In New Paltz, New York last week I gave a presentation to senior students there on the Master of Design programme at the University of Dundee. One of the core philosophies of the course is its concern with ‘design for a changing world’.
I illustrated this by showing a satellite image of the campus, courtesy of Google Earth, showing the proximity of the University’s life sciences building to my own office in the College of Art and Design.
On the image I placed two labels, one saying ‘Anti-cancer gene discovered here’, the other saying ‘my office’.
The point I was trying to make was that when it comes to the word ‘creative’, surely it’s the people who work on cures for cancer, among other things, who are engaged in true creativity? Designing logos and leaflets doesn’t really compare at all.
It was interesting to note the vigourous nodding of heads at this. I felt like someone explaining this new thing called fire to a group of people bathed in electric light.
At the start of the academic year I asked my new undergrad students to choose a term from a grid I presented on the screen – terms such as ‘ageing’, ‘poverty’, ‘ethics’, and ‘disability’ – and consider how their own disciplines were affected, or could affect, that particular area.
After a few minutes I asked what people had written.
“What do you study?” I asked one.
“And what did you choose from the grid?”
“So how can graphic design intersect with disability?”
“Well graphic designers can design the signs that go on toilet doors so you know which one is for the disabled”.
Now it’s easy to laugh at that, and to dismiss the student, but remember this is someone starting out and, to be honest, that’s how graphic design represents itself. In the last lecture of the year I ask students to return to that exercise and ask themselves if their ideas have changed – if they have, I’ve done my job properly.
To a lot of people,’creativity’ and ‘creative thinking’ means exactly what that student said: coming up with good-looking ways to communicate a fact. You’re disabled, you want to know which toilet is for you, here you go.
What I think we’re trying to do in Dundee (and I’m speaking entirely for myself here) is to change that idea: creativity and creative thinking are about changing attitudes to disability, not designing ways to describe it; about designing the world in such a way that a disability is simply a physical condition, not a way of life or an obstacle.
Can graphic design do that? That’s an interesting question – one that makes it ripe for that type of study. The Masters programme is more interested in the question-asking than the answering (although if the questions are answered, that’s great of course) and this makes it an exciting course to work on.
Being in Dundee means we’re well-placed to interact and work with other disciplines: medicine, law, economics, education, computing, engineering. And in doing so we’ve in part got rid of the one thing that stops interdisciplinarity happening: disciplines.
So although we occasionally describe a Masters student by the discipline they studied at undergraduate level (graphic designer, textile designer, architect, weaver etc) we don’t ask them to identify a problem and say “How can I, as a graphic designer, tackle this?” We ask them to say “How can we, as designers, help tackle this?”
Because designers shouldn’t be constrained by disciplinary boundaries, they shouldn’t work alone, and they shouldn’t claim to know better than anyone else.
Personally I think it’s a shame this level of thinking has to wait till Masters, but until the creative disciplines start being creative about their own practice, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.
When I was a child I used to be taken to Mass and week after week read the words on the order of service. The longest of sections was the Credo (“I believe”). It wasn’t until I was about 13 or so I realised this thing actually consisted of words and sentences, rather than just sounds (Vatican II really not working in my case), and I began to wonder if I actually did believe in these things at all. When I started teaching design I found colleagues telling me how they taught and assessed. Unlike them I’d never gone through ‘art school’ and so my first reaction was to think “why on earth do you do it like that?” They were reciting the credo, enacting the rituals, despite the fact that the world had moved on and it was clear that few of the methods worked anymore (if they ever did).
While at New Paltz I met the inspirational head of the print-making course. He was lamenting the burden of tradition within his own discipline. I asked him if he knew anything of the English Reformation. At the time, crowds of people went through the medieval churches, cathedrals and abbeys ripping out and smashing statues, icons, stained glass and anything that smelt of Popery. It is widely held to be one of the biggest acts of cultural vandalism the world has seen, and something that set it aside from the more general reformation happening on the continent. Yet it also meant that as far as English crafts were concerned, everything had to start again – there were no models to work from, no statues to copy or paintings to emulate.
This, in part (and until European methods of teaching art and craft invaded our shores) explains why English craft, thought and science developed the way they did. Unburdened by tradition, without the constraints of paying deference to all that had come before, the English Reformation, for all its evils (and there were many) paved the way for innovations we take for granted.
(An historian of the period would no doubt go ashen faced at my summation here but, hey, I’m being ‘creative’!)
Design education needs that reformation, a bold sweeping away of tradition. It needs to stop being so disciplined and learn to embrace the mess of fuzzy logic, intuition and sheer creativity that comes from letting go of the past. Whatever was true of design in the 19th and 20th centuries is no longer so true today. We are no longer the ‘creative disciplines’ because we like tradition too much, and see skills as rituals rather than a grammar – like people intoning a Mass without understanding the meaning of the words they’re saying. Or teaching in a certain way without wondering if it does more harm than good.
We can’t wait for a Martin Luther or Henry VIII to turn up and change things. We can do better.
Subject area aside there is one thing that separates the ‘creative disciplines’ from the truly creative disciplines: they eat their own young. By which I mean they identify their best students and they keep them. They continue teaching them, they let them do research, they show them how to teach. And then they let them loose on students and start it all over again.
In design, we identify our best students, spend ages on them so they can win an award or two, help them get jobs at prestigious firms and then either get them in every so often to give guest talks and praise us (after all, we must be good cos look what happened to them) or we wait thirty years until they’re burnt out and then ask them to come and teach when they repeat the rituals they went through (after all, they must be good cos, etc etc).
This myth, that only practitioners can teach, has to be ended.
Our Martin Luther is sitting in our courses right now. And there’s more than one…