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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.

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.