Alt/Shift co-ordinator, Derek Yates provided this article for AD, the magazine of NSEAD (the National Society for Education in Art & Design). It presents a summary of our curriculum development findings to date.
In a recent article for American business magazine Forbes, Adam Swann, Head of Strategy at Gyro, says: “All businesses, no matter what they make or sell, should recognize the power and financial value of good design”. He goes on to say that “the design bar has been raised and design-oriented businesses are winning”. The UK creative industries in particular have benefitted from this realization. According to Design Council research the design industry has expanded by 29% since 2005 and earnings have increased by 3.4%. Unfortunately this growth does not seem to be reflected in graduate employment. Guardian Careers recently reported that “graduates from creative art and design courses were more likely to be unemployed than most other UK graduates”, and according to the Design Council in 2010 only 51% of practicing designers had a degree.
Recent changes in the funding of higher education have meant that demonstrating the employability of your graduates has become increasingly important for HE providers. As a Graphic Design course leader at the University of the Arts I have consequently been very keen to make a connection between the growth of the design industry and the job prospects of my graduates. In 2008 I secured funding to create a body of research examining the potential of industry partnerships and work-based learning. This research has enabled a series of projects that it is hoped will allow creative students and educators to ‘learn with industry’ – but as I am always pointing out, ‘learning with industry’ does not mean trying to re-create industry practice.
My most recent initiative is the curriculum development platform Alt/Shift. This platform provides opportunities for meaningful dialogue and constructive collaboration between the creative industry and design education. It is central to the aims of the project that both sides recognize the value each has to inform and challenge the other. We hope that opening up this conversation will help both practitioners and educators respond to and keep pace with technological, environmental and sociopolitical change, and that this – as well as ensuring the continued economic success of our creative industries – will have benefits for society as a whole.
Alt/Shift was launched at a major conference in December 2012. 140 educators and industry practitioners from across the UK gathered at the headquarters of digital communications agency LBi to discuss the potential of genuine collaboration. The day featured presentations from key industry figures such as Shane Walter, founder of digital arts organization onedotzero and Will Hudson from creative blog It’s Nice That, alongside talks from innovative educators such as Nat Hunter from the RSA and Professor Shan Wareing, Pro Vice Chancellor of Learning & Teaching at Buckinghamshire University. The presentations stimulated a series of discussions that enabled contributions from every level of creative education. Before and after the event, the debate was captured on the Alt/Shift website and on Twitter via @altshiftual. An ongoing exchange of ideas is also featured on this blog.
To kick off the December conference Joe Macleod, spokesman for the #IncludeDesign campaign, made a presentation about the impending EBacc proposals. Joe is also Global Design Director at digital design studio ustwo™ and in early 2013 he agreed to work with us on the next Alt/Shift event. This event focused on the implications for designers of recent digital communication innovations, and how educators can take advantage of the opportunities this new technology opens up for their students.
‘Alt/Shift 2.1: Creative Education for a Digital Context’ took place on 17 April 2013 at the ustwo™ studios in Shoreditch. It took the form of a round table discussion between leading industry practitioners and a group of invited educators. Participants included Nick Bell (designer and RCA visiting critic), Lawrence Zeegan (Dean of Graphic Design at LCC), Chris Downs (inventor of ‘Service Design’), Durrell Bishop (Luckybite) and Andy Huntington (Berg), as well as secondary school teachers and lecturers from tertiary and higher education. It became apparent very quickly that “although there are gaps between industry and education (and some gaps are important to maintain), we also share a lot of the same concerns and motivations for change not just within digital media but across all areas of creative education.” (Comment from PhD student and lecturer, James Branch)
We have synthesized some of these ‘motivations for change’ into a set of principles that will provide a framework for future development:
Process rather than outcome
Industry practitioners talked about the need to ‘hold students in the journey’ and to avoid learning strategies that are too focused on outcome. An emphasis on finish does not enable a full understanding of the discoveries made on the way. Iterative development processes and the rapid prototyping engendered by digital technology require students to understand the benefits of an ever-evolving working process that does not have rigid beginning and end points.
