In our turbulent socio-economic climate an impressive number of remarkable opportunities are awaiting design schools. Like society and business, design schools face a time of innovation challenges.
In many countries design schools have already instituted forward thinking changes during the past decade. But this evolution is just starting. Today design schools are laying the groundwork to become ‘centers of innovation’ aimed at serving the financial front and, more importantly, society.
As places of creation, design schools have legitimately trained creative individuals comfortable with representation through the drawing of products, spaces, and life scenarios. In this context students knew that what was asked of them did not necessarily need to be understood at once because it involved a creation, a transgression of reality whose inherent nature does not always coincide with popular notions of what designers can do.
Designers have liked being the ‘creative person’ with a ‘singular’ inspiration who worked alone at his drawing board and sheltered himself from others who could steal his ideas. Schools, in France especially, have encouraged this approach to ‘creative designers’ and ‘artist designers’ who developed on the fringes of all academic institutions, incapable of working together even when major economic and technological research projects were awarded to universities. Similarly, they had little to do with company-sponsored projects on the grounds that the economic gain to the business could alienate the designer’s ability to create.
But some schools are being forced to move toward more professionalization. One reason is that there’s a growing awareness that design, creation, and innovation are engines of growth and development. The other reason is new to the field of design education; it’s the requirement that an institution should not be judged on the quality of its graduation projects alone, but rather on the quality of job opportunities found by students.
It’s clear, then, that the responsibility of design schools is evolving. Their focus is no longer solely on training ‘creative individuals’, but educating ‘creation professionals.’ These are creative minds adaptable to continuous change, aware of the economic obstacles lining the paths of businesses with which they will be working. They are asked to join forces with experts in multitude of backgrounds including capital, engineering, marketing, philosophy, sociology, and art. This kind of inter-disciplinary engagement is indispensable. Design is becoming a discipline of creative project management just as innovation is becoming a strategic move for business and society.
Student designers today must learn business at the same time as they learn sharing, collaboration, and team spirit—the ways of a project manager. He or she is the driving creative force behind collective thought on new products, corporate services, image, brand, culture, etc. Teaching methods need to adapt to this completely new approach and present radically new responsibilities.
From Innovation to a new entrepreneurship
The chance to collaborate with companies and other academic disciplines triggers a new type of responsibility, one that targets the creation and production of the objective, achievable, and profitable. Imagination works wonders. It is indispensable in brainstorming. But its value is best optimized when transformed into viable scenarios, commercialized products and services, and market consumables. If creation can and must justify the subjectivity of its creator, then innovation’s job is to ensure that the projects are viable. Faced with this requirement, those design schools that are aware of their responsibility will ultimately take on a new identity. They will become centers of innovation exhibiting an objective and reproducible approach. These ‘centers of experimentation’ are needed by engineering schools to devise scenarios that make technology less threatening for all users, worldwide. Business schools will also need to seize the opportunity to revisit an approach to product design that’s generally neglected in favor of distribution marketing or fundamental marketing research, that have been known to be out of sync with consumer and business needs.
The most relevant schools have already created their ‘experimentation laboratories’. Their ‘design factories’ are turning into corporate laboratories for those companies that have incorporated them. These ‘research – training – corporate’ ecosystems are already part of assembling Masters of Design programs that increase the hybrid learning, dual degrees, and multiculturalism.
The era of ‘entrepreneurship’ is in motion. The more viable the projects, the more tempted students will be to develop them. A new quality criterion will be implemented for the most efficient creation venues. The percentage of students who start their own business, based on products they designed during their studies, will be decisive. The more relevant the innovation approaches, the more convincing students will have to be, by ‘taking the plunge’ into the world of self-employment. In some schools like the Ecole de Design Nantes Atlantique, nearly 40% of 4th- and 5th-year students are already self-employed.
Implementation of ‘incubation centers’ is expected. French design schools have a great asset in that they are sitting on a culture of creation recognized all over the world. For their students, being a French designer is definitely a distinctive touch to exploit.
At a time when universities of management and economics are struggling to get a handle on the worldwide crisis, when engineering schools must demonstrate and defend progress, design schools could well be on their way to becoming ‘centers of innovation’. They are natural centers of experimental research, skills and expertise needed by the business sector to help them think more objectively, from another angle. A major social and economic issue is waiting to be addressed—clearly, this development needs the attention of the public sector.
Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries In 2008 ; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequenly on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.