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Graduate education: Preparing designers for jobs that don’t exist (yet)
Defining by degrees (www.adobe.com#define) Neologisms, such as media design (www.adobe.com#neo) Risk and rigor (www.adobe.com#risk)
In the late eighties, Masters students critiqued the status quo to shake up their thinking about design. In Europe and America, students and design critics were busy arguing about the value of post-structural theory, legibility, the vernacular, and deconstruction. The most influential Anne Burdick graduate programs were form and theory playgrounds whose impact on the profession was marked by new stylistic genres while the theoretical critique endured in the classroom. In the midst of all this, Gillian Crampton Smith introduced the MA in Computer-Related Design at the Royal College of Art in 1989 (which later became the first degree in (www.adobe.comhttp://www.addthis.com Interaction Design), and a new imperative for graduate education began /bookmark.php) to emerge. Though few in the established design domains—product, environmental, and communication design—understood it at the time, Created: the status quo was about to deconstruct on its own. 16 Oct 2007 User Level: Advanced Products: All products undefined or later

Figure 1: The (imaginary) view from Scott Nazarian’s eidolon project—an augmented reality interface for a First Art Director on a film shoot.

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This is now. From the techno-cultural inevitability of Bruce Sterling’s “amazingly different world” to the design ascendancy of Bruce Mau’s “Massive Change,” the future of design looks nothing like it used to, not even for a pioneer like Crampton Smith. Forces ranging from ubiquitous computing to the global design marketplace, merging media, and new modes of literacy have rendered disciplinary boundaries obsolete. Designers are shifting from the design of artifacts in isolation to the design of interconnected nodes in elaborate systems, whether YouTube videos or “breathing” buildings. Masters students are no longer a source of curiosity to the profession—they are busy fleshing out the future of their disciplines, one project at a time. As the Chair of the graduate program in Media Design at Art Center College of Design, I grapple daily with how to prepare students for this complex, fluid reality and the work that is expected of them. While the profession has never been static, it seems like old news to report that the rate of change is increasing exponentially. Studio-based degrees such as the BFA and MFA have always involved learning how to design in addition to learning a specific body of knowledge. And for many years, professional categories such as graphic design or product design have defined what to design. But now both the how and the what changes daily. Generational differences, particularly in relation to technology-driven cultural practices, introduce a new kind of energy to classroom dynamics. With emerging practices, it is frequently the students who lead the way. As a result, the relevance of teaching strategies that rely exclusively on apprenticeship and/or technical mastery is fading. Educators are struggling with what gets lost—from craft and hand skills to an easily identifiable domain of expertise. To prepare for a future in flux, students must learn to be adaptable, agile and strategic. Clearly this calls for a new kind of pedagogy. To complicate matters further, the expectations for design are expanding. Designers are assuming leadership roles in which they are called upon to imagine systems, services, ecologies, experiences, and networks. Therefore designers must be flexible enough to shuttle between the macro and the micro, for they need to design not only an object or a communication but also its context. As researchers and entrepreneurs, they must be prepared to generate self-defined areas of investigation and opportunity. This expansion places a new set of demands on design education. Designers need the tools and skills to conceptualize people’s lives, to visualize and understand the circulation of capital, people and culture at a global scale, and to intelligently envision the future. This sets up an almost impossible demand: In addition to being skillful manipulators of 2-, 3- and 4-dimensions, designers also need to be writers, filmmakers, engineers, MBAs, social theorists, cognitive scientists and so on. What is a 2-year Master’s Program to do?

