Paradigm shift in Design Education

Everyone who has known me for more than, let’s say one hour, probably have heard me talk about both Design and Education. I can’t help it — those are my professional passions, and I have dedicated about 15 years of my life to the practice of those topics.

I have always dealt and work with them both, discussed with colleges and family, but wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started to write, mostly for scientific conferences. This article is a shorter, more informal, version of a paper that I presented at a conference in 2018 and I believe that it shares some of my views on and how to improve the training of future Designers.


A quick overview

There is now a vast discussion over how education, in general, must evolve . The world and its social and economic dynamics have changed, bringing a new level of complexity with it. Given the cyclical dynamic of societies, it is crucial to rethink the educational practices for design to better respond to a new social structure and its challenges.

Along with some academic realities comes an inability to adapt quickly, which raises the question whether it is the ideal environment for creative people.

“Teaching is still very out of date, 50 years out of date” (Hunter as cited in Furniss, 2015, p. 31).

This outdated format also shows it at Design Higher Education, which in some cases has changed little since its formal establishment. The school has become a social inadequate institution. Design education history shows a tendency to replicate a model designed at the beginning of the twentieth century without critical thinking, adequacy of local issues, and incapable to evolve over time.

The design sector has drifted apart from the limited skills taught by the design schools. Having to deal with professionals that come from clearly outdated classrooms, the industry started to take the matter into action, to make available the designer that is needed for today’s market.

“Institutions are not producing the creative talent that is required, and is taking the situation into its own hands. It is recruiting from abroad and creating independent schools” (Furniss, 2015, p. 30).

Paradigm change in design

Design critics highlight the need for urgent change. Many authors point to the crucial skills of a designer that must be involved not in creating for today’s world, but in assuming a position of helping to design the world in which we will all live tomorrow.

In order to understand that, we must acknowledge that we are under a paradigm shift as stated by Stebbing (2015, p. 24)

In the old paradigm design was characterized by: contributing to and promoting consumerism, obsolescence (Packard, 1967), commerce, wealth and waste; was environmentally blind; and a product’s life was linear. If resources were considered at all they were perceived of as being limitless along with economic growth. Meanwhile, in the new paradigm, designers aspire to design for ‘quality of being’ rather than ‘quantity of having’ and with achieving a sustainable consumerism. This entails a circular use of finite resources due to environmental awareness and the aim of securing a sustainable future. I posit that this total contradiction between the old and the new design paradigms is the fundamental ‘anomaly’ which defines the paradigm shift in design activity.

Design education as a gateway for change

Under this perspective of change, education must play a big role by understanding that “many new educational priorities must emerge: ecoliteracy [sic], moral education, systems thinking, and critical thinking, to name a few” (Assadourian, 2017, p. 30).

Training someone to be a designer implies providing students with tools and strategies to be able to question the current status quo, increasing their skills in critical thinking, and developing design proposals for a better world. Today, designers already work on organizational structure and social problems, on interaction, processes, services, and human experiences. Many problems involve complex social and political issues.

Education for designers (like nearly all education) is based on learning skills, nourishing talents, understanding the concepts and theories that inform the field, and, finally, acquiring a philosophy. It is unfortunate that our design schools proceed from wrong assumptions. The skills we teach are too often related to processes and working methods of an age that has ended. The philosophy is an equal mixture of self-indulgent and self-expressive bohemian individualism and a materialism transmitting this biased information is more than half a century out of date. (Papanek, 1984, p. 285)

Design schools must bring to life professionals that are aware of its social role and impact, contribute to solutions for complex problems, and are powerful agents in the transition towards sustainability and social change. They cannot continuously follow the current path, training a large number of future professionals with the same market indication and mindset .

New skills for a new designer

There is a gap between what is being taught in the design schools and the needs of today’s market. Design courses tend to focus on technical disciplines, ignoring fundamental aspects of our social dynamics that need to be (re)inserted into the academic curriculum.

Taking a closer look at the creative sector, it is clear that the market has evolved and can give some answers on the needed skills for a more complete designer who might be capable of adapting in a more complex and dynamic market compared to decades ago. The following image tries to represent graphically some the needed skills of this new designer which should add to all the others already embraced by the academia.

New skills for the contemporary designer

Social-political awareness

One of the outcomes of complexity we see nowadays and that must to be understood by this new designer, is the non-conformity of today’s world situation by the creative class. The massive crisis that took over the world in the last decade, affecting areas such as economy, politics and society, besides the security issues and tech revolution which brought into action — powered by the social and digital networks — an activist posture towards those matters, by many designers and design studios who consider themselves an important part of the change.

Designers are becoming increasingly engaged with social, environmental and political agendas. Some see themselves as social scientists, anthropologists, or community activists. […] There has been a reactionary move from corporate to anti-corporate and profit is no longer the main driver. (Furniss, 2015, p. 13)

Environmental awareness

The mindset for nowadays project development was established during the first industrial revolution where the design goals were limited to aim for the generation of profit, and as a consequence tended to be as practical as possible.

