I’m not a formal contributor to the current efforts of the Product Design Degree Planning (PDDP) team’s efforts at the U of MN, but whatever their process I’m confident that it is tangible and well articulated. We members of the community have an opportunity to provide our input to their process until the May 1 deadline for feedback. I do plan on forwarding these comments to the planning team.
On the PDDP home page they state,
“We are casting a wide net, investigating trends in design thinking, practice and pedagogy, and surveying how ‘product design’ is variously articulated in degree programs at leading design, engineering and business schools throughout the U.S. and internationally.”
So it sounds like some of your concerns about the business side of design are being addressed. Also, the U of MN has one of the best business schools in the Midwest: the Carlson School of Management. I would think that the planning team would directly pull from this local expertise.
But let me step back and share some more of the Full Report of the CALA/CHE Task Force that preceded the current work of the PDDP team.
It stated that the collegeâ€™s mission,
"includes advancing the following through research, education, and public engagement:
â€¢ Innovation in sustainable, socially responsible design, through a commitment to equity, diversity, and to ecologies both human and natural.
â€¢ Engagement with the ongoing and emerging issues, opportunities, and problems that face our world today.
â€¢ Creative synergies, through interdisciplinary exploration.
â€¢ Speculative, theoretical, and historical inquiry, to expand the critical understanding of
designâ€™s past, current, and potential significance within diverse contexts.
â€¢ Collaboration and partnership, within the University, and with communities, institutions, business, and government â€“ locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
… and it continues …
"Combining our strengths we have the opportunity to produce an innovative new form of product design that focuses on complex, systems-level problems as well as on the design of individual products. The program will also open up excellent opportunities for partnerships with industry and communities, locally and globally. Possibilities for additional collaborative initiatives abound. These include: design history, theory, and culture (with Art History, Cultural Studies, Anthropology, etc.); heritage preservation (with Anthropology, Art History, etc.); interaction /human interface design (with Computer Science, Art, Rhetoric, etc.); and a minor in sustainable design.
As I understand your concern, this widely collaborative and multidisciplinary approach brings with it a potential lack of focus upon design’s role in business. You say, “In trying to define our roles we have grasped at everything rather than protecting and specializing our usefulness to an organization, a bit of engineer here a bit of marketer there, and that has weakened us.” That brings to mind several either/ors for sake of argument:
Should we emphasize outcomes or processes?
Should we prepare students for their starting job or for their career?
Is our approach to learning vertical or horizontal? Focused or diffuse?
Designers should do their jobs well, but how others view our contributions can say a lot about our education. The value of design and designers can be misconstrued if education focuses on narrow, albeit deep, skills. I remember one VP of Engineering (with substantial experience working with outside design firms) telling me that, “the value of design is that when we talk about our new product ideas in a meeting room, you guys sketch the ideas.” That was his full understanding of our value as designers.
I want students to understand the strategic necessity of design, not just the tactical implementation. And I want them to be able to articulate this to management.
I can’t say that I agree with your call for renewed focus on craft or applied art. I think that’s part of the history that the profession had, but it doesn’t recognize how the rest of business has progressed toward outcomes that are quantified, backed by documented research, and always couched in terms of business strategy. We may employ the craft of the past, but to me it is merely one tool in an increasingly complex arsenal of tools, methodologies and heuristics to achieve a strategic end.
Time was when IDEO was known as one of the best engineering and design firms. It still is, but increasingly they are known not for design but for branding strategies. Designers have to shift with the times and it is the role of educators to prepare them for the long-term shifts that inevitable.
But I will add one final point that you may find more heartening. I also think it is the role of the designer to imagine the possibilities. We have to give students the background and courage to practice their profession while steadfastly holding on to their sense of what is possible. But I believe this comes from their ability to synthesize information from several disciplines and merge it into a story that, when told, simply yet credibly foretells a possible future for their company.