U of Minnesota Design Program

The University of Minnesota is planning a new Product Design program. I’ve posted on my blog an overview of a three-domain model (Social, Experiential, Product) to the task force describing a philosophical approach to industrial design and its transition to a post-industrial economy.

It can be found HERE

So will you be teaching this at CALA/the U or is this an broad overview of what will be the syllabus and direction of the new CALA…?

Is this a synopsis of a theory or discourse on an idea?

slighly confuse yet intereested, inquiring and local minds wish to know…

So will you be teaching this at CALA/the U or is this an broad overview of what will be the syllabus and direction of the new CALA…?

Is this a synopsis of a theory or discourse on an idea?

Since I don’t have a hypothesis nor data to test a theory, call it a discourse on an idea or a notion. The social domain is sometimes expressed in terms of user-centric design and a user’s emotional attachment to products as the user-experience. To do so can put an inordinate emphasis on the solitary user and less upon their usage vis-a-vis social networks. And as we know from H. Rheingold, usage patterns are very different for tools employed in social networks.

I think of experience as more of an economic aspect (e.g. The Experience Economy, Pines and Gilmore), though one with deeply personal, even transformative, outcomes. As such it seems reasonable to parse the experience from the user as a separate design domain, in the same way that product usage (behavior) can be parsed as a separate domain.

As for CALA/CHE, I have no official connection with the new College of Design. I have participated in the Task Force meetings as a community member in the only venue available to non-faculty.

Establishment of a new product design program at a major university is a rare event. Like others in our community, I’m anxious to see how the planning for the program proceeds and what tenets the new program espouses.

To read more about this very capable and dedicated planning team at the U and their progress, link HERE.

Hi Greg:
I believe in the need for a somewhat more practical (applicable) type of discourse. There are zillions of opinions (as many as there are designers). But as long as it’s just opinions, whose/whom do you trust? And what foundation is there to trust somebody’s opinion?
In the complete absence of a structured dialog/discourse relevant to the worldwide design community (what community?) - and what is design? - all we can do is watch the developments around us and try to find one’s best own way through the maze that we have to confront in this global world.
I used to teach at MCAD myself - like Greg - and today, teaching in a truly multicultural and multinational place (Berlin, Germany) in a somewhat multi-disciplinary academic environment, the first thing I have to say is that it would be a desastrous decision to design the new design program as a mono-national, mono-cultural affair (their speaker’s list makes me think…). When hearing the hollow phrase of a “postindustrial” society I have to think of my observations in Asia. Maybe the U.S. and Western Europe have become “postindustrial” to some degree, but only because the industry has moved to China, along with the design jobs.
Consequently (there is not enough space here for a 10-page discourse, so I’ll summarize) we offer our students extensive exposure to the situation in the various Chinas through workshops in Taiwan, Hongkong, China (to be extended to India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Kambodia etc etc). We learn Chinese inside the design program. Those of our students who wish to work in a conventional design position simply find their opportuities in places like Taiwan or Hong Kong (soon also in China).
I call this strategy the “Move East” strategy, and we take these developments seriously.
Our Move South strategy (which we pursue though ample interaction with entities in countries like Guatemala, Bangladesh, Colombia) deals with the fact that wherever you look people from the South are climbing over the fences into the North. Issues such as violence, water, natural catastrophies and such require early intervention, including those by designers. As the industrialized nations are waking up to this issue, ample funds are being made available - along with jobs for designers -, and we already had our first couple of industrial design students cooperationg with “industries” in Bangladesh and Guatemala (we would do more, but we’re just a small school).
Move Lateral is the strategy that I recommend to a student / designer who does not wish to move or is having difficulties learning a foreign language or two. Moving lateral includes all the opportunities we have yet to explore in a well-structured way. After all, we are the masters of aesthetics, and aesthetics is also contained in the acoustic, tactile, olfactory and gustatory utterances as well as the micro- and macro-dynamics of a product. There are vast opportunities even for designers in a “post-industrial” environment, to get into issues such as quality perception, intuitive use of products, and such.

