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education

Why can’t we have more of that!? (Fiona Raby, Newsbar, 2018)

This question, asked by Fiona as we ate our sandwiches at the Newsbar, has lodged itself in my mind since leaving New York. We were discussing the brilliance of The Third Policeman over lunch. O’Brien’s wondrous, surrealist, postmodern masterpiece, written between 1939–1940, has been a continual source of inspiration to me for over 20 years. It was my last day with Fiona, Tony and Carolyn and, as with many lunches over those 3 months, our conversations drifted towards our favourite films, artists and fiction. Fiona demanded, with a sense of almost indignation, why the freedom, creativity and imagination of the great surrealist, postmodern and magical realist fiction writers, like Flann O’Brien, didn’t populate the world of design. We talked about the freedom and joyous expression of literary fiction in relationship to experimental design practice.

Also during my last week in NYC I went to see Rams with the brilliant Matt Brown. A beautiful documentary about the legendary head of design for Braun, Dieter Rams. I, like many of my generation, enjoy a bit of design fetishism as much as the next white-male-middle-class-designer. But I came away deeply frustrated by the gulf between the object obsessive conservatism and the lack of genuine follow through by many of the fanboys (or put more clearly; Rams lived his ideas, those that hero worship him often take his ideas as superficial styling to fuel consumption). My other deep frustration was why did it all need to be so fucking earnest?

So much of design culture is occupied by people that take themselves so very seriously. When thinking about our conversations in the Newsbar about magical realism and surrealism, it became apparent to me that the level of imaginative freedom allowed in the world of experimental fiction, would struggle to exist in contemporary design culture (and academia) because there’d be some form of backlash about how it wasn’t ‘real’… that the work didn’t address the world’s real issues or problems… that it would never succeed in the ‘real world’. We are a discipline that is reliant on our creativity and imagination, but have become terrified of the imaginary….

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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.

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I’m half way through my time in NYC. The time has sped by at a startling pace, inducing acute panic and anxiety. What have I achieved? What have I to show for these weeks?! It’s clear that I’m struggling to ‘lean in’ to having time to think, idle and reflect. I have this nagging voice in my head demanding productivity; a number of words written, a set of projects developed, a range of outcomes produced with the idea of deep personal and intellectual transformation (!!!).

I’m know that I should resist, I should give my mind space and time to drift in a new landscape; allowing my thoughts to catch the wind, find serendipitous connections, follow things that capture my imagination. But it’s hard. Maybe I need to meditate or maybe I need to medicate.

One thing I’m currently caught on is the split between reflection and production, moving forwards or looking back. I came to New York with a mission to develop a project (a book) about design education. This has been in the pipeline for years and I’ve not had the time to fully engage. The book will allow me to ‘capitalise’ on the effort, work, time and energy I’ve put into teaching over the last 17 years. I have a hope that it will act as a way to move my thinking on, whilst creating a vehicle to communicate the amazing work that my colleagues and I have achieved at Goldsmiths. It’s my opportunity to shout loudly about what we’ve done, creating a record that I think is important at this point in the history of design education. However, as with most of these moments in my life; capitalising on something that I’m in  prime position to do so, is something I rarely do.

I end up feeling bored by the ideas I’ve already thought, annoyed at the banality of my brain, and with this come the loss of curiosity and excitement. I want to move to new pastures, think new things and imagine a different set of possibilities. This is made worse  because I’m away from teaching and away from Goldsmiths; so the book feels like I’m making a prison for myself. A way to remain in the past.

As I write, Herbie is on a plane, over the Atlantic. A brave boy, flying on his own, heading to me and the promised land of endless pizza and ice-cream. I think his presence will help… or at least distract me from my privileged purgatory (only joking here… being overly dramatic… I’m still loving NYC).

Pesce

So my diary isn’t going too well… there’s a temporal disjunction between the amount of sensory and cultural input I’m receiving and my ability to write it down. This maybe due to my poor writing skills, my lack of routine and discipline or it could be that I’m being over-stimulated and my fingers are too slow.

I do however, need to record my encounter with Gaetano Pesce. I went to a lecture he gave at Columbia on Monday and it was an incredible experience. It was perfectly timed for me; I was desparate for a type of input that would uplift me and make me have hope in design and design education.

I’ve been a long time fan of Pesce. I first came across his work during a period in my design education when I tried to deconstruct my aesthetic values. I looked for work that I didn’t ‘like the look of’, that challenged the norms of my aesthetic sensibilities and I found Pesce and Sottsass. Both of which, I had instant aesthetic responses against, both I have grown to love. I’ve been lucky enough to hear them speak, had they’ve had a massive impact on my understanding of the world and the world of design.

