During the past two decades, technological advances have expanded the importance of design, as well as the demand for designers, at an unprecedented pace. Look at your collection of old cell phones if you need a quick reminder. As president of SCAD, where the digital revolution is in full effect, I feel the speed of progress powerfully.
The sophistication of today’s ever-evolving tools has made design pervasive. Employers are expecting graduates to start work with advanced technical skills. And some commenters note that products are increasingly digital — less physically tangible, less of this world — and, in some cases, further removed from humanity. Some look at these challenges and wonder if a university design education is still relevant; I see opportunities to revolutionize how we prepare students for meaningful careers and fulfilling lives. Here are three assets SCAD offers to help our students create the future.
Rev Up the Power Skills
Power skills such as persuasive speaking and empathy are already hot commodities for employers and promote socially conscious, results-oriented design. And the more technical design becomes, the more important it is that designers inspire, persuade, and explain. They also need to be able to listen and hang out!
Tomorrow’s designers need to be able to pound the pavement, go to the source, and bring back the goods. Here’s an example: During a recent design competition, a student team worked with partners from IBM and Google to develop a portable, solar charger for outdoorsy and military types. The team discovered that users prized ruggedness, so the device would have to withstand the elements and long exposure to sunlight. The mentors intuited that the charger needed to be mountable to a hat or tent to catch the most sun. The end result: a reworked prototype that offered precise user customization and increased marketability, developed by an interdisciplinary design team.
By many accounts, design teams will grow larger and increasingly diverse, which means students will need to both articulate their ideas and get along with each other. Universities should employ communication specialists to work with students, faculty, and university partners across the curriculum, and communication initiatives should feature prominently in strategic plans. And socializing should be frequent, baked into the creative process.
Image courtesy of SCAD
Reclaim the Power Tools
Gen Z has arrived, and they have a deep yearning to be makers and doers and effect social change. And though the incoming classes have boundless potential as designers, our professors have noticed that many of them haven’t had the opportunity to use a bandsaw or a table saw or a drill. (Medical schools are noticing a similar trend, which might explain their students’ — tomorrow’s surgeons’ — decreasing dexterity.) The solution? Put them in an actual workshop and ensure they master the basics.
When students work their hands, they think on new planes and get a much-needed respite from screens. As a recent article proclaims, “In the era of ever-vibrating smartphones and increasingly demanding apps, there is no better user experience than peace of mind.” That might explain why one study showed that 84 percent of a sample of Millennials and Gen Z’ers said “technology tools” could distract them from work.
Speaking of tools, the pencil is one of the most powerful tools we have. As most architects will tell you, hand-drawing helps students “see” — appreciate and replicate detail — for the first time, meaning they can later render more authentic creations with software. Students who master drawing are also more effective communicators. One of our professors tells a story about a designer in an international meeting in which the conversation got lost in translation. Because the designer had mastered foundational skills — drawing, in this instance — she was able to take out a sketchpad and communicate through pictures when words failed.
Recruit Power Partners
“In a world full of AI and robots, humanity is what will most be in demand” — that’s a prescient quote from an organic conversation between several designers in a Slack channel. My takeaway: Forward-thinking design education should emphasize human interaction at every juncture, from problem exploration to prototyping, and powerful partnerships make this happen.
Corporate partners who come to campus bring with them the latest consumer and market insights. They help universities keep pace with industry and ensure students are exposed to real-word, high-stakes design challenges. In return, industry experts get access to built-in, long-term focus groups of college-aged consumers (the drivers of tomorrow’s markets) and, through teaching, challenge and refresh their own perspectives on design.
Image courtesy of SCAD
These types of partnerships actualize student learning and solve problems with teams that are increasingly large and diverse — in terms of discipline, background, nationality, and myriad other ways. (Google recently used such an approach to develop apps that address environmental concerns, pedestrian safety, and parent-teacher communication.)
However the industry evolves, tomorrow’s designers must strive for authenticity, empathy, and humanity in their creations. This is only possible if our students learn to be present — a state of being that transcends design. Products are inherently reflective of their creators, and educators should strive to develop students who are engaged in their relationships, invested in their communities, and accessible to the stakeholders they hope to serve.