Learning rather than assessment
A series of practitioners emphasized the need for students to ‘take risks, make mistakes – fail’. It seems clear that deep learning and robust employability skills are developed through such experiences. Learning that is overly focused on achievement measured through formal assessment prevents students and educators from fully embracing the benefits of this process. We must find more sophisticated ways to measure learning. User testing might be one route to a rigorous ‘real world’ measure of success, and could allow the student to be more directly engaged in assessing their learning.
Dynamic learning frameworks
Alt/Shift participants suggested that a quest for parity and accountability has led to overly specific curriculum guidelines. Representatives from both industry and education complained that these restrictions interfere with the development of dynamic learning strategies that connect with genuine innovation. The open, collaborative, cross-disciplinary nature of all areas of contemporary creative practice requires learning that reflects these principles. We need frameworks that are flexible enough to accommodate these types of activity. Curriculum guidelines that describe principles without defining specifics would open up the possibility of interpretation at an individual level and maybe the opportunity for cross-curricular, cross-college activity.
User centred rather than egocentric
The contemporary creative industries demand that ‘students leave their egos at the door’. The uncompromising creative maverick we have revered in the past now has a less prominent role. The potential for user input and the growth of collaborative practice require that individual designers ‘relinquish creative control’. A key value for the contemporary designer is ‘empathy’ for both the user and fellow developers. A learning framework built around picture making, artifact creation and individual portfolio building is not able to successfully nurture these qualities.
Educators rather than practitioners
In a field as dynamic and fast moving as communication design, pedagogy driven by an individual educator’s creative practice is soon irrelevant. The ability to facilitate enquiry and enable independent discovery has a far more potent value for students. Contemporary educators need to develop links with each new generation of innovative practice rather than focusing on their own.
Utilizers rather than users
Using a computer does not in itself enable an understanding of the digital context, and industry practitioners urge that we focus students beyond the passive use of hardware. The purchase of computers, digital whiteboards, laser cutters and 3D printers by schools and colleges is not enough. Students need to learn how to disrupt, hack and utilize this equipment beyond its prescribed use.
Context rather than theory
Contemporary design practice focuses on the needs of the user – to fully understand users’ needs requires an understanding of the world they inhabit. The development of an understanding of the political, social, cultural and economic context that design operates in is therefore extremely important to a designer’s education. Contributors to Alt/Shift have called for the integration of activities that build this knowledge into all aspects of creative learning.
These ideas are still in their infancy and it is envisaged that they will evolve and develop with the discussion. What is most exciting at this stage is that there is a clear desire for industry and education to understand each other. There is also a growing realization that their viewpoints are not as polarized as was once believed. An approach to pedagogy that engages with contemporary industry practice does not necessarily run counter to traditional notions of good practice for Art & Design educators. By working together we can create learning frameworks that will have benefits for both parties and this, in the long term, will enhance the economic and cultural development of our society.
Following a little reflection, my thoughts…
I’m asking questions that apply to both the design industry and to design education equally. I see myself as someone with a foot in both camps.
One of my motivations to question current design practice comes out of my concern, that as a career, graphic design appears to be becoming economically unsustainable. Fred Deakin referred to the ‘black hole’ or ‘cliff’ that looms large for every design student.
My main motivation is centred on the possibility that graphic design, specifically, will render itself irrelevant if it doesn’t start to embrace new kinds of practice – especially the kind that can bring it closer to the needs of people. Other areas of design have already begun this process – notably product design (out of which came service design). Graphic design has some catching up to do.
I’m a graphic designer, and my close attachment to the craft of what I do is the source of much satisfaction. I know I’m typical in this respect and this obsessional behaviour can hide the big issues from view on which it is critical I have a point of view. Was this what Chris Downs (of Method) was alluding to when he spoke of how his graphic designers found it hard to get the hang of service design? Its true, we prefer not to ‘relinquishing control’ and we do tend to fixate on the end result.
We are ‘I’ shaped designers which is ironic since growing an ego is an occupational hazard in graphic design – ask anyone who has worked with me. We need to grow arms if we are to become the ‘T’ shaped sort that Nick Farnhill (of Poke) advocates. As Andy Huntingdon (of Berg) said, we need to develop a level of design and technological literacy that will enable us to collaborate with designers and technologists from other fields.
