"We are coming to view design
more as a mentality than a skill"


Lucas Verweij opinion column on Dezeen

Opinion: as the market for design education explodes and schools struggle to keep up, we need to work out what a designer actually is and what they need to learn says Lucas Verweij.

Design has expanded in all imaginable directions, but the world of education doesn't know how to respond to the new situation. What on earth should you teach future designers? For what profession are we actually educating them? Will they be entrepreneurs? Or artists? Engineers? Writers? Innovators? Researchers? There's no time to reflect on the answer, because courses and programmes must be developed quickly in response to the crazy growth in the market for design education.

Design has expanded. In the digital domain we've seen the emergence of interaction design, game design and app design. Managerial tools now include design thinking and business model design. In the humanitarian domain we now have service design, human-centred design and social design. None of these new directions bear much relation to the roots of the profession in industrial or product design. Instead, we are increasingly coming to view design more as a mentality than a skill. And while education struggles with this shift, the market for education keeps on growing.

Half a century ago, universities established courses in design largely as offshoots of mechanical engineering. In addition to technology, designers received academic instruction in design methods. Design freedom was therefore limited. Academies of art established courses grounded in ceramic and graphic design, which were both practical and artistic in orientation. For decades just two professional profiles existed alongside each other: a designer was either a creative engineer or a practitioner of an applied art.

The design explosion disrupts education. Teachers and administrators in the field of education disagree about what to teach designers. In Eindhoven the battle even culminated in a personal shootout among the academy's management. While individual teachers and administrators harbour explicit, personal opinions, there is no shared vision about what to teach designers.

Is collaboration with other disciplines the most important aspect? Or is it still creative ability? Should programming be a compulsory subject? Or understanding of production processes? Is a knowledge of materials still important? Which entrepreneurial, journalistic and research skills should students learn? And should they be instructed in a more didactic setting than has been the case up to now?

While schools are driven to desperation, the market for design education is growing explosively. Århus, Bern and Amsterdam have all seen the emergence of creative business schools boasting names like Kaospilots and Knowmads, with a clear vision of creative and social entrepreneurship. Students are capable of writing business plans, learn about management strategies for online start-ups, and are blessed with a mentality of engagement. Leadership skills are also on the syllabus. Businessweek rates them as "top design schools".

Start-up schools and bootcamps have come up with new learning formats for prototyping commercial ideas. Courses are internal and last about half a year. Students pay for their tuition with shares in the business they plan to set up. Admission is determined on the basis of ideas proposed by prospective students, and courses focus entirely on the elaboration of one single idea.

Hasso Plattner has initiated schools for design thinking and design innovation known as the Institute of Design and the School of Design Thinking. This is where one of the best-selling apps of 2010 – Pulse Reader – was created. In addition, over 80 courses in interaction design have emerged, usually through the addition of a design component to an existing course in technology.

Even though most designers think that service design "has nothing to do with design", the Royal College of Art in London recently established a course in this field. Similarly, Domus Academy, the birthplace of Memphis, is doing its bit by offering a course in business design. In New York courses in design criticism were established recently, and a course in curating and writing will launch this year in Eindhoven. Design thinking is offered as a subject at many American universities. So although fundamental questions remain unanswered, new courses are popping up everywhere like mushrooms. It makes you wonder just how good all those courses really are.

Now that the education market is totally globalised, schools are recruiting students all over the world. Everybody who pays is welcome. In Europe, European students bring in less money than real foreigners, so students from further afield are more lucrative. Tuition fees for a masters course at Domus costs €17,000 for students from Europe, but €25,000 for students from everywhere else. That's cheap compared to design criticism, where you'll pay $18,000 per semester.

The multicultural make-up of the student population is often seen as a criterion for quality. But is learning in a class with lots of nationalities really better? I don't think so. Something else is expected of designers in Seoul or Dubai than in Paris. Around the world there are vast differences in levels of professional freedom, in the role of clients, in how critical a design can be.

You don't go to school in Hong Kong if you want to become a chef in Montpellier. But that's precisely what's happening in design. And the upshot is the globalisation of masters courses, which are churning out jetlag designers who lack a cultural framework.

Academies of art educate students to master specific skills such as game design, interaction design, business design, social design or service design. Graduates become practitioners of applied arts in the old sense of the term. Universities turn out managers and engineers, who have never quite been able to master the unpredictability of design and creativity.

It would be better to leave design thinking to schools of management, and leave interaction and game design to schools of computer science.

Design criticism could be instructed at schools of journalism, and social design at teacher-training colleges. A creative and design dimension to these professions can develop or evolve organically in such places. Design has become a mentality that can be applied in courses structured to impart specific skills. That is better than the reverse, which is now the case.

Design no longer belongs to anybody. Design no longer belongs to the people, places of education or lobby groups that have represented and tutored it for decades. Let it go. The time has come to give design away.

Lucas Verweij has been teaching at schools of design and architecture around Europe for over 20 years. He was director of a master's programme in architecture and initiated a masters course in design. He is currently professor at the Kunsthochschile Weißensee and teaches master's students at Design Academy Eindhoven. He has initiated and moderated various seminars devoted to designing design education.

  • Non-Toxic

    Large multinationals run the show and graduates better learn to adjust to that reality. In the US especially it’s tough to develop a small design oriented business and pay back student loans. All the talent goes to corporations.

    • Steve

      Thank god we don’t all live in the US.

  • Stephen

    “Design” is the application of skill, the employment of discipline. This occurs everywhere. Technology has made it easier to organise, arrange, compose, structure, emphasise, and prioritise throughout all aspects of society primarily affecting how we coordinate and communicate.

