Leading the design school revolution

4 min read
Courtney D. Sharpe
  •  Sep 30, 2019
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Design education has a problem.

It exists at the intersection between design visions from bygone eras and current professional praxes laden with privilege. The “now” of design education is built upon generations of inaccessible, oppressive practices.

For ourselves and the future of design culture, we need a design school revolution.

What design education is doing wrong

  • It should be unacceptable to assign projects with turnaround times so short that missing sleep to create a quality product becomes an institutional norm.
  • It should be unacceptable that critiques resulting in tears fail to raise eyebrows.
  • It should be unacceptable that one can study architecture for four or five years in college and still require a graduate degree to become credentialed for professional practice.
  • It should be unacceptable that students can produce significant work or research for professors and not receive any credit or attribution when the final product is available to the public.
  • It should be unacceptable for institutions to present ‘comprehensive’ design histories that focus exclusively on Europe and the United States.
  • It should be unacceptable that anyone teaching the skills to intervene in the built environment of the United States would not have a thorough knowledge of the history of segregation and national practices of race-based disenfranchisement.
  • It should be unacceptable for any students of the built environment to graduate without acquiring an understanding of those same fundamentals of history.
  • It should be unacceptable to respond to students’ demands for more culturally representative curricula by pushing that exploratory work onto the students themselves, instead of faculty.

Designing a thoughtful future for design education

Design schools produce the next design leaders who shape the culture of the industry. Now they have to wrest with 21st-century realities to prepare leaders for the challenges upon us.

Check out the entirety of the Recognize anthology.

To create a safer, healthier, and more equitable future, these leaders, and the whole design workforce, need to be supported in thinking critically to tear down artificial hierarchies between design fields to facilitate multidisciplinary responses and increasing proficiencies in historical context and the psychology of design.

As designers, some of the things we contribute to society are buildings, the parks, the neighborhoods we all call home, and the tools for environmental mitigation and sustainability to create a better future. However, we would be at fault if we overlooked or undercounted our ability to also shape culture.

We have the power to proclaim what is en vogue by how we choose to exclude or invite others to interact with what we create.

It is our responsibility to work with integrity: to avoid projects that don’t serve our values, and to advance those that increase opportunity and equity.

I am tired of design for design’s sake. I want design that demands humanity and takes responsibility from ideation to delivery.

“Design school is overdue for a revolutionary redesign.”

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For present and future designers and design culture, we deserve more than we’ve been conditioned to accept.

The potential of design school

Design types are often hardworking and driven. Imagine how much greater our impact could be if different challenges and perspectives were presented for us to work through—not as electives, but as core curricular components.

I want a democratized design future because all of our daily experiences are shaped by the decisions of designers.

I want a design future in which practitioners mirror the diversity of the country.

I want a design future where the cost of education expands the opportunity to all rather than incentivizing the endeavor only for only the wealthy and people with connections to the private sector.

I want designers at all levels to charge more for their work.

I want employers to pay their entry-level design professional at least living wages for the geographies where they are located, along with benefits and opportunities for growth.

I want a design future where it is inconceivable that only .2% of registered architects are African American women. I want a design future where the people planning cities and developing buildings in communities of color have intimate knowledge of the populations where they work. Let us design a future that is responsive to us.

As design school is frequently the gatekeeper of the skills and networks that foster professional success in the field, it is unacceptable and irresponsible to continue perpetuating outmoded pedagogies. Design school is overdue for a revolutionary redesign.

Read the Recognize anthology in its entirety.


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