Defining by degrees

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Graduate programs in design struggle to maintain a balance between the pressure to expand and the need to keep their disciplinary identities intact. To address new technologies and cultural practices, the predominant approach is to retrofit an existing degree, as evidenced by graphic design programs that add in what was once called “new media” or industrial design programs that tackle interaction and interface design. This approach tends to be additive rather than integrated, beginning with what was already a robust existing discipline and expanding to include new requirements. While such a position may provide a sense of stability or tradition—and with it a well-tested set of principles or methods—in my experience these programs are overburdened trying to manage it all. The result can be cumbersome. An increasing number of programs have lightened their load, refining their focus through the elimination of certain skillsets or by recasting the design expertise entirely. As a result, a range of degrees that are more specialized—and in some cases more obtuse—has exploded onto the scene. Each new title signals a unique response to the shifting terrain. Sometimes the title marks a new position within an existing field, such as the recently renamed MA in Design Interactions (RCA), or the Higher Diploma in Product Innovation Technologies (Hong Kong Polytechnic School of Design). Others, such as the MediaSCAPES M.Arch degree (Southern California Institute of Architecture), identify new hybrids. My own, the MFA in Media Design (Art Center College of Design), winnows down and synthesizes two pre-existing disciplines: communication and interaction design. On another front, business leaders, academics, and entrepreneurs have been looking at design for clues to success in the 21st century. Beyond simply understanding how to use design in the global marketplace, people such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and former Xerox Chief Scientist John Seeley Brown have come to recognize designers as knowledge producers and strategic thinkers, in part because the working methods and cognitive practices of design are being cast as skills that everyone will need for the future. This attention has forced scholars and practitioners to clarify what is unique about the activity of designing itself, which in turn has led to another crop of special degrees. Graduate programs in Design and Complexity (Université de Montréal), Design Thinking (Stanford’s d.school), and Design Thinking + Design Leadership (Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University) have all shifted the emphasis onto the activity of designing and the knowledge that designers have as a result of the way they work rather than the things they make. It remains to be seen whether the fundamental aspects ascribed to designing—team-based collaboration, lateral thinking, public critique, learning by doing, hands-on making, managing complexity, synthesizing through metaphor and materials, and visualizing knowledge—are unique enough to serve as a useful definition of design in the long term. Will these approaches become prevalent in both conference rooms and classrooms to the extent that designers will be forced to lay claim to something else? And if so, what might that be? Perhaps the proliferation of degrees is an indication that graduate

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education in design is maturing. At the very least it tells us that the status quo is under construction. But does each new subfield create more problems than it solves? How are employers or potential students to know what they’re getting when there is little consistency from school to school? Which of these degrees will endure and which will fade away? Are we creating problems for graduates who may seek jobs with idiosyncratic or obscure nomenclature? We’ll have to see how it plays out. In the meantime, the dialogue is invigorating. Blurring boundaries force educators, professionals, and students to give careful consideration to where their expertise begins and ends. Even designers who stick with established titles find they need to identify where their work is positioned in relation to the newcomers. Not only is the reflexivity this requires healthy for design, it prepares designers to participate in new contexts. Embedded within new multidisciplinary configurations, designers must communicate across not only cultural borders but also across those defined by professional traditions, values, and vocabularies, which can open the way to new possibilities.

Neologisms, such as media design

We came up with the name “Media Design” many years back when it became clear that our practice could no longer be defined by the artifacts that we create: some are graphic, some are objects, some move, some we move through, some stay still, some engage, and some perform. So we avoided a name based on traits or roles such as “graphic” or “product” or even “interface” in favor of “media,” which can be understood as a vehicle or a system of communication. It can also be seen as an extension of our senses, clearly with a nod to Marshall McLuhan, which brings interaction with the world into the mix. We give our students a broad range of hands-on experience with media technologies from books to interactive environments, along with a strong grounding in media history and theory. Our students are prepared to design not only the message but also the medium, frequently in concert with an entire transmedia system. We invented a name simply because the old ones didn’t fit. We had no intention of inventing a discipline but found that we had to—if for no other reason than to allow our students to write the words “Media Designer” beneath their names with certainty. Our naming decision was by no means capricious, but we didn’t foresee the challenge we were creating for our students and for ourselves: not only did we have to endlessly explain to others what “media design” is, we had to do so even when we weren’t sure of the definition ourselves. In hindsight, it’s the best thing we could have done. Now we are free from disciplinary conventions though we can draw on them when we need to. We have the flexibility to pick and choose the traditions most relevant to the work that emerges, as it is emerging. We can also incorporate methods and critiques from adjacent fields, on an

