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Written by Colin Keays

Redesigning the Designer:  Congress on the Future of Design Education

Throughout 2019, Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam has marked the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus with its Neuhaus curriculum. Hosting a symposium to discuss the idea of ‘Redesigning the Designer’ on 22nd November as part of this, important questions were raised as to how we can understand, correct, and re-address instruments of the past. Above all, the day’s discussions delved into possible alternative directions for design education. Setting the tone for the day, Alice Twemlow introduced these potential future(s) as being plural, asking “which, and whose futures are we talking about?”

While the influence of the Bauhaus undoubtedly shaped our current design education networks, the congress equally unpacked why we might be stuck in the ideas of the 20th century as a result. Twemlow argued the case for a fresh perspective by suggesting that new measures by which to evaluate qualities of design are needed – perhaps not existing notions of aesthetics or efficiency, but moving towards a system of values by which to better deal with complex societal issues. Florian Cramer echoed this sentiment in his keynote speech, asking if art and design education programmes truly live up to the challenges our world faces. Cramer focused on examples of designers with a tendency to try to fix large scale environmental problems with quick “solutions” that fail to recognise larger deeply-rooted social and political issues, dismissing such projects as being “counterproductive propaganda”. Cramer called for a more trans-disciplinary approach – not relying on the outdated ‘renaissance man’ pretence that design alone has the answers, but to seek expertise from other fields.

In another keynote speech, Adeola Enigbokan looked to schools of thought that have been written out of design history altogether, focusing on the experience of female members of the Bauhaus, and the influence of the often forgotten Loheland School, founded by women in the same year. The discussion continued with how to make space for other repressed bodies within design education. At a practical level, this translates as urgently stopping to analyse institutional processes – not simply what is taught in design academies, but looking at how the institution is structured and acting on how more diverse voices can be added to decision making processes.

To conclude the morning, Zeniya Vreugdenhil introduced Het Collectief, the collaborative work of a group of students from Design Academy Eindhoven that worked for nine weeks as a satellite of Neuhaus. The cross-disciplinary collective consisted of students from the master’s departments of Contextual Design, Social Design, Information Design and the Critical Inquiry Lab, working alongside the guidance of Het Nieuwe Instituut director Guus Beumer, and researcher Anastasia Kubrak. Zeniya – a student of the Critical Inquiry Lab – discussed the project that culminated in a series of ‘border objects’, while reflecting on the probing questions that arose during the process. She observed that “in a school where we are asked to develop an avant-garde stance in our work, the idea that design still holds all the answers to our failing world still persists. We seem unable to remove ourselves – the humans – from the centre of design discourse and activity.” The approach developed by Het Collectief therefore sought to introduce a ‘more-than-human’ perspective to design. By acknowledging that the world we live in is shared with actors outside our own lived experience, their aim was to give agency to that which exists beyond the human body. Working as a group of seventeen individuals with a non-hierarchical organisational structure, Zeniya noted that such a design process was slower than more traditional models. But by noting that the nature of the collective was seen as a project in its own right, the notion of the individualistic designer was challenged, giving way to a more process-based than result-driven approach.

Breaking into smaller afternoon group sessions, a series of constructive workshops explored further potential alternative practices within design. While Klaas Kuitenbrouwer discussed whether design education could be rooted in the commons, Paolo Patelli and Anastasia Kubrak developed ‘Matter of Time’, a speculative educational curriculum which deconstructs our notion of time as a measure of success. What if a class took a lifetime? What if a design process was based on a moon phase, or on your astrological sign? Meanwhile, Adeola Enigbokan debuted ‘Tarot of the Working Woman’, which used the centuries-old spiritual practice of tarot to unravel how each person might work through problems encountered within the workplace–when is it right to blindly follow your intuition? How to overcome barriers that limit us from our goals? Interestingly, these explorations of more esoteric and intuitive processes dramatically break from the normative and rational approaches of modernism which came to define much of the last century of design education.

A hundred years on from the foundation of the Bauhaus, the symposium made it clear that opportunities must urgently be taken for a critical reflection of the positioning of design institutions today. Covering more inclusive, practical, and potentially radical ways of re-addressing how our education networks are structured,  we can only imagine these will look over the next century.

Published: 29-Nov-2019 15:53


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  • Redesigning the Designer

    Border Object 08, all photography by Het Collectief

  • Redesigning the Designer

    Border Object 01

  • Redesigning the Designer

    Border Object 05