There has been a lot of criticism of academic programs recently—probably deserved—accompanied by the growth of cult followers of university dropouts who have become millionaires and billionaires in business. This feeds into the generally accepted belief that Americans are anti-intellectual and pragmatic. Too often degrees are merely pursued for credentialing purposes and not the development of expertise and competence. Russell Ackoff—a past Emeritus Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania—claimed that the vaunted MBA program at Wharton was valuable primarily for professional networking and not for learning how to manage organizational systems.
The design of good formal learning experiences and the preparation of people to remain life long learners during their working lives remains an ongoing challenge. The design of degree programs at universities—from a systemic perspective —needs some serous designerly attention.
This is particularly true for degree programs focused on preparing practitioners in the various formally defined design fields. These programs—despite their titles—are not design ‘process’ focused but design ‘solution’ focused fields. The assumed solutions are: architecture, products, graphics, software etc. etc. The process of getting to such solutions in response to well formed design questions is not addressed.
Learning is too often treated as a shopping experience. Students are offered a shopping cart full of individualized elements in the same way that a shopper would load up on cans, packages and bottles of foodstuff at the grocery store. However, in order for all these groceries to be turned into prepared meals and culinary experiences the individual items need to be proportioned, mixed, blended and transformed into integrated and emergent wholes—and not merely added to summative pile of stuff.
Learning is, or should be, a similar integrative process. It is not just a process of collecting a variety of learning experiences. It is a process of selecting, composing and connecting parts into wholes. It would seem natural that design academics would see that the fundamental nature of a learning process is the same as a design process. Too often, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
For example in a recent interview by Charlie Rose of David Kelley of IDEO fame and the Stanford D School, Kelley explained that the D School did not give any degrees in design because Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. fame—an unsurpassed champion of elegant industrial design but not a designer or an educator himself—told Kelley he did not want to deal with any graduates with ‘flaky’ degrees from Stanford. He wanted people from traditional academic programs—e.g. business, science etc.—with design training. Stanford’s Design degree—an aggregation of a fine arts degree and an engineering degree—is their example of how to avoid a ‘flaky’ design degree.
Interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degrees—that are inclusive of training in design—are not sufficient for good professional preparation for the practice of design in today’s complex, interconnected and fast paced world. However, they carry credibility in academic and professional networks focused on credentials rather than competence, which is why they will remain marketable.
Traditional models of academic degrees are not good models for formal preparation for design practice. First of all because design is not a discipline in the traditional academic sense and secondly, design learning is not an aggregative process as found in the traditional academic degree processes. What is sorely needed—and will probably not happen in traditional academic institutions—is a serious design approach to recreating formal design learning processes that provides solid preparation for more sustainable and systemic design praxis in the future.
It will help when decision makers and stakeholders sincerely stop asking for ‘innovation’ while remaining hostile to ‘flaky’ ideas—i.e. ideas that look unfamiliar to them rather than familiar.