Building a New Foundation: Adapting Bauhaus Pedagogy for the Future of Design
By M. Todd Cooke (MDes + MBA 2020) and Jason Romano (MDes 2020)
I. What is design?
The Institute of Design, colloquially known as “ID,” is a child of the Bauhaus: its rebellious teenager. As the second-generation instantiation of the German art school, with the most direct lineage, ID continues to wrestle with its Bauhaus heritage.
The original Bauhaus has been both lionized and criticized for its outsized and normative influence on the discipline called design. To the dismay of architect Dong-Ping Wong, “The Bauhaus’s role in commodifying design has really helped pigeonhole what most people understand “design” to be,” with Jony Ive’s universal and unobtrusive iPhone aesthetic becoming its apotheosis.
On its surface, the Institute of Design has rebelled against this notion, attracting students who engage design with an aim to solve the proverbial “wicked” problems of the world today.
Unlike others who primarily engage the Bauhaus as a movement, a style, or a philosophy, the Institute of Design (ID) probes its legacy as an academic institution. The importance of this perspective is emphasized by Barry Bergdoll, curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, who reminds those willing to listen that “the Bauhaus was a school. It wasn’t a movement. It wasn’t a style. It was a school.”
In spite of being, perhaps, the only cultural institution privileged with this unique perspective of the Bauhaus, ID has been reluctant to succumb to nostalgia as it tries to chart a path to the future. Yet as the centennial of the most famous European art school dawns upon us, ID has been forced to look back and engage its legacy.
Engaging the scholastic legacy of the Bauhaus is no easy task; teachers and administrators alike must weigh the pros and cons of which traditions to maintain and which to leave behind in the wake of the digital era. Against the backdrop of what’s been called the third industrial revolution, the dilemma faced by modern pedagogues is similar to that of the original Bauhaus, who saw mechanization supplanting the work of the craftsman and the engineer taking the place of the artist in forging the future.
Digitization is the new industrialization and, given the new landscape, Denis Weil, dean of the Institute of Design, sees the pendulum of design swinging back toward experimentation. Since he came on board two years ago, Weil has challenged the faculty to reconsider the existing course structure towards that end.
“Whenever you have new technology,” Weil explains, “you need to experiment to figure out what the best way forward is.” If Bauhaus explored novel materials, such as steel and glass, “data is one of our new materials,” Weil says.
In carrying forward the pedagogy of the Bauhaus into the modern age, Weil began with Foundation, the preliminary course of fundamentals training on topics ranging from form — what the German Bauhaus termed gestalt — to color, visual hierarchy, nature studies, and optics. As recounted by the Bauhaus Archive:
At the start of their studies, they received a year of basic training in the so-called preliminary course, in which they were able to experiment with colour, shape and materials with no specific goals. Depending on their individual suitability, this was followed by practical work in the workshops and accompanying disciplines. The students entered the workshops as ‘apprentices’ and sat for their ‘apprenticeship’ exams within a given time period.
Experimentation was encouraged as a means of making sense of change. The Bauhaus needed to engage technologies and materials for which society lacked both a vocabulary and a methodology. On that front, little has changed today. According to Weil, it has been through Foundation that ID has primarily engaged its Bauhaus legacy, having remained a part of the school’s pedagogical approach for the entirety of its 80-year existence. However, Weil — himself a product of the Foundation program — has moved Foundation from a peripheral position to one of centrality, a position formerly occupied by Gropius’ “building,” bau in German [Figure 1 & Figure 2]. At ID, Foundation is the hub of the new wheel.
This represents an important decision in realizing the Bauhaus’s vision of orienting design toward society and the common good. ID’s new curricular subsections include concentrations like insight development, human advocacy, prototyping, critique & evaluation, systems thinking, and leadership & mediation [Figure 2], all of which radiate outward, not inward, toward the world at large. Rather than promising technical mastery, these courses are designed to cultivate the skill sets required to engage multiple stakeholders.
At the turn of the century, Bauhaus designers primarily concerned themselves with domestic space, an environment over which they could exert significant control. The school no longer aspires to that narrow view. In today’s hyper-connected society, designers have more impact as collaborators than as sole decision-makers. In the generative design workshop, led by ID studio instructor Zach Pino, many design ‘decisions’ are arrived at through computational mediation — algorithms, sensors, and code — while associate professor Carlos Teixeira’s service systems workshop engages community members in developing solutions to industrial brownfield sites.
The shift from ‘designer as decision maker’ to ‘designer as facilitator’ arguably began with Jay Doblin. Doblin, who needs little in the way of introduction in the halls of ID, served as director during the school’s most tumultuous period and set ID on the course it continues today. Endeavoring to solve systemic problems in the private and social space, Doblin took little in the way of pedagogical inspiration from his predecessor, the school’s Bauhaus founder László Moholy-Nagy, by shifting the focus toward professional practice.
Although Doblin himself was a product designer, today the school can, at times, appear perplexingly bereft of material. At first appraisal, contrasting the image of the excessively generative Bauhaus with the bare, all-white interior of ID’s new Kaplan Institute can come as a shock.
“The Bauhaus made stuff,” studio professor Martin Thaler, who heads the school’s product design curriculum, explains. “And for a long time the arc of the Institute of Design was away from making anything. That was my role, to keep that part of the institution alive.” A possible rationale for the abrupt shift is that many of today’s systemic problems stem from a surplus rather than a dearth of consumer goods.
