Design is a relatively young profession. Early designers came from many backgrounds and were introduced to the profession because of their ability to contribute artistically or constructively to the industry’s needs for the development of products and communications.
The first design programs invariably began in art schools, and were born from industry needs. The demands of the industry were introduced into art studios, and early designs were treated as ‘commercial art’. Even though the path to the present state of design education has been based around the requirements of the industrial economy, in the past several decades design education has begin to change—at least within the university sector. Following changes in both industry and society, design education has evolved and course structures have been modified to reflect these changes. In return, the new generation of designers increasingly looks beyond the design field to increase their knowledge and gain new points of reference.
However, this disciplinary evolution is still in its infancy. Most design educators will likely agree that students enrolling into design programs continue to exhibit a dislike, or an inability to deal with the content of other fields outside of what is still perceived to be the core of the design profession—the idea of making, rather than thinking. These students usually take a narrowly-focused view of the subject of their interest, to the point of excluding everything else. In their learning process, their reservations, prejudices and knowledge gaps usually go unattended (or are further enhanced) because many of their tutors and lecturers are products of the same process and hold similar viewpoints. On graduating, these students go into industry to departments or consultancies staffed by graduates before them who hold similar dispositions. They then influence the schools from their professional positions to ensure that the schools continue to prepare students as they were prepared, so that future employees will have the same skills and attitudes as they have—which they perceive as necessary for employment in the industry. However, in order for design to evolve, this incestuous loop must be broken and new knowledge needs to be introduced to both design education and the design profession. This is not to say that design education should not be aligned with the current expectations of industry. It should be; but design education should also go beyond this.
While the demand for designers as artists and technicians persists within industry, society today demands a new generation of designers who can design not only products, but systems for living as well. Contemporary problems such as globalisation, terrorism, overpopulation, environmental issues, multiculturalism and economic crises demand new solutions and unconventional approaches. Everything from sustainable production to urban living can be revisited and readdressed. But in order for this to happen, designers need to see themselves not as creative or artistic service providers but as strategic planners. To take up the possibilities that this situation presents, their tasks will need to shift from product creation to process creation. Their skills must progress from artistic and technical to conceptual and analytical. In turn, this can change the design output and the outcome can become a meaningful social process, and not merely an aesthetic refinement.
Nevertheless, there are still not enough designers who know how to apply research that can introduce new currents into their work. That is why designers rarely participate in the process that determines what kind of design should be produced, and for whom—or why. Instead, most designers tend to focus on investigating form, style and processes; and the strategic planning and the research that drives it is often left to others. While the need for designers with technical and artistic skill is constant within the industry, teaching students to see themselves as merely service providers and someone’s ‘apprentices’ means not developing them to their full capacity. If this is the type of education design students are receiving, then they will have difficulty asserting themselves as critical thinkers and strategic planners in their professional lives. Introducing research in design education will help designers to generate new knowledge within the field and will enable them to develop understanding of new business concepts, emerging technologies, people and culture. But most importantly, research-driven design education represents a willingness to look beyond the immediate concern of crafting a project, encouraging an openness to integrating new insights into the design process itself. Yet, this does not means that designers should cease to create beautiful things.