New Roles for Design Education in University Settings

Dr. Terence Love


This paper explores new directions in design education in relation to future trends in universities’ roles in societies. The paper  first clarifies some terminological isses related to designing and maps out the background to change in universities. New roles for designers in universities operations are identified particularly with respect to the ways that current forces are changing universities’ operations. The paper concludes with suggestions as to how the above insights point to new directions in design education.


Design education has developed in a relatively adhoc manner as a result of courses being dedicated to single domains of practice (Giard, 1999; Kimbell, Saxton, & Miller, 1999) (ref). In technical design areas such as engineering, there are increasing pressures to include social, ethical and environmental issues (Beder, 1989; Beder, 1993; Bird, 1999; Dorsa & Walker, 1999; Love, 1998) . In the visually-based areas of designing there are similar pressures, and these sit alongside concerns about the relative importance of traditional arts/craft skills,  modern computer-based skills and theory (Kimbell et al., 1999) (Giard, 1999; Swann, 2000) . In design research, there is currently  a strong ongoing discussion about the similarities and differences between different sorts of designing and researching (see, for example, Durling & Friedman, 2000) .  In all areas there is a problematic lack of theoretical clarity about the terminology and key concepts of design education, design theories and design research (Eder, 1966; Hubka & Eder, 1988; Liddament, 1996; Love, 2000; O’Doherty, 1964) .

In the university situation, there is a significant potential for designing and designers because, taking a long view, one of the main roles of universities is to act as a store of information for a society, and a focus of higher level expertise to support all the facets of social, economic and cultural development (Australian National University, 1995; Kemp, 1999; Robinson, 1999) . In this sense, universities are involved in designing almost all aspects of societies’ evolution. This design-based aspect of universities’ purpose and functioning extends over a wide variety of contexts and across all stakeholders in universities’ activities. The rapid rates of change which society and university education are embarked on, mainly because of forces towards globalisation and the utilisation of computer-based information systems, increases the need for individuals with the multi-disciplinary skills appropriate to restructuring both social and educational systems to align with and access the benefits of new realities (Robinson, 1999) . These individuals are designers.

The roles of designing in university contexts have been limited to date because of the ways that the activities of designing have been circumscribed by the constraints of the disciplinary foci that have shaped design education. This paper explores how revisiting some of the epistemological foundations of designing helps clarify how design education might be developed so as to educate designers in a manner that is appropriate to universities and their stakeholders.

A central issue in any epistemologically based review of design education is the need to identify the limits and bounds of the subject area. The majority of design education analyses have focused on designed objects and discipline-based skills (see, for example, Atman & Chimka, 1999; Madrazo, 1999; Ulusoy, 1999) . What has been substantially neglected, however, is a critical review of the scope and bounds of the activity of designing. That is, what is still not adequately addressed is a definition of which activities are designing and which are not. This focus on the boundaries of the concept of designing (rather than discipline-based skills and content) enables increased clarity about the scope and roles of design education in the multi-disciplinary breadth of university contexts.

Designing and Designs: Theoretical and terminological Issues

An important aspect of clarifying the bounds of designing with respect to other activities is adequate terminology, especially defining ‘designs’ ‘designing’ and ‘designers’ with respect to existing well established concepts, definitions and terminology. Here ‘with respect’ is used to mean ‘in a manner that does not require other more established terminology and concepts  to be redefined – particularly when they originate in other disciplines. The following definitions are used in this paper:

·        ‘Design’ - a noun referring to a specification for making a particular artefact or for undertaking a particular activity. A distinction is drawn here between a design and an artefact - the design is the basis for and precursor to the making of the artefact. In this sense, this distinguishes the outcomes of designing from the outputs of craft or art alone.

·        ‘Designing’ - non-routine human activity leading to the production of a design.

·        ‘Designer’ - someone who is, has been, or will be designing. Someone who creates designs

Other meanings of ‘design’ are avoided, especially the widespread and epistemologically problematic use of ‘design’ as an entity with agency, in, for example, ‘design seeks to change individuals’ perceptions’. There is little epistemological justification for these other uses of ‘design’ in the literature, and they appear to have emerged via a conversationally careless and epistemologically faulty path:

‘A designer is someone who “designs”’, therefore:

‘‘Design’ is something that a designer does’, therefore:

‘‘Design’ creates products’

This then leads to epistemologically unjustified/faulty phrases such as ‘this product needs more design’ or ‘the last few years have seen improvements to design’ - uses that treat ‘design’ as an object in itself with its own properties and agency. An alternative explanation is that this object-based definition of ‘design/designing’ may reflect a limitation in conceptual scope that comes from many designers’ having a primary focus on objects - also perhaps offering an explanation of why designers are criticised for not designing for people.