Durrell Bishop gave us a healthy dose of scepticism about digital in the school classroom: the danger of too much focus on coding as ‘the glue’ when the thing that all children can do very well is draw. Imagination still has to be at the centre of creative practice and this fact moves me to question a provocative Alt/Shift tweet from Karsten Schmidt: “you need techniques, not ideas” - the latter are usually borne out of the former”. Techniques without ideas is a hell that prompts the stock question ‘so what?!’ While I enjoyed Decode at the V&A immensely a few years ago I found myself asking that question quite a few times.
Techniques and ideas are often indistinguishable, inseparable in design. Surely you need both. And as for if it matters at all which comes first, if I had to I would hazard to say that it is often ideas. Ideas emerging out of the researching of needs and circumstance – of there being a purpose for the idea. The world where an idea only emerges out of a technique is a design bubble floating in the rarified air of a design universe far, far away from people.
Some bullet-pointed thoughts about the way things are:
THE DESIGN PROCESS IS ADJUSTING TO ACCOMMODATE:
– participation of the user (increase of)
– in-house client controls (proliferation of)
– testing of service/product (pre-launch)
– measurement of service/product effectiveness (post launch)
OTHER MODELS OF DESIGN PRACTICE ON THE RISE:
– inter-disciplinary collaborative practice
(granular – teams of individuals retaining independence)
– pro-active practice
(entrepreneurial, don’t wait to be told – self-written brief or no brief)
– designer as publisher/talent/entertainment label
(we are in possession of the media tools)
– in-house design teams
(design’s importance in business continues to rise)
– nomadic designer
(not only the freelance but the consultant with laptop, no studio)
– independent educator
(summer schools and other fee paying alternatives)
GRAPHIC DESIGN EDUCATION IS STILL COUCHED WITHIN A TRADITIONAL MODEL OF PRACTICE THAT:
– prioritises complete creative control
– is distant from users
– tends to be reactive rather than proactive
– has no truck with testing and measurement
(so far this has been done by marketing – the arch enemy! Design must foreground its own user-centred forms of measurement)
– designs products rather than experiences
(hence the traditional names for courses within knowledge silos very attached to their craft, eg: graphic design)
– is shy of the big research questions
COMMUNICATION DESIGN COURSES NEED TO SHOW HOW:
– models of practice are changing because
– the way we consume media has changed because
– communication media has changed
– business is responding with new economic models because
– all this is changing people – we are thinking and acting differently
IN DOING SO, PRESENT BOTH SIDES OF THE STORY:
– the digital doubters (Jaron Lanier, Evgeny Morozov) as well as
– the digital evangelists (Clay Shirky, Eric Schmidt)
NEW DESIGNERS OF THE FUTURE NEED TO UNDERSTAND:
– the new order in which design principles are prioritised
– new models of design practice
– new models of business
– new economic models
– the ‘ergonomics’ of how users think and behave, what they need
(and how to work with them, understand them and empathise – enter the sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists)
AND LEARN HOW TO SEIZE:
– the opportunities the above paradigm shift presents
(both creative and entrepreneurial)
THIS WILL REQUIRE DESIGN EDUCATION TO:
– establish and develop their research activities
(who is asking the important questions?)
TEACHING AND LEARNING IN DESIGN EDUCATION IS NOT AS DISTANT AS WE THINK FROM TEACHING AND LEARNING IN INDUSTRY BECAUSE:
– both are grappling with the same issues
– both can learn from each other
– a lot of self-teaching is going on in both
– while industry is the ultimate testing ground
– many experiments are best conducted in the academy
SOUNDS OBVIOUS, BUT BOTH EDUCATION AND INDUSTRY CAN COME CLOSER TOGETHER IF:
– more of us split our time between both
– lower proportion of full time tutors
– higher proportion of part time tutors
THE RESEARCHER’S VIEW:
Longer views addressing larger scopes of inquiry
"… we are moving from the design of categories of ‘products’ to designing for people’s purposes.”
ON THE ONE SIDE…
“The traditional design disciplines are centred around the product or a technology. Here the designer gains the skills needed to expertly conceive of and give shape to products such as brand identities, interior spaces, buildings, consumer products, etc.”
WHEREAS ON THE OTHER SIDE…
“The emerging design practices centre around people’s needs or societal needs, and require a different approach in that they need to take longer views and address larger scopes of inquiry.”
Sanders & Stappers: Co-creation and the New Landscape of Design: CoDesign Journal, 2008.
