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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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It was a year ago that I wrote ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre Part 1’, with the good intension that I would write this post soon after. As life gets busy, I find myself having done another year at AHO, teaching a new and improved class on design ideational methods. So here are some of the techniques and exercises I’ve developed over the last 7 years to aid the drawing process. Many of my drawing exercises have been influenced by my colleague Terry Rosenberg who continues to be a brilliant drawing teacher, so this post is a big nod to him.

I’ve ran these classes in different forms and situations for over the last seven years, what you see here is a selection of highlights that try to give a overview of the approach. Ultimately, I’d like to write a book about the approach. Until then, a blog post will have to do.

The warm up; reconnecting the hand, eye and brain

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I start my workshops with a drawing warm up; A set of exercises that are common on foundation courses and life drawing classes around the country. The idea of the warm up is three-fold:

First, it acts as a diagnostic; giving me insight into the skills and abilities of the group. It’s allows me to assess the levels of the participants, whilst starting to see the good and bad habits they have evolved in their drawing practice. It’s important to know their strengths and weaknesses in order to pace the session. Strangely enough many people with very good drawing skills find these classes harder – I think this is due to a more developed (entrenched) way of using their hand, eyes and brain.

Second, it allows me to set out the relationship between the hand, eyes and brain within the drawing process. The exercises isolate each part of the body to explore the role it plays in the drawing process. It gives people insight into how practice builds strength in all three. By isolating looking, thinking and moving I highlight how each contribute to the production of ideas. Deconstructing the physicality of drawing identifies the bodily nature of the imagination.

Finally it allows me to discuss the difference between representational and ideational drawing. Drawing to make a representation of something that already exists and drawing to generate the new. It is here that I argue that drawing, even at a representational level, is the construction of ideas. Therefore the conscious manipulation of ideas through the act of drawing becomes highly fruitful for a designer.

The exercises are timed (between three and ten minutes a drawing) and are delivered with a sort of military charge (I was once accused of being a Sergeant Major of Drawing “Drop and give me 50”). I do this on purpose, the tight time restrictions give people little time to think and critique their own work. This means they relax and become less precious with their marks. This is essential, as it’s impossible to generate ideas through drawing if you spend your time fearful of ridicule and critique. The students are asked to draw portraits of each other, this also acts as an ice breaker. They laugh at each other with mutual generosity.

I move from finger tips to shoulder, isolating parts of the body to highlight the effect of bodily movement on the mark and mode of representation. I show how shifts in bodily relations change the nature of the mark and therefore the idea of the drawing. I end the warm up with a series of ‘continuous line drawings’, again these act as a great leveller. It gives everyone the same ‘style’ and aesthetic, relieving tension and expectation. It helps remove hesitancy and nervous ‘hairy’ lines, building a form of false confidence. It also forces the participants to locate their subject within their environments. The web of lines move across the page connecting disparate objects and ideas, they form a visible network of things, aiding connections and relations.

Drawing at AHO

Investigate and deconstruct

After the warm up we move on to drawing things. I normally ask the students to bring a collection of interesting and unusual objects, it starts with the familiar feeling of a ‘still life’, a pile of unusual objects (found, scavenged and treasured) ready to be observed and documented. I start with a series of continuous line drawings, at this stage it’s really important to keep the momentum going, it becomes easy to fall back into old habits. It’s also important to emphasis detail and dimension; things are made from materials, they have weight, density and texture, using continuous line technique it’s easy to make shorthand assumptions about an object; a slow abstraction towards an icon.

Once the objects have become familiar, I ask students to draw an exploded diagram, still in continuous line, we deconstruct the constituent parts of an object to see it in its complexity. Obviously, at this stage, it’s not possible to break the object to pieces, it’s here that the drawing moves from observation to assumption. By asking for an exploded diagram, I challenge the students to deconstruct the object in their imagination, giving them an access point into understanding manufacturing and construction. A form of engineering fiction.

