Does design education work against ‘Indie Fever’?

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

As Michiel van Meeteren points out in ‘Indie Fever’, one of the hallmarks of the independent programming community on the Mac is their willingness and desire to share tips and discoveries. Will Shipley is a good example of this – he blogs code, sets puzzles, and twitters. John Gruber of Daring Fireball is another example of what Gladwell would call a ‘connector’ – indeed it was via him that I found Michiel’s paper.

I said in my last post that I thought this paper has implications beyond the programming community, and that this sharing of knowledge is typical of design in general. But then I wondered if this is true. While I can think of many examples of designers who blog, and who run workshops for others, or who meet up socially to discuss what they do, I can also think of many more who guard their knowledge jealously.
This even happens among design teachers – I once worked with someone who told his students “I’m not going to tell you how to do this because you might be a competitor one day”, which half the class actually thought was entirely reasonable!

Design education is horribly individualising. We set students briefs and then set them against each other, making it all a competition to see who is better than everyone else. The ‘critique’ or ‘crit’ is a great example of the sort of judgemental, competitive element we’ve built in to how we teach what we teach.

Of course, most programmes include ‘group work’ which, as a colleague and I tried to explain to others recently, is not really the same as ‘team work’. I’ll let you try to figure out the semantics of that one.
But team work isn’t really ‘taught’ – we just put students in a group, tell them to get on with it, then punish or reward them for producing something at the end based on whether they got on. Teamwork needs to be taught, not just assumed to be a natural talent.

Whatever, team work is pretty much a ‘tick box’ exercise, something programmes include because it’s on the list of key skills, but it’s not something students enjoy or see a value in doing (because what happens if they’re in a ‘bad’ team?) and I haven’t met many teachers who are particularly good at it (either teaching it or, let’s face it, doing it themselves)

But team working, or rather collaborative working (another important distinction, see below), needs to be part of the culture of design education, not the focus of a single project, because it is the culture of design practice.
There are many who do this, or encourage this. In my own teaching I’ve encouraged students to collaborate in ‘tutorless tutorials’, peer mentoring and chats over coffee (or even beer), and though it’s unscientific I suspect there’s a direct link between students’ desire to talk about stuff socially and their grade.

But there is a proven link between collaboration and success: Angela McRobbie’s study of fashion graduates from Central St Martins makes it clear that success is not a measure of the skills you’re taught at university, but the social and cultural capital you acquire just by being there (something that the ‘skills agenda’ being driven by industry at the moment completely misses). Every time I think of that I think this is what university should be about. Not the accumulation of skills but the accumulation of social and cultural capital. Without this, you stop learning the moment you stop being in class. With it, you never stop learning.

And so my programme for second years next year is based around collaborative ‘design quests’ that are all about developing this sense of shared knowledge-finding and out-of-hours discussion. And in the past few months we’ve launched a book group, a sustainable design group, and a documentary film club to get this culture of sharing going. (Some people reading this will no doubt have been doing things like this for a long time, or their students will).

The future of design practice depends on collaboration, not just at the client/designer level, or even designer/end user level (co-design) but more fundamentally between designers for continuing development and research. The indie developers Michiel writes about are working for themselves, by themselves. Yet they still collaborate and this definition of ‘collaborative working’, as opposed to ‘group work’ or ‘team work’ is not something we encourage in design education.

It’s something we need to make a core aspect of what and how we teach.

Two quotes worth sharing. A jewellery student complained to me about having to work with others. “It’s a waste of time, I don’t need to learn that. I’m going to be a jeweller, I’ll never work with other people”.

So wrong on so many levels, but do you see how a culture of ‘collaboration’ rather than ‘team work’ might have helped here?

And my favourite (told to me by a colleague) from a computing student: “I’m not very good at working in teams, but that’s okay because I’m going to be an academic”.

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