Design Education: The Clarity of Hindsight

November 1, 2001 · by Sally Moeller

The editors of the Almanac of Architecture & Design asked a recent interior design graduate from the University of Cincinnati, last year’s Top School for Interior Design, to contribute an essay from a student’s perspective of design education and

The editors of theAlmanac of Architecture & Designasked a recent interior design graduate from the University of Cincinnati, last year’s Top School for Interior Design, to contribute an essay from a student’s perspective of design education and the future of the profession. Sally Moeller studied interior design at the University of Cincinnati and graduated in June 2001 with a Bachelor of Design degree. She currently awaiting the next leg of her design adventure. She can be reached at Moellesp@yahoo.com.

The past five years in design school have consisted of twelve apartments, 10 weeks homeless in Europe, drained bank accounts, internships in three different cities at three different design firms, four and a half years of hard work preparing for senior thesis, and six long months of senior thesis. At this point in my life (post graduation) it takes me less than an hour to pack all my personal belongings (mostly clothing) into three L.L. Bean duffel bags and be out the door. Looking back on it, no matter how hard or frustrating it was at times, I wouldn’t dare change a thing. For me design education was not just about sitting in studio endlessly debating concepts and reworking drawings, it was about experiencing all the amazing opportunities that the world has to offer and how, ultimately, those experiences are traced back to design.

I entered design school not having an inkling about design; let alone what designers actually do. I decided on design school after two years of majoring in history and realizing history, although fascinating to study, would take me nowhere I really wanted to be. I needed a skill. , I loved to draw and be creative, so design school became the obvious choice. The first day of class I was standing around with a bunch of strangers when in walks my first studio professor, looking like a respectful Hugh Grant. Without any introduction he immediately began talking design: why design is important, what does it mean to be a designer, does anyone know what the word ‘Datum’ means? As these ideas and questions bounced back and fourth in my mind during those endless first hours of studio, all I could think was, “what am I getting myself into?”

Let’s face it, the most important aspect of a design student’s education is the classroom. This is where professors lay the educational foundation. I almost think of it as entering the army. In the first couple weeks of school all my pre-conceived ideas on design were literally stripped away. Once gone, each professor began to build a new stronger foundation in its place. In studio we were introduced to the fundamental principles of design.

History, theory and technology began to give these abstract principles shape-demonstrating to me for the first time that the design world came fully equipped with a dynamic and intriguing history and brilliant scholars fixedly dissecting, questioning, and revolutionizing theory and technology. In my first two years of design school I began to comprehend my professors’ fascination with design.

Design is not solely about buildings, environments, and other tangible objects. Design is about creating for mankind, and the only way to do that is to learn and understand through emotions, actions, geography, and culture. Designers are constantly trying to prove their understanding of mankind through the tangible objects they design.

After two and a half years of design education, my foundation was beginning to take shape. The next task of development was to combine my knowledge of the world with my education. However, at nineteen years old what did I know about the world? I had grown up in white middle class suburbia, considered pepperoni pizza an ethnic food, and couldn’t even comprehend the possibility of owning a pair of red shoes. I was extremely naïve—and I needed to change all that as soon as possible.

Fortunately for me, the University of Cincinnati offers endless opportunities for educational experiences outside of academia. After two and a half years of the classroom experience, all design students must participate in the co-operative education program. This program gives students the opportunity to explore the professional world through a series of six required internships. Students are given the freedom to go anywhere in the world as long as the internships meet University guidelines. Upon realizing my need to break out of the “bubble,” I took full advantage of the co-operative education program. I learned many valuable lessons on the way.

Most projects in my academic career had been individual projects. I developed the concept, I space planned, I selected the materials, I built and constructed the final presentation. It was my complete vision. The only other person immediately involved in the process was the professor who pushed for more, set boundaries, and constantly questioned my intentions. Practicing design is a different story.

It was on my first internship that I learned the value of my peers and the vital necessity of self-confidence. I was assigned to a team of designers and architects working on one project. Each person on the team had a specific role, collaborating together for a built outcome. But does it work? How do designers put aside egos and work together as a team? The few group projects I had encountered in school were always difficult because of hurt egos, members not giving a hundred percent, or members scared to share their ideas. However, at the end of this internship, designing in a team oriented environment proved its merit. Each person on the team--including me--the intern-had something very important to offer the project, a reflection of the group’s diversity. Members included multiple ethnicities, economic backgrounds, religions and political opinions. Discussions about design always led to other topics related to the issues at hand and allowed individuals a chance to voice their experiences and opinions. Once the discussions came full circle, each member viewed the original topic differently. Ultimately, it was the group’s diversity that allowed the project to become richer in theoretical meaning and aesthetics.

Back at school, this lesson allowed me to explore the diversity of my peers.I had previously viewed their opinions and insights as a resource but never fully utilized them. This is partly because of the insecurity and vulnerability I felt with my projects. Letting go of these feelings and allowing design to be explored by my peers made each project stronger and me a better designer.

Each internship nurtured my development as a designer. I’ve been given the opportunity to do everything from red lines on construction documents to setting up photo shoots. The more experience I developed interning, the more opportunities presented themselves to me. During my final internship, I felt I was no longer an intern but an employee. The firm gave me the utmost respect and responsibility, allowing me to be involved in all aspects of a project. I sat in meetings discussing concept development, where I not only listened but actively participated in the evolution of the project’s solution. I was even given the opportunity to meet and present a project to a client. All this as an intern-it was an amazing learning experience.

However, it was not just the internships that aided in my development as a designer; it was also the cultural and geographical diversity I experienced along the way. I spent six months each in New York City and Chicago and three months in San Francisco. To top it off, I traded in my final work quarter for a travel quarter and managed to backpack all throughout Europe looking at art and design on $35 a day (yes, it can still be done).

Looking back, I don’t think I fully comprehended what I was getting myself into. New York City compared to the rest of the country is completely foreign-bordering on alien. My life went from living in the peaceful Midwest to restless Alphabet City, driving in my comfortable car to standing shoulder to shoulder in the subway and thinking I was so stylish in my khakis to...well...realizing I wasn’t stylish at all. But I absolutely loved everything about this foreign land. After New York, I went to the opposite coast. San Francisco was spent trying to understand how it can be so cold in July and how all the new “internet money” would transform the region. I also developed a love for sushi and wine tasting. When I got to Chicago, I finally bought my first pair of red shoes. But Europe truly offered the most amazing cultural learning experience.

I was mesmerized by the glow of the Guggenheim Bilbao and the intricacies of the Alhambra in Granada. Berlin was reminiscent of a science fiction novel, complete with the most interesting and complex population I have yet to encounter. I touched the sky when I hiked the Swiss Alps and reached paradise at the Turkish baths in Budapest.

The cultural and geographical diversity that I have experienced is just as important as the theories learned in the classroom and the internships completed in the profession. I have seen parts of the world and met unique individuals that will stay with me forever, and it is these experiences that will help me understand the complexity of mankind.

It is these experiences that will guide me in the design profession. Soon, I will get my three L.L. Bean duffle bags out yet again and migrate to New York City. I don’t have a job yet, but I’m not worried, something exciting always turns up—the last five years are proof of that.

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