On reflection: Rethinking Masters Design Education

Towards an Expanded Practice

Illustration by Koby Barhad

Last week (19.02.19) our first cohort of the MA Design Expanded Practice graduated — congratulations!!! Back in December, when they presented their work, I was blown away by their approach and energy. It’s especially exciting and rewarding to see that we’re on a new trajectory for post-graduate design education. I started writing this post, back in October, but it’s been put on the backburner several times… so excuse the temporal shifts. I decided to publish it, as we see our first graduates go into the world. I think it’s fitting to reflect on the journey the department has taken to get them to this point.

Below, I try to capture and reflect upon my experience of being the Head of Design at Goldsmiths over the last three years (ending in Sept 2018). My hope is that these reflections will be a form of catharsis; aimed to exorcise the demons of managerialism (only joking!). I think it’ll help me understand what I did and learnt, whilst hopefully sharing with a broader community who are interested in design and education. My aim is to give context, advice (although I’m not sure I have any) and narrative to the changes that the faculty of the department worked incredibly hard to achieve. I also think it’s good to document and expose the working dynamics of ‘change’ — which is something normally hidden, behind the veil of institutional PR.

This post will be a mix of thoughts about design, educational politics and a thread of how to build, maintain and care for communities of practice. It centres around something I’m really proud of; our new MA Design Expanded Practice.

A little context

When I took over the department we had eight interrelated, but conceptually conflicting Masters programmes. These programmes had evolved over the history of the department and reflected certain institutional and disciplinary histories. Each of the programmes started due to different politics, intentions, personal career goals, intellectual trajectories and market ‘intelligence’. With this came different ideas and futures for design.

Within the programmes there were some excellent practices (in terms of teaching and content); they recruited some brilliant students; and the ‘portfolio’ was, to some extent, economically sustainable (but not predictably so). However, there was still something that wasn’t working. The portfolio had systemic and cultural problems, as a department we decided it was time for a radical re-haul. In analysing our offer, it became obvious that some of the issues were due to deep structural problems. Our PG structure failed to allow for the kind of culture and growth that we’d created on our BA Design (more on this below).

So much has changed since the department began in the early 1990s. Although the founding principles are still the same, the social, technological, environmental, political and economic context had changed beyond recognition. The role and positions that designers occupy within organisations and businesses has also changed dramatically. This meant we needed to ensure that the education we offered not only matched the changing demands of design, but more importantly, predicted a change in the discipline to allow our graduates to ‘future proof’ their degrees.

Having made the bold decision to start from scratch, I was hyper-aware that we needed to retain the good practices that had evolved over years of hard work. However, we also needed to push and evolve a deeply experimental design culture in the face of an ever-more conservative sector.

Back in 2015, it was evident that we were experiencing a drastic change throughout higher education; in particular, in postgraduate design education. This was triggered by a change in funding structure; the increase in undergraduate fees dramatically affected the profile of postgraduate student recruitment. Programmes increasingly began to cater for the international ‘market’, but more importantly, the financial pressures placed on students and the growing rhetoric from a conservative government, made Universities risk adverse. It became more difficult to support alternative educational models when such emphasis is placed on concepts of ‘employability’ and ‘value for money’. Luckily, Goldsmiths management still had faith that the design department had the ability to mix the radical with the practical.

Tyranny of the League Table

In order to maintain (or improve) Global league table positions, University management teams have become strongly focussed on linking degree programmes to jobs, whilst becoming obsessed with the metrics generated around retention, ‘student experience’ and ‘value added’. The Government, since the introduction of larger fees, have banged the drum of employability, ‘teaching excellence’ and ‘value for money’. Universities are now the training ground for a productive, obedient workforce. However, we know that creating a truly transformational educational experience is far more complicated and nuanced than the tools that the government employs to capture their value.

I’ve always been very clear that university education shouldn’t just be ‘learning for learning sake’, but should focus on increasing the agency and choices of a person. It’s a transformational, political act that aims to empower people to make decisions about what they can do with their lives. However, this is far from what’s become known as ‘employability’, which is currently a weak, one-dimensional, short-term assessment of one’s economic value.

Educating and developing designers to have impact and value in their chosen professional networks is at the heart of design. In order to achieve some form of change in the world, designers always need to engage in a range of different systems of production, however, to limit an education to the most obvious and conservative model of ‘industry’ is foolish in the extreme.

