Design Education in the Wired Weird World

I was at an interesting talk last week at the Royal Society of Arts and Manufactures in London. The talk was on ‘Design and Democracy’ and was given by Alistair Parvin, co-founder of WikiHouse, an organization that promotes open-source construction (in opposition to the developer-led variety). It’s well worth watching, as he brings the threads of modern architecture and market economics together, and you can see it here.

Trained as an architect it was enlightening hearing his views on design education in the Q&A following the talk (also in the video above). In the UK, architectural education is regulated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who set out the basic requirements for curriculum. Becoming a qualified architect takes six years. Part 1 involves 3 years of study at a University, there then follows a year of working in architectural practice, and finally Part 2 involves a further 2 years of study. At the end of all that you can just about call yourself an architect.

Parvin remarked that, for his peer group, coming back to study for Part 2, following working for a year, was a strange experience. The general view was that the world that they thought they were being prepared for in their Part 1 qualification didn’t really exist. The commercial business of architecture had completely overridden their fledgling theoretical and ideological concerns. Architecture, as they had been taught it, seemed like a figment of imagination; a flight of fancy.

What has changed? Like many creative professions there is a paradox at the heart of architecture. While espousing free-thinking, and indeed helping to create large scale changes in society, the institutions that educate and regulate creative professions are themselves deeply resistant to change. The institutions are institutionalised! Old and established traditions and methods are rehearsed and repeated year after year as wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into a wired and weird world.

So the web has changed the world; in terms of information, communication, connectivity, global consciousness, social mores, you name it the web has changed it.

The real question is how has design education changed? The answer is, not much at all. The design-tutor-sitting-across-the-table-from-the-student-and-critiquing-their-work model is alive and mostly well, albeit played out in slightly different environments – at the computer rather than the drawing board, though, even now, often still at the drawing board.

There are signs of wear and tear. Expertise, it seems to me, is so distributed now, and insight so available, that tutors are fast becoming institutional ciphers; the necessary but increasingly ignorant gatekeepers to qualifications. If, for example, I wanted to teach you about democratic design, why would I not direct you to Parvin’s video and ask you to critically examine the concepts he talks about? We could talk about that thing about ethics at the end – who is responsible if an open-source structure falls down? Or his idea that democracy is problematic – does that hold water? and is democracy an unalloyed good thing anyway? Or I might ask you if the commercial business model he sketches at the beginning is reasonable and viable?

In short, Parvin has already done a lot of my teaching work, there on the web. My task as a modern teacher is more curatorial – to select, explain, criticise, and interpret – rather than to attempt to transfer knowledge (my out-of-date knowledge!) from my head to yours. Design education, rather than teaching technique, is finally free to think about larger issues of value, connectedness, system, responsibility, or maybe just how the wired world is such a weird place.  Perhaps design education is scared of the freedom?

Another thing that you can find on the web (right here) is a well-worked blueprint for a different kind of design education.

In 1957 Charles and Ray Eames were invited by the Indian Prime Minister Nehru to make recommendations about how the poor quality of consumer goods could be addressed through better education. They spent six months travelling around India trying to put their fingers on the problem and came up with one of the most elegant and spare solutions I know of: an institute and curriculum for design education.


Charles and Ray Eames 1958 India Report

Their 1958 report, at a mere 15 pages, outraged many in the Indian government who had expected a rather thicker tome. The long-but-short size, at 272 x 145mm, suggestive of legal documents, is about as far away from a golden section as you can get but adds a modern integrity to the contents. Its structure, though graphically not strictly consistent, is a model of economy and clarity. In its sparseness is its beauty and in its beauty is its longevity; each sentence – each phrase – carefully constructed to address the local context but to sound overtones of general, and still relevant, significance.

Part 1 outlines the problem:

“the change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of the West and East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country.” (p.3)

Take away ‘India’ and place ‘the UK’ or ‘the US’ or ‘China’ in its place and you’ll see how up-to-date this analysis remains.

A well-chosen example of current practice illustrates the potential. The Indian Lota, a drinking vessel, is deconstructed to its constituent parts – size, materials, use, transport, manufacture, heat-transfer, cost, pleasure, aesthetics – parts, now consciously itemised, but never consciously designed. The potential is the transfer from unconscious to conscious.

Part 2 outlines the solution:

An Institute for Design – students, staff, projects, methods, estate, and impact – of which the Eames identify only architectural education as a precedent for the type of educational experience they have in mind, and then only a poor one:

“As a group, young architects are apt to be involvable in general social problems and in theatre, dance, music and other aspects of communications. They tend to have a higher than average potential for enthusiasm. This is important because if they are enthusiastic enough they might discover some of the values that exist in the commonplace things that surround them. There are some good clues in the everyday solutions to unspectacular problems, in vernacular expressions that are so often ignored” (p.7)

Mostly, however, they advocate a mix of disciplines for both students and staff. Possible students could be engineers, economists, mathematicians, philosophers and (yes) housewife, while staff should teach physics, physiology, music, graphics, logistics, statistics, and demography (to name a few). The Eames are clearly framing the institute as a place of further learning where existing disciplinary and professional knowledge is brought in to service through the lens of design. Proto Design Thinking in other words.

And then there are the projects: A, B, C, and D. Each a little off the beaten track, but all complexly connected.

Project A is aimed at understanding what is valuable in the world around us; what would you take from your house when it burns down, for example? What do you keep in your purse or wallet?

Project B is an open-ended study into a design theme, shelter or lighting for example, with the aim of producing prototypes, histories, models, future visions which can then be communicated through exhibitions, films, and literature.

Project C is to look at the design of a system, in terms of its values, identity, components, dress, technology, relationship to government. The post office is chosen as an example (note: I would include a discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 59 on this project!).

Project D is to design for an occasion: a parade, investiture, or sporting event, and illustrating the Eames’ analogy of the designer as a host. An occasion is a tricky problem, they write:

“it seems light but demands a knowledge of prime objectives [and] demands unity” (p.13)

And that is the report in a nutshell. You think it is light, but it states objectives clearly, provides an integrated solution, and has a unity and depth that belies its presentation.

There is a brief section outlining how the institute should engage industry and government, jointly working on contemporary problems, and that’s pretty much it.

What stuck me is that what the Eames advocate is pretty similar, across almost six decades, to what Parvin advocates: design is about understanding the world, and making good connections in that world. He said something that I thought was valuable and to which, I think, the Eames would have assented. So, as the wired weird world demands, I Tweeted it to the community.

A Tweet is not exactly a Lota, but it’s not far off, so maybe it’s a good place to start for tomorrow’s design education.



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