A GOOD TOPICAL EXAMPLE OF THAT:
The design principles of the Government Digital Service (GDS) that produced gov.uk – the winner of the Design Museum’s Design of the Year 2013.
GET WITH THE PROGRAMME
While it may be difficult to give degree courses names that reflect the nature of design practice now and in the future, in larger universities it is possible to achieve that by grouping courses into programmes. The name of the programme can signal its “longer view and larger scope of inquiry”.
Lawrence Zeegen (LCC, in case anyone didn’t know) told us that the upside of universities raising funds through student fees (and consequently receiving less from government) means they have more licence over how they spend it.
If I read him correctly, it was this situation that enabled him to fund the 30 projects of LCC’s Green Week. 30 projects that got students from across many complimentary disciplines and courses thinking about a single issue: sustainability. To avoid the problem of ‘congestion’ (Darryl Clifton quoting Ronald Barnett) or what Lawrence plainly called over-teaching, he was able to clear space for it in the curriculum which he admitted might only be possible if you are a Dean and hold the pot of funding to cover such an exercise.
The exciting thing about projects such as Green Week is that it provides a reason, for cross-programme/cross-department/cross-school interdisciplinary collaboration. It created a purpose around which everyone could gather and produced a week long ‘festival’ of ideas that the School could pile their energy into and use as a focus for media attention.
Staying with this theme I’ll take this opportunity to mention a programme of issue-based projects I initiated at the Royal College of Art in 2009 in the then department of Communication Art & Design (now School of Communication). Similarly, the aim here was to encourage collaboration in practice based research across disciplines through focus on a central issue. In 2009 the theme was Wealth (concepts of value in the context of economic collapse) and in 2010 it was Real (the currency of the physical and experiential in a world of digital media).
My strategy was to re-establish collaborative design practice in a department dominated by autobiographic tendencies that isolated students not just in their own disciplines but in their own heads. The research-based projects helped students develop their own point of view on issues that interested them. The aim was to help students find ways to develop the confidence to be proactive as they begin to understand that every design project begins well before the design brief is written. Students develop the ability to identify opportunities for communication themselves and write their own briefs connecting their own practice with issues in the wider world outside of the comfortable confines of graphic design culture. I established the Issue-based Elective project as part of the first year programme which is now continued with by Visiting Professor Adrian Shaughnessy under the title Research-Design-Publishing (RDP).
Also in 2009 at the RCA, indicative of the appetite for cross-college collaboration that it was felt wasn’t being met by the College, students took it into their own hands to found Department 21 a temporary cross-departmental experimental interdisciplinary space. More a project or programme than a department, it gave students the chance to witness each others daily working methods and processes as well as discuss them and have a go at working together.
Green Week and these other initiatives can be the vehicles for simply trying things out while at the same time carrying the seeds of greater, more radical change that could happen in the future.
I look forward to the next opportunity to discuss all this further.
Nick Bell, 22 April 2013
Director, Nick Bell Design
Visiting Critic, Royal College of Art
Special Consultant, Eye magazine
In my experience it is not often that “industry” people and “academic” people sit in a room together and have lengthy talk about design education i.e. what we value, what we think should change and what frustrates us. So the first thing to say is thanks to AltShift / Derek Yates et al and Ustwo for getting us in one place and hosting yesterday’s discussion. In attendance were various people working in the digital media industry, aswell as teachers and educational staff from a range of HE and FE institutions. Over the course of an afternoon we had a few reoccurring themes that were articulated in different ways so I’ll start with those…
One of the key issues the panel identified was the changing face of what a designer/creative practitioner is, or should be. In the past this inspirational figure (often male) was the lone creative genius. Now of course digital creative practice is collaborative, open, networked and social — so the archetype needs to change. But I felt (and certainly this was echoed by other academics) that many aspects of the academy infrastructure are still geared towards producing these lone creative genius types… The challenges I took from this are — How we as teachers find ways to encourage cross disciplinary collaboration? How we change assessment procedure so its less focused on outcome and more on process? How we introduce more group work? I recently took part in a module assessed entirely orally, through verbal contribution — maybe this is way to shift away from outcomes? We really questioned whether a portfolio is still a relevant endpoint for an arts student? Taken to a rather nice extreme the panel started ruminating on the value of failure… We agreed that to be ambitious, try an idea in new area and fail spectacularly constituted a really valuable learning experience, but our assessment systems don’t recognise this sort of endeavour. We decided on the “Failed Gloriously Award”… D&AD are you listening? Lawrence Zeegan pointed to Green Week — a UAL project that stepped outside of the module system and assessment and possibly encouraged a less outcome driven educational process. Also, a couple of references to interesting digital media / education projects also popped up: Sugata Mitra — Hole in The Wall and Granny Cloud well worth checking out.
