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Design education in a post-disciplinary world

By Ronald Jones PhD

A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.

                                                                                                              R. Buckminster Fuller

This week I attended a “Closed Door” Design Education Conference in Hong Kong hosted by the Polytechnic University and the Hong Kong Design Center. Fewer than twenty international thought leaders were invited to participate in what were substantial, timely and speculative discussions concerning the future of design education. And of course, describing the future of design education is imagining the future impact designers will have on the larger world.

Harvard Business School’s Robert Hayes once predicted: "Fifteen years ago companies competed on price, now it’s quality, tomorrow it’s design."

The “tomorrow” Hayes forecast arrived sometime ago, but what’s become self-evident in the meantime is that while the veneer of design became a value-driver for businesses, the greater value was the methods for innovation designers brought to an array of other disciplines, often furthest from their own.

This value was triggered when designers began sharing their methods for creative problem solving between disciplines, or what the sociologist Ronald Burt describes as “an economy of borrowed ideas.”

Perfecting cross-pollination has had the most far-reaching consequences for design since Hayes’ prediction. Why? Because the creative disciplines are undergoing the most significant paradigm shift in living memory as professions migrate from conventional design tasks – design me a toaster, to designing systems or, in other words, towards conceiving of the intangible commodities which feed the experience economy.

For example, experience designers are working directly with healthcare professionals, on the one hand to improve patient recovery time, and on the other to help design end-of-life experiences (the last ten days of life) for patients, family and staff in pallative care centers.

What kind of education system do we need design to sustain and amplify this kind of real world impact?

In a provocative essay for the New York Times, titled “What You (Really) Need To Know,” Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the United States Treasury offered ideas about the future of education placing special value on the ability to work collaboratively.

“For most people,” Summers wrote, “school is the last time they will be evaluated on individual effort.” Summers calls for a restructuring of the university to align it with the way in which society functions and behaves, while exploiting leading edge research in how people learn (see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow).

To my mind, this would mean abolishing the traditional discipline-bound departments at university, whose stilted siloed-neatness has not changed for generations. What would serve in place of disciplines?

Theme-based learning carried out in interdisciplinary teams that do not simply share information between disciplines but synchronize streams of diverse knowledge into hybrid and applied practices.

Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, imagines how this would work: “It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems.”

This would turn education away from being singular discrete experiences in discrete disciplines, towards a succession of learning experiences blurred at their edges or what I call a “Transformative Education.”

It would be education that does not simply impart information, but literally transforms students through collective and collaborative learning experiences over time.

Granted, this form of learning may well be less precise than discipline-bound learning, but it will be better connected across spheres of influence, and that’s a trade-off I’m willing to risk. Why? We know from the latest research that while discoveries in monodisciplines far outnumber interdisciplinary discoveries, the only time we see “breakthrough innovations,” or those of the greatest value, is from interdisciplinary research.

Even if a part of the university’s responsibility is to preserve our greatest achievements for the ages, it is also charged with producing leading edge research, thereby sustaining an evolving and contemporary relevance.

According to the MacArthur Foundation’s annual report on Digital Media and Learning Competitions, Cathy N. Davidson tells us that 65% of today’s elementary school students will ultimately take jobs that we cannot imagine because they are yet to be invented.

One might legitimately wonder if discipline-bound learning will retain its relevance by the time those elementary school students enter university? Along with Summers and Taylor I don’t believe it is a question of “if.” Discipline-bound learning is out of touch and out of date.

Increasingly design has gained a greater sphere of influence, which is to say it has become progressively more interdisciplinary or even some suggest transdisciplinary. This means that designers should be educated as critical thinkers and strategists, capable of addressing cross-disciplinary problems; designing social, political, economic and educational “systems” which in turn provide them with greater reach, responsibility, influence and relevance.

But given the way education is trending, I wonder, as I did during the “Closed Door” Design Education Conference in Hong Kong, whether we are at cross purposes restricting ourselves to speculation around what the future of design education might hold. Instead shouldn’t we put design education or business education or medical education behind us to imagine how “Postdisciplinarity Education” would be experienced, transforming students, faculty and the world out there?

There are early but substantial examples of what I would describe as postdisciplinary institutions, and they include the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (the d. School) and the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship.

I would like to leave you with an example of what I mean by postdisciplinarity. It comes from Freeman Dyson, the renowned physicist, and professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. He envisions that in the near future artists and designers will use genomes to create new forms of plant and animal life that would have the possibility to proactively reverse the deterioration of our environment.

In the New York Review of Books Dyson reasoned:

If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities. If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists . . . might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet.

If you are suspicious of the feasibility of the future role Dyson assigns artists and designers, pass by a local flower show and visit the hobbyists who are successfully experimenting with tri-generic orchids. Like Dyson’s example of designing new forms of life, the face of postdisciplinarity is pragmatic, empathic, scalable and achievable as both pure and applied research. It promises, and not only to designers, greater than usual reach and responsibility, and in turn, the relevance to influence and transform the larger world.

Ronald Jones PhD, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, The Experience Design Group

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