    These tools for organisation have taken the lead in determining how we interact. The unified “design” concept is efficiency and effectiveness; inspired by the analog-to-digital transition mankind has been experiencing since the industrial revolution.

    “Design” schools must refocus their programs to evolve these concepts, and to nurture new styles of procedure, application, and discipline that utilise existing infrastructure and support human evolution in a progressive manner. New visions will inspire new tools, techniques, and skills to be developed and employed across all disciplines and any subsequent disciplines created from these next movements.

  • Andrew Fung

    Reminds me of how many IxD programs are popping up in China.

    Also, is that an intentional “Let It Go” reference in the last sentence of the article?


    • CriticalThinker

      Someone said there are now nearly 1,000 ID programs in China. It is definitely more than 600.

  • Louise Schouwenberg

    Dear Lucas, with all respect… your column proves why we are currently setting up a new Master course in Design Curating and Writing at Design Academy Eindhoven. You offer (challenging) opinions, but few to no substantial arguments. We intend to prepare students for today’s and tomorrow’s worlds by offering them the tools to deepen their reflective and analytical capacities. By interweaving the program with the design programs, both the theorists and the designers will benefit from each others’ expertise and new ventures. We will encourage them to ignore the traditional codes and borders and discover new fields for design, design presentations and design theory.

    Also see: http://www.designacademy.nl/Study/Master/General/DesignCuratingandWriting.aspx

    Best regards, Louise Schouwenberg, one of the 3 Heads of Master Design Curating and Writing

  • victor g martinez

    I think we are finally starting to realise that the world (our context and what happens in it) is not linear, it’s getting more connected and more complex and we try to fit it in a management spreadsheet. This lack of understanding of what ‘design is’ will get only worse.

    What if we stop paying attention to school program names and focus more on individuals’ characteristics? What if we, instead of thinking ‘out of the box’, get rid of the box?

    • CriticalThinker

      I don’t believe design is pretty chairs any more.

  • d
  • I find Lucas Verweij’s Opinion article – very interesting and challenging. Whilst Verweij raises some very relevant points, some of the bold statements leave room for debate. Verweij states that “design has expanded in all imaginable directions, but the world of education doesn’t know how to respond to the new situation”. Here I need to disagree. At the very core of a creative person, one needs to be able to adapt in all situations and usually come up with a solution, the essence of problem solving. The “design explosion that disrupts education”, as Verweij refers to, I feel actually enhances it. As creatives we adapt and respond.

    While some design schools may struggle to implement changes others are moving to educate themselves in applying design to all fields.

    Whilst design has taken on a new personality at its core, all design directions have a common thread of design elements and thinking processes. Due to the multi-faceted characteristic of the evolving designer, a shared vision has developed, that we need to equip design students to think uniquely and problem solve in all situations, not limited to their field of study. Design still needs all formal or shall I be so bold to say “traditional” foundational skills but has taken on new and dynamic directions.

    Collaboration and gaining insight from multi parties becomes the essential ingredient in a designer’s world today. This should be seen as a growth and not confined to selfish “in house” politics.

    Inscape Education group fits all the categories of “top designer schools” and our sentiments are shared by others. I feel, as an institution, the difference lies in acting on these sentiments and not feeling overwhelmed by them. We have responded to the new situation and addressed the design student’s needs in current design trends. We are dynamic and always excited by the prospect of change, integrated learning and implementing current trends that equip our students with essential skills to meet the market place and industry.

    Whilst I share Verweij’s concern for the quality of design education, I think one only needs to see the amazing possibilities and prospects that a “design mentality” may hold. See http://www.inscape.ac.za and how it is possible to cater for this design mentality positively and with high standards.

  • Thomas Radwanski

    I’ve been asking myself the same questions in the past couple of years, so thank you for your article!

    The idea that design is a mentality and not a skill is totally true in my experience, and I was hoping you would make some suggestions about which skills should be taught, but instead I disagree with your conclusion.

    The design mentality is the ability to find parallels between disciplines and to make improbable things happen. In an era of over-specialisation, design thinking is the thread that keeps the fabric of human knowledge and research together. Having such a variety of courses in one building, being able to have a lateral view of what’s going on in other disciplines, is the physical way to make that possible.

  • I totally disagree with your conclusion. Is it that bad to be a graduate in design, or applied arts? Isn’t the individual supposed to be creative and benefit from what he has been taught?
    Should we really denigrate all these new courses that are coming up? I’d denigrate the amount of money they ask, but not what they teach.

    Think of Leonardo da Vinci – for me, that’s design. It is a mixture of different subjects that help an individual to discover the world around him or her in order to create new useful, beautiful, and functional objects.

    We have lost the creative part of ourselves. We try to think logically and get stuck in our ways, when we actually should be curious about what we have around us and try to create in every single moment. Then after creating little pieces, we should try to develop them. I think design is the art of our era.

  • MichaelSmythe

    Most designers do not choose the career because they are great thinkers. They head down that track because they are good at drawing and good at making stuff. But what that enables is a way of thinking that differs from those whose tools are only words or numbers. The ability to explore ideas quickly by externalising them as sketches and models develops a distinctive type of iterative, intuitive, critical thinking.

    The other factor that shapes the way designers think is the need to resolve potential conflicts between desirability, feasibility and viability, while creating a long-term positive end-user experience. So designers become inclusive, integrative thinkers.

    Design thinking is a discipline that has been learned by doing. It differs from the binary win/lose, credit/debit thinking learned by lawyers and accountants. Most importantly, design thinking requires the capacity to conceive of possibilities beyond what already exists.

    Design thinking is the outcome of design process.