Explode view diagram

In our current climate of conservative ‘design research’ it’s hard to imagine how a drawing practice can be rigorously investigatory; how it can shed light on ideas, objects and forms, how it is part of knowledge production. But I’m keen to encourage our students to use drawing as a way of knowing the world. It’s through the act of drawing, the to and fro of idea to observation, that objects can unravel their meaning. Drawing acts as a process of forensic examination of materiality, demystifying meaning and generating new.

Conjoin and mutate (bridging reality and the imagination)

conjoin

My next activity centres around the move from representation to ideation. From drawing things in the world, to inventing things. I get students to select and draw two objects, one on the far left of the page and one on the right (see diagram above). I then ask them to fill the gap with 3-5 new drawings/objects. As their drawings move towards the centre, they should imagine a hybrid form, a mutant offspring of the two objects either side. By the time they reach the middle, they have a 50:50 hybrid, but either side of the centre is a less dominant mix. I commonly ask the students to use continuous line, this allows them to drift from one form to the next.

As with most of my drawing exercises, the outcome is often not the main goal. It’s the thought process that the act of drawing evokes. In the example above, we start from the familiar and move towards the strange. Drawing allows a space for the careful consideration of materials, construction and form, whilst opening opportunities for the examination of function. By trying to splice together incongruent objects, a slow consideration of their context and use comes into play. Again it is the fluctuation between objects as they are and how they may be.

Conjoin @ AHO

Infection and connection

The last process that I’m going to explain, is probably at the heart of the ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre‘, it’s the most challenging to master and the hardest to teach.  In this process my aim is to unlock a state of mind that allows the designer to make connections, interrogate ideas and invent new objects. It becomes hard to describe without falling into theories of ‘flow‘, ‘unconscious cognition‘ and ‘radical plasticity‘, but I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist (although I think there’s a killer PhD in there), and the theoretical reflection of this work has never been the drive for my engagement (I’ll leave it for another time/post/life/paper).

First, I ask student’s to compile some lists. If working on a brief, the lists should be related to a central topic, if not, random lists can suffice (but can lead to difficult dead ends). I ask for five lists containing at least ten items of the following:

  • Objects (artefacts related to their interests/context of investigation)
  • Sites (places where interactions occur)
  • Situations (events that take place in the network of culture that surrounds their objects)
  • People (professions, personalities or characters relevant to their object/context/project)
  • Qualities (adjectives describing of the interaction, behaviour of material involved)

Making lists is an important part of this process, it gives participants the chance to draw up an ecology of ‘actors‘, understanding the constituent parts of the context for which they’re designing. It allows for the mapping of places of action and ultimate the opportunities for design intervention.

I ask the participants to select an object from their list and draw it at the centre of an A3/A2 page. The central object should be something that resonates, something they can imagine designing, enjoy drawing, or something that is key to their interests. I then ask them to write one word from each of their lists in each of the corners of their page (see diagram below).

infection

I then ask for the object to be re-drawn 3-5 times toward the edge of the paper, as the object moves towards the word, it becomes infected by it e.g. as the object get redrawn toward the ‘site’ it becomes more site-specific. This allows for students to start to re-imagine objects through the cultural complexities of the context, it allows actors to merge and agency to become physicalised. In this process form gives way to environment, context becomes reflected on the surface of the world.

As I describe above, the important outcome of the drawing isn’t necessarily the objects that emerge, it’s the thoughts that are triggered, it’s drawing as ideational practice. Therefore, it’s important to jump straight into drawing, I encourage a leap of faith, where the drawing is started without knowing the direction or outcome. If time is spent pre-thinking the outcome, the power of the process is lost. I try to encourage the embracing of dead ends, the power of ideational drawing is in the new beginnings and monstrous births.

These processes can be morphed, adapted and mutated, highlighting different elements of the design context with each iteration. The activities need repetition and practice, as with all drawing, it is through practice that familiarity and flow occur.