Pesce’s lecture at Columbia Architecture was full of humor and insight. He spoke passionately about what he felt was worth while in architecture. He made the distinion between ‘architecture’ and ‘building’… he said that most of the constructed environment today – the buildings that the architecture press sell as Architecture (with a big A) are merely buildings. Because true architecture both reflects the context in which it sits, but also moves it forward – it speaks of a future. He beleives many of today’s star-hitect buildings are BORING!

He has a joyful playfulness combined with grand scale hopefullness that I feel is missing from much of todays design culture. He really gives NO FUCKS. I went along, aware that I could be disappointed with an old, white, italian man who was likely to be sexist and old fashioned. I came away wanting him to adopted me. He talked about gender politics, a tricky thing for an old man to do in the age of #metoo, but he sent a clear message: the male ego has fucked things up, we need to give all positions of responsibility to women.

In an age of post-disciplinary, post-industurial design practice that engages with the knotty problems of the 21st Century, it’s hard for us to remain connected to a material practice, a sense of simplicity, or humour in the face of desparation. There’s very little to smile about in the world. As we look through our tiny media windows we see things that feel too big to ‘solve’, too advanced to restore. But Pesce remained hopeful, he remained humble and he remained deeply individual in his aesthetic evolution.

One of the things I worry most about is how, as designers, we manage to evolve a sense of humour (what, in conversations with Fiona Raby & Tony Dunne call), a ‘lightness of touch’, in response to the complexities of our world. At the moment I see a bifurcation; where funny, joyful and light work sit in the realm of meaningless, excessive consumption. Whilst social engaged, community focused and politically meaningful design work is often humourless, austere and self satisfied. We need to stop being so binary. We need to be multiple.

In the questions after, I was a little too overwhelmed and intimidated to ask a question, but after the lecture, talking to a colleague we thought of loads. The two most important are; how does Pesce make decisions about his ideas? And, does he think it’s possible to teach the sense of self confidence needed to produce work that bucks the trend – that reaches outside of the aesthetic norm?

A student asked about his working process; he answered by saying it’s simple – he has an idea, then makes it. Although I laughed, I’m not convinced this is true, he must have a way to work though an idea, to understand if it’s worth pursuing. He must have a way to make decisions within his process. I’d like to try and understand this process a little more.

As for the pedagogy of confidence, I’m a bit stuck. My hope is; if you are an educator and you support the learning of students to understand (self actualise), to be revolutionary in their understand of the world, to transgress the social, political and aesthetic norms, to help support them in understanding their agency… then this confidence will come. But I’m not too sure… I hope it does.

Drawing in the studio

Within design education, there’s little shared wisdom about how to conduct a tutorial. The tutorial is the bread and butter of design learning; the main pedagogic object of interaction. But we, the design community, rarely share the nuts and bolts of how to navigate and steer a student through a successful project; how to encourage, provoke, inspire and lead a designer into new and fascinating territories.

In this post, I’d like to outline a few basics. It’s me, stating the obvious, in what I consider good pedagogic practice; how best to support, guide and get the most out of students and their work.

I believe the things I’ve learnt over the last ten or so years are applicable to other disciplines and within the professional context of design. Whether as a Creative Director or a Design Manager, the following points are a good place to start when it comes to directing creativity;

Listening is Key

At the heart of a good tutor is their ability to listen. Understanding ideas, position and intent allows for more connected, meaningful feedback. Asking questions to clarify is key to aiding your understanding. Sometimes students take a long time to get to the salient point, they can skirt around the topic due to a lack of confidence, confusion or perception of expectation, so be patient, let them ‘talk out’, only respond when you understand what’s in front of you. Wait until nerves die down to get to the heart of the matter, then you’ll be in the best position to advise.

Ownership and embodiment

It’s all to common for design tutors to try to design vicariously – to direct a student in a way that they would do the project. This, in my opinion, is a flawed approach. It has a history in the master/apprentice model of education; watch, copy, admire, repeat (where learning is a happy side effect). However, it rarely allows the student to feel ownership over the content and learning experience.

Within Art and Design, intellectual ownership is a tricky subject to navigate. The messy and complex network of ideas become distributed across a number of different references, conversations and people, the genesis of an idea is difficult to locate. Tutors that have a ‘that was my idea’ attitude rarely survive or remain happy and motivated. Intellectual generosity is an essential quality of a good educator. Having the humility to understand and value that the adoption of ideas ‘as their own’ is an important part of learning – it allows for the embodiment of the ideas into the identity of the designer.

Mutual exploration

However, in the age of the Internet, the tutor as gateway to all knowledge is long gone. The ability (or illusion) of a Professor having read ‘everything’ in their discipline is a distant memory. When knowledge is acquired and disseminated in such a radically different manner, it calls for educational revolution. Sadly, the rise of the MOOC isn’t the revolution I was hoping for.

