On the designer’s education

Bruce Sterling, BusinessWeek writer (author, blogger, etc…) wrote a nice piece today on the experience and transformation of the design education. He spent a year at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, teaching.  His comments on the design education and its effects on students then and later are quite insightful. A snippet:

I imagined that as a teacher I might be grading their exams, running boot-camp drills, hell weeks, pop quizzes — but no, at Art Center the way is the rigor of practice. Demo or die. Practice is the crucial difference between people who can talk (like myself) and people who can design (like my best students). The Art Center kids were challenged with a small budget, a tight schedule, and a need to do something really good for their portfolio — something impressive, something worthy of public display. It was never made entirely clear to them what “good” meant. They had to sop that up from the thick smog of cultural values in the Art Center air while shut up tight with their teeming fellows in the Modernist steel monastery.

He also has some nice ideas about design and the relationship between thinking and action:

Design, as Charles Eames said, is a method of action. It’s not a method of “vision.” A designer, as Henry Dreyfuss said, is an artist who leaves the ivory tower and takes the elevator down to the ground floor…Today I find design to be thoughtful and sensible, while the daily texture of my previous life seems muddleheaded to me now, sluggish, vaguely trashy, vulgar even. Why was I like that back then? Why did I make such half-assed decisions about my tools, my possessions, and my material surroundings? Why was I so impassive, such a lazy, inveterate slob? I wasn’t any happier for that. Why did I allow myself to do little or nothing about the gross inadequacies of my personal environment? Why didn’t I take action?

In the end, Bruce catches something essential about the effects of a design education–in essence, it is about overcoming the “learned sense of personal helplessness” that possesses most inhabitants of the modern industrial world and creates a passive acceptance of our tools, possessions, and material surroundings. Not to put too melodramatic a note on it. The recent attention to design and design thinking is in many ways an attempt to teach people about their own latent abilities to change their worlds.