In Defense of (Changing) Design Education, not only in America, but in the Rest of the World

Recently, Dan Saffer wrote a short column on why design schools need to rethink the shift to systems and services, and produce graduates who are well suited to designing products and can display highly refined skill at craft, something which the ‘industry’ always needs, and certainly something that would help fresh graduates land their first job.

To me, as both an academic and a practicing designer in the “developing world”, the article encapsulates what I have been feeling uneasy about for a long time now: an increasing tendency towards anti-intellectualism and friction between the aims of design academia and the design industry in America.

Dan, when you talk about how “one purpose of any education, whether it is through a school or self-taught, is to prepare one to meaningfully participate: in society, in personal relationships, in a career”, you fail to clearly define what your definition of society, relationships, or a career is here. Your article holds no weight, and not only because it misunderstands what the role of education is (which it most certainly does), but because of the uncritical assumptions that it makes on how designers are to participate in the collective constitution of society. You see Dan, the world is not Silicon Valley and the Greater Bay Area, and the only careers in design do not belong to a few American design firms or startups or tech companies, nor is there or should there be any fixed, transcribed definition of what should constitute as meaningful in one’s life, work, and relationships, and last of all, society is not white-sensibility entrenched upper-middle class America.

I teach both craft and theory courses in interaction and systems design at three design programs in Karachi, Pakistan, a place that would, to 99.9% of the designers working in the rest of the world, barely register as a place where design happens at all. Karachi is the 2nd most populous city in the world, and the 7th largest by urban area. It has also been repeatedly dubbed one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world. And yet we have design schools here too.

A little bit of history about design education in Pakistan: until as recently as six years ago, there were only four design programs in the entire country. Now there are quite a few more, and while historically we had only communication, textile and interior design programs, we can add a few more disciplines to the list now as well. Over the last 60 odd years, design in this country existed almost exclusively tied to industry practice — in fact, if you were to ask, ten years ago, who designers were and what they did, nine times out of ten you would get the reply that designers are a form of “commercial artist”, the people who would weave beauty and functionality to make products that people would consume. My undergraduate education was the same: we were taught to make pretty, functional things, without really thinking about what those things would go out and do and how they would live through decades of use. The little history of art or history of design that we would get would come from depressingly small ‘liberal arts’ departments, usually manned by a few token professors from history or art theory backgrounds. I had little idea that designed artifacts had any relation to things like gender relations and patriarchy, or economic disparity, or environmental degradation, that technologies shape and mold and destroy and create different kinds of cultural and societal practices, and certainly not the thinking tools to begin unraveling these relations even when I did grasp them. When I did my undergrad, we just made stuff — we made it look pretty, we made it work well. No questions asked.

Times are changing. Times are getting worse. Karachi swells every year, as rural Pakistani’s are leaving the towns and villages to move to urban areas, where the prospect of employment is better. Pakistan suffers from energy shortages, water shortages, decaying or nonexistent public infrastructure, inadequate healthcare, a perplexing array of problems that befuddle and challenge the minds of any engineer, designer or social scientist concerned with bringing some kind, any kind, of change to them. While billboards litter Karachi’s skylines, slums and shanty towns expand, and getting an internet provider to come and set up an internet connection is more difficult than trying to scale Mount Everest, the biggest hurdle to the Pakistani designer is the question: where do I begin?

Over the last year I have seen, and been a part of, a gradual shift in Pakistani design, away from commercial practice and towards solving real problems in Pakistan. It hasn't been easy. Designers here lack the tools to make sense of the complexities of these systemic problems. They can make beautiful, useful products, but most of these products go out there and either fail or create additional problems. Our constraints, both material and cultural, are great.

But progress is being made, slowly but surely. Both design academics and practitioners here are beginning to realize the urgent need for reformation in the education system. A greater emphasis on studying the liberal arts is being made in design schools. Over the last year my colleagues and I have managed to successfully initiate the foundations of a design studies core, oriented around systems thinking and design research, at two local universities. We lack trained faculty, and we lack the resources to bring in faculty from abroad.

I was lucky to get the chance to come and get a graduate education in America. The best part of my education in America was the exposure to systems thinking, to theory and research, to thinking about products beyond what they are and do to how they affect culture, society, behavior, economics, and politics. The craft, the skills, all of those things can be taught relatively easily and in fact, once you have the basics down, all you need is time and practice. The development of critical and analytical thinking tools, nope. You either get them early on, or you don’t. Undergraduate education is not only about vocational training. It is about acquiring critical thinking skills, gaining an exposure to different world views, and developing and cultivating a love of learning for its own sake, and the capacity to teach oneself whatever is required later on in life. The work of academics, of teachers, is to challenge their students: to make them question themselves, their surroundings, their world, and to push at what is unquestioned, what is taken for granted. A good education is not some kind of ideological brainwashing by professors on their students — in fact, a good teacher always measures his success by the opposite. My happiest moments teaching in class are when students challenge me, raise questions about what they are learning, add to discussions with their own knowledge and experience.