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as-needed basis. This adaptability is essential as we prepare designers for a world in which almost anything (your sleeve, your car door) may be the next medium. To counteract the sense that everything is unrooted or up for grabs, we are rigorous in our requirement that students contextualize their work within existing practices and that they are able to articulate their positions intelligently to a range of audiences. In an established field, this additional layer of work is unnecessary, but because of it, our students are prepared to craft their own futures in an uncertain time. To support a high level of invention within an increasingly complex domain, we call upon a mix of strategies, methods, experts and theories. We develop conceptual models such as the New Ecology of Things or Bespoke Futures (www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank /lunenfeld.html) . We create innovative tools for understanding people and their values and daily practices. We use our own custom applications and electronics expertise to allow our students to create working prototypes without becoming engineers. Some of our students play in the borderlands, edging into architecture or media art or industrial design or film. We have no illusions that they can do it all and we try to disabuse them of such notions. While we are concerned about maintaining the integrity of our expertise, we also believe that it is counterproductive to try to confine our students’ investigations. Instead, we require them to work with collaborators or faculty advisors from the appropriate fields. As a result, new practices emerge out of the process of designing along with an outpouring of neologisms. A brief survey of some of these new names reveals strategies the students have used to identify new methods, lay claim to emerging genres, or repurpose existing terminology to their own ends.

Figure 2: Still image from David Schwarz’s short film ReVision; an experiment with mediatecture by Laura Crawford; Amy Sheppard’s visual analysis of detritus collected from the streets of Berlin. Hybridized practices blend communication design with other disciplines. David Schwarz and Shereen Abdul-Baki conjured the term Design Cinema to identify their skill at combining graphic design and live action film to make short narratives with a greater focus on storytelling than motion graphics allows. The term Mediatecture brought together students and practitioners to look at architecture as a media platform. With Design Archeology, Amy Sheppard adopted the methods of archeology, analyzing remnants of material culture to produce new forms of graphic identity.

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Figure 3: A view from Nazarian’s eidolon interface for use on a film shoot; Nikhil Mitter’s experimental music player; a diagram of Jennifer Darmour’s Experiential Prototyping method. New methodologies point to an expanded role for the media designer as an inventor or researcher, rather than a designer who executes a vision belonging to someone else. Scott Nazarian’s Strange Design combined science fiction writing with in-depth task analysis to generate fantastical interfaces grounded in real-life usability issues. With Speculative Design, Nikhil Mitter designed interactive objects to provoke thinking—rather than solve problems—in an academic or research setting. Jennifer Darmour’s take on Experiential Prototyping integrated interaction into an animated narrative to quickly test ideas about new products and services in the exploratory phase of the design process.

Figure 4: Darmour’s blank device; an open interface experiment by Angel Lin; Nikolai Cornell’s Life Size design applied in a real-world context for Infiniti at the Detroit Auto Fair. Inventive design methods give rise to new mechanisms and frameworks. Blank Devices are tools used in Darmour’s version of Experiential Prototyping. These simple geometric objects are embedded with electronic devices that can affect events within an interactive scenario on a screen, shifting the focus off the design of an object and onto the experience of a system. The Open Interfaces of Angel Lin’s thesis work were interfaces designed without an application in mind; Lin reversed the problem-solving conventions of design to inspire new thinking about the social potential of the moment of contact. Nikolai Cornell found Life Size Design a useful notion for thinking about human-scale interaction that is not isolated to a screen but is integrated into the environment within which we live. Upon graduation, some of our students admittedly struggle to find a home for their own unique approach to design, but the bumpy landing can be worth it. These courageous students have created emergent forms of practice that have yet to be codified, which is accompanied by both opportunities and risks[1] (www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank /burdick.html/#ft1) . The challenge necessitates an entrepreneurial

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posture, which they are prepared to assume. As a result, the range of options available to them is found in diverse contexts—from scientific research labs to futurist think tanks in addition to leading design studios. Several of the “neologists” previously mentioned have been hired by design firms and corporations that were not looking to fill a post. These companies created new jobs with new titles and new budget lines specifically to make use of our students’ freshly defined expertise.

