Jan 292012
Design Museum box

Image by Robert Brook via Flickr

Cross called for a “fundamental change of perspective” regarding design

During course reviews with students at the Austin Center for Design, where I am a professor, our faculty saw a concerning pattern. Many of our students were inhibited, some even fearful, of actually making things. Luckily, they were seeking advice and direction on how to use their hands and actually experiment.

But the problematic part was that they were students at a design school. We actively recruit and accept those without deep design backgrounds because of the other skills and experience they bring to our program like business, science, engineering, education, social work, or simply their intellectual curiosity and adeptness. We do this with full confidence that we can leverage our own design training to help them along. The expectation at our school is that students won’t be creating just beautiful objects; they’ll create beautifully smart and socially impactful ones.

But, the fear of literally making these designs was a bright red flag for our faculty.

Students often traced their inhibitions back to childhood when they first grew conscious of their teacher and peers’ judgment. One student vividly recalled what it was like to have a teacher title his drawing for him to avoid inevitable confusion from grown-ups. His “making trauma” was intensified when he was in fourth grade and one of his paintings mistakenly got put into a first grad art show. He didn’t win.

This condition is even more widespread the higher you go up the corporate ladder. At frog, we often engage our clients in visually creative exercises to tap their knowledge about a domain and strengthen our partnership in the design process. But, in three different collaborative work sessions that I’ve facilitated with clients in the past year, I’ve been told outright at the beginning: “I’m not good at this, so don’t expect much.”

In a 1979 research project at the Royal College of Art, Professor Bruce Archer referred to design as the missing “third area” of education; the first two areas were considered the sciences and the humanities. Later, in a small book, Designerly Ways of Knowing, educator Nigel Cross made a formal case for the addition of design to our general education, namely the K-12 curriculum. But, he was careful to point out the tricky nature of such a proposition. Cross argued that design, as an area of study, suffered from a legacy of being a technical vocation, where one is “trained” to be a designer, often through an apprenticeship of some sort. Its aims are extrinsic, meaning a student is equipped to perform in a specific social role such as an architect capable of competently designing a building. But general education, in addition to being non-technical, consists of intrinsic goals which contribute to an individual’s self-realization and basic life skills. For instance, many of us learned the principles of math and use them to pay our taxes, but didn’t become mathematicians. And, we read Shakespeare to learn about comedies and tragedies and the use of language, but didn’t become playwrights.

In this context, theoretical understanding takes priority over “the how.” But, to be a designer you need both forms of knowledge. With this in mind, Cross called for a “fundamental change of perspective” regarding design, if it were to be a part of general education. He asserts that an education in design must have value in and of itself and not just be influenced by extrinsic motivating factors such as getting a job.

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