The abolishment of levels and the flattening of hierarchies are at the heart of how I believe education needs to change. Breaking the often fictitious boundaries between teaching and research to allow for the mutual exploration of ideas is a fundamentally different model of education. Sadly, due to financial scalability, this remains relevant only to an elite. But as a tutor, see your conversations with students as a space to explore ideas, be the learner as much as the teacher. Reframe higher education away from the hierarchies of expertise towards mutual exploration of the distant boundaries of your discipline.

Expanding possibility space

It’s important to remember that a tutorial should be expanding the cone of possibility for the student. They should leave, not with answers, but with an expanded notion, a greater ambition of what they were trying to achieve. It’s important to be ambitious and set tough challenges for your students, otherwise boredom or (heavens forbid) laziness can take over. Most student’s I’ve met love being thrown difficult challenges, most rise to the occasion, all learn a great deal. In order to move towards the goal of a self determined learner, the student should control the decisions of the design process. If you’re telling them what to design, not opening up possibilities and highlighting potential problems, you’re probably missing something.

Understand motivation, vulnerability and ‘learning style’

Every student we teach, learn in a different way, have different hopes and desires, react to feedback in a different way. Navigating and ‘differentiating’ these differences is really difficult. Some tutors take a distanced intellectual approach, where the content in front of them is a puzzle that needs to be solved, this is the classic personae of the academic, distanced, emotionally arid, intellectually rigorous. But this doesn’t alway mean a good learning experience. Other tutors operate on a more psychological level; the try to understand the emotional context of the situation and adapt their advise accordingly. Whatever happens, understand you have a individual in front of you, they have lives outside of the studio, they are going through all manner of personal shit that will effect their attention and engagement. They come from different cultures, different educational backgrounds, so their response to your advice is going to shift like the wind, be adaptive, read body language and don’t go in like a bulldozer (I have definitely done this in the past!). 

In terms of learning style, without this becoming a paper on pedagogy, understand that your advice need to be tailored to different students. Some (a lot) need to learn through a physical engagement with their material, others needs to have an intellectual structure in place in order to progress. Throughout a project, course or programme, try to understand this and direct your advice accordingly.

Agreed direction

Tutorials shouldn’t just be general ‘chats’ about the project or world, they should give direction, tasks and a course of action. I have a rule: Don’t end the tutorial until you’ve both agreed a direction. This can be pretty tough to manage in terms of time, as I get more experienced, I get better at reaching an agreement within my tutorial time allocation, but I still often can overrun by hours. The important thing to work towards is the idea that you both understand the project, and you both understand how it could move. End the tutorial when this been reached.

Read and respond

It’s really important, in design, to respond to what is in front of you. To actual STUFF. It’s far too easy to let students talk without showing evidence of their work. This is a dangerous game. Words can deceive, hide and misrepresent action. Dig into sketchbooks, ask to see work they’ve done. If they haven’t done anything, ask them to go away and do something to represent their ideas and thoughts. Production is key to having a productive tutorial. Only through responding to actual material evidence of action can a project move forward. At its worst, students can develop the skill to talk about stuff, making it exciting in your mind, but fail to produce the project in the end. But this isn’t the main reason for this section, it’s more about the ideas of design residing in the material production, not just the explication. You can tell me what you believe something does or means, but it’s only when it’s in front of me that I can fully grasp this.

The art of misinterpretation

Another reason why it’s important to dig into sketchbooks and look at work, is that looking at something and trying to work out what it means – the space of interpretation – is an important space of learning. By interpreting and indeed misinterpreting work, you and your student can find out things about the project. If the student intended one thing and you understand something else by it, you’ve at least learnt that it was poorly (visually and materially) communicated. But the exciting stuff happens when misinterpretation acts as a bridge between your internal mental processes (with all references etc) and your students. Your reading of a drawing acts as a way to generate a new idea or direction. This is when there is genuine creative collaboration.

References

One of the roles of a tutor is to point students towards relevant and inspiring resources. In the age of the internet, when student’s roam the halls of tumblr and are constantly fed inspiration by their favourite design blogs, the use, meaning and impact of tutor driven references has changed. Be focussed with reading, ensure students know why they are looking at a particular reference and make sure that you contextualise the work within the ideas that they have.

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Over the last couple of years, the term Design Fiction (DF) has gained ground and popularity. It has entered design parlance and has become ‘hip with the kids’. As a practice it’s moved out of classrooms and galleries into boardrooms and research labs. I’ve watched the term grow in popularity, been frustrated with the lack of historic contextualisation, and amazed by how little the term has been interrogated.

