Sciences, Humanities, and ... Design? The Case for a Third Pillar of Education

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Understanding "designerly" qualities helps students to spot problem and tackle them in creative and expressive ways

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Singapore's Nanyang Technological University/Wikipedia

During course reviews with students at the Austin Center for Design, where I am a professor, our faculty saw a concerning pattern. Many of our students were inhibited, some even fearful, of actually making things. Luckily, they were seeking advice and direction on how to use their hands and actually experiment.

But the problematic part was that they were students at a design school. We actively recruit and accept those without deep design backgrounds because of the other skills and experience they bring to our program like business, science, engineering, education, social work, or simply their intellectual curiosity and adeptness. We do this with full confidence that we can leverage our own design training to help them along. The expectation at our school is that students won't be creating just beautiful objects; they'll create beautifully smart and socially impactful ones.

But, the fear of literally making these designs was a bright red flag for our faculty.

Students often traced their inhibitions back to childhood when they first grew conscious of their teacher and peers' judgment. One student vividly recalled what it was like to have a teacher title his drawing for him to avoid inevitable confusion from grown-ups. His "making trauma" was intensified when he was in fourth grade and one of his paintings mistakenly got put into a first grad art show. He didn't win.

This condition is even more widespread the higher you go up the corporate ladder. At frog, we often engage our clients in visually creative exercises to tap their knowledge about a domain and strengthen our partnership in the design process. But, in three different collaborative work sessions that I've facilitated with clients in the past year, I've been told outright at the beginning: "I'm not good at this, so don't expect much."

In a 1979 research project at the Royal College of Art, Professor Bruce Archer referred to design as the missing "third area" of education; the first two areas were considered the sciences and the humanities. Later, in a small book, Designerly Ways of Knowing, educator Nigel Cross made a formal case for the addition of design to our general education, namely the K-12 curriculum. But, he was careful to point out the tricky nature of such a proposition. Cross argued that design, as an area of study, suffered from a legacy of being a technical vocation, where one is "trained" to be a designer, often through an apprenticeship of some sort. Its aims are extrinsic, meaning a student is equipped to perform in a specific social role such as an architect capable of competently designing a building. But general education, in addition to being non-technical, consists of intrinsic goals which contribute to an individual's self-realization and basic life skills. For instance, many of us learned the principles of math and use them to pay our taxes, but didn't become mathematicians. And, we read Shakespeare to learn about comedies and tragedies and the use of language, but didn't become playwrights.

In this context, theoretical understanding takes priority over "the how." But, to be a designer you need both forms of knowledge. With this in mind, Cross called for a "fundamental change of perspective" regarding design, if it were to be a part of general education. He asserts that an education in design must have value in and of itself and not just be influenced by extrinsic motivating factors such as getting a job.

If our students (and our clients for that matter) had benefited from a general education in design, would they be so apprehensive about the act of making things? What if that student's teacher had used a different tactic to present his work to the public, one that didn't lead to a crippling self-consciousness about making his visualizations real?

It's not for lack of talent that he and others don't naturally draw or make something. In fact, they're often really good at it when they try. Would a general education in design have relaxed his inhibitions and taught him to love what he makes no matter what? Perhaps this kind of education, with its intrinsic values, can develop "designerly" qualities and knowledge in people over the course of their formative years: help them develop an understanding and ease with the fundamentals of image and form, give them the skills to spot a wicked problem and the desire to tackle it, provide them with confidence in expressing their ideas, and instill the conviction to see their inventions to fruition. After all, we may be afraid to do our taxes, procrastinate paying our bills, or dread writing that email to a co-worker, but we do them anyway because of our lifetime of knowledge and experience with such social and cultural norms.

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Jon Freach is design research director at frog. He has a 14-year background in user experience research and interaction design, and his writing has appeared in design mind and Interactions magazine. He lives and works in Austin.

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