Latest guest post by Alan Dargan. Lead Lecturer in Design with @DigitalSkillsAc and also works with @TERMINALFOUR

Aalto University, Helsinki, is the home to thriving design, film and architecture schools and was a suitable location to host the Interaction Design Education Summit 2016. The Summit is the opening act for the IXDA Interaction Conference and it allows designers and educators converge and talk about the state of design education in 2016 – what’s working and what could be improved.

Education through design

China has a current student population of around 1.6 million and there are over 3,000 design courses ranging from Visual Communications to Textile Design. All in all there is an astounding 20 million designers in China so it’s worth hearing the perspective of a Chinese design educator, something we don’t hear enough of in the often Euro/US centric design world.


Professor Xiangyang Xin, Dean of the School of Design in Jiangan University characterised Experience Design as being less about a ‘users’ route to a final objective and more about ‘actors’ having experiences. Though I’m not sure it was his intention, Professor Xin’s Experience Design model – EPI – does an excellent job of framing not just a design education experience but a designed educational experience as well.


What do students hope to achieve throughout and after a course? The quality of an experience has a lot to with expectation.

How will they move through the education experience? This won’t be the same for everyone and will be less linear than we probably imagine. Often students will discover areas that they have an interest in / aptitude for which they may not have considered. Often the opposite can happen.


What will be the lasting effects of the education experience be – both long and short term, profound and otherwise

Every semester Professor Xin’s students co-create the course content allowing them to critically reflect on the course material rather than merely repeat tasks. Self-Actualisation is integral to the education experience something that the other keynote speakers echoed.

“Designers fix broken things and nothing is ever good enough”

Andy Budd has taken design education in the UK to task recently and pulled no punches in his discussion with Fred Beecher, fuelling a mini-Twitter storm throughout.

The UK, is rightly, much lauded for its Product Design and this is no short measure thanks to the high quality of Product Design courses on offer. Digital design courses, according to Andy, focus on tools rather than the design thinking and problem solving processes that feature heavily in Product Design courses. Additionally, according to Andy, Universities teach digital design as a creative pursuit rather than a practice that seeks to attain outcomes from long, considered processes.

Andy is one of the founding partners at UX agency, Clearleft, and each year they take on a team of interns as hands on apprentices (rather than coffee fetchers). They bring with them fresh thinking with experience outside of UX and an enthusiasm.

In his experience those designers often can’t wait to start up Photoshop and begin designing. Thinking they had solved the problem on the first day the teams would set about executing their solutions while using their research to merely reinforce their own ideas. It was important to reset the team’s goals and move them away from the ‘shallow solutions’ to what were often the wrongly identified problems.

Historically, structures in organisations, like academic ones, fail to understand new disciplines. It’s the same way that large organisations struggle to implement digital transformation because, generationally, many of the decision makers don’t grasp the benefits and inherent implications of new technology to the organisation. Similarly, design thinking is not fully understood by the decision makers within an Academic institution. It’s only when those embedded in it rise to senior roles will an appreciation permeate the organisation.

Often, despite possessing real world and current industry experience, designers are turned down for teaching or mentoring roles in universities when they lack academic credentials. The focus can be on academic qualifications rather than professional work.

It’s not surprising that this take on third level design education has drawn criticism. Jonathan Baldwin of the University of South Wales has been the most vocal and in his Medium piece entitled No, digital design is not broken pulls apart the arguments Andy made in his original article and voiced here. Jonathan makes some excellent points about the role of digital design education – is it merely to train skilled and able employees or should education do more – “Education isn’t a production line and variation is a feature, not a flaw.”

Andy’s claim that design education as broken comes from being a designer – as he says designers are often the most troublesome people within an organisation who constantly see opportunities for improvement – “Designers fix broken things and nothing is ever good enough”.

What does he look for in a designer? A portfolio consisting of more than college work, somebody who keeps up by reading both about design and wider topics and someone who is invested in the community through blogging or active membership in an industry organisation (presumably like IXDA).

Creating a sustainable culture of design

You may not think it but IBM has a long, storied history of design. From the Paul Rand logotype through to the Eames’ Powers of Ten film and the Eeero Saarinen designed factory historically design played an important role at the enterprise computing giant. It was IBM’s President, Thomas J Watson Jr., who, in 1966, sent a company wide memo asserting “Good design is good business (and) helps to sell our products.”

To continue this tradition IBM are seeking to create a sustainable culture of design by employing graduate designers by the hundreds. To address the transition between academia and industry new designers are brought though a design bootcamp for the first three months to make them industry ready and build a bridge between the two worlds.

It’s often a criticism from industry that designers leave education only practiced in working alone or with other designers. Ny working on two projects designers are taught to collaborate both with each other and with non-designers. This isn’t always easy but it’s a good opportunity to allow them to fail early or even just encounter and overcome the perils group dynamics in a safe setting.

In a design thinking workshop hosted by IBM’s design Principal, Doug Powell, we ran an empathy mapping exercise to try and get into the heads of the 3 players involved in a graduates move from education to industry – the student, the lecturer and the design lead who is hiring. What are their fears and motivations. As is typical of the first run of an empathy map much of the the thoughts were negative but this gives us an insight into what is going on in their heads.

IBM’s Design Thinking is definitely worth a look to give us an insight into their iterative process loop of observation, reflection and execution.

Citizen Designer

Kim Goodwin’s closing keynote was philosophical in tone and drew on John Dewey, Hannah Arendt and educational philosopher Paul Freire to examine what we talk about when we talk about ‘a good education’. What should design education accomplish? Should it be no more than the acquisition of skills dictated by industry or should it be something more?

Education, according to Kim, is not about creating better employees but better citizens and this means obtaining a wider education that permits students to think critically and to instil a life time of curiosity. This is especially valuable these days where opinion can often drown out reason. This goes back to the earlier point about the role and value of education in a society – is it any more than training or should it broaden horizons as well?

‘Citizen designers’ need a unified education that consists of virtues, knowledge as well as skills.

Throughout the event there were also talks from speakers from Cooper, Carnegie Mellon and General Assembly and the common theme through all was educators and industry endeavouring to work together to cultivate the best designers, regardless of how fraught that may be. After all, as Andy Budd said (and I’m paraphrasing here), – “If you are invested in design as a positive impact in the world why wouldn’t you want to ensure that impact was amplified”?

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