“We can make anything,” adds Jeff Mau, who teaches an introductory survey course on design history and theory. “So the question now is what do we make?”
Yet Mau agrees with Thaler — in spite of the ethical shortcomings of turn-of-the-century production practices, material exploration rises to significant value in the digital age.
If there’s one common methodology that carries the Bauhaus legacy through to the present day, it’s the diagram. According to civic architect Elizabeth Timme, “as the Bauhaus used it, [the diagram] was a tool to investigate something and also was a way to engage a larger audience about design.” If the Bauhaus birthed the diagram as a communication tool, then Doblin turned it into a discipline entirely unto itself. Doblin sought to develop a methodology through which it was possible “to marry design processes to design problems.” The diagram was his solution, engaging simultaneously the intermediate flow of information and its aggregate output. To invoke Walter Gropius’ language, the diagram became a “new way of seeing and understanding the composite character” of the whole.
If diagrams and methodologies are a means to reframe problems, analyze information, and synthesize solutions, they can still be misused or used unnecessarily to signal ‘rigorous design.’ This is a common critique of the ‘design thinking’ principles pioneered at ID and brought into mainstream business lexicon by IDEO. A true design process, however, must practice self-critique and seek new methods when necessary. Clinical professor Tomoko Ichikawa, who teaches communication and information design in the tradition of Doblin, recalls an experience watching students incorrectly apply the 5E framework, a consumer journey map, to a social innovation situation:
Designers are problem solvers. So if you get to a place where the methods that you’re using are not going to be applicable, what do you do? You have to modify the method. We have to come up with our own. And I think if you get too comfortable relying on frameworks and methods, that’s a problem.
The dissolution of the Bauhaus in 1933 threw many of its failings into sharp relief, one of which was its failure to encourage and support a diversity of voices and ideas. “The idea of wanting to bring the disciplines together was great,” states contemporary designer Marlene Barnett, “but then the idea of bringing all the voices and people together didn’t happen.” Her sentiments are corroborated by historical record. The Bauhaus masters were almost all male, and women were restricted to studying traditional handicrafts, namely weaving. While they opposed the Nazis, the school was similarly plagued by anti-semitism.
This is where Dale Fahnstrom (director of ID, 1982–1986) and Patrick Whitney (dean, 1987–2016), took a bold step in correcting and realizing the Bauhaus’s original vision. If the Bauhaus engendered a close-minded groupthink in its pursuit of aesthetic “mastery,” Whitney, in particular, attempted to open the school to a plurality of perspectives. He closed the school’s undergraduate department in the early 1990s. This made ID the only graduate-only design school in the US and shifted the balance of its student body to accommodate 50 percent non-designers as well as 50 percent international students. According to Ichikawa, “the idea [was] that you can bring in multiple perspectives to have a much broader conversation around design and design solutions. As [Patrick] became the dean, he had very specific metrics in terms of what kind of community he wanted.”
Another turning point for ID is currently underway as the curriculum prepares to re-embrace experimentation, and strengthen connections to current and emerging design practices. ID has returned to IIT’s Mies campus after 22 years in downtown Chicago, softening its image as an industry-focused professional school and hoping to stimulate engagement with other disciplines at the university. The notion of legacy arises again, as the school considers welcoming new voices from outside its immediate sphere of influence, former ID grads and its professional corollary, Doblin-Deloitte (the innovation consulting firm founded by the school’s former dean).
V. The Future
The strength of a design education undoubtedly lies in doing. For Matt Mayfield, ID’s associate dean, the emphasis on making remains core to the DNA of the school: “[ID’s curriculum] follows a constructivist pedagogy, you learn by doing.” Walter Gropius instilled this philosophy in 1919, calling for a dissolution of the distinction between artisan and artist: “The ultimate goal of all art is building! Architects, painters and sculptors must learn a new way of seeing and understanding the composite character of the building, both as a totality and in terms of its parts.”
In 2019, 100 years since the founding of the small German arts school in Weimar, the steam engine has been replaced by Moore’s Law, and hyper-customization is seen as the modern-day foible to the malaise brought on by mass production. Where the Bauhaus sought harmony between the artist and the craftsman, today we seek harmony between data and the individual.
The technological competency of the engineer, which once infringed on the domain of the artist, has been replaced by the Silicon Valley coder, whose decisions can impact millions in distant parts of the world. ‘Design thinking,’ at once maligned and misunderstood, has been seized on with unbridled enthusiasm from the corporate and consulting world, just as titans of American industry once chomped at the bit to produce Bauhaus-styled goods. But as a pedagogical institution, caught between centuries, ID’s ultimate goal, hopefully, perhaps foolishly, remains the same as when Laszlo Moholy-Nagy founded the school in 1937: forging a “New Vision,” a new way of seeing.
In 2019, we at Illinois Tech celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, together with institutions worldwide. In the spirit of this celebration and IIT Institute of Design’s (ID’s) heritage as the New Bauhaus, student group mediaID produced a Bauhaus newsletter. A collection written, photographed, designed, and curated by students at ID and Illinois Tech, in the newsletter students reflect on the influence of the Bauhaus, examining its relevance and impact today while also looking toward the future.
This project was sponsored by Chicago’s Goethe-Institut. ID students also collaborated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where students created a companion newsletter.