Designing is a human activity - not information content. They are epistemologically different classes of concepts. Designers use information, however, and this information must be appropriate to the domains in which the designing is undertaken. For example, designing crankshafts needs information pertinent to designing crankshafts. Designing corporate identities needs information about theories of business, financial data, strengths and weaknesses compared to competitors, organisational psychology, management theory, and all the other information that defines the essence of how an business organisation is functioning, might function, and how changes to corporate identity might influence these intrinsic potentials. This information is - information - not designing. Similarly, ‘collecting information’ is collecting information - not designing, and, ‘analysing information’ is analysing information - not designing.

The above train of argument points to differentiating between activities closely associated with designing and designing itself, for example, the activity of ‘drawing’ that results in engineering drawings is different from the parallel process of designing. This is not precluding that there are many symbiotic relationships between these activities. It is well understood that, for many designers, there is a very close relationship between their sketching/drawing and their designing. Similarly, it is possible for musical designers (composers) to compose by letting their fingers play music automatically. The ‘design’ (a musical score) is consequent to this, but, it remains that the designing occurs separately from the sound created by the playing and the playing. Mathematical designers (those designing new mathematical systems) use symbols, formulae and equations to help with their designing, and communicate their designs. These processes of symbol manipulation that mathematicians use in their designing are not themselves acts of designing - a difference acknowledged in mathematical education in the arguments for discovery-based mathematics rather than rote learning.

In many cases, associated activities are symbiotically very close to an individual’s designing activities. So close, from the perspective of many designers, that they are unwilling or unable to differentiate between them. The fact that some can make this differentiation, however, means that these activities cannot be viewed as identical to designing. The lack of differentiation by some designers simply suggests a lack of individual skill at reflective practice/ subjective contemplation in this area.

To argue that associated activities are ‘designing’ is problematic because:

·        It leads unhelpfully down the path that ‘all is designing’.

·        It requires a general acceptance of other disciplines that they are subsets of the ‘design discipline’.

·        It implies that literature from other disciplines that involve descriptions of these associated activities that are regarded by designers as ‘designing’ should be changed to make this explicit.

·        The concept of designing is then tied to descriptions of activities that are widely defined as distinct. This leads to logical difficulties and a general loss of conceptual and linguistic precision. For example, claiming that ‘sketching is designing’, ‘musical composition is designing’ and ‘engineering stress analysis is designing’ implies that ‘Sketching is musical composing is engineering design analysis’. Perhaps at some very high level of abstraction an argument might be made for this equivalence (phenomenologically and hermeneutically I suspect it would fail) but conflating the concepts removes the benefits gained by their existence and leads to each of them effectively defining nothing.

There is no need, nor is it helpful, to duplicate these concepts. The alternative, which is argued for in this paper, is to define the activity of designing as different from all those activities that occur in concert with it but are neither necessary nor sufficient for its occurrence. The above analyses point to a unique epistemological gap for the concept of designing as ‘non-routine human activity’ that is part (with other activities) of processes that lead to a design of an artefact. This gap and definition offers one of the few avenues for building epistemological coherent and non-conflatory theory about designing and designs.

In summary, designing is better described as non-routine human activity differentiated from the associated activities necessary to create designs in particular domains or disciplines, and different in essence from information or data. From this perspective, a designer is someone who is skilled at addressing non-routine issues - not, for example, an artist, engineer, or photographer,  but someone who may also use these domain skills to construct designs. From this perspective, design skills are essentially different from the skills required for associated activities such as drawing or calculating.

New Directions in Universities

Globalisation, new information systems and commercial imperatives impact in a variety of ways on the relationships between the universities and their stakeholder groups (Cunningham et al., 1998; Marginson, 1998) . Stakeholders in universities include:

·        Students

·        National Governments

·        Local Government

·        Members of disciplines, fields of study and practice, professional bodies.

·        Organisations making individual commercial arrangements with universities.

·        Institutional/commercial philanthropists

·        Other members of the world’s populace - mainly through the stakeholders above

Economic imperatives have resulted in universities adopting commercial models of interaction with their clients and stakeholders (Gallagher, 2000) . In other words, universities exchange products (or services packaged as products) in a financial environment. Many of these products are complex, drawing on knowledge from many disciplines and having effects across many areas of human endeavour. For example, an Executive Diploma program in e-Business is a product that impacts on and is shaped by the interests of all the above stakeholders, and its development spans many traditional disciplines. University operations  are not simply a matter of teaching transactions, they also include transactions in the areas of research (internal and external), consultancies, services to society, award processes, infrastructure building and management, human resources, planning, collaboration. Each of these transactions involves products, and all of them are the result of human designing.

