Innovation in Higher Education

December 13, 2006 · by Thomas Fisher

Design has never had a more promising future than it does now.

On July 1st, 2006, the University of Minnesota opened a new College of Design, combining all of the design disciplines - from graphic design through urban design - previously located in different colleges on different campuses. The new college represented not just a bureaucratic shuffle, but also a strategic response to the new role design has begun to play in the global economy and to the new directions design education needs to take in response.

The Design Economy

Design has never had a more promising future than it does now. After decades of watching companies focus on cost savings as the way to compete in a global economy, we now see the business community beginning to embrace design, with its emphasis on quality, value, and innovation, as key to America's competitive edge.

Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management has argued for this convergence of design and business. "Businesspeople don't just need to understand designers better; they need to become designers," he says. "For any company that chooses to innovate, the foremost challenge is this: Are you willing to step back and ask, 'What's the problem we're trying to solve?' Well, that's what designers do: They take on a mystery, some abstract challenge, and they try to create a solution."

Add to Martin's voice that of the business writer, Daniel Pink, who argues in his best-selling book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, that left-brain, analytical thinking will eventually be converted to software or done more cheaply overseas, and that the greatest economic and social value in the future will come from right-brain thinkers. The practical imagination of designers puts us near the top of Pink's list of "winners" in the coming "conceptual age."

Transforming Practice

This transformation in the way in which the business community sees design demands an equally dramatic transformation in how we, in the design community, see ourselves. We have to stop giving away the most valuable part of what we have to offer - our design ideas - in order to get commissioned to do the least valuable and most easily automated or off-shored part - contract documents. And we have to stop paying designers less, sometimes much less, than the technical people in our offices, when the former add at least as much value, and in the future, probably more than the latter.

At the same time, we have to stop seeing design as what happens after all the critical up-front decisions get made by others, usually by non-designers. Design, as Martin argues, needs to be involved at the very beginning of every project, since the very success of the project will come from the value-added, out-of-the-box thinking that designers bring to the table. Designers, in other words, need to adopt a "whole new mind" about our own practices, thinking much more creatively about who we are and what we have to offer.

Re-imagining Education

Design education also must transform itself, which is the goal at Minnesota's new College of Design. While we will continue to offer specialized education in the various design disciplines and meet all of the requirements of the accredited professional programs in architecture and landscape architecture, the college has begun to explore new ways of preparing students to enter the new "design economy." This has involved connecting the various design disciplines to each other and with other fields not normally thought of as design related.

For example, our Design Institute has, over the last five years, served as a "think tank," bringing in people from around the world to expand the boundaries of what design involves: design and biotechnology, design and knowledge mapping, design and public interaction. Fields as diverse as genomics, information science, and political science have garnered the benefits of design thinking, as we have defined new areas in need of design services. In a design economy, our disciplines have become a fungible currency that can cross boundaries in ways never before possible.

At the same time, we have begun to develop general design degrees, such as our Bachelor of Design in Architecture, that allow students to cross boundaries among design fields as well as between the university and the community. Students might mix architecture, film, and computing to become virtual environment designers; or architecture, ecology, and economics to become sustainable developers; or they might study architecture, sculpture, and politics to become public artists. These paths of study appeal to students, in part, because of their practicality and flexibility. In an economy in which many people will have several related, but nevertheless distinctly different, careers over their lifetime, having a variety of fields to draw from becomes a genuine strength and a real differentiator.

But the transformation occurring in design education goes beyond utility. It represents the "whole new mind" of the generation now in school or those who have recently graduated. This generation has always had computers in their lives and they tend to think in more "web-like" ways, with little patience for the neatly defined disciplines or the resolutely defended professions constructed in the past.

A Sustainable Future

Universities have slowly recognized this, creating a more web-oriented pedagogy and encouraging more interdisciplinary teaching and research. The professional organizations must now do the same. While individual firms often put together extraordinarily diverse teams, with sometimes dozens of disciplines represented, the licensing and accreditation bodies have largely resisted such diversification. As a result, younger people have voted with their feet, seeking out more flexible degree programs and shrugging off more onerous registration exams.

They see where the real opportunities of the future lie for design. With 25 million people flooding cities annually, with one sixth of the world's population living in slums, with global temperatures breaking records, and with polar ice caps melting - we have entered a century of dramatic change, one desperately in need of the designer's skill in envisioning alternative futures, finding win-win solutions, concocting adaptive strategies, and imagining new ways of living and working.

Thomas R. Fisher is dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota. He is a Senior Fellow of The Design Futures Council.

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