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In 2007 I started to sketch out a book with the very brilliant Mike Michael, it was a lot of fun, but it got lost in busy times. Some of the ideas I’ve presented in different places (at Nokia Advanced Design in mid-2008 and at Design Transfer in Berlin later in 2008), but I’ve never really written about it. Last week I stumbled upon the proposal and think it still has some merit. I’ve added and edited it to make it more readable for a blog post, I thought I’d put it here to see what you think:

We are supposedly living in an epoch in which time has speeded up, where we are forever looking to the future, indeed, where the future encroaches on the presented to form what Nowotny (2008:2) has called an ‘extended present’. Increasingly scholars have begun to interrogate our relations to the future and there is now an articulation of what it means to ‘study’ the future.

Design’s relationship to ‘the future’ is strange, it is always, to some extent future orientated. No mater what sort of design you do, it always exists in a future yet to be lived. Recent writing and ideas around ‘Design Fiction’ has highlighted the narrative qualities needed in producing engaging and provocative work. But I’d like to sketch out and explore the ways in which the future is –  or rather how complex and contradictory futures are – made and unmade in the context of design processes. In particular, the following is a sketch of a ‘typology of futures’ as they at once have shaped, and been mediated by, design.

As such, the underlying rationale of the proposal was to raise a series of issues for scholars and practitioners concerned with design (and these include not only designers, but also artists, policy makers, social scientists specialising in technology broadly defined). On the one hand, by looking in detail at ‘past’ and ‘present’ futures of design, the book aimed to engage with what can serve as a ‘viable’ future in design thought and practice. By interrogating this viability, we aimed to disentangle the variegated forms of design. On the other hand, by deploying a less linear, more topological model of temporality, we aimed to un-ravel (or re-ravel) its own historiography, and in the process explore methods and techniques by which design-and-future can be rendered radically ‘open’. The upshot is a contribution to design and design-associated disciplines that charts the changing futures of design, but also offers a range of practical and conceptual resources for the ‘doing’ of a Design Futures, that is the simultaneous making and unmaking of the fate of things to come.

In summary, the proposed volume aimed to do the following:

  • Provide an historical account of the ways in which the future has informed design practice and thinking;
  • Examine the range of futures that pervade contemporary design;
  • Reflect upon the linear temporal accounting of  these futures, and develop a topological analytic for ‘design futures’;
  • Elaborate the implications of this topological futuring for the ways in which designers (and design-associated scholars and practitioners);
  • Develop and set out a series of practical and conceptual sensibilities and ‘techniques’ for doing ‘topological futuring’ in design.

Towards a typology of ‘designs-and-futures’

The following is an attempt to characterise the various configurations of ‘designs-and-futures’. The aim is to start to formulate an understanding of the different forms the future in relation to design theory and practice. As such, we tried to develop a heuristic typology of designs-and-futures:

Tight curl futures

Tight curl futures are those that are created around little leaps of delimited imagination. Projects linked to proximal futures that confirm and concretise predominant visions of markets, users and technological progression (similar to Dunne + Raby‘s Affirmative Design). These futures have tight briefs and base their predictions on pre-existing and otherwise un-interrogated versions of ‘needs’ or ‘desires’ or ‘identities’. Tight curl futures are an intrinsic part of widespread social and material discourse and practice.

Design for the long now

In contrast to tight curl futures, and with reference to the writings of Stuart Brand, the definition of ‘design for the long now’ aims to  negate obsolescence and drive the desire to create a more ‘sustainable’ future. As such we consider how some designers strive to demarcate and project futures that contrast from, but are nevertheless indebted to, the present and its tight curl futures. As such these futures can be described in terms of a ‘long now’ which is fundamentally shaped by the present. This analysis will be particularly informed by recent work on the complex role of expectations in generating not only futures, but the ‘users’ of, and investors in, those futures.

Explicit utopianism

Explicit utopianism is contentful, directed and political design that addresses matters of ends and not just means.  Here design formulates and projects idealised needs, wants and uses, but also opens itself up to the potentiality of humans. As such design reconfigures around the realization of untapped positive capacities of those users. Here, those capacities are peculiarly accessible to the designer who now takes on the role of designer as architect of the future. Such utopianism is, of course, ‘of its time’, as the specificities of different utopian visions amply demonstrate. Understanding the presence of the present in these utopias allows us to not simply to debunk them, but to begin to rethink the relation of past, present and future in more iterative terms.

