Education Re-Invented by Designers

Julia attended the El Ultimo Grito Pilots session on 14th May, 2013 at the Stanley Picker Gallery.

The conversations and responses from Pilots: Navigating Next Models of Design Education, the first event of its kind that took place at the Stanley Picker Gallery Kingston University from 23rd April to 25th May 2013, act as a starting point for, an open platform for debate, a tool, principally for the design-education community, to share ideas and create dialogues about design and its practices in order to promote the role of education in the advancement of design as a discipline.

The advent of online lectures is changing the functionality of educational institutions. Designers could step in as shapers of  future learning environments as part of their own academic training. Under their influence, the educational system changes and integrates more readily with society as a whole.

Designers of the Real World

Our Pilot’s session revolved around the question, which future models of design education could be possible with almost all information available online 24/7. Albeit this question applies to each and every course of study and all universities.

Given that designers are already concerned with the usability, readability and accessibility of our built environment and man-made objects, designers with a social, ecological, political and economical awareness should be striving to become ‘shapers of future learning environments’ for all faculties. The ulterior motive being to act as facilitators by devising an integrated design for education in general.
I am drawing on Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World, first published in the sixties, that relates to the concept of integrated design and further observations on design and designers.

“This approach is integrated design. It deals with the specialised extensions of man that make it possible for him to remain a generalist. Such means and extensions already exist, but if we wish to relate the human environment to the psychophysical wholeness of the human being, we have to develop new, modified, and growing extensions and means on several new planes. Our goal would be to re-plan and redesign both function and structure of all the tools, products, shelters, and settlements of man into an integrated living environment, an environment capable of growth, change, mutation, adaptation, regeneration, in response to man’s needs.” (1)
Degree Hunters vs the Happy Hour Scientist

Let’s start with people and their objectives:
A university degree from world-famous educational brands, such as Harvard, Oxford or the ENA is both a hallmark of excellence, showing the bearers’ academic prowess and an example of his financial capacity and/or determination. The certificate is a ticket to the next steps on the career ladder.

While universities are already opening their doors to invite practitioners to take part in further education, they are still more like monasteries, hidden behind steep entrance requirements and fees, rather than amusement parks for the brain, open to every enquiring mind for any length of time.

Universities that open themselves up to a society that requires institutions to foster life-long learning, will break down hierarchies. The higher level of experience carried back into the educational environment will continuously challenge and validate expertise.

Taking the experience of working in a job, for some years, back into the university and testing it against expertise to gain knowledge for both the student and the teacher, creates a mutually beneficial situation. An atmosphere similar to a laboratory or a co-working space, rather than a lecture theatre, could become the norm.

When and if universities become more integrated into society, accessible and open to all curious minds in all stages of their professional or personal lives, they will have overcome the model of catering to the competitive individual learning to achieve a certificate and will more directly serve the education of a society as a whole. Our educational institutions will have become better servants of a learning society, when there is a happy hour of science that attracts people in droves.

Permanent Transition

Imagine now you have entered a situation where all that remains of today’s top universities is people, buildings and the recognition and fame of those institutions. All processes and procedures are in question or downright obsolete.

Given that the role of universities changes as the model of education evolves, the actual buildings must be adapted. If lectures can be consumed via YouTube and libraries continue towards obsolescence, suddenly a lot of space and equipment is free for different uses.

The strong point of universities would be interactive models of learning, as the front-facing lecturing has moved away and is generally independent of time and space. Smaller groups, less hierarchy, more experiments, more exchange between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, up to the disappearance of that divide, will undoubtedly have an impact on physical buildings and their interiors.

The very first universities in Bologna and Paris were not planned as university buildings. These institutions were hosted by churches, monasteries and private homes and were closely linked to the city surrounding them.
The multi functionality of these places had allowed ongoing changes of program and form.

Rather than built permanence, why not go back to an architecture of change, that will allow societal shift.
Imagine your university is a mixture of a museum, a gym, a laboratory, a public space and workshops. The role of the designer, architect and artist will be to change the room schedule, the guidance system and function of the existing institution in an ongoing process.

From the Ivory Tower to the Brain Gym

The threshold of these institutions will be diminished and the hierarchies flattened.
Re-using material will be mandatory, re-assembling and re-programming objects and spaces through design intervention will become the norm. The questions arising from the process of conversion are multi-faceted and challenging: What will become of a traditional lecture theatre? What other function could a library have? Who is delivering food to our canteen? Do we need vegetable gardens on the roof? What interactive device could guide you through the built and virtual environment of the university? How could trans-disciplinary working and thinking be supported by design?

How can the public be invited and involved? What other facilities are needed in a new educational institution? How can the shift of hierarchies be made visual? How do we break the threshold of these institutions?

From Design Education to Designing Education

“The main trouble with design schools seems to be that they teach too much design and not enough about the social, economic, and political environment in which design takes place. It is impossible to teach anything in vacuo, least of all in a system as deeply involved with man’s basic needs as we have seen design to be.” (2)

What bigger topic could the education of designers incorporate than education itself?

Design education could be an embedded programme. Students of architecture, interior and design would be asked to examine the possible changes of the university’s building structure, spatial planning, furniture and objects. They would have to include all stakeholders in the process, from staff to students, from government to guests to find out about needs, finance and planning permission.

With this integrated design education students will not only acquire a sense for entrepreneurship by taking responsibility of all aspects of the planning, permission and building process, but will experience a hand’s on participatory and interdisciplinary teamwork.

And it will not stop here, it will be an ongoing process. Students will get feedback from the public, staff and other students immediately and will be able to make alterations and improvements. By addressing these topics in design education, the students will embrace all aspects of design. From innovation to social relevance, from communication to fabrication, from societal requirements to dealing with vandalism, from experiment to life-long learning.

“No environment can strongly affect a person unless it is strongly interactive. To be interactive, the environment must be responsive, that is, must provide relevant feedback to the learner. For the feedback to be relevant, it must meet the learner where he is, then programme (that is, change in appropriate steps at appropriate times) as he changes. The learner changes (that is, is educated) through his responses to the environment.” (3)

Thus designers could change education in general and vice versa.

1. Papanek, Victor, design for the real world, Bantam books 1981 p.114

2. ibid p.110

3. ibid p.109

Julia Hinderink is an architect and interior designer based in Munich, Germany.

Pilots Channel