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As an educator and a designer, I’ve spent most of the last decade thinking about and doing design education – but I’ve been in the thick of it, on the front line; giving lectures, writing briefs, managing curriculums, directing courses and giving tutorials. So I talk and think about design A LOT – the content and quality of ideas, how to progress ideas into realities, how to construct convincing narratives and engaging stories about speculations, how to best detail the material results of a designers imagination. But I rarely get the chance to try and put my thoughts together about ‘design education’ as a holistic overview. My personal research – with DWFE and before – has been as a practitioner and theorist(ish), without a focus on design education, however, over the last couple of years I’ve realised I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience that maybe worth sharing. Last week I was invited to Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar to discuss the future of design education. I used the opportunity to reflect on my practice as an educator, but also to set out a trajectory or strategy for the future of design education.

During my teaching career, my aim has been to enable students to develop a thoughtful, critical, creative and sustainable design practice. But beyond these well-meaning educational aims, the role of educators and academics is also to push the boundaries of their discipline. My drive is based not only on the transformation of my students, but also the transformation of design itself. This is by no means a small task, but for me, the role of higher education is to find new directions for the industries it feeds. Our graduates will, one day, be leaders – shaping our material culture in new ways. I hope their education will set them (and design) up on a new trajectory.

Design as a discipline is as varied and as large as any I know. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is to define actually what design is. Throughout the history of design, we’ve seen many different modes, names and conditions for designing. Here lies possibly the biggest challenge to design education, during design’s short and chequered history, designers, academics and to some extent markets have tried to delineate and define ‘this design from that’. Boundaries and borders are drawn to distinguish where one type of design starts and another one finishes. Walls are built to defend territories, markets and practices. Design is increasingly chopped into decreasing small bits. It is in these silos where the discipline gets stuck, frozen in a battle of nomenclature and method, arguing the fine differences between UX and IA, ultimately no one moves forward. But this becomes truly destructive is when it moves into education.

This is no big surprise; academics in their desire, by very definition, to be experts in a particular field, fragment the bigger picture. This limits growth and the possibility for change, but also jeopardises the education of their students. Why does this sit so uncomfortably with Design as against say History or English, Economics or Engineering? I would argue that this is due to the very nature of design as a practice, it is one for the generalist, design demands the negotiation of a multitude of different disciplines, skills and knowledge sets. In its practice it draws inspiration from subjects as diverse as philosophy and material science, in its implementation it uses both practical, material and conceptual skills. In our drive to give a closer definition of our discipline, we have limited the view of the world which we need to design for.

Seeing design beyond its disciplinary boundaries and beyond its definition as a ‘problem solving activity’ opens up new opportunities for it as a practice and profession. ‘Big business’ has begun to understand the value of design in the generation of new ideas and the role of designers as the instigators of invention. Business has also started to recognise that design has a strategic value in the predication and creation of new markets. Beyond its close relationship with free market capitalism, designers have begun to play a small role in public sector activity – from social care and health care, designers offer a new perspective on service innovation.

But these opportunities offer new challenges in the education of our students. The craft and manufacturing skills of the last century have little to do with the knowledge economy of this century. The social, environmental and political problems of today will not be solved by the tools and approaches educators have been teaching designers over the last 100 years. It was with this in mind that Goldsmiths – in particular John Wood – started the BA Design 20 years ago. He recognised the need to provide a interdisciplinary education to equip students with the tools to participate in social and environmental change.

In the last 20 years, the context and profession of design has changed dramatically. However, the ethos and ambition of the BA Design programme has become even more ‘contemporary’, in my opinion it has moved from being radical to sensible. Our curriculum has evolved and refined, our staff and students continue to challenge and experiment, but the original ambition has remained the same – a testament to John’s insight.

During my visit to Doha, I was excited to witness a city and country at a point of massive change. Qatar is like a petree dish for social and environmental transformation, everyday comes a new ambition and opportunity for growth and development.  The material environment is being built at such a rapid pace, the social and cultural infrastructure has little time to catch up. It felt like I was observing a giant country-wide experiment, a top down push to move the country in a new direction. The ambition of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his second wife to move the country from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy is both smart and necessary. The investment and building of an infrastructure to support an future economy reminds me of Rem Koolhaus’ analysis of the development of Manhattan’s grid in 1807:

The Grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation. In spite of its apparent neutrality, it implies an intellectual program for the island: in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality…the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent.

R. Koolhaas, Delirious New York, 1994

Doha feels empty, a place in waiting, preparing to be filled with a ‘phantom’ population, culture, economy and future. Maybe this is how Manhattan felt 200 hundred years ago. The heritage and identity of the Qatari way of life is being radically changed overnight, like a construction site that is demolished and rebuilt, forgetting key materials may cause long lasting damage. However, there is enormous potential there. The emerging design culture has far less baggage, the culture can reshape itself for the 21st century without decades of preconceptions and prejudices. It will hopefully aid Qatar in the leapfrogging necessary to allow for its economic transformation.