What this meant to our department, having built a track record of maintaining experimentation whilst remaining at the top of the employability tables, was that we were in a position to push our discipline forward whilst many of our competitors retreated into models of instrumental ‘innovation’ (post-it notes to destroy the soul).

MA Design Expanded Practice

In order to re-design the programme(s), we started a long (and sometimes painful) journey; facilitated through a series of workshops. The workshops aimed to take stock of; the sector (what the competition was doing), our discipline (where we thought design was now and where we thought it was going), staff research (what we wanted to investigate and teach) and new structures (how could we design a course/module structure to align delivery methods with our ambitions).

The first issue we had to address was one of identity. We had to clarify our philosophy and nomenclature. The department had clearly evolved a culture and approach that wasn’t widely shared across the sector. We are the only department in the UK to offer a single trans-disciplinary / post-disciplinary / or ‘post-industrial’ undergraduate degree. However, when it came to our Masters programmes, there was no clear conceptual model that united them; they moved between approach (Critical Practice), specialism (Interaction Design, Fashion), temporality (Design Futures) and context (Design and Environment). This made explaining our portfolio difficult — at open days it was hard to give a clear narrative to what we did, which in turn, made it difficult for applicants to know which of our programmes to apply for.

When it comes to Masters programmes, there is an idea that I wanted to challenge. In most universities the further you travel, the narrower, or more specialist you become. At some point, in your doctorate, you become ‘an expert’. The model of evermore fragmented forms of specialisms works for some disciplines, but I don’t believe it works for design in the 21st Century. The idea of ‘higher’ specialism; where you’ll leave university with laser focus on what you’ll be doing in your career and what you offer an employer, feels anachronistic to our current global conditions. Ideas of being ‘agile’ or ‘adaptive’ are lost in the halls of academia.

We’d spent nearly two decades developing a different type of design education that moved away from the traditional specialisms at an undergraduate level. However, there was an anxiety about shifting this to postgraduate. There was a belief, shared amongst many, that a ‘general design education’ (as our BA Design is sometimes incorrectlycharacterised) would need to adhere to specialist delineations when a student reached postgraduate level. Cries of ‘they need to have a title everyone understands’ echoed in many a meeting.

We knew that PG education had to be different to UG. There are pretty clear guidelines by the QAA to how the levels are meant to differ. One of the key principles that we worked towards, was that designers, as they mature and gain experience, focus on a certain ‘type’ of work. Work that is focussed around certain ‘problems’, ‘sectors’, ‘practices’ or ‘themes’. These focuses evolve as do the tools they adopt in order to facilitate change. We wanted to create an education that would facilitate the identification of the problem/sector/practice/theme whilst helping the student to develop the skills needed to continuously evolve.

What we ended up focusing on was trying to define areas of social life, or potential grand challenges, that could act as ways to build discourses and in-depth understanding without trying to limit the tools and materials that our prospective students wished to utilise as designers. These ‘lenses’ could be continuously updated and responsive to the challenges we face and the shifts in the discipline and employment market.

Through the discussions we managed to boil it down to the following; we wanted to offer students a space to focus; a space where they could experiment and push the boundaries of their, already established, practices; engage with a group of peers, from diverse backgrounds, who they could learn from and see their interests intersect with different perspectives; build a community that would support the collective imagining of different disciplinary possibilities; define a theme that could bring their ideas into focus and productivity; facilitate a shared interest, ethos and in-depth engagement to enable a different trajectory for their lives after University; the support of a production of a body of work that could represent their approach, process, skills and philosophy in design.

We wanted to build a new form of post-disciplinary practice that utilised some deep material skills (from their UG degrees and professional practices) and theoretical skills (from a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds), but evolving them through team work and collaboration. We didn’t want to reduce design to a set of methods or ‘design thinking’ processes, we wanted to give students the space to develop and evolve a truly expanded practice.

As mentioned earlier, the common academic structure — shared across Europe through the Bologna declaration — that of the “European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)”– is a system that is meant to put students at the heart of their own education; enabling choice, agency and control. But we had a problem; this level of choice and selection, the pic n’mix approach to curriculum design, wasn’t delivering the kind of work that we aspired for our students to produce or give them the holistic learning experience we wished to offer.

