Conference review

01 July 2013

DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers

Reviewed by Dr. Joanna Boehnert

Designing Learning for Tomorrow

Design Education from Kindergarten to PhD

I travelled to the DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 – 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers with some trepidation. While I have high expectations of the content produced by the Design Research Society (DRS) and was already intrigued by some of the papers and keynotes, my concerns emerged from what I am witnessing in design education in the UK. I was travelling to Oslo supported by a crowd funding campaign rather than the institution where I had been working when I wrote my paper. As an advocate of sustainability literacy and an early career researcher witnessing (and feeling) the impact of the austerity agenda in higher education in the UK, I wondered if the conference would rise to the challenge of confronting the most serious issues in design education.

The conference was jointly produced by Cumulus (the International Association for Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media), the Design Research Society and HIOA (Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences – the host institution). Cumulus was formed in 1990 and now has 165 member institutions in 43 countries. The DRS has been nurturing the development of research in design since 1966, now with approximately 700 members and nearly 9000 subscribers. The DRS is a significant institutional force in design that provides a buffer from those parts of design industry and design discourse concerned with aesthetics, fashion and profitable activities with little regard for the social, ecological or political impacts of design practice. The space for reflection, analysis, methodological innovation and development of best practice in design provided by the DRS is more necessary than ever to support effective and socially responsible design and design education. Thankfully the conference continued this tradition and offered exceptional content on issues of sustainability, strong critiques of political agendas in higher education, space for reflection on the direction of design education and also many less ambitious but more pragmatic case studies of projects developed by the international community of design education researchers.  

The stylish but expensive city of Oslo was bursting with the kind of dramatic spring that occurs in countries with severe winters. The days were light late into the night. 278 delegates from more than 40 countries attended the conference. Conference chair Professor Liv Merete Nielsen, co-chair Janne Beate Reitan and the conference organising committee (including Ingvild Digranes, Peter Lloyd, Erik Bohemia and members from 9 other universities) had arranged a full programme of events in addition to papers and keynotes. In between talks we were treated to non-stop activities including an exhibition of ‘ergonomic functional chairs by Norwegian designers’, a bus tour with a stop at the incredible Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park, a dinner at Tjuvholmen Sjömagasinet and an evening reception at Oslo Town Hall. At the end we emerged from the intense four days programme to witness the surreal national holiday of Nasjonaldagen (The National Day) in which Norwegians flooded the streets in traditional decorative and formal dress for a flag-waving ‘children’s parade’ celebration.

International disciplinary conferences are venues for the consolidation of the history of a field of practice and this is how the conference started with the first keynote. Halina Dunin-Woyseth and Fredrik Nilsson reflected on the history of design research and education with a focus on Europe and Scandanavia. Dunin-Woyseth and Nilsson described four stages of development since the 1970s. Early design research in the 70s was characterised by design practice with internal reflection. Later in the 70s-80s design research emulated research from other academic disciplines. By the 1990s-2000s design research developed more integrated practice and research. Finally in the 2010s new practitioners emerged with a triadic competence of innovation, practice and education in field specific research. As design research continues to build stronger research cultures, trends outside design such as the focus on transdisciplinarity share similarities to design research.

In the introduction to the conference proceedings, Professor Michael Tovey, Convenor of the DRS Design Pedagogy Special Interest Group (PedSIG), stated that to ‘think in a solution focused way employing visuo-spatial intellectual abilities’ and the ‘creative synthesising of ideas through design thinking’ are the most important capacities that characterise the practice of design. This is worth emphasising as it captures the ambition of the community to put design to use to address a wide variety of problems that beset humankind. Paper presentations reflected the vast scope of issues in design education research. I am only one person so I can only report on one of ten different workshop streams that were held concurrently at the conference where 165 people presented papers. Papers were chosen by a double blind peer review process from 225 full paper submissions. Researchers from more than 74 universities worked as reviewers. Since my own interest is sustainability and socially responsive design, these are the sessions I attended and the focus of this review refers to these presentations. This review covers only a small sample of the conference presentations so obviously I missed many valuable contributions. Since there is a pressing need to build capacity on issues of sustainability in design education, this review will focus on this theme in some depth.

On the first day, conference organiser Liv Merete Nielsen facilitated a workshop titled ‘Design Literacy – from primary education to university level’. Nielsen invited two speakers (Professor Peter Naess and Professor Tim Cooper) to present very different ideas on competencies necessary for design literacy. Peter Naess introduced critical realism as a response the dangers of disciplinary tunnel vision. Tim Cooper stressed the need to understand the whole material and energy system of industry in order to develop awareness of the ecological impacts of design. I see critical realism combined with sustainability literacy as an excellent combination. Only when the critically engaged and the ecologically informed are combined can we come to understand not only the material context – but also the social dynamics that reproduce the (unsustainable) status quo. The synthesis of these approaches offers a basis for the design of effective solutions to our most serious problems. Since Naess and Cooper presented valuable contributions that are not in the conference proceedings, I will review these two positions briefly here.

Naess describes critical realism as a meta-theory for a fruitful philosophical position in design research. Critical realism addresses problems with both positivism (with is its strong belief in precise, quantifiable predictions) and post-structuralism (with its emphasis on interpretation). According to critical realism, both extremes neglect parts of reality. Positivists tend to ignore research that cannot be measured and thus remains blind to the causal forces that determine systemic behaviour. Post-structuralists or radical social constructionists tend to blur the distinction between discourses and material realities. Thus the research produced under either of these philosophical premises cannot respond effectively to complex problems. Naess argues that critical realism is necessary to create possibilities for interdisciplinarity, to understand causal relationships and to inform generalisations and predictions. Interdisciplinarity is essential for ontological reasons. Positivism is overly optimistic with its own predictions. Ultimately critical realism supports agency in contrast to the disempowering traditions of the positivism and the post-structuralism.

Cooper stressed the need for designers to understand patterns and ecological impacts of consumption. Cooper explained how the concept of economic growth is being challenged. He noted that the recent European Commission’s ‘Design for Growth & Prosperity’ report quoted the European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani who referred to ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ (p.3). This language reflects the insights from the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission’s landmark ‘Prosperity without Growth?’ 2009 report. Later in a keynote titled Cogs in a wheel? Design Education and the Demands of Consumerism’ Copper addressed the problems associated with throwaway culture. The era of plentiful resources is over.80% of a product’s ecological impact is determined at the design stage. Design education must work to develop capacities for life-cycle thinking and cradle-to-cradle design in support of a circular economy. Contextual studies for sustainability literacy must be multi-disciplinary. Sustainability imperatives require challenging the demands of consumerism, conformity to social norms and tolerance of environmental threats and injustices. Revealing the danger of ill-informed expectations of future wellbeing is part of the process of creating possibilities to address problems. The profound difficulties with sustainability emerge, Cooper claims, from the fact that designers feel ‘locked-in’ to market forces. Ultimately, to make cradle-to-cradle design possible we need to change our economic system.

One insight from Coopers’ presentation is that information systems are not always providing the feedback we need to make informed decisions. For example, Cooper explained how planned obsolescence was only widely recognised as a problem when it was written about in the journal Harvard Business Review. Since it was only published in this journal when it became recognised as a problem for industry, this is an excellent example of how information feedback serves the interests of industry over the interests of the ecological systems on which industry depends. The interests of the natural world, future generations and those already feeling the impact of ecologically destructive industrial practice are rarely acknowledged within a system that prioritises profit for industry about all other priorities or values. It also appears to me that the same dynamic is now happening with the new interest in the circular economy in the UK (now that industry is concerned about resource scarcity).

Cooper’s description of activities at Nottingham Trent University where all students must have a foundation in sustainability literacy was impressive. Unfortunately, in my experience, Nottingham Trent University seems to be an exception as there is often a great deal more positive public relations about sustainability education and initiatives on campus that there is actually progress in changing teaching practice and environmental management. Coherent programmes for sustainability literacy are all too often entirely absent. Design education must be helping students develop an understanding of concepts such as embedded energy, lifecycle analysis, ecological footprinting tools and the rebound effect. Without an understanding of these core concepts, students will simply not be able to make informed decisions as designers (or even as citizens and consumers). Additionally, these concepts are only the beginning of a longer process of developing new agencies and capacities for problem solving in an increasingly complex world. Thankfully the organisers of this conference made a valiant attempt to address these serious deficiencies in design education by inviting the long time sustainability advocate Tim Cooper as a keynote speaker and making space for several other key papers on issues of sustainability.

An excellent example of how design skills can address complex sustainability challenges is Professor Birger Sevaldson’s work on systems thinking as a design practice. In a paper titled: ‘Systems Oriented Design: The emergence and development of a designerly approach to address complexity’ Sevaldson reported on the development of Systems Oriented Design (SOD). Sevaldson explained that design can provide a different type of system analysis, an approach to systems with a richer understanding of complexity. Designers are well suited to deal with complexity since they are trained to synthesis information, they are good at visualising and they are solution oriented. Thus design skills can be harnessed to support systems thinking in unique ways. Within this emergent practice developed by Sevaldson, system maps are made with hundreds of items (these diagrams are called ‘GIGA-maps’). Design skills and methods are used not only understand complex systems but to identify points of intervention. Form giving skills enable a creative approach to systems work and help designers and their audiences not only engage with complexity but strategically visualise systemic dynamics and propose solutions. With SOD, the conception of what designers do is changing. Sevaldson presented an impressive case study of master thesis of students Manuela Aguirre Ulluoa and Jan Kristian Strømsnes working at Sexual Assault Centre (SAC) at the Legevakten emergency hospital in Oslo. He also invited interested researchers to a symposium in October where these ideas will be explored in more depth.

My paper titled ‘Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design’ addresses epistemological error in research paradigms, principles of ecological design and the importance of criticality for sustainable design. It describes ecological literacy is a comprehensive programme of learning that requires its own curriculum and research culture in design education. Ecologically literacy is developed only partially with information on the design of sustainable ways of living. Equally important is nurturing new competencies and agencies through critical pedagogy and transformative, experiential and dialogic learning processes. Critical thinking in regards to sustainability is necessary to respond to powerful corporations and institutions with vested interests in unsustainable technologies and ways of living.In a tweet during this presentation, Gabriele Oropallo summarised the paper as presenting ‘ecological literacy as a continuously awareness-yielding device rather than mere exposure to facts’ (check out the #DRSCumulus hashtag for more conference tweets).

Other presentations offered complementary approaches to issues of sustainability. Tatu Akseli Marttila presented the paper ‘Energy and Emotions: transdisciplinary design education for resource conservation’. This paper examined how to make the material consequences of energy production evident in everyday life and connect design for conservation with human emotions. Marttila described a multidisciplinary project with a network of students, artists, designers, academics, researchers and scientists working towards creating perceptions of energy in design and action. The project made space for artistic, scientific and sociological disciplines to work collaboratively to identify feedback systems. This paper identified essential elements for energy conservation and feedback design as: systemic, reflective, reliable, emotional, sensorial, inter-professional and trans-disciplinary. Marttila and his co-authors call for a series of design research experiments trialing new processes in real life settings.

Some researchers described how design education can support social sustainability. Irina Suteu presented a paper ‘Multidisciplinary design for intercultural learning. Crafting digital services for a multicultural society’ which described her work with students addressing the contentious issue of immigration in Milano, Italy. The project aimed to simulate strategies to raise the awareness about immigration by creating digital design strategies for intercultural learning. In order to help students appreciate the problems faced by immigrants, the project started with exercises to challenge in-group bias and stereotypes of “us” and “them”. Students conducted fieldwork in order to attempt to relate to the problems of the foreigners in Italy. Small groups then created digital services to address relevant problems for immigrant communities. With dangerous new racist movements growing all over Europe (such as the Golden Dawn in Greece and the EDL / BNP in the UK) – this project is important example of a design interventions to address serious social problems.

One of the most politically loaded presentations was the keynote by Professor Jim Gleeson titled: ‘The European Credit Transfer System, pre-defined learning outcomes and design education’.Gleeson questioned the point of design education. Are we educating for control or emancipation? He describes the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) as a Trojan horse for neoliberal agenda and claims that this new programme has already had a pervasive impact that is slowly legitimising a performative agenda. Gleeson claims the ECTS seeks to spread market principles into education. Schools become like business units with purely technical interests. A powerful consensus of agencies such as the OECD and the World Bank support this educational programme, but this new ideology laden agenda debases education. Gleeson declared: ‘what is easily measured is the most trite’. Outcome based education is driven by political motives, to promote an ideological point of view. Tick boxes become more important than quality of education. Managerism profoundly changes in the nature of teachers’ work by replacing critical reflection with heavily instrumentalised teaching practices. Already we can notice how the discourse is changing. The ECTS does not create a hospitable environment for design education. Instead design education must work towards emancipatory interests by asking critical questions. Educators and researchers must be proactive in challenging this agenda since we are danger of taking on the neoliberal discourse uncritically. One slide warned: ‘Caution: slippery slope’. There is another way – but it will require a concerted effort to resist the imposition of these technocratic approaches to education.          

I will briefly mention a few more highlights. Laurene Kaye Vaughan presented a paper on different types of design PhDs as reflecting the validity of different and mixed ways of knowing. Vaughan and co-author Andrew Morrison are in the process of mapping PhDs in design and studying the design of Design PhDs. On the subject of teaching design, Peter Lloyd described how structured design assignments can nurture creativity. He compared this learning process to the way syntax allows us to construct sentences. Lloyd suggested that creativity is not so much of a ‘gift’ but a way people learn to respond to problems. Another paper referring to language was Susanna Kelly Engbers’ paper titled ‘Branded Together: The Sister Arts of Rhetoric and Design‘ which described how the study of rhetoric can inform design practice. Aristotle’s concept of ethos states that an audience’s perception of a speaker’s prudence, virtue and goodwill influences their reaction to a speaker. According to Engbers, these insights apply to design, especially in regards to branding. Liv Merete Nielsen, along with chairing the conference and presenting the workshop I reviewed earlier, found time to present a paper titled ‘Visualising Ideas: a camera is not enough’. In this session Nielsen argued that teaching mimetic drawing skills in primary and secondary education is vital to building design literacy in later years. Nielsen stated: ‘It is not yet possible to take a photograph of an idea’ and thus drawing skills remain a foundational element within design education.

There were many other noteworthy papers but I will finish with one of the most impressive. Professor Jill Franz’s keynote presentation titled ‘Design Learning: A Productive Force for Engaging the Radical Self’ was a fitting conclusion to the week. Franz asked us to reflect on these challenging times, our post-normal world. What is it that we want our world to be? She proposed that desire is the destabilizing trigger for transformational change, facilitating the emergence of new possibilities. This transformation takes into account ‘what we want’ i.e. aesthetics + ‘what should be’ i.e. ethics + ‘what makes sense’ i.e. logic. Design thinking can facilitate the ambitious attempt to make sense of this chaos. This vision of design can be activated with a ‘pedagogy of desire’. This pedagogy teaches a ‘privileging of the self’, wherein we claim the right to live deeply and engage a ‘radical self’ that celebrates emotional, embodied experiences.  

These are exciting ideas but it seems to me that  ‘privileging of the self’ in the current historical context can easily be understood to support the kind of narcissism and solipsism already cerebrated by neoliberal ontology and associated values. I have not yet had an opportunity to read Franz’s work, but based on what she presented I am assuming she has something very different in mind. Franz says the radical self is cultivated from taking responsibility for our actions and accounting for our own desires. Thus I would expect this ‘responsibility’ to include acknowledging the right for others on this planet (and future generations) to also have the right to the privileges we enjoy. Thus ‘privileging the self’ is only justifiable, in my view, in the context of struggles for social and environmental justice. Thus, the radical self must be explicitly committed to political self-consciousness and emancipation. With this proviso, Franz’s prescription for a pedagogy of desire and for emotionally intelligent teaching offers a means of confronting contemporary challenges by offering more attractive possibilities than the dour prescription of austerity presented by the neoliberal ideology. Personally, I think it is important to be explicit in regards to this commitment to a politically engaged agenda. Otherwise we are, as Gleeson warned, liable to reproduce the neoliberal agenda uncritically. Reclaiming pleasure from the moribund realm of zombie constructing consumer capitalism and the spectacle is an ambitious project with radical potential. This cultivation of ethics through (politically aware) aesthetics is a nice place to start in imagining a liberatory design pedagogy.

Overall this conference was a timely reminder of the importance of making time for research to strategically address challenges facing design education.