Learning Through Design
As those of us involved in higher education endeavor to ensure the relevance and currency of our curricula and methods, the word “design” keeps popping up. Perhaps one of the passionate instances of this intersection was in a presentation at the October 2009 national AIGA conference “Make/Think,” when Bennington College president Elizabeth Coleman posited that “we are desperately in need of a new liberal arts,” one that unites thought and action, privileges ideas and imagination, and honors collaboration over isolation. The key component in her rethinking of a liberal arts education is design. “Design – understood as a systematic, collaborative way of addressing problems and transforming possibilities – is a prime candidate for the new set of studies needed to revitalize higher education,” she said.
Coleman is not alone in advocating for the role of design as a tool for revamping learning across college and university campuses nationwide. Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design – otherwise known as “d-school” – brings together students from diverse fields, including business, law, engineering and the arts, to develop creative solutions to real-world problems through a process that emerges from the field of design. D-school co-founder George Kembel has said that students learn a methodology for problem-solving that will serve them well beyond the classroom.
Similarly, the New School in New York City has recently introduced new majors and programs that unite design and other areas within the liberal arts and social sciences with the goal of reinvigorating all three domains. A new BA/BFA program, for example, allows students to combine a strong background in the liberal arts with art, design or music, while the undergraduate Integrated Design BFA places strong emphasis on cross-disciplinary study and critical thinking, augmenting a traditional design curriculum.
Why design, though? What can design bring to a more traditional undergraduate curriculum? According to Nigel Cross, a professor of Design Studies at The Open University, design catalyzes a particular kind of thinking, which he calls “constructive” thinking, as well as a specific form of reasoning. Cross, who is the author of Designerly Ways of Knowing, explains in his book that while we know and acknowledge inductive and deductive reasoning within academia, less known or respected is what Charles Sanders Peirce called “abductive” reasoning. Abductive reasoning works from incomplete information and evidence, and requires making a creative and intuitive guess. With abductive reasoning, one proceeds from a hunch, and tries to make a cogent decision on a next step based on the best available information. As such, abduction may be the form of reasoning that many of us use on a daily basis when we encounter a world that rarely supplies all the information we need. And abduction is core to the design process, which relies on intuition and creativity in order to create solutions to challenging problems.
According to the New School’s provost Tim Marshall, design also gives us a methodology for functioning in an increasingly complicated world. “Design offers a process that is well-suited to dealing with complexity, any kind of complexity,” he explains. “Many contemporary issues – whether it’s healthcare or poverty – are things that cannot be addressed, much less solved, by traditional disciplines working in isolation.” Instead, says Marshall, we need interdisciplinary collaboration facilitated by design.
Marshall goes on to explain that designers understand the need to gather and absorb a wide range of information, a skill also highlighted by Meredith Davis, a professor of graphic design in the College of Design at North Carolina State University and a powerful champion of the potential of design within K-12 education. “There has been a flattening of the corporate hierarchy and the emergence of the need to work in teams,” she says. “Designers may or may not have been trained for this, but they seem to have an affinity for it. In a design situation, people of differing backgrounds have to work together to solve problems, and the facilitation role that design plays in making information visual or clarifying ideas through concept-mapping – people understand that role now, in a way that they didn’t before.”
Marshall also points out that design engages with forms of visual communication, and it structures basic activities in our lives, including consumption, social interaction and democratic processes. As such, understanding the way in which design functions becomes fundamental to contemporary citizenry. “Being literate about the world today requires a literacy in the visual, in visual coding and visual information,” he says. “A basic understanding of how design works, then, is important in the liberal arts as much as in design.”
Design is also emphatically material, and demands that we unite thinking and making, or even undertake a process of thinking through making. The power of this process has made it a mantra in programs such as the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design. There, design professor Phil Van Allen asks his students to engage in a process of sketching through hardware, which involves thinking and learning through material interactions with tools. He explains that he is interested in having his students learn “by interacting with the physics and logic of the material world.” He continues, “In the same way that designers will sketch on paper in order to develop designs for tangible interactions, we need to be able to sketch in hardware,” he says. “These are rough, sketchy prototypes, and you want to move fast, so that you’re not committing to a particular thing, but the material component is a deep part of the process.”
While this approach works well for teaching designers, can material interaction as a component of learning serve a similar function in the liberal arts? Marshall thinks so. “The critique of the liberal arts is that it’s all about books, and I think many people are trying to bring the liberal arts into a more contemporary setting so that our graduates are able to engage with the world and contribute to it in very real ways.” He notes that the drive toward project-based learning exemplifies the desire to have students grapple with real problems through hands-on interactions.
In his book, Nigel Cross charts a history of attempts to incorporate design as a foundational literacy that reaches back more than 30 years. If this argument has been made previously, with little noticeable impact, why is it finding currency again now? What has changed to make design thinking seem significant at this moment?
One way to answer this question it to look at design as a field. It has undergone a profound transformation over the last 50 years. Designers used to work and study through an apprenticeship model, and created work through mechanical means; sometimes a designer might have the opportunity to work on projects large or complicated enough to require large-scale strategic thinking and intensive collaboration, but this was relatively rare. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, desktop computing, new software applications and networked communication collapsed and reconfigured the kinds of learning necessary to become a designer. The “craft” of design morphed into the ability to use software applications, and gradually, into the ability to create systems. Designers now need to understand users and the user experience; they need to know how to manage transmedia systems. But more fundamentally, they need to know how to collaborate and communicate with people outside their field; they need to cultivate empathy so that they can understand user experience; and they need complex problem-solving skills. Many design programs across the country have responded to this dramatic change, and have restructured their programs to meet the needs of today’s students. “Design programs were being critiqued for producing formulaic designers who weren’t ready to engage in a profession that is increasing global, and requires far more sophistication to deal with the world,” says Marshall.
In a sense, then, design as a discipline and mode of practice has undergone a transformation that has required a thorough overhaul of design curricula. Much of what leaders in this transformation have learned – about responding to complexity, facilitating collaboration, privileging the act of problem-solving and honoring real-world relevance – can help transform other areas within contemporary higher education. As Elizabeth Coleman has pointed out, while these may be the skills that today’s designers need, they are also the skills that all of our students need.