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    Evolving expectations for design education

    There has never been such strong demand for the contribution of the design mind, whether in creating beautiful solutions that engage audiences or finding new ways to solve highly complex problems. Growing expectations of design's problem-solving abilities have resulted in designers tackling unprecedented assignments that challenge them to adapt to the constantly changing dynamics of technology and media.

    While the innovation and creativity that designers bring to these challenges is awe-inspiring, the situation creates a difficult problem of its own: How can educators and institutions train the next generation of designers to handle these assignments?

    AIGA believes the present moment offers an important opportunity to bring the concerns of design practice and the expectations of educational programs into alignment. Based on our research into the changing demands of the profession through Defining the Designer of 2015 and discussions at recent design education conferences, we’ve drafted a document that outlines the outcomes and competencies expected of a four-year design program.



    The strategic environment for design

    The general characteristics of the strategic environment for design to which programs claiming student preparation for professional practice should respond. AIGA leaves the specific means of that response to the discretion of institutions but holds programs accountable for demonstrating curricular currency with the field. These characteristics impact various design specializations differently, which is reflected in their individual competencies.

    Of general interest to all design specializations are:

    1. Context. The role of the designer is not only to achieve successful fit between form and context, but also to determine how much of the surrounding context will be addressed by the design problem and what precursors (historical, competitive, etc.) are relevant to their work. Students, therefore, should gain some experience in framing design problems, not just in solving them. Regardless of the design specialization, professional design curricula should reflect concern for the following aspects of design problems:

    • Usefulness – The practical or social value of communication, objects, environments or services
    • Usability – The cognitive or physical ease, efficiency and satisfaction of people in learning and using communication, objects, environments or services
    • Desirability – The perceived emotional, social or cultural benefits of communication, objects, environments, or services
    • Sustainability – The consequences of design in interdependent systems; lifespan of designed objects, use and disposal of resources, and shifting of cultural norms and values toward responsible or reduced use of resources
    • Feasibility – The technological ability to produce and/or distribute communication, objects, environments or services
    • Viability – The economic potential for return on investment and growth

    2. Complexity. The context for design problem-solving is increasingly complex, and design activity is typically nested within a web of interconnected systems. Such complexity is expressed in design practice through growing concern for:

    • Interdisciplinary collaboration – Students should have experiences working in teams, and, where possible, curricula should demonstrate the design relevance of study in the social sciences and humanities.
    • Designing at the level of systems – Studio activities should encourage students to anticipate the consequences of design action in a variety of systems, even when working at the level of products and components.
    • Geographic dispersal of effort – Upper-level study should acknowledge the management and labor necessary for the design, production and distribution of communication, goods and services in the global context, as well as encouragement to work in settings that represent a variety of economic and social opportunities.
    • Issues of lifespan and sustainability – Students should justify the use of resources and identify long-term consequences of design action in their solutions to problems.

    3. Designing for and with people. Contemporary design practice exhibits varying levels of responsibility between designers and users. This environment of shifting control for design decisions results in concern for:

    • Methods for understanding people’s wants, needs and patterns of behavior
    • Recognition of social and cultural differences
    • Strategies for resolving competing values

    4. Technology. A rapidly evolving technological context presents both challenges and opportunities for design education. While the resources of institutions will limit how quickly programs can respond to industry changes in specific software and hardware, there are overarching concerns for the impact of technology on design that should be reflected in curricula. These include:

    • Learning how to learn technology – Because change will be a constant, students’ technological experiences should prepare them to learn new technologies in general.
    • Making critical choices among different technologies – Curricula should develop students as critical users of technology, teaching them to match technological choices to the problem context.
    • Designing tools and systems – The democratization of technology places a greater burden on designers to invent the systems through which users create their own experiences. Students should be engaged in the invention of technology as well as its use.

    5. Research: While research skills are more typically expected of graduate students, studies in general education and design can introduce undergraduate students to research methods and prepare them to read and use findings in studio projects.

    Student work at all levels, therefore, should be informed by the study of:

    • What people want and need
    • What the context demands
    • How things get planned, produced and distributed
    • The effects of design action
    • Tools and methods for exploring these issues

    Design practice competencies

    The following competencies are critical to effective contribution by entry-level designers in design practice. Each contributes to the overall effective practice of the discipline.

    1. Basic communication principles and processes:

    • Understanding of how communication theories, principles and processes have evolved through history and the ability to use this knowledge in the solution of contemporary problems
    • Strategic understanding of how communication is planned, produced and distributed
    • Understanding and appropriate use of creative approaches to the identification of communication opportunities and the generation of alternative solutions
    • Ability to construct narratives and scenarios for the sequencing of the design process and for describing user experience
    • Fluency in the use of the formal vocabulary and concepts of design—including content, elements, structure and style—in response to communication problems
    • Informed consideration of the spatial, temporal and kinesthetic relationships among form, meaning and behavior. Effective use of typography, images, diagrams, motion, sequencing, color, etc.

    2. Understanding of people and settings:

    • Ability to frame investigations in terms of people, activities and their settings
    • Understanding of design at different scales, ranging from components to systems and from artifacts to experiences
    • Recognition of the complexity of contemporary problems as requiring collaborative skills and work in interdisciplinary teams
    • Accountability to the social and cultural differences among the users of design in local and global contexts
    • Application of methods for determining people’s wants, needs and patterns of behavior
    • Critical judgment about one’s own design and the design of others with regard to usefulness, usability, desirability, technological feasibility, economic viability and sustainability

    3. Effective use of technology:

    • Knowing how to learn technology; recognizing that technological change is constant
    • Critical evaluation of different technologies; placing technical issues in the service of human-centered priorities and matching technological affordances to problem contexts
    • Invention of technological tools and systems that further communication goals
    • Recognition of the social, cultural and economic implications of technology on message production and human behavior

    4. Research predispositions and skills:

    • Familiarity with research skills such as using databases, asking questions, observing users and developing prototypes
    • Ability to articulate and support design decisions through research findings and conceptual argumentation at various stages of project development and presentation
    • Ability to use analytical tools and construct appropriate visualizations in the execution of research activities

    General Studies

    Students are also expected to develop knowledge and skills through studies associated with subjects and issues beyond design:

    1. Associated subjects. Of particular relevance to future practice in design are:

    • Anthropology and cultural studies
    • Business
    • Communication and rhetoric
    • Computer science
    • Engineering
    • Psychology and human factors
    • History

    2. Operational guidelines. Some design courses, if conceived and taught in relation to other realms of human experience, may appropriately be included in the category of general studies. Some courses that explore historical, theoretical, management, cultural or social science perspectives on design may meet this criterion.

    AIGA is seeking your input on these recommendations. Please comment by August 24.

    About the Author: 

    Richard Grefé is the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design. While guiding all of AIGA’s activities, his most significant contributions are in strategy, formulating new initiatives to enhance the competitive success of designers and advocating the value of design to business, government and the public.

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