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Lucas Verweij opinion column on Dezeen

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

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.