NSF Design Education Workshop, April 2009

Planning an interdisciplinary postgraduate design curriculum

Last week I spent two days at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) taking part in a workshop on postgraduate design education, the second in a series funded by the US National Science Foundation.

Although there was a broad mix of participants from across the range of design disciplines, the main focus was on engineering design with a sub-text of how design might sit with a science-led agenda. Northwestern have a very interesting set of design programs, including interdisciplinary degrees, with a strong practical component and an emphasis on human-centred design led by Don Norman. While this seemed to demonstrate a balanced view of the opportunities in design education there was also a strong voice, represented by Panos Papalambros of University of Michigan, in favour of a highly quantitative view of design as optimisation.

The workshop started with four presentations drawing on different views of designing:

Human Factors and Ergonomics: Alex Kirlik, University of Illinois Champaign

Engineering Design: Jonathan Cagan, Carnegie Mellon University

Industrial Design: David Weightman, University of Illinois Champaign

Human Centered Design: Don Norman, Northwestern University

We also had a short tour of the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern. The student facilities included:

a large studio-style workshop and studios.

breakout rooms alongside each studio and a “cafe” area for informal work

In the evening of the first day we were also invited to a ‘Design Chicago’ event where four leading designers: Bruce Mau, Walter Herbst, Jerome Caruso and Greg Holderfield addressed the topic of “Design for a Disruptive Economy”.

While they all acknowledged that we were in new times where the old preconceptions about the economy were no longer valid, their proposals were not particularly novel. There was a strong flavour of designing for sustainability but the general message was that designers were imaginative people who would see us through the crisis. The only really interesting contribution was in the introduction from Sunil Chopra of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. He drew attention to the new trend towards open innovation and also the distributed manufacturing model being adopted in India by Tata motors for their new people’s car project.

Meanwhile in the NSF workshop we were wrestling with the needs of postgraduate students in design and attempting to come up with a model for a ‘blue sky’ interdisciplinary postgrad programme, this was slightly undermined by the fact that Northwestern and one or two others present seemed to already have such things so were naturally coloured towards their models. I guess my personal tendency is to work from what we have rather than design in a vacuum so it might have been more interesting to critique and reframe existing provision, however one of the groups did take a progressive, user-led approach by telephoning potential students (from group members’ families) and bringing them into the development process. Again that gave a concrete starting point which shaped the program, avoiding the vacuum.

There seemed to be a general trend towards a project led approach in which students’ personal interests played a very strong role. Coming from a European art school environment I felt that the ideas coming forward did not have a lot to offer us, we seem to have crossed a lot of the hurdles still facing the US community, partly because we seem to have a research culture which is more open to the humanities and arts and the UK approach to doctoral studies seems more open to innovation and individual pursuit of a topic of deep interest to the individual student. The US approach, with a much tighter structure and substantial taught curriculum, seems more like a UK professional doctorate which pursues “research in the service of professional practice”.

But an interesting event. I probably learned a lot more than I realised, and met some very stimulating people from a different spectrum of interest than one normally meets in Design Research circles.

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2 Responses to “NSF Design Education Workshop, April 2009”

  1. phil corse Says:

    Sunil is my Dean at Kellogg, where I am an Adjunct and teach global marketing. I have always been impressed with him. I also teach a marketing principles course for NPD at the McCormick School of Engineering.

    I have worked with 3 dozen industrial designers over 20 years and their real value is participating on a cross functional team that has left and right brain balance. I have lived the stage-gate process with them.

    Phil Corse
    Philcorse@hotmail.com

  2. chrisrust Says:

    Thanks for that Phil. As an industrial designer I agree with your comment about the contribution my profession can and does make. I just wish my professional colleagues, such as the Design Chicago panel members, could be more articulate and forward looking when they find themselves in an academic environment. At present they are giving ammunition to those who dismiss designers as unable to take an explicit critical position on their work, something I have heard said much more in the US than in Europe.

    Designers have done very well by trading as “witch doctors” (a valid sales strategy) and business people are quite susceptible to witch doctors, look at the success of Tom Peters et al. But in the academy we have a responsibility to stand back and do some critical and informed thinking about our situation. There are some very exciting developments in design, such as open-source innovation and the designer as enabler of individual’s creativity; on the downswing of an economic cycle you have to be looking for the new ideas that will drive the next upswing.

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