On reflection: Rethinking Masters Design Education
Towards an Expanded Practice
Last week (19.02.19) our first cohort of the MA Design Expanded Practice graduated — congratulations!!! Back in December, when they presented their work, I was blown away by their approach and energy. It’s especially exciting and rewarding to see that we’re on a new trajectory for post-graduate design education. I started writing this post, back in October, but it’s been put on the backburner several times… so excuse the temporal shifts. I decided to publish it, as we see our first graduates go into the world. I think it’s fitting to reflect on the journey the department has taken to get them to this point.
Below, I try to capture and reflect upon my experience of being the Head of Design at Goldsmiths over the last three years (ending in Sept 2018). My hope is that these reflections will be a form of catharsis; aimed to exorcise the demons of managerialism (only joking!). I think it’ll help me understand what I did and learnt, whilst hopefully sharing with a broader community who are interested in design and education. My aim is to give context, advice (although I’m not sure I have any) and narrative to the changes that the faculty of the department worked incredibly hard to achieve. I also think it’s good to document and expose the working dynamics of ‘change’ — which is something normally hidden, behind the veil of institutional PR.
This post will be a mix of thoughts about design, educational politics and a thread of how to build, maintain and care for communities of practice. It centres around something I’m really proud of; our new MA Design Expanded Practice.
A little context
When I took over the department we had eight interrelated, but conceptually conflicting Masters programmes. These programmes had evolved over the history of the department and reflected certain institutional and disciplinary histories. Each of the programmes started due to different politics, intentions, personal career goals, intellectual trajectories and market ‘intelligence’. With this came different ideas and futures for design.
Within the programmes there were some excellent practices (in terms of teaching and content); they recruited some brilliant students; and the ‘portfolio’ was, to some extent, economically sustainable (but not predictably so). However, there was still something that wasn’t working. The portfolio had systemic and cultural problems, as a department we decided it was time for a radical re-haul. In analysing our offer, it became obvious that some of the issues were due to deep structural problems. Our PG structure failed to allow for the kind of culture and growth that we’d created on our BA Design (more on this below).
So much has changed since the department began in the early 1990s. Although the founding principles are still the same, the social, technological, environmental, political and economic context had changed beyond recognition. The role and positions that designers occupy within organisations and businesses has also changed dramatically. This meant we needed to ensure that the education we offered not only matched the changing demands of design, but more importantly, predicted a change in the discipline to allow our graduates to ‘future proof’ their degrees.
Having made the bold decision to start from scratch, I was hyper-aware that we needed to retain the good practices that had evolved over years of hard work. However, we also needed to push and evolve a deeply experimental design culture in the face of an ever-more conservative sector.
Back in 2015, it was evident that we were experiencing a drastic change throughout higher education; in particular, in postgraduate design education. This was triggered by a change in funding structure; the increase in undergraduate fees dramatically affected the profile of postgraduate student recruitment. Programmes increasingly began to cater for the international ‘market’, but more importantly, the financial pressures placed on students and the growing rhetoric from a conservative government, made Universities risk adverse. It became more difficult to support alternative educational models when such emphasis is placed on concepts of ‘employability’ and ‘value for money’. Luckily, Goldsmiths management still had faith that the design department had the ability to mix the radical with the practical.