There is so much opportunity beyond that silly, dead, nice-looking visual diversification stuff that we have been doing for so long. There is a need for serious discourse, and a need for cooperation with research and science, on an international level…
Well I’ll stop here…
Just don’t waste this great opportunity at the UofM, don’t create just another monocultural school of cool renderings. China does that better, faster, and cheaper now. (Soon India). Think of something new and different and innovative. Please!
Regards to everybody,

Hi H, good to hear from you.

You bring up excellent points. Let me address them under two rubrics:

  1. Internationalism vs Regionalism and 2) Post-ID.

  2. You say, “it would be a desastrous decision to design the new design program as a mono-national, mono-cultural affair” … and I agree. I’d be the first to make possession of a valid passport a program entry requirement. It sets the tone for the reality that it’s a big world out there and many of the good design job opportunities are overseas. Your “Move East” and “Move South” strategies reflect that reality. While you were at MCAD your early pursuit of it brought us several talented instructors from South America and even bolstered my efforts to have student toy designs prototyped in Hong Kong.

But design programs also rely upon regional support from business to provide corporate sponsorships, guest lecturers, internships and entry-level positions. To some extent programs also rely upon the support of local alumni that can’t be ignored unless your funding is otherwise secured.

In Minneapolis our corporate support from manufacturers, never substantial, has eroded further. Medical manufacturing remains but is increasingly patent driven. The most visible local corporate entities are now retailers, including Target and Best Buy. So should a program be developed that reflects (if not outright molding itself to) the local opportunities in, for example, retail merchandising?

  1. Your “Move Lateral” strategy is what I and several of our grads did in the early 90’s. As many ID practitioners have found, the transition from designing hardware interfaces/interactions to designing software interfaces/interactions is not difficult if you have a multidisciplinary background.

Better tools and methodologies are needed for understanding and encapsulating they key elements of perception and socialization in design. For example, the use of personas and scenario tools were an easy transition to non-industrial applications. And I expect that soon we’ll be relying more upon genetic algorithms and the digital evolution of forms to education our design choices.

Let me leave you with another aspect that multidisciplinary programs need to address: Why has information design not been as successful applied globally as product design? I know firms, after flirting with developing e-learning content in India, that have returned to domestic production when the consumers of the content are a domestic audience. In short, the media experience didn’t translate. This won’t always be the case, but it does highlight possible directions for design programs to address.


Hi again:

I’d be more radical in some of the aspects you mentioned. First, I would not just make possession of a passport a requirement, I would request some level of fluency in at least on major language besides one’s own, plus 6 - 12 months of work or academic experience abroad.

The other topic is sponsoring. Yes, we enjoy local sponsoring (“local” could be anywhere in the country), but if one’s own industry is too slow or too stupid, I do not hesitate to seek sponsorship abroad, e.g. in Taiwan. After all, industry has not shown much loyalty towards their employees or consumers lately. Why then should anybody be loyal to local industry? If they wish to go under, I, as a designer, don’t want to go down with them.

Yes, I remember your early work on the Mac using HyperCard. This was truly innovative thinking and I did not appreciate it then. Big mistake!

You mention information design… Are you referring to what some call information architecture, etc.? I don’t think it has been unsuccessful. The thing is that information design you can’t do by gut feeling, because there are so many disciplines out there already demonstrating a level of expertise in the field in a way that industry is more likely to accept. Simply because those other disciplines meet in true research and scientific-discourse environments (SIGCHI etc.) where industrial designers rarely ever show up. Designers are typically ignoring those events, they do not know who to write abstracts and papers, they rarely ever manage to publish (other than look-what-I-have-designed kind of writing). Subsequently we missed many of the juicy new design opportunities to other disciplines that are not necessarily better or more intelligent than us designers but much smarter in their approach to winning recognition and funding from industry.
People like Reinhart Butter, Klaus Krippendorff, and Gui Bonsiepe claim that a discipline without discourse is bound to vanish. That’s us they’re talking about.
Best regards from Germany,

Yes, we’ve all come a long way since the HyperCard days.