A week ago in a presentation I was making to the faculty at a local school about the importance of including design theory and adding more liberal arts courses to the curriculum, I was asked a similar question by a skeptical professor: where will our design students be hired?

My answer to his question was in the form of two more questions. Firstly: should you dictate where your students should go, where they should be hired, and what they should do with their lives? And: can you tell what the future is going to be like, and what the challenges that they will face over the course of their lives will be?

The answer to both of these is , quite simply, no. We, as academics, do not get to dictate what our students choose to do with their lives, nor are we oracles who know what the challenges of the future, and the requisite skills needed to deal with those challenges, will be. All we can give them are the tools they will use to learn. Of the twenty-odd students from my undergrad batch who graduated in 2008, only a handful now work in commercial design. Some are working for NGO’s and the public sector. Some became illustrators. Some went into photography. Some opened up their own businesses. Some switched disciplines entirely. And some, like me, chose to become academics.

Yes, it is true, many students will want and value well paying industry jobs. But not all of them will, and even for those who will work in industry, one cannot say what skills they might need ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. All I can add, and it is my personal opinion here, is that times are going to get worse before they get any better. We face huge problems, both global and local: climate change, widening socio-economic disparity, ethnic, class, and religious conflicts…the list can go on. It is easy to sit in a cosy studio environment, carry out carefully controlled and planned ethnographic studies, build your prototypes out in well equipped labs, and keep your politics and ethics out of what you make. But the world we live in, and the world that the great majority of designers work in, is not a tidy, neatly ordered, apolitical, closed environment. Furthermore, no product lives in a bubble, divorced from other products and services and people and environment — no product lives outside of an ecosystem. No product lives outside of politics or ethics — everything we make and plan and deploy changes and manipulates the way people live, what they can do, who they are. We cannot, as the people who construct these material systems, ignore or avoid this.

I find it amusing how Dan mentions designers who can only do ‘process’ vis-a-vis designers who also know how to ‘make’. You know, we've already had that distinction here in Pakistan for ages now. In the traditional Pakistani design firm or ad agency, the “designers” are the ones who do the conceptual work, do the planning, manage the project, do the art direction, while the making is done by “technicians” who are extremely proficient at handling and manipulating all the various design tools and softwares (incidentally, the Urdu word for design, and the Arabic root is similar, is the word “naqsh”, which means “a plan”). Of course, this does not mean that designers in Pakistan have only been trained to do process while we have no craft — on the contrary, the reason we’re so good at planning and making products is because we do nothing but master craft over the course of our education! In fact, it is our poor grasp of process and theory, of complexity, that now renders us incapable of solving problems more complex than making a poster or a product or a website!

But we are making progress, slowly and steadily. We’re figuring out ways to combine practical studio courses with seminar courses. We’re convincing faculty from our now-larger liberal arts departments, philosophers, economists, anthropologists and critical theorists, to co-teach the studio classes with architects and designers and do juries together. We’re trying to come up with creative assignments that encourage both critical thinking and are also grounded in real world problems. We encourage our students to go out there and get their hands dirty. We’re encouraging design faculty to educate themselves in other disciplines, and we’re encouraging liberal arts faculty to read up on design. There’s a lot of hard work going into all these initiatives, Mr. Saffer, and quite frankly, it saddens me to hear comments dismissing deeper intellectual inquiry from someone belonging to a country that prides itself on its tradition of intellectual enterprise and accomplishments.

So, to conclude, while I’m not dismissing the role and importance of craft — we need craft, and we need skill, and we need designers who can tinker and experiment and make — we also need thinkers. We need design graduates who can think through systems, because thinking through complexity and designing for social innovation is, contrary to Dan’s belief, not easy. We need designers who can think above and beyond making, and above and beyond the often skewed systems that they are a part of and partake in. Why shouldn't design students question the work that industry does? Why shouldn't they challenge it? To participate meaningfully and responsibly in the shaping of society means being able to fully understand and question it. The challenge for academia is to figure out new and better ways to seamlessly combine practice, theory, and research, and to constantly question and push at the boundaries of what is possible. The challenge for industry is to find ways to accommodate and facilitate the new skills and that graduates coming in bring, to train them where training is needed, and to welcome new ideas and new ways of thinking and making.

I want my students to be better than I was. I want both making and thinking to come to them naturally and seamlessly, like it never did when I was an undergrad. This isn't a question of having, or privileging or emphasizing one over the other. It means having both. And for us educators to produce these future generations of designers, it means having to push ourselves, to experiment, to succeed and to fail, and to above all, be very, very patient. Change takes time.

This is why I and my colleagues all over the world who are involved, tooth and nail, in shaping and reforming our own societies for the better, welcome these changes in design education. We need more schools that do this. We need more teachers that do this. We need more students and designers that know how to do this. If a few good designers who understand complexity can begin to change the landscape of design in Pakistan, who knows what a whole generation of them could do to change the world?

PhD Candidate, Design Studies || Carnegie Mellon University || Design from the Global South || Modernity\Coloniality, South Asian Technics, Power