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Design Education Challenged

Celebrating individual genius is fun, but can it last?  Is design education being effectively used as a strategy for establishing a responsible social consciousness?  Should design be relevant to the social function of a society?  These are some of the questions a new exhibition about design education addresses.  Gert Staal sits down to explain.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 14-09-2009

Social design, what it is, and why it matters lies at the heart of the Utrecht Manifest (part of the Dutch Design Double).  Rather then define the term outright, artistic director Guus Beumer has selected various exhibitions that help to build up an idea and touch on the related issues.

In the "Urgent Methods, Design Education Examined" exhibition, curators Gert Staal and Louise Schouwenberg select three design schools, elaborate on the school’s philosophy of design, and exhibit works by students that capture elements of that philosophy.  The point is to prove that every education system is a social construct and the produced results of that social construct will always be limited.  

It’s a fascinating way to approach the issue of design education and one that lends itself well to the recent arguments concerning the non-academic degrees design academies issue.  “Some education systems are more geared towards creating students who have a very social or political function,” says Gert Staal.  “In school, students should be given the tools to become socially responsible people in whatever profession they pursue.  Some design academies take this very seriously, but others completely ignore it … and that act of ignoring signals the social value of design produced by such schools.”

Staal and Schouwenberg’s premise is that unlike the central tenets of classical education that rely on academic texts, didactic discourse and curriculums, design school is all about the people.   “Of course there is still a curriculum and certain obligations, but in the end it’s the people working there who end up being a student’s connection to the field and whose views form the way they will relate to the industry,” says Staal.

The three schools selected for this exhibition are the Design Academy Eindhoven, Delft Technical University and Utrecht School of the Arts.  Each one has its own distinguishing approach, Delft Technical University being the only academic institution in the list.

The Eindhoven Design Academy will be represented by Li Edelkoort and Gijs Baker. Utrecht School for the Arts will be represented by Henk Slager and Jeroen van Mastrigt, and from Delft Technical University the opposing visions of Bruno Ninaber van Eyben and Matthijs van Dijk will be exhibited.

“Bruno is very interested in products,” Staal says.  “Despite available science and knowledge, he wants his students focused on just that. Matthijs, on the other hand, thinks design is about relationships between products and users and that a designer should be able to predict such relationships for the coming 10 to 30 years. That means that practically everything can be seen as design -  even a health insurance system.”

Three different schools, six different teachers, six different positions.  “I think the only common element is that they all believe in design research albeit a different type of research,” says Staal.  

The seventh position on design education will be offered by Jurgen Bey who has designed the exhibition inside the Jongeriuscomplex, an old and dilapidated modernist building in Utrecht.

“Maybe the future for design education is not to build a school, but to build student housing,” suggests Staal.  “The students can then invite teachers in to stay for a couple of weeks and lecture them.”

But it isn’t definitive answers that this exhibition seeks.  “Not at all,” Staal says.  “It’s more a process of everyone getting involved, contributing to the debate and reaching their own conclusions. I think what matters most is that everyone ends up agreeing that social design is very important. You can’t do banking and forget about society because, as we have seen, it just doesn’t work.  The same goes for design.”

And as with all things political, there is some urgency in spreading this realization.  The rise of extreme right-wing politicians in Holland is bound to leave its mark on design and particularly design education.  Already ideas about cutting arts funding, which would be disastrous for the design academies, has been spouted by Gert Wilders.  “We [design professionals with an interest in education] want to be able to contribute to that political debate and this exhibition can help start that,” says Staal.

"Urgent Methods. Design Education Examined
Jongeriusvilla, Kanaalweg 64, Utrecht
4 October – 15 November 2009

Images: main Gert Staal, small Jongeriuscomplex.

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