Your stated requirement of

some level of fluency in at least on major language besides one’s own, plus 6 - 12 months of work or academic experience abroad

would be wonderful, but not practical for most undergrads in the U.S. I wish more school districts would incorporate Internationale Baccaulaurate programs in the U.S. for instilling this global orientation in elementary and high school students.

By information design I’m referring to the arena including information architecture, interaction design (HCI), interface design, experience design, etc. As you say, too much of it is done by “gut” feel while much of the literature available through coooper.com, useit.com, sigchi.org and others goes ignored. I think that part of our mission is to educate the educators on how to make this wealth of information more accessible to students. And of course, information design applies to physical products as well as software.

One aspect of information design not often taught is the ability to persuade. Students are taught to produce boards, but not always how to identify their audience (aka clients) and overcome skepticism. One hallmark of the best known designers is that they are able to persuade managers at the highest corporate levels. The field of CAPtology (CAP standing for “computer aided persuasion”) is an interesting new use of computers not just to render or present, but to provide a persuasive argument through graphics, data modeling, interactives, scenarios AND the occasional rendering.

When I was teaching, so many of the students wanted to make “classic” designs. You can’t set out to design in this manner otherwise you put your goals before those of the user. It often took the first year of our program to dissuade them of their arcane notions of what good form was. Only then could we begin on the rigorous application of design as a process (in contrast to design as an outcome).

For me, it’s about DESIGN the verb, not DESIGN the noun.

Yes, we do have the same understanding of information design…

Talking about boards… and models… Some students still think in those categories of, hey, I’ve got to build a fancy model and print a cool poster.
Problem is, our products today “live”, they interact with humans through “gestures” and “body language”, as well as sound. It’s about the dynamic aspects of aesthetics which are somewhat difficult to represent by means of a rigid appearance model and poster. I think we have to pursuade by different means than posters and rigid models, means that accommodate the dynamic aspects of design as well. I think we have to get together with people who know scenography and choreography and dramaturgy… and many of the relevant sciences…

By the way, regarding language, an excellent design school can afford to represent quite an arrogant position… Like, you want to be a member of this elite? Well get your foreign language skill on your own! Wherever you wish. Not motivated? Well, there are many standard Schools of Fancy Rendering and Product Cosmetics that are happy to take your tuition money. I prefer the elite approach over this “hey, poor kids, didn’t get a chance in High School? So sad! So let’s not require too much of them…”

I know high school students in Germany that - at the age of 18 - speak fluent English and German, have working conversational knowledge of French and Spanish; are taking courses in another language (e.g, sign language) on the side (evenings), and just enrolled in a series of Saturday language sessions in Chinese, all in addition to their regular workload of ~16 different subjects in high school. With still another year of hoigh school to go. And all “A”'s. They feel worn out in the evenings, but happy.

The Chinese students that come here often speak English and German (in addition to their native language).
Those are the realities in this world, and it would be good for some Americans to think about where their isolation has put them. Many American students, by the way, do study abroad. Instead of looking for schools where they are taught in English, they should face the challenge (and enjoy the satisfaction) of conversing in a foreign language.

Maybe this is a hard-selling proposition for those Minnesotan folks among you :slight_smile:


The U of MN has over 4,000 students from other countries, so perhaps playing off of that international reputation would benefit the new design program. I remember how MCAD (somehow, not … sure … how) was listed by the State Department as one of the top Industrial Design schools in the country and that interested many students in applying.

“The Elite School of Design”! I love it. Although it’s not arrogance if you can back up your elitism with evidence that your program really is the best in one (if not several) areas. The U of MN has now set the goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world. So one way to become that elite design school would be to emphasize design research in the program and make it your mantra.

