What will design education look like when classes start again in September?

Design Week talks to lecturers ahead of the new academic year about socially distanced classrooms, blended learning and why the “devil will be in implementation”.

July in any normal academic calendar is a time for festivities – classes have largely tailed off, exams have been sat and deadlines met, and graduation celebrations are in full swing. But with the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing, plans had to change.

Back in March, when the UK was first placed into lockdown, many universities were already in the process of reducing contact time and introducing online teaching. With Boris Johnson’s announcement, institutions were forced to close their doors completely.

It was a challenge that many rose to. When Design Week spoke to lecturers back in May, they cited school-wide creative Instagram competitions, Slack channels and Zoom catchups as some of the many valuable tools in their arsenal to continue teaching design at a distance.

Life has changed considerably since school was last in session, and the coming academic year brings with it a new set of obstacles for educators to surmount. This time around, universities have been afforded at least some advance warning to prepare, so what will design education look like when classes start again in September?

Amy Walters, UCA BA Fashion Design, The Reflective Form

“A design problem”

“In the same way that the entire creative industry has had to rethink how they operate, we’ve treated the challenges of this upcoming academic year as a design problem,” says Steve House, head of final year and senior lecturer in graphic design at Falmouth University.

Like all institutions, House and his colleagues have had to redesign curriculum content ahead of September. With classes unlikely to be able to safely return to how they were, the focus is on a “blended learning” approach, he tells Design Week. Some content will be delivered online, while other lessons will be delivered in person in smaller numbers.

The new plan, House says, requires accepting that some things – namely online teaching – have to be a part of the “new reality”. And as he explains, the swift announcement of lockdown measures back in March means the team are pretty well-versed in the practice by now.

“We moved very quickly to adapt teaching and learning to work in a new online context, and received a great deal of positive feedback from our students,” he says.

Zoe Barrett, UCA BA Illustration, Solitude Magazine

“The devil is always in the implementation detail”

What remains unchartered water, however, and needs careful consideration, is how to ensure “studio culture” remains intact.

With fewer students allowed on campus at any one time because of social distancing rules, maintaining an environment that encourages “practical collaborative work among students and staff” will be “slightly harder” come September, House says, but it won’t be impossible.

Studio time will be a challenge for all creative universities to overcome. So far there has been little guidance from the government about how universities should go about resuming studies and guiding principles from bodies like Universities United Kingdom (UUK) are necessarily broad to cover all disciplines.

The University for the Creative Arts (UCA), staff have adjusted timetables to minimise student numbers and installed “physical aids” to ensure distancing is maintained.

“As a creative institution, having access to our facilities and workshops, as well as the expertise of academic and technical staff, is very important,” UCA assistant vice-chancellor Terry Perk tells Design Week.

With the welcoming of a small number of postgraduate students back to UCA campuses last week, this has so far proved a success, Perk says, but plans will continue to be in “constant review” throughout the year, since “the devil is always in the implementation detail”.

Catherine McCaw, UCA BA Fine Art, Always Wear Protection

“Enabling face-to-face teaching” where possible

Reduced access to studios and workshops, and the staff that work in them, will require students to once again lead a lot of their own learning. Online teaching is one part of the puzzle, but solo working is another element entirely.

The disparity between the facilities available to students at home was something that Joanne Lee, senior lecturer in graphic design at Sheffield Hallam University pointed out when Design Week last spoke to lecturers in May. Not everyone has access to the latest programmes, 3D printers and tools, after all.

UCA are attempting to address the problem by providing students with free licenses to software like the Adobe Creative Suite. Additionally, improvements are being made to the university’s online infrastructure, to ensure support is available to students where needed – this, Perk says will help keep things running smoothly, though the focus will be on “enabling face-to-face teaching” where possible.

Rachel Davies, Falmouth BA Graphic Design, Launder

“It makes more sense for us to be doing things remotely”

Both UCA and Falmouth are part of the group of universities opting for this blended learning approach. Other institutions, however, have made the decision to forgo all in-person teaching completely – for at least the first term of the academic year.

The Royal College of Art (RCA) is one such example. The institution, ranked as the best art and design school in the world, will not be welcoming students back on campus come September, explains Ashley Hall, professor of design innovation at the RCA, acting head of the Design Products programme and head of MRes: Healthcare and Design. There are several reasons for this, not least the establishment’s distinctly international cohort.

“The practicalities are that some students may have to go into quarantine if they come back to the UK,” he says. “Students in these circumstances would lose quite a significant block of time out of the academic year and that’s why it makes more sense for us to be doing things remotely.”

Falmouth graphics graduate showcase

Facilitating group discourse “across borders”

To ensure that students enrolled at the RCA this year still get the education and experience they’re looking for, Hall says many lecturers are working with an “open office” approach which is facilitated by technologies like Zoom.

“The lockdown process for us was very much about how we could take our existing curriculum and put it online,” Hall says. It was mostly a technical job at the beginning, he adds. “But I think now the project has really become more of a social and cultural mission – how can we maintain the ethos and feel of belonging to a group, especially when that group are dispersed globally?”

The “open office” approach then aims to replicate the RCA experience, beyond just online teaching. Teachers leave open their Zoom channels for a specific time period, and students are able to “drop in” where the situation demands it and ask questions, or simply talk to other students.

Hall predicts this connection – creating a kind of virtual studio space which can facilitate group discourse “across borders” – will “reproduce the kind of physical interactions, as simple as knocking on a professor’s door, that we all miss”.

“New avenues of creativity”

As the RCA and so many other universities learned during lockdown, adversity often provokes ingenuity. The students and graduates currently exhibiting their work as part of the RCA’s online showcase is testament to that, Hall says.

From repurposing household microwaves to make glass sculptures, to forging relationships with local factories in India, students have “been able to produce such wonderful things that we wouldn’t necessarily have expected,” he says.

The hope is that this resourcefulness can continue into the new academic year with the help of remote staff and RCA resources and connections. And while he admits this isn’t the most ideal set of circumstances, Hall wonders if this might not give students valuable experience in dealing with limitations later on in their career.

“Throughout their career, designers need to be able to react to limitations,” he says. “Whether it’s the price of materials being too high, or a workshop not having the tools you need, being flexible and fluid is a good skill to learn, because often this opens up new avenues of creativity.”

“An overwhelming amount of support”

For both universities that are reopening in September and those that aren’t, one key focus of the next year will be maintaining relationships with industry. The cancellation of physical degree shows earlier this year, and the fact that internships and work experience are unlikely to go ahead as they normally would, is a reminder that institutions, staff and students will have to work harder to stay connected to the external design world.

“We are ensuring that our students can continue to engage with a wide range of voices from inside and outside the creative industry,” says House. “This is a vital element so they remain connected with wider discourses and developments around creative practice and can contribute their own perspectives.”

As Design Week has reported on several times throughout the pandemic, designers are keen to “do their bit” when it comes to supporting the next generation of creative talent and this is echoed by House.

“We’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from our alumni who work throughout the creative industry, and from many people in our wider industry networks, all of whom have gone out of their way to help our students so much over the last few months,” he says.

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