Often within higher education, academics are fantastic at critiquing the systems and structures that limit and control our lives, but they’re surprisingly resistant to reimagining their own institutional infrastructures. This means many programmes are trying to promote radical and progressive ideas, but are caught in systems and structures that stop any real transformation from occurring.

Although our hands were tied and we couldn’t escape the national and European frameworks, we could find ways to bend the systems to our will. As with all designed systems, there are always ways to manipulate, mediate and moderate processes and rules to achieve desired outcomes.

This meant we had to challenge some of the ideas of ‘choice’ and ‘selection’, but we also had to question some of the more fundamentals around ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘student centredness’. We built freedom through the practice of the pedagogy and the content of the courses, not in the structures of the programme. We give students enormous freedom in terms of their work, their autonomy to experiment, but we gave little choice in term of programme personalisation.

At this point, it’s worth noting that any European wide standardisation process would fit certain disciplines and modes of knowledge production better than others. I still feel that the whole structure doesn’t fully support the creative disciplines, I hazard a guess that arts educators weren’t part of the process that drew up the standards infrastructure.

What we managed to do was build a system that allowed for concentrated engagement through building a space for risk. We consolidated credits, in some way upping the value and risk of failing a course, but we built a supportive mechanism that meant that each student would understand their development and learning throughout the programme. It would give space for different paces in learning and open up a space to experiment and fail without risking their degree. We hope it’ll encourages ambition, risk and deep engagement in the social and material realities of design.

So often in education (as well as politics and many institutional organisations), it’s often the cultural and structural conditions the allow space for new ideas to occur. By changing the structure, you change the results. A deep knowledge of the educational and bureaucratic systems that govern our higher education is essential to know how to have the greatest and most effective impact on the education of our students.

Rethinking the research / teaching relationship
In my application for the job of Head of Design, I stated:

I believe there is an opportunity in the re-conceptualisation of the relationship between teaching and research. The personal and institutional delineation between the two needs rethinking, I have begun to understand my teaching and research practice as one in the same thing; a thorough analysis and development of the role and potential of design in today’s society. How we involve students in collaborative inquiry has the potential to transform both staff research and student learning. (HOD application, 2015)

It was clear to me at the time that understanding the relationship between the two activities was essential to direct the future role of the university. However, in order to do this, I knew that we’d need to re-think the value system that our current model of higher education is based on, and if we’re going to do that, it needs to be robust enough to withstand the demands of a networked world.

Some of you, will have a very clear ideas or mental models about the relationship between teaching and research. It’s one of the basic building blocks of Higher Education. But, as we live in an ever more metrics-based system, at a point in history where information and knowledge are shared in completely different ways, I think we (particularly in Art & Design education) have failed to deeply look at the dynamics of the change. This, I suspect, means that we’ve built our house on shaky ground. The foundations of knowledge production are shifting and universities are old, immovable architectures, that can crumble when the earth underneath them shift.

What we tried to do with our MA Design Expanded Practice is put in place an infrastructure to enable us to experiment with different ways to hybridise teaching and research practices, whilst trying to understand how experimental design is a different form of knowledge production.

Here are a few of the reasons why Art and Design differ from more traditional disciplines and some of the founding principles of the MA DEP:

In pursuit of originality

Within most disciplines, it is acknowledged that ‘newness’ or ‘originality’ happens late on in a student’s life. As a student ‘progresses’ through the qualifications offered by universities, the impact on their discipline and the originality of their work increases. Doctoral candidates are asked to clearly declare their individual contribution to ‘the field’. They must articulate the ‘new knowledge’ that they have produced.

I can see and accept this in some disciplines, for example I don’t believe that it’s likely that a first year undergraduate medical student is going to advance our understanding of the body and the clinical ways to engage it (healing & care). I understand that undergraduate physics students aren’t going to discover the Higgs boson. But in art and design, it’s different… at least different enough for us to reconsider how we structure and value work in relationship to the advancement of our discipline.

There is an expectation (certainly at Goldsmiths) that our students are practitioners producing work that pushes the boundaries — at least we ask them to produce original work (if originality really exists). These expectations are tough. It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t evolve as students move through programmes, but the linearity of ‘knowledge production’ and ‘originality’ is disrupted.

Where is the field: a post-disciplinary investigation?