Interesting that you mentioned boards and models. Yes, depicting dynamic usage is really lacking. Recall that back in 1990 we were using 3D animation programs at the college allowing you to manually “shut doors and pull levers” on designs through on-screen interactions. Today, has it evolved very far past that?

When you say, “we have to [persuade] by different means that accommodate the dynamic aspects of design”, that’s exactly what we need, along with research that studies not only the kinesthetic but also the theatrical (and “choreographic” as you note) nature of design. Several years ago Brenda Laurel wrote “Computers as Theater” and the tenets of her book would equally apply to products.

For the study of dynamic usage we should invest in force-feedback modules for computer design packages, allowing users to manipulate the on-screen 3D forms through gestural control. Does something like that exist at school-budget levels? At the very least we can use optical tracking software and markers to analyze the patterns of how people hold and use products.

When we do require static models we need a means for rapidly creating them using environmentally friendly materials. I remember a former student who was a genius at making Bondo models due to his automotive repair experience. He also developed liver cancer in his Junior year (due to years of prior exposure).

Using 3D modelers such as Stratasys would allow fairly rapid iterations of polypropylene plastic models while being more prototype-like than those using ceramic deposition techniques, and “greener” than the resin used in stereolithography.


Kinda fun this conversation… I wonder if anybody is watching, if not, maybe we should do email instead. Or iChatAV (still on Macs?).

One approach to “model” our concepts is that here we’re getting into electronics (in form of a workshop taught be a NY media artist residing in Berlin) and linking the computer to external input and output devices via interface boards which we control via MM Director or Flash. That enables us, at least, to build functional models - to some degree - which are a bit closer to an actual working prototype. That may be one approach, but by no means the only one.

Of course, much can be done virtually, the only non-green aspect of which is the electric power to run the equipment.

At our school we prefer the perfection of CNC milled high-density foam models with manual finishing (spackle, sanding, painting), to the elegance of any of the additive rapid prototyping methods.

One positive aspect of an additive modeling processes, such as fused deposition modeling, is that material is only used to either build the part or support it while being constructed. You don’t have the material waste that a subtractive process produces. And that urethane foam dust - you can never quite get rid of and it is terrible for the lungs. But I do admit that CNC is a more common technology you’ll find in most manufacturing facilities.

My bias is that I want designer students to appreciate the manufacturing processes without becoming a product engineer or mold maker. I want them to be able to express themselves in 3D without becoming a 3D illustrator or a model maker.

I wonder how other schools that combine engineering (product) and design (industrial) under the heading of Product Design address this balance between engineering and design?

Perhaps we can just leave this conversation until others join in (if they join in). I don’t have access to iChatAV, but you can always email me by linking from this topic on my blog (see first posting) or linking from my blog to my homepage and send me a message.


gdaigle and prof,

Thanks for your insight and provocative discussion. I’m posting to let you know that at least one person is following along and that the public venue is appreciated.

Being the manager of the shop facilities at CALA/CoDes, I obviously have an interest in the topic.

A constant struggle with design education is to instill a material literacy and process knowledge without stiffling creativity or training materials/production engineers. I fear that as more and more design is virtual, designers’ real knowledge of materiality will decrease and the quality of the output will suffer. How do we balance hands-on model building/material manipulation and virtual/electronic tools?

I get the sense that some people have the impression that with RP technologies, students will no longer need to make. As a relatively traditional “maker”, this really terrifies me. Any contractor, builder, machinist or production engineer will tell you that many of the architects/designers they work with would probably do better work if they actually made what they designed occasionally.

If you have any further insight as to the role/requirements/future of shop facilities in design education, I would be very interested in the discussion.

I have surveyed shops in existing programs and developed recommendations for the PDDP team, reports can be found here:


Thanks for your ideas on this topic, as has been mentioned, the establishment of a new program of this nature is a very rare occurance. I sincerely hope that we can do it right so that it becomes “elite” and part of the U’s plan to sit at the top.


