Good time for design education and research

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Innovative classroom at the University of Hawaii. Photo: University of Hawaii System @ Flickr.
Innovative classroom at the University of Hawaii. Photo: University of Hawaii System @ Flickr.
Innovative classroom at the University of Hawaii. Photo: University of Hawaii @ Flickr.

In 2014 I played a small part in helping a Finnish design university launch their masters programs. This made me think about the current state of design education and research. I must say that we are living in very interesting times.

During the last couple of decades design education has grown immensely around the world. At the same time we have experienced a media revolution with the rise of the internet and various digital platforms. These have changed the nature of design work but also encouraged a general interest in areas like visual communication and usability.

The changes have brought new challenges and also a lot of fresh energy into design. The new media landscape demands a different focus from education as well. While there will always be a need for basic illustrators and image makers, today’s designers often do everything but create images. They create experiences, interfaces, and innovations.

We are now seeing old teaching paradigms giving way. More and more design schools are emphasising information and interface design, service design, digital environments, and other areas instead of classical craft based skills. The schools have realised that designers need analytical minds and research skills in addition to drawing. Students cannot be educated into preset professions like in the past. They need to learn a range of skills and have the flexibility to adapt to whatever changes come next.

The new approaches are not without their challenges. Schools might emphasise conceptuality too much and produce designers without sufficient basic skills. Fresh graduates might find getting employment hard or they might be disappointed when their first job isn’t as a highly conceptual project leader. But in a way, even struggling schools only add to the excitement. We might see established institutions getting left behind while newcomers attempt to become world leaders.

The increase in design education is showing through in design research as well. Around Europe, universities are setting up professorships and other new posts, some of them concentrating purely on theory. There are more postgraduate programs available, with new ones launched every now and then. Also more students progress to PhD level than before.

At the same time with expanding design research, there is a growing interest in visual communication in other disciplines. People in humanities and social sciences are examining both digital and print products with theories like multimodality. While I may not personally agree with all the approaches, it still means there are more people interested in similar topics. This opens up possibilities for discussion and perhaps even collaboration.

Design research and education forms just a narrow branch in the whole tree of academia. But that branch has been growing steadily and is now able to carry more fruit than ever. Spring is in the air!

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This article was originally published on page 233 in Kudrnovská, L (ed.) 365typo, vol 1. Paris: Étapes: editions; 2015.

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