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by Gabrielle Kennedy

Earlier this week Design Academy Eindhoven’s creative director Thomas Widdershoven was joined on stage by director of ECAL, Alexis Georgacopoulos, and recent addition to the academy’s new Food Non Food department, Earlwyn Covington from Parsons Paris.  The topic was the future of design education.

Widdershoven placed the Design Academy Eindhoven in its historical context arguing that Rietveld was not merely Dutch design, but a part of the international modernist movement.  Its ethos was low-tech, accessible simplicity –ideas that spilt over into the 90s Droog movement, and even remain today.

“It made sense that Dutch design was low-tech because by then industry had left the Netherlands,” Widdershoven said.  “We exported the making industry to China leaving only the service industry behind.”

The academy’s current system of man-centered design was created to reflect this.  Education here is not divided into design specialties, but rather sectors of human life.

Today in the yet-to-be-defined post-noughties of the twenty-first century, design has come face-to-face with another tumultuous paradigm shift.  Now a different type of skeptical society hankers for a more social world that offers the individual more scope for relevance.

To explore how students are connecting with these changed expectations, Widdershoven initiated a trilogy of exhibitions: Self Unself, which is currently touring China, Sense Nonsense, which opened last Dutch Design Week in the Van Abbemuseum – and the final installment will be Thing Nothing.  Self Unself aligned Dutch design with art, Sense Nonsense delved further into its relationship with engineering, and Thing Nothing will look at the diversification of design into intangible experiences and services.

When it comes to education reform – which the DAE is currently in the midst of - Widdershoven firmly believes that finding a new system is not the wisest approach.  Rather, he thinks we should remain open and flexible, thus able to swiftly bend to changing needs.  “Institutions are crumbling,” he said.  “We need to keep things open and free to be better able to absorb change.”

One of the first things Alexis Georgacopoulos did when he became director of ECAL four years ago, was open the school up for more international exhibitions.  Inside the school his focus is on collaborations both with outside industry and brands, but also interdepartmental collaborations within the school.  At ECAL the educational system is more about realizing specific skills and then, as a student body, sharing those skills for high-level results.

Last year ECAL won the Milano Best Design Award for their Salone del Mobile show in Milan - “Delirious Home”.  The exhibition featured objects that worked as a playful interpretation on the concept of the “smart home” and were the result of a collaboration between Bachelor students in Industrial Design and Media & Interaction Design.

Earlwyn Covington from Parsons Paris answered the obvious question about who is educating current designers with the most straightforward answer:  “Other designers,” he said.  But his bigger question was why is everything we see during design festivals so predictable?

“Why so fucking predictable?” he asked.  “Why so normalized, so homogenized, so banalized?”

For answers he looks at current methodology in design research and suggested starting with a closer examination of the socio political systems established by Reagen and Thatcher in the 80s – the start point of his own outfit “Collective 1992”.

“Creatives have the responsibility to make the world a better place,” he says.  “They need to ask questions, which generate more questions, which ultimately spawn new methodologies that can create different types of objects.”

Covington admits that his approach is never to give a lot to students.  “But I give them a lot of hints,” he said.  “It is about opening up channels between teachers and students … I really like a flat hierarchy.”

At the end of their presentations all three educators stood on stage to address questions from the floor.

In his answers Widdershoven emphasized the need for more adventure in design education.  “How do we combine a messy design thinking with education,” he posited.  “We need disturbances, we need craftsmanship and a sensitivity that changes each year depending on what becomes more relevant.   We need continuity, but we also need to be flexible because every time a new student addresses issues of colour and form, they bring to it a slightly different sensibility.”

When the question of exhibitions was raised and the concern by some students voiced that they were “just PR” Widdershoven got serious: “Presentations for me work as a sort of reality check,” he said.  “DAE students work in such a personal way – relying on their own interests and fascinations that at some point they need to interact with a broader audience to see if what they have been thinking and doing works.  They need to check that people get it and have the necessary reaction.  Exhibitions are never just about showing off. It is an important form of communication.”

The team from ECAL were quite surprised by the way DAE management interacted so intimately with student opinion.

“I love it,” Widdershoven explained.  “If they are able to express an opinion – even if it is critical – it means that they are engaged and engaged students are all we can ever ask for.”

This discussion was a follow up on an earlier debate around the question who is educating real designers where DAE had a conversation with Sinst Joost (Antwerp) and Delft University of Technology. It was part of the Design Debates programme; a monthly series of debates and lectures that center around the social context of design. For more information, background information check


Published: 19-Feb-2015 20:16
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