CALA Workshop

Here in Berlin we try to accommodate the virtual and the real aspects of model making. The virtual, because, as I mentioned earlier, one can’t model sound and motion through the conventional - rigid - modeling processes. The “real” because we believe, that a designer needs to be in close “touch” with the materials and form generation… Or else design will be shallow and superficial. Students will have conventional semester projects with traditional model making techniques, and they will have advanced virtual modeling projects as well. We have several full-time faculty who reqpresent different approaches, and it is part of the department policy that students have to do at least one project with each of the varios faculty members.

In the “real world”, designers are too expensive to do the final model making. We do agree that designers need to use manual model making in the process, to clarify and develop form details etc. For the final model making we believe that students should have some exposure to the RP machinery and equipment, but it dooesn’t have to be the most sophisticated and expensive equipment either. So the CNC mills are a compromise. They are also more analog to the (subtractive) manual modeling processes (except for clay which we also use) than the (additive) SLA and other RP technologies.
For the expensive professional RP technologies we rely on our mandatory internships (9th semester) when students who wish to get deeper into RP can work with companies that have and use the stuff.

Some students here love manual model making to the degree that they spend 40% of the semester in the model shop. The risk of that is that they may have great-looking and perfect models, but you look at them and think “so what…”. They often lack content, meaning, and philosophy. We try to differentiate between design and styling. Design is so much more than just form (visual appearance).

I appreciate your comments, K.Groenke!

Hi K.,

Thanks for joining in.

I remember that when prof and I had some Italian design students one semester they were terrific at drafting skills, but didn’t know much about shop processes or making models. Why? Because back home they had model makers available to them who could build from their drawings.

prof makes a good point that if students spend too much time making beautiful models or perfect hand renderings, they may cut themselves off from the self-criticism necessary to iteratively improve their design solutions. That’s why I’m a big believer in rapid prototyping at several levels starting with paper, cardboards, foamcore, solid foam - all work to quickly test and reject ideas.

I’m only in favor of CAD-based RP once the designs have been thoroughly considered and critiqued several times. Like CAD rendering, this is one of the final stages of visualization. And similar to the ability to change color schemes quickly through computer rendering, CAD RP allows the ability to quickly produce multiple versions of portions of a design (e.g. a button profile) for comparison.

I agree with your observation about the benefits of architects/designers occasionally making what they design. Of course, in ID there are no one-offs and the ability to make even a relatively low-cost $100,000 tool for a run of half a million pieces is usually not within reach of students. But they can participate in less expensive REN tooling for short runs, or shadow engineers working on extrusion dies, or sit in on manufacturing team meetings.

Some student facilities can tackle thermoforming (I’m glad you’ve seen to this) but I don’t know any that can handle injection molding, rotomolding, blow molding, and other plastic processes. CAD RP processes such as FDM give some ability to emulate the hollow shapes developed in these processes. Because FDM and stereolithography can produce both sides of a part it also gives the students some insight on what is lost when you make models out of wood: that there is an underside to the part. And it’s that underside that is really the tricky part of the design because that’s where you engineer the standouts, inserts, attachment points and other aspects of mold making that will give students insights into the engineer’s world.

High-end RP can also be used to produce pieces best suited to lost-wax casting processes. These have application in the biomedical industry (and of course, we have lots of that in nearby “Medical Alley”) for artificial joints. And modifying a standard data model of the artificial joint with data cloud points derived from a patient’s MRI scans is just one way of achieving not just “mass customization” but “mass personalization” of products. Okay, this may NOT an important thing for students right now, but you have to prepare them with today’s tools for positions five years from now.

Personally, I’ve always preferred model building to rendering, and even produced full-scale mockups of lawn mowers and office furniture systems. And I know that there is quite a divide between a craftsperson and a designer. As an artist friend used to say, a craftsperson can “trim a little off”, but only a designer can “trim a little on”. Meaning that you can’t fall in love with the materials when its the design you’re after, especially when it means tacking, welding or slapping a little spackle on to make the design fit the need.