Core aspects of university activities are strongly impacted by globalisation processes and advances in information technology (Borgman, 2000) . Traditionally, universities have been local storehouses of information based on printed documents, with local experts in information gathering and dissemination (academics). These characteristics were shaped by, on one hand, the physical restrictions associated with access to and management of libraries of physical documents, and, on the other hand, the requirement for face-to-face interactions between academics and others. Advances in information systems allow that the information previous held in physical documents can now be easily accessed remotely across global distances. At the same time, the need for face-to-face interactions is being rapidly eroded by world-wide communications systems. Both of these factors have enabled the globalisation of supply of university products, and at the same time reduced transaction costs - especially for larger organisations that can extract economies of scale from departments dedicated to making the most of new technologies. From another perspective, the effects of individual universities are extending in scope. The globalisation of education is resulting in universities supplying their complex products across national boundaries as a matter of course, and, in consequence, directly shaping the socio-techno-economic and cultural environments of other societies. The ways that university products shape the socio-techno-economic and cultural environments of societies are aspects of design processes, and, therefore, consciously or otherwise, universities and their staff are involved in the designing of human futures.

From a design research perspective, the above issues have several significant characteristics:

·        Universities’ transactions involve products that are designed.

·        These products are complex and multi-disciplinary.

·        The contextual environments for these products are complex and multi-disciplinary.

·        Universities are involved in the designing of societies.

Designing and Universities' Roles in Society

Earlier analyses, separating designing from associated activities and from information, offer insights into new roles for designers in the rapidly changing contexts of universities’ operations. The above situation is characterised by multi- and cross-disciplinary complexity and ongoing change. It reveals that a substantial amount of university operations involve designing– much of which lies outside the traditional design disciplines. Much of this scope for designing in universities is either undertaken by people with inappropriate design training (those trained in traditional design disciplines), no design training (their designing is hidden in other tasks), or the designing is not currently undertaken.

This last has commercial significance. It occurs in many ways, especially in the process of ‘industry buying research from universities’: where ‘research’ is directly concatenated with ‘payments from industry’. This concatenation is problematic because commercial organisations are not usually interested in buying any research. Their interest is limited to specific research undertaken in a particular way for particular purposes. In essence, commercial organisations wish to buy products (reports, information, and intellectual property), that, in universities, usually involve researching as part of their process of manufacture. The creation of these products depends on designing, but, in many cases, this designing is currently not explicitly undertaken. If it were undertaken explicitly, it would improve the alignment between university output and industry needs, but would require designers with skills not yet recognised in university-based design education

Taken together, the above discussion indicates that there are new roles for designers. These new roles, however, are not satisfied by existing forms of design education; they do not sit within existing design disciplines, and they require designers to draw on rapidly changing sets of associated skills and knowledge across a large number of disciplines. Differentiating designing from associated activities offers the basis for a model of design education in which designers acquire an education in designing independent of the skills and information specific to undertaking designing in particular areas. In essence, this path requires designers to be educated to address non-routine situations in whatever context.

New Directions in Designer Education

Educating designers to be able to address non-routine situations implies more than teaching creative thinking. Designing across disciplines also requires those skills and cognitive attributes that enable an individual to draw on the material developed in other disciplines at a professional level. For example, if the successful development of a design requires a designer to use social data then the designer must have the skills to identify the sorts of data that are likely to be required, why they are necessary and how they can be collected in a professionally satisfactory manner, the skills to understand and interpret data available from other sources, and an understanding of the limitations of the data - all set against a commercial context. The multi-disciplinary nature of designing requires designers to have this level of commercially-based professional skill and cognitive understanding across a wide variety of disciplines. In terms of education, a heterogenous ‘trading zone’ of skills, knowledge and information (Gregory, 1999) .

At first glance, this seems a tall order. Yet, the single feature that characterises university education is in educating individuals in higher-order mental models tied to symbolic representations of knowledge that codify the past so that it can be utilised in the accurate modelling of future scenarios - exactly what is needed by designers wishing to draw on the findings of a wide variety of fields in a professional manner.


The paper proposes the idea of designing as addressing non-routine situations, and separates ‘designing’ from the other associated practices with which it has been traditionally and, in epistemological terms, unhelpfully, conflated. This approach offers the basis for a model of design education that educates individuals in designing per se., and enables the scope of design education to be extended into all those areas in which designing, in the widest sense, occurs.

Universities’ operations are imbued with designing. This designing is complex, multi-disciplinary and undertaken within a rapidly changing context. Traditional modes of design education do not educate designers to work well in this sort of situation. Separating ‘designing’ from the skills and information that are associated with particular contexts is helpful in this situation because it offers a basis for designers to acquire skills and knowledge as needed. It requires, however, that designers are educated with all the necessary higher-level theoretical and cognitive models that enable them to professionally utilise the research methodologies, theories and findings of a wide range of disciplines.


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