Risk and rigor

In a rapidly changing environment, graduate schools can help shape the profession by providing the space for experimentation, spectacular failures, and critical reflection. For me, the most exciting challenge is to define where design is going (rather than to prepare for what exists). It is a challenge that takes full advantage of the unique context that graduate education can provide. Studio-based MFAs are among the few sanctioned spaces that the discipline has for exploration through designing, and for reflection, provocation, dialogue, research, invention, and new knowledge. Most graduate programs share a commitment to advancing the practice, developing new methods, and generating theoretical models to help sustain the discipline. For a subset of those, graduate studios can be sites for pure speculation and for incubating new ideas. This activity becomes even more important as the profession is undergoing massive transformation. Few practitioners have the time or space to take risks or to reflect upon the implications of their work on a larger scale. The same pressures apply to industry, with its imperative to “innovate or die,” making graduate schools an ideal partner in volatile times. In an academic context, open-endedness and risk come with few negative consequences, which allows for the discovery of something new at a minimal cost. As more R & D labs are downsized, graduate programs can step in to bring together creative makers, tough questions, and intellectual rigor. In the Media Design Program, for example, we partner with tech firms who provide us with alpha version technologies that our students get to “play” with in the pursuit of their own research questions and design experiments. The students generate inventive scenarios and working prototypes that can help companies to see their products in new ways. In return, our students not only get hands-on experience with emerging technologies, they get to help shape them. As design methods creep into other domains, so do designers. Interdisciplinary research is valued and supported in the academy, turning faculty and students into ambassadors for design. Working in partnership with researchers and practitioners from other fields is a great way to experience the complexity of the emerging landscape firsthand. At the same time, it provides an opportunity to demonstrate the power and potential of design in new contexts. As a result of our own forays into other domains through faculty- and student-led research, I find that I am now pursuing internships and positions for our students in contexts

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as far afield as Nursing Schools, the Digital Humanities, and Urban Planning, along with the usual tech companies and design firms. While undergraduate education is generally regarded as a training ground for the profession, graduate programs have a more complicated relationship to practice—one that can range from the symbiotic to the antagonistic. Friction between the two is an indicator that graduate education is appropriately challenging[2] (www.adobe.com/designcenter /thinktank/burdick.html/#ft2) . Responses from the field contribute to the maturation and growth of the dialogue. The day-to-day business of designing provides situated knowledge of the complex, tangible forces that shape the outcome of design and the expectations of designers. Simply getting things made has its own kind of rigor, requiring both a level of compromise and attention to detail that student projects seldom require. At the same time, the research studio or the graduate critique space allows room for reflective insight, away from the day-to-day pressures of professional practice. Risk and rigor are what graduate schools do best. This makes them a productive space for activities such as theorizing, learning from failure, and generating fantastical visions of the future. While the profession isn’t always receptive to the new directions that emerge, this activity helps to advance knowledge in the field. This is a great time for graduate education. With the right support, students can learn to navigate the instability and actively participate in the invention of their own futures and the future of design—knowing full well that everything may be different tomorrow.

Footnotes

1. Our approach is not for everyone. Designers who wish to strengthen their position within an existing field (rather than reinvent themselves) have an array of options, including a number of excellent one-year professional Masters. 2. To get a sense of how the issues have changed (or not) in the last fifteen years, read Steven Heller’s “The Cult of the Ugly,” which appeared in Eye Magazine 9, in the Summer of 1993, and Dan Saffer’s March 6, 2007 entry, “Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again,” in the Adaptive Path Blog.

Where to go from here

If you enjoyed this article, check out these other great articles about design on Adobe Design Center:

All together now (www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank/alltogether/) , by Rachel Abrams No boundaries: The challenge of ubiquitous design (www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank/noboundaries/) , by Adam

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Greenfield

Making do and getting by (www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank /makingdo/) , by David Reinfurt

About the author

Anne Burdick is the Chair of the graduate Media Design Program (MDP) at Art Center College of Design and Design Editor of Electronic Book Review. Anne collaborates with texts and writers to produce new modes of reading and writing in diverse media, including the Mediawork book and web supplement, Writing Machines, by N. Katherine Hayles. Most recently Anne was the lead designer and a contributing writer for the MDP’s first transmedia publication, The New Ecology of Things, which includes a book, cell phone content, a book jacket/poster, and a website.

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