Design and the Doing of Crisis

Focusing on dystopian visions that necessitate design interventions of one sort or another – where Design becomes a long haul  ‘problem solving activity’ in which the prediction of a pessimistic future serves in reinvigorating the role  the designer and underpinning current actions. However, there is another dimension to this negativity – one that pervades all the preceding chapters: namely that tight curl, long now and utopian design all presuppose a negative future that is inevitable in the absence of the ‘right’ design. We explore these mirror images in terms of their performativity – that is, their enactment of particular futures in the present in order to constitute desired futures – in order to further nuance the iterative relationalities of past, present and future.

Predictions, Predications and Propositions

Through a glass, clearly – Inference, Prospects, Extrapolations and Guesswork

This part of the book aimed to develop a series of conceptual tools through which we aimed to reframe the relationship between design and the future. We began to think through the conditions of emergence for a suitable (or ‘fit for purpose’) design practice. We did this through a contrast with both the predicates and processes of a number of the key techniques through which designers have attempted to construct a speculative space for formulating representations of the future that are seen to have some credibility or validity. In taking a close look at ‘foresight’, ‘trend analysis’ and ‘prediction methods’, we aimed to crystallise our own conceptualizations of designs-and-futures and set out a range of propositions. In particular, we contrast the ‘closedness’ of the futures enacted through these techniques (which vary in valency from ‘hope’ to ‘hype’), with the provision of more ‘open futures’ (with their orientation towards ‘horizon’ – inherently vague and unreachable).

Open Futures

Here we tried to conceptualise a design whose relation to the future is altogether more open. As such we look to examples of design practice characterised by a concern with process, emergence, openness, fluidity, complexity, ambiguity, potential and multiplicity of use, function, relations and so on and so forth. Again, we stress that these qualities are not outside of ‘their time’. However, we also started to explore them in terms of the ways in which the re-stitch past-present-futures, and serve to contort to the linearity of temporality into more ‘topological’ configurations in which past, present and future become more difficult to disentangle, or rather, are collapsed together in the ‘event’ of the design.

Conclusion: Re-Conceptualising and Operationalising Futures-and-Designs

In the final chapter we aimed summarise the key themes of our discussions of futures-and designs: the iterative relation between past, present and future, the role of Design in the evocation of such iteration, the performativity associated with the future, the closed-ness and clarity of futures versus their openness and emergence. Out of these themes we formalised an array of concepts, including: topology, iterativity, perfomativity, openness, emergence. Our end goal was to operationalise these through a series of practical recommendations ranging from the development of particular sensibilities toward design as a discipline through to specific techniques of doing design.

REFERENCES

Adam, B. (2006) Has the Future Already Happened
Adam, B. (2006) Futures Told
Baccolini, R. & Moylan T. (ed.) (2003) Dark Horizons; Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination.
Bijker, W. & Law, J. Shaping Technology / Building Society
Brand, S. (2000) The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility
Eno, B & Thackera, J. (2005) Eternally Yours: Time in Design. 010 Publishers
Fry, T. (2008) Design Futuring: sustainability, ethics and new practice. New York: Berg
Fukuyama, F. Our Posthuman Future : consequences of the biotechnology revolution
Guallart, V. (2006) Sociopolis: project for a city of the future. Actar/Architectektur Zentrum Wien
Greenfield, A. (2006) Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing
Hakken D. Cyborgs@Cyberspace?: an ethnographer looks to the future
Jameson, F. (2005) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London Verso.
de Jouvenel, B. (1967) The Art of Conjecture
Kirkby, D. A. (2003) Science Advisors, Representation and Hollywood Films. Molecular Interventions 3:54-60
Loveridge, D. (2009) Foresight: The Art and Science of Anticipating the Future. New York: Routledge
Moylan, T. (2000) Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Oxford: Westview publishing.
Nowotny, H. (2008) Insatiable Curiosity: innovation in a fragile future. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press
Parrinder, P. (ed.)(2000) Learning from Other Worlds, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press

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.

