Spring 1996

Education after the computer

101: The Future of Design Education in the Context of Computer-Based Media

Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht
4 November 1995

The rapid rise in digital technologies has brought graphic design education to a crisis point. “101: The Future of Design Education in the Context of Computer-Based Media” was conceived as an intensive one-day symposium at which design educators and practitioners could meet to exchange ideas about how to integrate the new media into graphic design programmes.

Over the last decade or so educators have faced a number of key turning points in the development of curriculum models. In the past, vocational programmes were promoted and students were trained to meet specific industry demands. But the increasing complexity of design in the information age has brought such models into question and recent thinking favours the integration of theories like structuralism and deconstruction into the problem-solving process. The conventional notion of the graphic designer’s role as a “mediator” between client and audience has been challenged and the social role of graphic design questioned. To date few institutions have satisfactorily resolved the relationship between theory and practice and those who have tried are now called on to reassess their programmes in the light of the changes brought about by digital technologies.

Graphic designers have successfully integrated the computer into common working practice and the majority of design educators have developed curricula which provide students with an adequate knowledge of computing and software programs. But many are still unsure about the potential of computers as tools, the appropriateness of the medium in communication, or how much attention to pay to traditional skills in the light of the requirements of a new skill base. “101”, held at the Jan van Eyck Akademie, an institution commited to innovative educational practices, allowed teaching and learning strategies to be discussed and evaluated. Academy director Jan van Toorn opened the symposium by calling for a recognition of the shifting paradigms of graphic design practice. He suggested that the “electronic medium” provided an opportunity for an uninhibited exploration of new models and graphic languages because it “has no predecessors” and the issues are too fresh to have created entrenched schools of opposition.

Symposium organiser Louise Sandhaus presented a sampling of student work from the interaction design programmes of four colleges – Academy Rotterdam, Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, London, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena and California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) – representing a variety of viewpoints, stages of curriculum development and educational methodologies. The presentation – in the form of an exciting visual array of student project “snapshots” – was a useful introduction to the issues educators have to address, in particular how best to prepare students for dealing with constant technological change and how to redefine graphic design skills. Disappointingly, Sandhaus did not have time to develop a deep understanding of each college’s curriculum content, structure or how interaction design was taught in relation to existing print programmes. This was left to case studies provided by Gillian Crampton Smith, course director of computer-related design at the Royal College of Art, London and Dick Rijken, former head of the interaction design programme at Utrecht School of the Arts.

Designer and CalArts educator Lorraine Wild spoke about the new skills needed when design practices shifted from pre-computer to post-computer production techniques and from a perspective of “visual restyling” to “design as a conceptual operation”. Interaction design will require a greater breadth of knowledge including a basic understanding of skill area such as writing, editing, film-making, sound engineering and behavioural psychology. Dingeman Kuilman, graphic design manager for Philips Corporate Design, envisaged graphic designers as working collaboratively as part of teams of specialists.

Typographers Michael Worthington and Rick Vermeulen argued that a “new system of communication is needed for the new medium”. Worthington offered the idea that “motion and sound are the new carriers of meaning” through typography while Vermeulen recommended exploring the development of voice recognition fonts. (Neither concept is new – think of television graphics or project development work at MIT’s Media Lab.) The scope for the exploration of typography as a tool for the authorship and delivery of complex information structures on screen was emphasised. Dick Rijken remarked that “designers have to stop thinking in terms of things” and predicted that they would soon be designing “situations” or “environments and spaces”, finding new contexts in which to use traditional skills. But Rijken raised the question: “Who will have access to information in the future and who will want to have access?”

It became evident from “101” that the majority of design educators have just begun to address the challenge of interaction design. Experimentation with curricula and teaching methods will no doubt follow, as will perhaps the development of a common set of teaching principles. Let us return to Masstricht next year and see what progress has been made.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996

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