But if we don’t want so many of these lone male ego maniac creative types, what types of designers do we want? The panel came up with lots of adjectives to describe their perfect graduates and I thought these might be quite helpful for students to hear: Collaborative, resourceful, inquisitiveness, empathetic… In a reference to IDEO’s Tim Brown’s description of the ideal designer some of the panel advocated ‘T’ shaped people. In terms of skills, Joe Macleod from Ustwo was looking for students that understood design principles and core design competencies over and above highly specialised software skills. i.e good research, problem definition, thinking iteratively and the ability to synthesis information. Chris Downs from Method came up with some relevant insights in this area. As he runs service design company he often has the challenge of recruiting grads. for a discipline that doesn’t exist yet in the academy. He explained service design is utterly reliant on multi-disciplinary teams so the things he looks for in candidates are a willingness to collaborate, a point of view, passion and ideas about how they see and want to change the world, rather than a cemented previous professional title or position. He went on to suggest that in the past a designer’s job was all about control, specifying how things should look and making sure they looked the same everywhere — but now its about relinquishing control and assuming responsibility…(be good to unpack that a bit in a later post) It was quite sad to hear that the courses he wants to teach on are all outside of the UK and he cited CIID ,NYU, Ireya and Fabrica as examples of institutions he felt were running interesting courses.
How we prepare graduates for this changing/changed employment environment was touched upon. Certainly a commitment to life long learning seemed to be something important with staff, students and industry all needing input to keep up with change. How educational courses adapt to change was also mentioned. The pace of change within the academy it was universally agreed was very slow…”they are big beasts” was muttered… What we even call these new courses was also identified as tricky… a problem reflected in the industry with words like interaction, social and media so widely assigned that meaning has become tricky to pin down. Some of the academics in the panel rather mutinously decided we should keep our old course titles and just change the content, that way we don’t scare the horses.
Derek Yates our MC was rightly keen to move our discussion towards some actionable points and solutions to these seemingly intractable issues. In this regard, Fred Deakin had a great idea to start a series of small live projects that combine industry and student teams. He expressed bafflement that our student’s final pieces are often hidden away — why isn’t their work in the public domain? This desire to see art school project outcomes in public would inform these potential projects described as “small ongoing forays into the public arena”… As I understood it, these would be socially responsible projects that tackling real world problems. He added that if we really wanted to change the way education works then small successful projects that engage the public might be a great forerunner for change and a way to circumvent the bureaucrats. A couple of other ideas I Iiked: Move away from the narrowness of course structures by making design education much more project focussed (project centred education) — encouraging interdisciplinary approaches. Educate parents about what a design education is and what a career in the industry might look like… Seems like any move towards demystifying what we do is a good one to me.
Overall I think what the discussions clearly pinpointed was there was quite a bit of frustration on both sides, in the sense that industry feel its hard to find the graduates they want and the academics feel the structures of their institutions make it hard to meet change. But to return to my opening comments, what I would say was very positive about this event, was that it gave us a bit of space to air these issues… And in doing so I could see that, although there are gaps between industry and education (and some gaps are important to maintain), we also share a lot of the same concerns and motivations for change. Maybe more platforms for this sort of dialogue is one way for us to improve how we educate students, not just on the topic of digital media but in other areas as well? Returning to our subject, it did seem that for us in education, we need to find ways to take on board and engender in our students the shift in attitudes, mindsets and behaviors that a digital context has brought about. That said we should avoid knee jerk responses to change, that lead to rooms full of kit that nobody uses, or creative applications of digital media being taught in a superficial or purely skills based way. Instead we need to enable students to grasp the contexts, theories and political implications of this technology so they are empowered by it and use it not just to fit into the industry but to evolve and challenge it.