The uncertainty principle

On Sunday 7th October my friend Nic Hughes lost his fight against cancer. He leaves a big hole in the lives of those he knew. He was one of the kindest, smartest and most talented men I’ve had the pleasure to meet. The World without Nic is smaller – diminished and less bright – and without him design will take longer to reach maturity.

I don’t want to write this post about how broken I feel. I want to celebrate my relationship with Nic and speak of the legacy he leaves through my memories and ideas: most importantly how he influenced the way I think and feel about Graphic design.

We met in 2005 when he joined the MA Critical Practice at Goldsmiths. At the time I was Programme Leader, fumbling my way through my first year as a full-time academic. The degree was new and I was new. It was uncharted territory. Nic was my student. This statement alone makes a mockery of the hierarchies of education, whilst simultaneously highlighting one of the most fruitful aspects of working in such an environment. Our relationship was one of shared exploration – talking about and prodding design – in an attempt to figure out if it had a future. I learnt a great deal from Nic, and it felt like a true partnership. During a year when I was unsure of my capacity to lead a new Masters degree, my discussions with Nic made my efforts worthwhile. He saw every lecture and every project brief, as potentially fruitful and exciting. He absorbed everything. His hunger for knowledge was contagious and he infected his peers with a desire to learn. This in turn made my job a lot easier, and more enjoyable.

Nic arrived at Goldsmiths with years of experience as a graphic designer and his level of craftsmanship was incredible. He had that rare skill of being able to combine image and text in a way that ‘just works’. He had an amazing eye for composition. But he was frustrated with his practice, and wanted to push his work conceptually and critically. He was steeped in the Swiss tradition, but in a way he was truly post-modern: first he mastered the rules, and then he set about breaking and rewriting them.

Proto OOO by Nic Hughes

The development of a critical and conceptual voice in graphic design became the foundation for many of our conversations over the years. Understanding its role in the transformation of society, beyond being simply the framework for legible communication, was something that fascinated Nic. Mediators of social relations are always easier to identify and prototype in three-dimensions: ‘Flatland’ offers up a different set of concerns. Nic argued that typography was an object in itself, and he went so far as to place it under an electron microscope to convince me of its three dimensionality.

Letters are Things 2 by Nic Hughes

In its close relationship with advertising, Nic saw the opportunity for Graphic design to play a revolutionary role in effecting social change. But he knew there was a fight to be had, and that designers had to move away from self-satisfied ‘smiles in the mind’ or the obsession with type as fetishised object. Or, as Nic once put it to me so eloquently:

“The world is fucked… We’re not going to kern our way out of this one.”

Our friendship grew through a love of theory. Nic’s work represents the best use of complex philosophy I’ve seen; he didn’t espouse theory as a justification or proof and he also didn’t fall in to the trap of illustration. He allowed complexity to infuse and inspire his ideas, with philosophy acting as a springboard for a material practice.

At the start of 2011 DWFE (myself and two colleagues) asked Nic to generate a visual identity for our collaborative practice. He produced a ‘sketchbook’ that immediately influenced how we talked about ourselves and our work. By the end of February we had invited him to become a full-time member and, because he was (geographically) distant from us, he became Our Man in Havana: the rebel Flatlander. He relished the challenge, and manipulated our graphic reality by fabricating a new space and time for us within design history. He produced a counter-factual history for us and our ideas. Nic referred to himself as the Bez of DWFE, but we like to think of him more as the Borges.

I will always miss Nic and his beautiful big mind, but his ideas, generosity and heightened sense of ethical practice will forever be a part of me.

