A discussion on design education at the Virtual Design Education Forum 2021

As part of this year’s the Virtual Design Education Forum (VDEF21) the Society’s Chief Executive, Frank Peters FCSD CDir FIoD, was invited to join other designers to discuss design education both now and in the future.

During his talk, which he described as a personal dialogue, Frank explored whether design education had only gone through incremental changes in a period of almost 200 years.

Here we provide an overview of Frank’s talk and put a spotlight on his own personal experiences as a designer and Chief Executive of the professional body for designers, and his thoughts on the future of design education.

Frank’s own design education journey

Like many of us, Frank’s love of design stems from childhood. He remembers colouring-in books, modelling “those lovely smelly coloured strips of corrugated plasticine”, art and craft at primary and junior school. This was before he knew this was technically design, or part of the design process.

Like many young creatives, Frank moved into studying design, learning about technical drawing, wood and metalwork and art.  He attended one of the first technical schools before undertaking a foundation year and then moving into three years of study at a polytechnic.

He notes the emphasis of his education was on learning how to carry out tasks to improve and make things better for a given predefined purpose.

Even during his career, starting as an exhibition designer, then as the founder of his own creative consultancy and later becoming Chief Executive of CSD, Frank muses the brief for designers has remained the same: how to innovate, improve and make things better.

He notes that to improve and achieve better, in whichever context, the starting point was always to think, to think in order to question, in order to understand, in order to then, and only then…to act. Whilst throughout the whole process, continuously thinking and rethinking. Combining creativity with knowledge to enable action to be taken, using a set of skills in a professional manner.

Yet he considers that at no point during those formative educational years was he exposed to the underlying principles or the science of thinking.

Frank considers that his own design journey, especially in respect of the UK, is likely to have been no different from that of any other designer. Essentially it is a journey straddling the boundaries of art and technology, creating the tensions between the creative, the aesthetic expression and the practical, the logical and commercial reality.

Looking back at design education

Frank reflected on design education’s history. Noting that in 1837, faced with increasing competition from European countries the UK set up the first government school for design now renamed the Royal College of Art.

Quoting Henry Cole to describe the school’s purpose as being “to provide for the architect, the upholsterer, the weaver, the printer, the potter, and all manufacturers, artisans better educated to originate and execute their respective wares, and to invest them with greater symmetry of form, with increased harmony of colour, and with greater symmetry of form, with increased harmony of colour, and with greater fitness of decoration; to render manufacturers not less useful by ornamenting them, but more beautiful, and therefore more useful.” Frank concludes, ‘to be more saleable – to boost the economy’ – the ‘purpose’.

Frank believes this purpose set the blueprint, not for design education per se, but for the purpose of design education as an economic enabler and as inextricably linked to consumerism and capitalism.

Over time, Frank muses that design, as opposed to art, not only became the servant of commerce and the economy, but also by default, the government.

Design education’s purpose

Frank explains that design education has consistently focussed on one clear aim: to prepare design graduates for employment. He believes this was all based on a long-standing business model, with the purpose of design education being well-defined: serving the employer. Because of this, Frank explains there was a scant need for the designers to understand business models, economics, strategy, leadership. Meaning these topics tended to be areas that the designer fell into or not, once practising.

He goes on to suggest that design’s purpose has now changed explaining that we no longer primarily focus on the thinking, questioning and understanding of the design of products or ‘stuff’ but that we now need to focus on services instead, focusing on designing a complexity of experiences.

Adding that designers must now focus on the end-user and their environment, behaviour, culture, relationships, all those issues that affect and are affected by people. He muses that it was simpler before, when the purpose was designing a product that generates a profit. Now the purpose is to design a service that may or may not include a product. Designs that reduce material and energy consumption, address diversity, end of life, sustainability, and more than likely ensure it is costed and economically sustainable too.

Previously, the designer in serving consumers had little say about the wider context in which they practice. Frank notes that while some designers refused to design cigarette packs or military exhibitions, the majority “got on with it.”

Is our current design education model fit for purpose now?

Frank believes that design education itself requires a redesign, to better serve and support designers. He explains that while it’s not possible to alter the past, we should instead learn from it.

While designers have participated in delivering a consumer-led economy, designing stuff, they are no more guilty of damaging the environment than those who have commissioned them to do so and those who have enjoyed the benefits of consumerism and are no more guilty than those who have sought to educate them.

A new model for design education needs to enable designers to think question and understand the wider consequences of their actions and the impact on others and the environment, notes Frank.

He considers this new design paradigm poses serious issues for the designer in respect of ethical and moral challenges. He notes many design projects focussed on addressing societal challenges/issues that occur due to poverty, deprivation, lack of education, social injustice and prejudice. These are all issues that should be addressed at source, at the root causes of societal problems, as opposed to recruiting designers to simply address the symptoms.

Because of this, Frank believes the inclusion of philosophy and psychology is a must, to ensure design graduates can develop a competence to challenge and confront such dynamics.

Frank also notes that design education will need to react more quickly to technological developments, manufacturing processes, material science, the speed at which design education needs to develop, to keep pace is a further reason why it needs to be redesigned.  He asks whether design curricula should be co-developed with a much wider pool of stakeholders.

Frank says that “design education must seek to ensure that the designers it educates are capable of gaining meaningful employment. I believe there is also a moral duty to do so given the high cost to those currently studying in the UK, the promises made to them by institutions and therefore the hope they have been given.”

The issue moving forward is the uncertainty of what meaningful employment there may be in the future, what type of employment, what type of jobs? What opportunities? He notes that if anything, the past two years has taught us is that there is no certainty.

Suggesting that designers are no longer limited to the studio designing for others but are now just as likely to be manufacturing and producing their designs and taking them directly to market, he urges that design education needs to acknowledge this varied and uncertain future and prepare students as best as possible.

To end with, Frank quotes US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld: “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Concluding he says that we should start educating ‘future’ designers, that design education must ensure designers can deal with the unknowns as, and when they arrive, as they inevitably will