I couldn’t agree more. And gdaigle’s English is much better than mine :slight_smile:

Just wanted to let you all know that there is someone else who is watching this thread. As a Mpls based designer with a few years of corporate and consultancy experience from outside the area, I hope that the CALA “revamp” or redesign will work out well and benefit not only the U but also the deisgn community and that of “Design” as well…

I’ll freely admit that my discourse may not apprach your levels, and my communication my be a bit spotty, but discourse is not my specialty. I have led and worked within design teams with various backrounds and specialties from all over the world and have struggled to quantify the neccesity of design beyond pretty shapes, and innovatively applied market friendly solutions to real and perceived “problems”. So the possibility of building a program with the specific goal of reanimating design as a user centered, qunatifiable pursuit is an alluring proposition.

But I cannot shake the feeling from reading this thread that while the intent is noble, the process is intangible, and that the application of a process is being left to write itself organically via discourse experimenation. If this is the intent than please forgive me for reading into it. But if the intent is to educate and apply, a tabgible process must be looked at that takes into account the realities of the world today: most notably that Design is a business pursuit and currently shackled to the bottom line.

If discourse is the intent please ignore this comment; but understand to me (personally speaking from experience) its seems as if you are creating an masters ID course that looks to have more to do with a MFA in Fine Art than an MBA in Entrepreneurship.

If that tis the intent, well carry on…

Dear supernaut:

when you post and I read, and I post and you read, then we have a discourse. Or what? Forgive me if I don’t understand precisely what you are referring to. Is what we discussed in your opinion too academic and not enough related to the problems of the real world? Well, that would be more than enough reason for discussion, or discourse, at least as far as I understand the meaning of discourse.

Of course, the decision makers at the UofM, whoever they are, will have to take into account and balance the current and future needs of the (design) industry, “the consumers”, the student designers… A university has to think and plan ahead… I feel that trying to educate designers to compete at bottom line with those zillions of hungry and motivated Chinese junior designers is like trying to compete with Chinese manufacturers in the low-end, low-cost markets. Or in short, a losing proposition.

I think that gdaigle and I both agreed in that ID needs to evolve to bring out those areas where we (Western designers) still are better than Asian designers, and that we need to continually try to discover new fields for designers to work in, so we can stay ahead, and that we’ll have to try and think ahead to where the graduates of today might find employment tomorrow and what the needs of our industries within 2 - 3 or 5 or 10 years might be. If a designer works at the low end of the spectrum, he or she will shortly be replaced by cheaper, faster, hungrier Chinese designers soon enough anyway.

While thinking ahead, it will still be necessary to also enable design graduates to defend themselves in a starting position today, but always looking ahead. Some may be content with being qualified to build models and do renderings, others may be the thinkers our societies an dcorporations may need to survive in the future. Education on university level should not be the same as a technical training program.

Before going on, I’d better try to understand what you were referring to… Did I get your point, or was I way off?


thanks for the reply;

I have been hesitant to post here because I am, frankly not the best @ discourse–the post and read type as I dont have the speed or much time to really put my thoughts down in a coherent order as a “discusser” which is illustarted by your confusion over my post.

Its not that what you discussed is too academic, its that there seems to be a lot of academic discussion going on around the future of design but no apparent proactive implemenation of the academic discourse.

I fully agree that there must be no head to head competion with China in reagrds to the design industry especially at the entry level. I also find that in the past few years many graduates have graduated with a distinctt lack of basic skills (other than 3d modeling and basic user research) that dont even prepare them to compete with the Chinese designer or even an American Designer. You are correct that a university has to plan ahead, but plan a head to what?

For example I do not see the Chinese designer as the greatest danger for a new graduate, I see that the current business model of an organization that is compartmentalized and streamlined for efficiency is the greatest danger for the new graduate. I see the way design is percieved in this current business structure as not a necessity or a quantifiable resource, such as engineering, sourcing, marketing, finance, but something that is a luxury for and commodity to the organization at the same time. In the eyes of an organiztion which tends to be compartmentalized and streamlined, its a manic appraoch and creates confusion. In trying to define our roles we have grasped at everything rather than protecting and specializing our usefullness to an organization, a bit of engineer here a bit of marketer there, and that has weakend us.

