Specialization and design

Graphic design comes out of a craft tradition in which mastery of an area of expertise was achieved only after years of intense study and practice and the desire to attain this level of ability within a highly specialized area runs strong within us. I myself spent many years studying a particular facet of graphic design (typography) and yet today I feel conflicted about encouraging my students to devote the same amount directed effort in specialization.

This concern comes out of my conviction that design has the potential to contribute to solutions to some of our most pressing problems and yet more often exacerbates them. Graphic Design in particular has become so inextricably linked to the mass production and consumption of material goods (in particular the areas of brand development and positioning and the formulation of messages that sell products and services) that many of my students do not see alternative ways of putting their expertise to use once they graduate. It is not that I think it is wrong to apply our expertise to the design of products and their distribution, but we often do it without thinking about the larger context, which is a growing economic system that is predicated upon unbridled growth and short-term results that are only measured in terms of financial profit. This system is ultimately unsustainable and designers, I believe, should understand the nature of their participation within it.

My issue with specialization is that we may be training students to go deep within one area but this depth of focus is rendering them unable to see the unity in things, or more simply put, to effectively participate in ‘big picture’ thinking and ultimately the design of solutions for big problems. I believe designers should be part of teams addressing problems of conflict, pollution and health-care. Fritjof Capra offers an analysis of the roots of conflict in the middle east that led to the tragedy of September 11th, , as well as proposals for solutions to the problem, which is a brilliant example of designing thinking (his essay may be found on his website at www.fritjofcapra.net)

High degrees of specialization may be rendering us unable to see the connections between the things we design and their consequences that ripple out into the biosphere and technosphere in ways we aren’t trained to see or may never fully understand. This ability to see ‘wholes’ and think in terms of interconnections and the relationships between things is characteristic of a broad and interdisciplinary education, not a specialized one.

Complex solutions call for interdisciplinary collaboration and often, within highly specialized areas of study, students are not given projects that encourage the development of interpersonal/interdisciplinary skills. These type of skills can only be learned in collaborative situations with other people whose concerns are different (yet complementary) from one’s own.

Not only is an emphasis on collaboration rare in design programs, but the foundational skills that facilitate collaboration are being replaced by vocationally oriented skills that are closely tied to rapidly changing technology. Universal skills such as drawing, color theory and critical thinking that encourage the development of big-picture thinking are being eliminated. The problem is that as technology continues to change ever faster, the more important question of how the world works is simply being ignored.

Subject areas such as land conservation, carrying capacity of the earth, the basics of thermal dynamics and systems thinking are all areas to which students in any area of study, in my opinion, should devote time. These are fundamental subjects that directly related to issues tied to sustainability and ultimately our ability to survive on the planet.

Many people contend that the stature of design within the business community is diminishing and it is something that we collectively discuss on a regular basis. However, the contradiction I believe, is that our move toward ever-greater degrees of specialization fosters the tendency to work on ever more specific and segregated problems (I might even say trivial problems) in a highly reductionist approach. Most designers are neither equipped or interested in participating in addressing complex problems with big consequences. Nor do they approach the design of small-scale solutions with the greater context in mind, and an intent to work responsibly and appropriately. I believe that a more well-rounded and less specialized program of study for traditionally trained designers is important if we are to attain the stature and influence we want and gain the ability to participate in the design of meaningful solutions. I would like to see a dialog emerge among design educators world-wide that seriously questions the fundamental nature of design education and that considers a radically new and more interdisciplinary approach.

About the Author:

Terry Irwin is the Head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and has been teaching at the University level since 1986. Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon in 2009 she was an adjunct professor of design at Otis Parsons College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, and California College of the Arts (1989-2003), San Francisco and was a lecturer in design at University of Dundee, Scotland. She has lectured and guest taught at numerous schools in Europe and North America including Art Center, Los Angeles, The University of Washington, Seattle, Arizona State University, Tempe, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, University of the Arts, London and Bolzen Bolzano, Italy and the ICIS Centre, Denmark among others. Terry was a founding partner of the San Francisco office of MetaDesign, an international design firm with offices in San Francisco, Berlin, London, and Zurich and served as Creative Director from 1992 - 2001. In 2003 Terry moved to Devon, England to do a Masters Degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College, an international center for ecological studies. After completing her studies, she joined the faculty and taught design thinking to students with backgrounds in biology, ecology, physics, sociology and activism. In 2007 she moved to Scotland to undertake PhD studies at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Terry's research explores how living systems principles can inform a more appropriate and responsible way to design and she is currently working with the faculty at CMU to incorporate 'design for society and the environment' into the heart of the curriculum. Terry holds an MFA in Design from the Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland.