Design schools need to shift focus from the form of objects to understanding the systems that produce them.
By Peter Hall
Posted April 18, 2007
In late 2005 I gave a little talk at Art Center College of Design about mapping as a means of bringing design disciplines together—a very little talk. It was an exciting time at the school: Bruce Sterling had just concluded his year as Visionary in Residence and published his seminal book Shaping Things, posing the challenges of designing for a sustainable society in the information age. But my presentation was planned on the day when the school’s corporate sponsors came in to see what the students have been doing with all that industry money, and students were frantically pinning up renderings and polishing models for the visitors. So I presented to a packed house of five, one of whom yawned conspicuously throughout.
I might have foreseen that a lecture on mapping wasn’t going to tear the house down. Mapping is a good way of exposing the agendas that lead to a design decision, such as, say, Israel’s placement of settlements in the West Bank or General Motors’ decision to kill the EV1. It’s also a good way to see, without disciplinary bias, what the design problems or opportunities are in a defined field—say, a university campus, the prison system, or the house of the future. But if you think that product design is either a compromised version of fine art or form-making in the service of industry, this kind of big-picture thinking won’t strike any chords. Before my talk, during a guided tour of Art Center’s gorgeous hillside campus, I was surprised to find students working on clay models and 3-D digital renderings of cars. It seemed horribly reminiscent of old-school product design, when the profession could still happily see itself in the Raymond Loewy mold, styling next year’s models after most of the work had already been done by engineers. Granted, schools still have to teach undergrads how to make beautiful objects, but if they really think design is an important part of societal change, then they’ll have to shift the emphasis from portfolios to problems. (..)