I am guessing that the problem is thus: that we have surrenedered the things that have defined us uniquely as designers (our craft and skill at identifying, wants, needs an desires and ultimately fulfilling them one way or another) in an attempt to make ourselves as revlevant to everyone as possible. In other words there are some fields we should be useful in and other we would not be. We need to play to the strengths of design and either cut away the weaknesses or bolster them up somehow.

So in short in any academic program there should be a focus on the “real world” practical skillsets that lays a foundation and identify what a designer strengths are the steers then in the direction of those strengths.

One example would be a greater focus on craft or apllied art (which has IMO been thrown by the wayside in a rush to get up to speed on the next greatest technological advance, Rather than apply the craft to technology and advance bot the craft and technology, the technology supplants the craft and throws it away) and not so much on etherial conceptual products. Which is why programs such as CCS, Cinncinnatti, ArtCenter, RISD and Pratt still graduate more prepared students than most other programs.

The comment of an “Elite Design School” is spot on IMO, but only as long as it does not mean:" I am a designer; I am an Egomanical Arbiter of Select Taste". I would rather put in a more selective way–make the program diverse, hard and make it fairly Darwinian–but not in the sense that you have drop outs, but in the sense that your strengths are exploited and your weaknesses are bolstered and you are steered to ayour strength. Kind of like the US Army Ranger School of Design.
But then again I have never taught and I am not sure if this would work…

hope this makes sense

Hi again,

the lack/absence of agreed-upon systematic structures for discourse on design is one of the major deficiencies of our discipline.

Klaus Krippendorff, co-founder of product semantics says:

The most frequent complains designers are heard to make concerns not being given the responsibilities they deserve. This should make us question our discursive practices and particularly the justification of design discourse to outsiders.

This is one of the biggest complaints I have about those professional design organizations that do nothing or little to establish a structured discourse beyond those “look what I’ve designed” conferences. Little is happening in Germany either. Instead of developing discourse and vision we are busy selling design awards to rich companies abroad that can afford the fees.

Educational institutions are failing as well. Reinhart Butter, professor at OSU (the other co-founder of product semantics) 5 years ago at an ICSID conference in Korea:

Education, instead of actively leading the way, seems to find it increasingly difficult even reacting to the basic expectations and circumstances, be it in technology, approaches, or life styles. Politically motivated ambitions, incidental and encrusted structures, ill-advised administrations, and even incompetent teaching staff are only some of the reasons why future generations of designers will most likely continue to lose recognition and influence, instead of gaining the respect our profession deserves in the context of emerging socio/economic scenarios.

Nothing has changed since.

When education is seen as a business, when department heads are forced to spend most of their time figuring out where to cut and whom to fire; in an environment where instructors have to make the dumbest student happy leaving no time for the brightest - because what counts is tuition money, not quality -, when design schools think they have to accept any and instructors ought to coach every applicant who confuses sports car styling with design and instructors with entertainers, it cannot be of any surprise that we sit paralyzed watching this discipline as it self-distructs, or simply fades away, while the lucky ones among us barely manage to scrape by hanging on to the remains of a once-productive and vibrant environment of creativity and innovation.

Hi Supernaut,

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 college’s mission,

"includes advancing the following through research, education, and public engagement:
• Innovation in sustainable, socially responsible design, through a commitment to equity, diversity, and to ecologies both human and natural.
• Engagement with the ongoing and emerging issues, opportunities, and problems that face our world today.
• Creative synergies, through interdisciplinary exploration.
• Speculative, theoretical, and historical inquiry, to expand the critical understanding of
design’s past, current, and potential significance within diverse contexts.
• Collaboration and partnership, within the University, and with communities, institutions, business, and government – 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.