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How One School Redesigned Design Education

The best design schools are founded on a balanced curriculum uniting creativity with practical disciplines.
April 28, 2011

Design education at the university level is broken: often ill-defined, shallowly specialized, and beholden to departments in art, architecture, or engineering. But if this is the case, how can the system be fixed—so that young designers can be properly trained not just in the pursuit of “making [things] look pretty” (as designer Don Norman lamented this month in an interview with Technology Review) but in the art and science of creatively integrating information to solve practical problems?

Rethinking things:Cees de Bont is the dean of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

One of the world’s largest industrial-design programs, at Delft University of Technology in Delft, the Netherlands, has been operating under this philosophy for four decades. Delft’s Industrial Design Engineering school was founded on four principles, or “pillars”: technology, ergonomics, aesthetics, and business. “We started with the right DNA 40 years ago,” says dean Cees de Bont, “and we have developed courses and research programs that require students to integrate knowledge from these different fields.”

According to de Bont, design education at Delft is effective precisely because—unlike many other design schools—the university did not approach it as an appendage to a department of art, architecture, or mechanical engineering. “Those beginnings always leave a very clear signature on a school of design, and it’s hardly ever properly balanced,” he says. “Neighboring disciplines like engineering might go deeply into technology but little else; more architecture- or art-oriented schools may have a bit of technology anxiety.” That lack of balance, he says, can distract young designers from embracing the interdisciplinary nature of their field. “If you look at many of the problems we’re dealing with today,” he says, “they’re relatively complex, requiring many specialties to come together for a proper solution—and very few disciplines besides design are capable of providing this.”

Reorienting a design school toward this philosophy can be difficult, as John Maeda has discovered during his tenure as president of the Rhode Island School of Design. Brought in as a bold, techno-savvy innovator in 2008, the digital designer and MIT Media Lab alumnus has since clashed with faculty over his draft plan (called “Connecting the Dots”) to emphasize interdisciplinary course requirements that bring the fine arts together with fields like economics, as well as his hope of merging RISD’s Division of Fine Arts with the Division of Architecture and Design. And the future of his plans was thrown in doubt when he received a vote of no confidence from the RISD faculty in March. Delft has faced similar challenges. Ten years ago, the school made a top-down decision to merge its Department of Ergonomics with the Department of Aesthetics. “It was a bit of a shock,” recalls de Bont—but after the fused faculties began collaboratively developing new courses and research projects, he says, the reorganized department “really took off.” One outcome was a focus on “emotional design,” which factors user experience into the design of products and services. “In the past we were simply solving ergonomic problems, but now we use those ergonomic insights to make the interactions visually and aesthetically pleasing as well, which is which is extremely valuable,” de Bont explains. “We started a [scholarly] community called Design and Emotion, which now has over 500 members worldwide.”

De Bont sees a steady shift away from purely applied, product-based solutions toward a more strategic role for designers in social problem-solving. “Design students are still open to thinking about how to design a better drip-filter coffee maker, but they are also very interested in thinking about how to improve sanitation problems in Kenya,” he says. “That’s the real essence of our discipline: the outcome can be something physical, but it could also be a service, or both—say, in the realm of health care or sustainability.” The ideal graduates from Delft’s school—or any design program, de Bont asserts—aren’t narrowly specialized CAD/CAM operators, interaction designers, or entrepreneurs. “They have working knowledge in all these fields,” he says. “But they are experts in integrating them.”

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