Concentration
Over the last six or seven years I’ve developed a series of drawing activities and processes that I’ve taught to my undergraduate students. The course emerged out of a need to teach our students a diverse range of ideational processes; activities to adopt and adapt to aid their design practice. Over the years I’ve also run the exercises with creative professionals, I’ve started to see that they have value outside of a design education. They aid the thinking process, allowing people to think previously unthought of ideas. They also act as a space of thinking, a slow space where ideas grow, mutate and propagate.

A few years back I had the pleasure of doing some drawing with the lovely Jack Schulze, from BERG (then Schulze & Webb), were we explored ideas during the early stages of Olinda. Since then Jack and Matt Jones have taught some great projects employing some of the techniques, naming them ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre’. By giving the excercises a name they’ve elevated them to point that I now feel a little embarrassed that I’ve never written about it. I’ve always felt there is a book in this, but for now, a blog post or two will have to do.

I’m currently at AHO in Oslo running a workshop about non-linear, disruptive creative processes. Re-presenting the activities to a new audience has forced me to reconsider how to explain and contextualise them.

My starting point is this drawing, by me in 1997. The drawing was for a college project, it was the drawing that changed everything. At the time I really didn’t like drawing, I continually fell back to a position of comfort where I’d write and read in order to generate ideas. I was aware that to become a ‘good designer’ drawing was necessary, so I set out to practice. It took months of painful failure, until one morning something snapped, I didn’t care anymore. I drew and what the result looked like didn’t matter, with this came an immense sense of relief and with relief came a relaxed calm, where ideas flowed freely and drawing started to work for me.

Over self-awareness and the weight of a poor school education are the main factors that stop people making the most of their drawing. We are constantly told what a ‘good’ and ‘correct’ drawing is, with these preconceptions we miss the true power of drawing; the intimate link between mind, eye and hand and its effervescent ability to stimulate invention. Striping back preoccupations of ‘reality’ representation and the need to build confidence in order to allow the mind and hand to meander are two of the main challenges in drawing education.

Ideational drawing is always ‘in action’, it happens in real time and therefore the focus needs to be on the moments it provokes not the product that results. Ideational drawing sets up a thinking space, where ideas can be spatialised, connected and tested. By locating ideas in a visual form on the space of a page, you can see new relationships and opportunities.

Cyclical drawing machine

Although the drawing I advocate provokes a state of mind in which ideas grow and develop, the value of the drawing doesn’t stop generating meaning after the act. The drawings I complete, act as a resource for future action, ideas are held in latent form, ready to emerge at a different time in a different context.

Drawing is one of many possible ideational strategies, it works best in combination with other techniques: Draw, scan, print, model, make, draw, photograph, film, model, draw… repeat. When drawing is placed against other techniques, it changes and adapts, this allows for a layering of textual complexity.

Once you have developed a fruitful drawing practice, it is a deeply personal process, you can start to build a language of cross-referencing. Drawings start to connect with each other, shortcuts are used and a form of drawn intertextuality allows for a conceptual shorthand. It’s here that practice (your 10000 hours) is needed, it takes an extraordinary effort to reach a form of zen enlightenment with drawing, but once you get there, you can unlock a fantastic resource.

Thinking of @schulze whilst drawing this...

Next post: Techniques and tips… exercises in drawing

Every year I give a talk to PhD students, new members of academic staff and visiting tutors who are embarking on a PG Certificate in the Management of Learning and Teaching in High Education. I’m asked to talk about ‘Academic Practice’ and the importance of being a reflective practitioner. To put it more simply, I give practical tips and hints about teaching. Nothing mind-blowing, but a set of principles to apply to University teaching.

As programme leader I have a lot to do with the strategic development of programmes, teaching approaches and the promotion of ‘best practice’. As a design lecturer I participate in a wide variety of teaching delivery modes, from practical workshops in drawing, lectures on critical theory and material culture to brief writing and one-on-one tutorials on design practice.