With an expanded understanding of design, where staff engage in a diverse set of practices, it’s difficult to clearly define ‘the field’. Design research communities have suffered with this for decades. The ability to agree on the limitations, or even the definition, of design as a subject of anxiety for many design academics.

As design turned towards a more social, political and technological role in the world the ‘body of knowledge’ needed to be taught expanded exponentially. This meant, that to support a truly creative and experimental culture, you need to find a central structure or conceit. To do this with our MA, we created a flexible structure to allow research thematics to emerge through the focus and attention of our staff. The ‘transfocality’ module creates a space where emergent issues in design are brought into the curriculum through a translation of research trajectories into curriculum content (the briefs).

At Goldsmiths we place an emphasis on ‘real world’ implementation of our ideas; not in a manner that expects students to see their ideas realised in production, but through a demand for a deep engagement in people, communities and institutions in order to facilitate social discourse and cultural imagination. We hope that our students begin to acquire the skills necessary to start to understand how their ideas move into cultural production, causing ripples of ‘affective change’.

Skills for the 21stCentury

In the year that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, I think it’s timely for us to articulate a different basis for our pedagogy. Although the materials, aesthetics and philosophy of the modernists still have deep relevance to a world, over-saturated by mass consumption, design now has access to more diverse range of materials, processes, practices and people to draw and learn from. Shifting our understanding of design from the planning of our material world, towards a more political, environmental and relational act is key to enable us to equip our students with the appropriate skills for the 21st Century.

At the core of our re-design, was the tricky balance between supporting rich material and aesthetic skills/practices, with boarder critical and creative processes/thinking. We hope our students balance the two, working in parallel or in oscillation between a material and conceptual practice. However, this false distinction between different forms of knowledge — the made and the thought, the hand and the mind, the conceptual and material — doesn’t quite fit into how design often works. It’s the messy hybridised form of both that allows for the discovery of something new. However, in terms of pedagogy, developing and pushing the conceptual and critical skills of a designer, especially in the context of the complexity and difficulty of the modern world, with all of its seemingly intractable problems, can often cause immobilisation or cessation.

The late 90’s and early 00’s saw the rise and celebration of the lone (often white, cis, male) genius. The inherently collaborative nature of design was down played to support the egos of the few. In my mind this slowed the development of the discipline to an almost self-destructive halt. Although millennials are often accused of self-centredness and self-obsession, I have found them far more open to ideas of collectivity and collaboration. Growing up with the internet, has meant their understanding of group working practices (exemplified by meme culture) is distinctly different. Shifting design education to enable student designers to learn how to produce, communicate, and manage creative processes in the context of team work, means a different focus for design educators; assessment practices, soft ‘management’ skills, delegation and conflict management all become key to working in a complex post-digital world.

Collectivity, the commons and community

At Goldsmiths, across our BA and MA, we try to create and ensure there’s an open, healthy, friendly and safe community. I feel passionately that this is one of the key ways to facilitate an excellent learning environment; a way to create the conditions for experimental action. It’s almost impossible to creatively thrive and learn if you don’t trust those around you, to engage in a ‘studio culture’ demands that students support and work together. In our UG programme, students spend three years getting to know staff and their peers; it takes time to settle into an environment, to make it your creative home. This has always been a major difficulty with our 12 months Masters programmes. It took students time to feel at home, then they were off — or at least in the throes of panic, working out the next steps in their career.

We made the bold decision to extend our programme to 15 months. Within college management (both academic and administration), this took some convincing. There was a fear that there wouldn’t be a ‘market’ for a 15 months MA, when they could go to a competitor and gain a masters in a shorter period. However, we knew they were wrong. Studying design over a longer period would result in some key benefits, student would have time to settle, build a community and shift their mindset away from the specialist delineations of their past. It would give space to attune their minds and ears to the voices of others; allowing their practices to be deconstructed, reconstructed and hopefully expanded.

The other major benefit from a 15-month programme was the need to create a cultural memory. A residual trajectory in design, passed between cohorts. Ideas, activities and practices could be explored and built upon over a number of years… hopefully decades of collective and collaborative learning. Ultimately, this our goal; bringing together a multiplicity of voices to explore new avenues for design — a culture, carefully crafted and generously maintained, in order to offer new futures of our discipline.