DESIGN EDUCATION: A DIALOGUE ACROSS CULTURES
Following the coming Icograda "Identity/Integrity" conference (Brno, 18-19 June, 2002), an education symposium will take place at which Icograda's Education Network will be launched. While educators and design professionals are awaiting this event, it may be interesting to read about the results of a recent conference discussing a largely similar set of issues.
The conference Design Education: A Dialogue Across Cultures took place at the Department of Visual Communication Design, University of Split (Croatia) between February 28 and March 2, 2002. It was organized by the British Council Zagreb and several Croatian design education organizations, and premised on the belief that design educators have a lot to learn from one another, although they are working in radically different contexts and although successful design education entails rather different processes in different parts of the world.
The conference organizers felt that, in spite of the globalizing tendencies, there still existed design production reflecting local needs, following local traditions, and resolving locally specific communication problems. The premise was also that this situation was reflected in the process of design education, more often than not linked to the very specific conditions of individual countries and regions.
Twenty five designers and educators from areas ranging from classical graphic design to new media contributed papers and lectures on teaching and learning methods in various fields of design education, skill requirements of design graduates, the role of business in design education, and new areas of study in design research. Several general conclusions crystallized in formal and informal discussions accompanying the papers. They could be summarized as follows:
Diversity of contexts and methods
Design education nowadays takes place in contexts so diverse that they require different educational methods. Participants from transition countries felt that issues they should address in teaching differ somewhat from those emphasized by their European and North American counterparts. While discussion of ethical issues in design has steadily been gaining in importance outside of the transition context as well, one cannot overemphasize the need for an analysis of wider social trends in the countries in which, to put it symbolically, it is often a problem for educators not only to discuss what is politically correct, but to explain what political correctness is in the first place.
To be able to design effectively and behave humanly, as well as meet the professional criteria that are sooner or later going to become a standard in what is currently the transition context, students need to be exposed to much more than an education based on mastering the formal skills. This can be done by increasing the quantity and quality of so-called contextual studies
in the curriculum, as well as by guest lectures and workshops led by design practitioners from countries with a developed civil society. On the whole, the participants from transition countries emphasized the role of education in raising the level of quality of design production and saw educational institutions as the place where the integration of business and community concerns can begin.
Design is an intellectual activity
The discussions that took place at the conference confirm Icograda's definition of graphic design as an intellectual, technical and creative activity concerned not simply with the production of images but with the analysis, organization and methods of presentation of visual solutions to communication problems. The issues addressed and problems encountered in design activity are so complex they frequently require a scholarly approach and application of highly sophisticated methodologies. While designers cannot be expected to be conversant with and apply these methodologies from various fields in their work on their own, they should get acquainted with diverse intellectual approaches to problem-solving in the course of their education.
Design activity nowadays requires intensive interdisciplinary collaboration and the nature of this collaboration should be mirrored in design education. This holds true for both course work and internal organization of design education institutions, which should draw on multiple resources of the universities they are part of.
The result of design education should be a "thinking designer", equally skilled in form-making and visual analysis prerequisite for problem-solving. Analytical attention should not only be directed toward anticipated problems of the future: the research of design tradition is a useful exercise in the understanding of constant formative values.
Design education should be critical
Design education should be critical of the existing design practice and social and cultural circumstances it takes place in. Educational institutions are places where critical dialogue and a thorough examination of the needs and problems of contemporary society should be encouraged. This aspect of design education plays a vital public role, and it should therefore more than is now the case be supported by the public funding bodies.
It is of special importance to develop critical discourse in the field of new media design, which is still evolving at a very fast pace and confronts us with previously unknown social and cultural arrangements. The critical discourse generated in the institutions of design education should be made available to the public outside them as well. This can be done not only by organizing presentations and festivals open to the public, but also by a creative use of the equipment developed primarily for business purposes.
Design education should emphasize creativity but also address employment issues
Creative modelling relationship is of high relevance to design capability, and great attention should consequently be devoted to it in the course of a student's design education. In contrast with the 1970s, nowadays it is not realistic anymore to discuss the design process as though it was a definitive process that designers merely have to apply. Designing has become a highly personalized activity: to standardize it would be to destroy much of its creative power.
Creative approach to design should not only be encouraged at the specialized institutions of higher learning. It should become an important component of general education as well. There it could serve as a basis for developing transferable employment skills that will be needed in any walk of life.
Design education should be seriously concerned with employment issues. In the course of their design studies, students should get instruction or gain a direct experience on how to sell their work, estimate how much their work is worth, and how they can fit in a large company design team or survive on the market as free lance designers. Information on this aspect of design activity should be collected by educational and professional associations, and then be well advertised and distributed in schools to help the newcomers make a start on the market. Design education institutions, as well as senior design professionals, should also be actively engaged in client education.
About the Author
Mirko Petric teaches media literacy and semiotics in the Department of Visual Communication Design, Art Academy, University of Split (Croatia). He served as conference coordinator of Design Education: A Dialogue Across Cultures (February 28-March 2, 2002). The presented account of the results of the conference represents his own views. A detailed conference program and information on the content of individual papers can be found online.