What I’m trying to do here is be a reflective practitioner – I’ve had to think about what I’ve learnt over the last decade, I hope it may be relevant and interesting to those embarking on their teaching careers. My first point is:

1. Teaching is really difficult

It’s a fine art. I started my career feeling that my job was to create ‘great designers’. I would crit work and deliver lectures to promote a certain way of designing, a certain way of thinking – hopefully engaging students enough to inspire them to do ‘good design’. However, as I progress in my career I realized that this isn’t actually my job. It’s merely a convenient side effect. My main job is promote learning, the fine distinction is that students can produce unsophisticated design work but still have an excellent learning experience.

This is difficult to remember in the current academic climate, where the aim is to produce world-class research in order to build your name as an academic. The ‘outcome’ of your work is judged, but not necessarily the learning experience you have gone through. We currently operate in a target culture, ‘research assessment’ means that our careers grow or die by our output. The focus is on the goal, not the process and leads to my second point…

2. Learning is all about the process, not the product

This doesn’t mean that if a student produces a terrible essay at the end of a course it’s ok, but educators need to continually focus on the learning experience, which can be distinctly different from the outcome. What is rather handy, is that a reflective, enthusiastic learner normally produces good ‘product’. But it is key to think of this as a side effect – don’t loose sight of the process of learning – because that is the mainstay of our jobs.

The experience they go through throughout their time at Goldsmiths should be tranformational, their essays aren’t transferable, their thinking, thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm is.

My third point is trying to unpick what ‘reflection’ actually takes place as a tutor, how and when do you reflect, how can you fit it into your teaching practice, so point three is:

3. Reflection has different temporalities

The reflection process of a lecturer comes in different guises and temporalities:

Real-time reflection: This form of reflection happens in real-time, during the session. It’s essential to how a session plays out. Teaching demands that you are adaptive and open to change. If it’s not working, find a new way to engage the group. Questions to ask yourself: How am doing? Why are they all falling asleep? How do I explain this more clearly? What do I do now to regain their attention?

Postmortem: After every lecture, workshop, briefing, spend a few minutes to reflecting on how it went. Make notes, file them, when you come back to the session the following year, re-write, improve. Questions to ask yourself: Did the students understand? How could I improve? Is the content pitched at the right level? Did the whole group engage, if not, how do I adjust the delivery in order to keep everyone engage – like in war – we don’t leave anyone behind!

Meta-level analysis: At the end of the course, you need to reflect on how your programme of study fits in with the wider curriculum, how do your ideas fit with other courses? Is there a smooth progression between levels and courses?

4. Sparking imagination

The most important reason for us to be here is to spark our students imaginations. It’s important to stand back from the content, the detail, to understand the impact and relevance to our subjects to our students lives.

The good part, is that we live in fascinating world, your job is to show them how wonderful it is. This means that it’s important to remain enthusiastic. The daily, yearly grind of an academic can be tough, but the best way to make your job brilliant is to show your love and excitement for your discipline. Enthusiasm is contagious… be proud to be a cheerleader.

5. Research into teaching

There is swathes of writing on how best to integrate research into teaching, but I’m talking about something slightly different. How does your own intellectual drive become apparent to your students. One clear and easy way to do this, is to bring personal obsessions into the classroom, lead by example. In some ways social media has changed how this is done. No longer do students have to hunt down cutting edge journals to read your thoughts and ideas, they can read your tweets, blog or look at your flickr stream.

This introduces interesting questions around privacy and boundaries between your private and public lives. But I have found over the years, if you embrace it, it can work.

6. Debunking complexity

One of the most important roles we have as educators is to unravel the messy complexities of our subjects. It’s very difficult to remember what starting to study a subject at university is like, our students sometimes miss the ‘most basic’ of skills, language and knowledge. Therefore, breaking down complex language and difficult concepts is essential. Encourage a space of confidence where there aren’t any ‘stupid questions’.

One of the ways I do this, to the annoyance and frustration of some of my students, but to the benefit of others, is to read out quotes, deconstructing them in real time – breaking down each sentence, contextualising the ideas, defining the difficult words. It’s like a lesson in close reading.

