Every summer, two US design academics hold workshops in their house in Aspen, Colorado. Designers young and old, corporate or consultant, join with them and other luminaries to rejuvenate their batteries and push their thoughts beyond the level of everyday design activity.
The academics, Mike and Cathy McCoy, became famous for their work in creating semantic design, which, at its simplest, builds design concepts around analogies of an object or communication intent. It’s about calling a delete box a waste bin, or making a laptop feel more like a book.
Designers from around the world and the US pay a lot of money to go on these courses. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess everyone works hard, meets new people, changes the way they think and restores their passion for design.
Design education for most people is what happens between the age of 18 and 24. A diploma or degree qualification and, for a few, postgraduate work. And that’s it. From then on its reality. Education may, and in design it’s extremely rarely, be next seen in the form of training, perhaps for a new software changes or certain techniques and skills of the sort that the Design Business Association and the Chartered Society of Designers develop excellent courses for. But there is no time to consider creativity, or how we design for real people and how we might do it better, or the concerns of the businesses of our clients or employers. Creativity, process and intellectual response – the crown jewels of design thinking – are neither pruned nor fed through the continual career of a designer.
Last year Design Unity provided a forum to listen and discuss the role of education in design. From school to end of career, designers and design educators got together to discuss and debate. In asking designers to consider their attitudes to education, some contentious points came up.
For example, the design industry has some high expectations for graduates. As Norman McNally of the Glasgow School of Art put it, employers expect designers to be exactly like themselves except better, be highly creative, but prepared to work up their ideas, accept £15 000 in a £24 000 world and suspend all life arrangements. Yet, what does the industry put into education, in terms of sharing experience or helping define expectations?
And once those graduates do enter the design industry (likely to be only around 25 per cent of them), what do we do to prevent them turning from what Michael Johnson called ‘keen beans’ to ‘has beens’, where the only possibility of career development or creative regeneration is to leave and go somewhere else. And as he also spookily pointed out, where do all the old designers go?
It’s an important debate that the industry needs to have. Design education is something that ranges across the whole of life, from school to career, but what the debate shows up is how little investment we put into regenerating the creative design force that is at the centre of the industry. In the US we see visionary academics like the Malloy’s developing the means to rejuvenate the creative atmosphere. What equivalents are there here?
For the past two years the Royal Society of Arts’ Royal Designers for Industry have held, under their master Tim O’Brien, a summer school. Using Dartington Hall in Devon, they bought together young, recently graduated designers from across all disciplines to work with the wealth of creativity and experience that is within the RDI body. People like Martin Lambie Nairn, Robin Levien and Kenneth Grange. They included wildcards, people from outside design such as scientists, actors and musicians, to share creative experience, and they spend three days exploring, expressing, communicating and sharing stuff.
It’s a brilliant event and by all accounts life changing for all who take part. In a world so driven by deadline and delivery, designers need to invest in the time and space to develop, question and rebuild, from the ground up if necessary, their creativity and design approach. That takes time, and space, so therefore money. But it’s an investment, not a cost.
Take the RDI Summer School as a model to be supported, copied and grown, but do something about feeding the souls and minds of designers and clients alike, it’s your main asset. Education does not end with a piece of paper and a well-presented portfolio, it’s for life.