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    The design curriculum of the future must be anticipatory and agile

    This essay is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond. To learn more about AIGA’s efforts to guide curriculum development, see the Insight article “Evolving Expectations for Design Education.”

    Preparation for the modern practice of communication design in the United States dates from the middle of the twentieth century when a few prominent schools built curricula around the Bauhaus approach to design education. These ideas spread, and during the second half of the century, graduates of such programs entered practice through the support and guidance of more accomplished professionals. They earned the right to control the creative response to client-based work through a system strongly influenced by the apprenticeship model.

     The context for design practice in 2015, however, changes how students transition from school to work. Design problems are increasingly complex and the goal is not to simplify things as we did under modernism, but to manage them. Complex tasks are best addressed by interdisciplinary teams of experts with strong skills in collaboration. As design solutions become less about designer control and more about user experience, designers need expertise in participatory methods and user-centered research. The rapid pace of technological evolution today dictates that any design solution be “good enough for now” rather than “almost perfect” because change is inevitable.

    Today’s design students, therefore, enter diverse practices laterally, rather than through a singular vertical hierarchy of increasing responsibility for the refinement of form. There is too much to know about the management of technological systems to see “mastery” simply as a technical pre-requisite to the generation of creative visual work. And as software democratizes the means of production, design takes on increasing obligation for the strategic aspects of clients’ businesses that have little to do with how things look.

    The focus in 2015 and beyond will be on the development of tools, systems and services through which others create their own experiences. Research now underpins many design decisions, creating a climate of greater accountability for the outcomes of design action. A maturing profession, design requires that a segment of practice be devoted exclusively to this activity.

    Schools often lag behind in their reconsideration of curricula under this radically reconfigured context for design. Many rely on “curriculum by accrual,” tacking new skill development onto the end of course sequences. However, this approach is better matched to twentieth-century practice. Lack of differentiation between undergraduate and graduate curricula often produces a teaching workforce steeped in this traditional model of instruction and unprepared for the challenges of redefining curricula for contemporary practice.

    Can we afford to continue offering design curricula that move from the simple to the complex, when contemporary design problems are all about relationships—a complicated web of interactions among people, settings, activities and technology? Can we afford to continue emphasizing individual achievement for a practice based increasingly on collaboration? Can we afford to continue isolating the content of general education courses from design study and defer asking students to frame design problems in terms of the cognitive, social, cultural, physical, technological and economic outcomes of design action?

    New standards for the accreditation of communication design programs—negotiated between the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and AIGA—challenge faculty and students to develop design curricula that are responsive to the conditions of 2015 and beyond. The design curriculum of the future must be anticipatory and agile. It must look forward and respond quickly to opportunities for expanding the influence of design in places we can’t yet imagine.

    About the Author: 

    Meredith holds masters degrees in design and education from Cranbrook Academy of Art and Penn State University. Meredith has taught design for 43 years and is currently Director of Graduate Programs at NC State University. She is a fellow and 2005 AIGA Medalist and recipient of more than 50 awards for professional practice. Meredith has served on the boards of the AIGA, Graphic Design Education Association, and American Center for Design, as well as the accreditation commission of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, for which she co-authored new standards for communication design. She is a frequent author on design and design education, most recently publishing Design in Context: Graphic Design Theory. Her research is in the application of design pedagogy to teaching other subjects in K-12 schools.



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