7. Contextualisation…

…of ideas – make ideas real, use examples that locate ideas in your students lives. One of the great strengths of Goldsmiths (in my mind) is the heady mix of popular culture and complex theory. Agamben and The Incredibles, Foucault and The Game of Thrones (insert long ramble about exceptionalism, biopower and gender politics) by contextualising our subjects, we make them relevent, memorable and enjoyable.

…of their learning – why are they doing this in relationship to their whole study. Now this is particularly difficult for visiting tutors asked to guide students through a seminar series. Understanding the ‘master plan’ of a programme is important. Understand the philosophy, goals and approach of your colleagues. In particular with Design education it’s important to contextualise learning in light of their future careers – this doesn’t mean that you align everything with professional practice, but you discuss the transferability and quality of the experience they are gaining.

8. Humor / Humility

Don’t be superior, people learn best from people they connect with and admire. Academics have the tendency to act superior – they waft in, deliver their words of wisdom, waft out. Most people in the position to lecture are smart, but being clever isn’t enough, be nice.

9. Visual stimulation

If you do presentations (slides), think about the pace and design of the slides. Slide Crimes are not acceptable. This isn’t me being a design snob, but you need to use powerpoint/keynote to it’s full power. It becomes another tool to create memorable and interesting ideas. The power of visuals to stimulate minds is well explored. But it also becomes a place where you can think through ideas. Visualising the abstract enables you to think in new ways.

10. Good timing

This isn’t about comic timing, although this can help, I mean timing in terms of when to introduce certain ideas. Don’t hit students will full theoretical barrels on day one. Easy them into it. This isn’t only about course overview, it’s about individual sessions. How to build up complex – staging I think its called in proper education writing – is important to allow all ability groups to engage in the lecture. If you loose people, at least it’s only for a short section.

Good timing is also important in terms of the pace and length of each session; make some quick and hard hitting, others can be slower and more reflective. Some can last a full day, others only need to be twenty minutes – it takes courage and confidence to do a short lecture, but it can be really effective.

11. Organisation and communication

This is professional life 101, so obvious, but I see this mistake happening over and over again. Be organised, don’t be late. A key to making students feel secure is to (appear) to be organised. The bumbling eccentric lecturer is a romantic image, but it doesn’t garner trust. Always let your students know what they’re doing when and where. Make sure reading is available and rooms are ready. Know what the plan is and communicate it clearly and precisely.

12. Shifting pace, flipping roles, experimenting

See your teaching practice as a practice – you’re researchers / experimenters / thinkers… take the same approach in order to innovate in your teaching. Every lecture you give, every brief you write should be an experiment. Risk. Put yourself on the line, somethings don’t work, it’s okay, as long as you learn from it. Be open and honest about trying out new things, students respond really well to knowing that they are embarking on new ground – they feel important – involve them in your evolution.

13. Let them lead way

This is one of the hardest things to achieve in teaching, but it’s essential that students own and control of their learning process. Your challenge is to build student confidence so they choose to take control. Make sure you don’t just focus on the few vocal students, find ways to give everyone a voice.

14. Never patronise, never underestimate

There’s a institutional tendency for academics to try and avoid undergraduate teaching, implicit in this is an assumption that the most challenging, ground breaking work happens at the higher levels (with PhD being the zenith). I disagree with this, undergraduate students, particularly in design are where the action is. Their ideas are fresh and their energy and ambition impressive. The lack of prior knowledge enables them to boldly fumble into knotty and difficult areas.

15. If you’re not learning from your students, you’re probably doing something wrong

University education is, very much, a two way process. Learning from your students is essential to continued success and the avoidance of ossification. Be open to change your understanding and boundaries of your discipline. Use your students to bounce and develops ideas. Allow them to push you as much as you push them.

16. It’s all about mediating/encouraging curiosity

Academics as gate keepers of knowledge is a long gone role. Access, curation and generation of knowledge is no longer the primary role of the lecturer, therefore what is? How do we adapt to the 21st Century? How do continuously engage and excite our students, whilst remaining at the top of our game?

17. It’s all about questions, not answers

Never pretend to know everything, ask more questions that you give answers. See teaching as a continual process of experimentation and discovery.