not acceptable or effective. Curriculum should include group projects at each stage of two or four year programs; however, the nature of the project will be more involved and cross–disciplinary in the junior and senior years. Collaborations with students from other departments within the university mirror real life situations. Designers have to work with a variety of stakeholders and must become adept at communicating with non-designers. The development of a skill set that includes writing, presentation, public speaking, research, and project management facilitates collaboration across disciplines. This requires students to be critical thinkers who can organize and communicate ideas clearly. Developing the aforementioned skills displays a more traditional understanding of intelligence, which serves to elevate the designer to those unfamiliar or unconvinced of design’s value beyond visual gimmickry.

To fully develop the student’s skills, courses offered throughout the university may be necessary, specifically in regards to writing. Design educators can demonstrate best practices of collaboration through structuring curriculum that requires professors to work together inside and outside of the design department. This practice will also alleviate the prevalence of “cult of personality” teaching, which often produces students without a perspective who are beholden to their professor. This is particularly detrimental considering the variety of opinions and approaches that can be helpful in the latter years of a student’s development. At this stage, students will be able to make critical decisions and form opinions about design. Development of interests and goals should be facilitated by a direct link to professional practice with a mentoring program. Students will connect with practitioners who have committed to advise a group through their senior year studies based on their goals and interests. Mentoring relationships serve students personally while providing a reference for the educators of what is happening in the field beyond academia.

I conclude that academia’s relationship to professional practice must be reevaluated in order to best prepare students for the shifts in the field. The relationship between professional practice and design education must be symbiotic—with pedagogy and curriculum mirroring best professional practices and building relationships with practitioners—as the students will be future leaders in the field. It is the responsibility of the design educators in universities to fully exploit the amenities of their environment and connections to prepare students with enduring valuable skills considering the rapid changes and uncertainty of the 21st century. Like myself, many students will find themselves en route to professorship and must experience an effective pedagogy that is worthy to be passed on to future students.

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