Teaching the Bigger Picture

Design schools need to shift focus from the form of objects to understanding the systems that produce them.

In late 2005 I gave a little talk at Art Center College of Design about mapping as a means of bringing design disciplines together—a very little talk. It was an exciting time at the school: Bruce Sterling had just concluded his year as Visionary in Residence and published his seminal book Shaping Things, posing the challenges of designing for a sustainable society in the information age. But my presentation was planned on the day when the school’s corporate sponsors came in to see what the students have been doing with all that industry money, and students were frantically pinning up renderings and polishing models for the visitors. So I presented to a packed house of five, one of whom yawned conspicuously throughout.

I might have foreseen that a lecture on mapping wasn’t going to tear the house down. Mapping is a good way of exposing the agendas that lead to a design decision, such as, say, Israel’s placement of settlements in the West Bank or General Motors’ decision to kill the EV1. It’s also a good way to see, without disciplinary bias, what the design problems or opportunities are in a defined field—say, a university campus, the prison system, or the house of the future. But if you think that product design is either a compromised version of fine art or form-making in the service of industry, this kind of big-picture thinking won’t strike any chords. Before my talk, during a guided tour of Art Center’s gorgeous hillside campus, I was surprised to find students working on clay models and 3-D digital renderings of cars. It seemed horribly reminiscent of old-school product design, when the profession could still happily see itself in the Raymond Loewy mold, styling next year’s models after most of the work had already been done by engineers. Granted, schools still have to teach undergrads how to make beautiful objects, but if they really think design is an important part of societal change, then they’ll have to shift the emphasis from portfolios to problems.

A year or so later there is much buzz about convergence and cross-disciplinary collaboration in product-design-education circles. But convergence translates all too easily into the development of what Sterling calls gizmos—networked feature-loaded objects—the offspring of a consumer society impregnated by the information age. Hence the craze a few years ago for fridges with televisions or touch-screen computers embedded in the door. In this magazine last year (“Vanishing Acts,” April 2006, p. 48), Sam Jacob articulated this essentially marketing-driven point of view with his acid account of how, as the clunky mechanical innards of products are replaced by circuit boards, objects are dematerializing into feelings and images: the click of an iPod scroll wheel or the clunk of a BMW door. He concluded that “good design” is about making consumers feel fashionable, and not about making things work better—“because most stuff works pretty well.”

Most stuff works pretty well. This remark must have provoked the ire of more than a few people. I got a call from Humanscale, which makes ergonomic office equipment and chairs, and whose CEO, Bob King, was aghast at Jacob’s column. As King saw it, one particular thing that doesn’t work very well is forcing the human body to sit hunched over a computer screen for hours on end. The digital age has introduced an analog problem: backache, which affects eight out of ten Americans and costs 93 million days of lost work a year.

If most stuff works pretty well, then why did it take me an hour and a half to get from the ticket counter to the Boeing-designed plane last year after the London antiterrorism sweep mandated all passengers to surrender their deodorants and water bottles at security, prompting an almighty pileup? If most stuff works pretty well, why is the IDEO-designed high-speed Amtrak train from New York to New Haven less reliable than the local service, at four times the fare? Why are there no public toilets in New York City?

If most stuff works pretty well, then it would make sense that product-design students were styling cars. But car driving in this country still accounts for about 42,000 fatalities a year, a figure that dwarfs the total number of American deaths in Iraq since the war began. The design problem is bigger than the clunk of a door or the shape of a fender, or even the efficacy of the in-car navigation system. It’s a complex interdisciplinary problem that no product designer can solve with a clay model. It’s why Tom Vanderbilt, whose first book was about fashionable objects (sneakers), has turned to the subject of traffic in his next: not product design but system design. Systems analysis also applies to the problem of backache in the age of extended sitting: better chairs, monitor arms, and desks might be a salve, but the bigger picture involves the influence of corporate culture on our work habits, the work ethic, the legacy of Taylorist (read: military) notions of efficiency and effective decision making. It also involves the changing face of the workplace, as fewer white men and more women and minorities bring their (sometimes healthier) sitting habits to the office.

Should product-design programs satisfy themselves with the cosmetic task of branding the experience for the next generation of users? In my opinion, schools need to rethink how they teach product design.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to think of this. It is no coincidence that at least four schools in the United States (Philadelphia University, Stanford University, Parsons the New School for Design, and the University of Min­nesota, which published the mapping book I coedited with Jan Abrams) are setting up graduate programs in product design. On one end of the spectrum is Stanford’s new “d.school,” armed with a $35 million gift from Hasso Plattner, which will put together small multidisciplinary teams of design, computer science, social science, and business graduate students to work on specific design problems. With the dangling paradigm of Google, invented by two Stanford students, and the warm embrace of BusinessWeek magazine, the d.school looks set to focus more on innovation than cultural criticism. But with the ongoing greening of American businesses, Wal-Mart to boot, I’m hopeful that some Sterling-esque meta-thinking, fusing the information age with the “stark interventionist need for a sustainable society,” as he put it, might result. On the other end of the spectrum is anthropologist Jamer Hunt, whose inspired but troubled “postindustrial design” graduate program at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, prioritized critical thinking over form making as the product designer’s task in an age of overseas manufacture and overproduction. The program will continue as Hunt moves on to Parsons, in New York, to develop a multidisciplinary graduate studio that tackles issues of complexity, network culture, sustainability, and globalization.

But such is the cult of the object in our society that even as design schools shift from the object to understanding the systems that produce untenable objects (such as cars, airport X-ray machines, and unreliable trains), our image-based media infrastructure hankers for something to fill the void. Schools will have to wrestle with the object problem—or more accurately, the image-of-the-object problem.

In Philadelphia the program that Hunt directed for seven years blazed a trail for the kind of critical thinking and drive toward societal and professional change that Sterling envisioned in Shaping Things, but it struggled for the credibility it needed to produce a talent pool of critical-minded designers that would capture the ear of the industry and attract more students. Although Hunt’s students came up with brilliant projects addressing systemic issues, such as Patricia Beirne’s T-shirt label—a version of the nutritional label on food that conveyed a sense of the ecological and social cost of the garment to which it was attached—they rarely resulted in singular photo-ready objects. As Tucker Viemeister is reported to have exclaimed of the program, “Where’s the stuff?!”

It seems to me that there are at least three responses from design schools to the current crisis: position product design as a business(week)-friendly, innovation-focused process (IIT and Stanford); focus on research rather than form making and align it with other humanities disciplines (Hunt); or take the art-school route epitomized by the Royal College of Art, in London, and Cranbrook Academy of Art, which have reputations for critical thinking and producing sexy imagery of objects—often more hypothetical than manufacturable. As Scott Klinker, current head of 3-D design at Cranbrook, has pointed out, architecture has a rich body of discourse springing from hypothetical designs. Product-design education doesn’t have to produce products any more than architecture education has to produce buildings. Of course, conceptual products don’t guarantee an income, but like paper and digital architecture, at best they challenge the status quo.

A fourth response to stuff evaporation is to shift gears to mapping those object-producing systems and using the data, arrayed in compelling visual form, to drive design change. But I’m still working on that little talk.

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