Critical Approaches to Culture + Media

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 20 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Teaching, Learning and Making in Design Education

One of the major assumptions in design education and pedagogy is that students have to “make” or “produce” objects, from for example, web pages to bicycles to books in order to prove that they have learned to become designers. This philosophy is further amplified in popular journals like Applied Arts, which features the work of designers (much as photographic magazines feature the works of photographers) as examples both of production and professional capacity as if the works themselves have enough presence and force to stand for the creative process.

This outcomes based strategy is pervasive in disciplines that frame learning through the products or objects students create. The assumption is that students become more active learners if they transform information and knowledge into something tangible. To varying degrees, this approach has immense value. However, my sense is that the focus on outcomes often reduces the students need to engage in wide-ranging and critical analyses and therefore to make possible the kind of self-reflection that is essential to learning. In other words interpretation, discourse and critique become less important largely because the object is meant to stand not only for function but also for meaning, process and aesthetics. There is in this approach a thin border between 19th century vocational learning and teaching and the depth that should be required of university students in the 21st century who wish to become designers.    

The tradition of making that dominates contemporary art and design educational organizations is often portrayed as one of the essential differences that design schools have with more traditional institutions. Making is given a higher value than just thinking or research that may have no pragmatic or immediate outcome.  I would like to argue in this short article that the underlying philosophy of “making” to show progress in skills acquisition is fraught with dangers, among the most important of which is rampant anti-intellectualism. Furthermore, from my perspective, the learning process both within design and generally, is by its very nature so interdisciplinary that the focus on outcomes (most fully exemplified by the fourth year graduation project that comes to stand not only for years of learning but for the general capacity and competence of the student) tends to distort if not undermine creative process as well as innovative and speculative thinking. Of course, I am not suggesting that making is an end in itself, nor that the fabrication of prototypes or objects is harmful or without merit. Rather, one of the most important elements of any creative discipline, in my opinion is that learners become creative problem solvers. In order to achieve that goal many different pedagogical approaches are needed, not the least of which is an awareness of the differences among skills, learning and research. Gaining that understanding means that design students (and for that matter design teachers) cannot approach learning in a linear fashion. There is no easy or simple road to creative and innovative thought or production, unless the purpose of the educational process is framed by a limited understanding of the vocation or discipline within which both learners and teachers are engaged.

In contrast, experience design is part of an effort to recast design process so that at a minimum fabrication can meet creativity in a middle zone, a space where designers can reach out to potential audiences or users, a space that is both highly contingent and not entirely framed by use. The challenge for successful experience designers then centres on communication, language and quality of interaction, that is, how to fabricate a relational environment that may or may not have objects as their focus. Experience design suggests something about the challenges that now face all designers as the ground upon which creative engagement shifts from makers to users, inverting the creative process so that the latter is often more responsible for their experiences than the former.

Ironically, this is the same problem that artists face. The fabrication of something from nothing and the translation of ideas into artifacts cannot be reduced to a series of mechanical decisions, but requires a combination of self-reflection and self-appraisal as well as external evaluation and critique. Concepts don’t become aesthetic objects just because the craft needed to make or create something has been well learned or even well executed. If creativity were a simple matter of craft or even technique, then there would be little aesthetic or technical difference among artists or designers or users. Self-reflection can be learned. At the same time, learning to work beyond the limitations suggested by any craft or technique is the foundation upon which both innovative and critical articulation rests. The challenge both for learners and teachers is how to open up an increasingly narrow and narrowing set of assumptions about the pragmatic outcomes of the learning process. This is one of the key challenges both for the discipline and the institutions that teach design. (This article first appeared in Applied Arts)