“Many industrialists, designers, and engineers did not see their design as part of a larger system, outside of an economic one. But they did share some general assumptions about the world. (McDonough & Braungart, 2002, p. 24)

It is safe to say that the training of a new designer, a more critical one and aware of his project decisions, is required. It means that designers still need to produce for the industry and service sectors but knowing the impacts of each and every decision that is made during the course of the project.

Designers need to take into consideration materials and combinations of materials which not only are longer lasting products, but also that can be reused many times. This logic may be obvious for industrial designers, but it is necessary in many areas of design, like graphic, service, fashion, interior and even architecture.

Projecting purely with a aesthetic mindset places design in the end of the process, giving little or none power to interfere in a more strategic way, which generates a shallow creative attitude. With this, comes a huge consequence to the field: Design is being devalued.

Articulation, macro vision and co-creation skills

Going against the super specialized training of today’s design schools, the world’s current scene requires a designer focused on “how to do it”, instead of “what to do”. Understanding the process and being capable of connecting to the right people and specialists that will help overcome a problem. This set of skills reinforces the co-creative ability necessary for a designer.

A new attitude in Design

“design processes have been re-invented” (Furniss, 2015, p. 13).

The evolution of the design process brought a significant change to the creative process and methodology. The reissue of the original model — totally put aside by the “cosmetic design” — which gains space again upon the complex needs of the world, placing, once again the human being as the focus of the workplace dynamics and the solutions for products and services. The Bauhaus school was founded by Walter Gropius, and he dreamed with the possibility of creating a new creative class, capable of designing relevant things, adaptable, easy to use, and, why not, beautiful.

Marketing, over the time, took the designer from a position of thinker, creative and innovator, to activities merely visual and aesthetics, generating little impact in the world and on people. But, as has been already stated, the reality has changed and the focus on Human Centered Design (HCD) has increased as an important project goal. All this indicates yet another area to be incorporated to the design skills which is the co-creative process in order to come up with more relevant outcomes for projects.

The return of the design essence. Adapted from (Alt & Pinheiro, 2011)

This way of facing problems became worldwide known as Design Thinking and today is claimed by many design studios as being their approach to problem solving. One of the bright sides of Design Thinking is its HCD method.

Design Thinking is about people […]. It’s about understanding and focusing on the meaning of things for them, and designing better with this meaning in mind. It’s about addressing wicked problems through the lens of those who face these issues on a daily basis. (Alt & Pinheiro, 2011, p. 41)

A Way out to design education: Project-based learning.

By nature, design is an activity that works with projects, some more complex than others. At the universities this dynamic is no different. Most of the disciplines work with projects developed by the students, but education for the real world is short in two important aspects.

First, the majority design courses today are based on a pedagogical model which has been outdated for decades, defined by disciplines that do not communicate to each other. Breaking the learning process into modules of disciplines ignores the multidisciplinary characteristic of design. Crossing disciplines is now a necessity.

Projects are increasingly issues-led rather than solutions-led and designers need to be more fluid in order to respond. (Furniss, 2015, p. 14)

This not only shows the need of redesigning the academic approach, but also leads to a second issue with the way that projects are handled in higher education. The project proposals, presented as design briefs and handed out by the teachers, are usually shaped as fictional projects that tackle no real problem.

Taking both issues into account and adding what has been pointed out as new skills for the twentieth-first century designer, it is clear that the educational system needs to redesign its instructional practices. In that sense, a method seems to be adequate to provide the necessary approach to overcome those problems and guide the design schools back on track: The Project-Based Learning methodology (PBL).

PBL is a teaching method which is innovative and exciting, in which students select many of their tasks aspects and are motivated by real problems, that in many cases can and will, contribute to their community. (Bender, 2014, p. 15)

This kind of contribution is fundamental, especially for designers, but also for the university. It has become a necessity to discuss design as a tool for social impact and not only as a consumption driver. Besides bringing social outcomes, real projects result in high levels of engagement and performance by the students.

In that sense, Design courses might be yet the perfect environment to include real projects that generate social impact and a place where the capital return is not pursued in a project .That also contributes to the training of a better designer, more aware of the impacts of his decision in society, which has already been pointed as an important skill for today’s professionals, which are social-political activists.

The following three criteria summarize the aspects of PBL, pointing to a fundamental difference to the types of projects usually developed in the design schools and giving some direction and hope for change.

1- A curriculum based around the problems and empathizing knowledge and cognitive skills.

2- A student centered learning environment, small groups, and active learning with teachers acting as facilitators.

3- Project results, focusing on developing students’ skills, motivation and permanent passion for learning.

Taking the item two into further analysis, which points towards changes in both the role of the teacher, and the need to redesign the learning environment in order to fit with this new reality, the following topics try to see ways for design in that sense.

The role of the teacher

The current ordinary classroom can be defined as students turned to a figure who supposedly has all the knowledge — the teacher. This reality is attached to an outdated, unsustainable model, full of unengaged students. It is safe to say that almost every student today is connected and is able to search for answers online. It is time to change the professor-student dynamic. In the PBL professors are not expected be in front of the students, but at their side.

In this change of role, the teacher must act as a facilitator and an advisor. The understanding of this new positioning and the propensity to change are fundamental for the success of this model where students, instead of mere information consumers, participate actively and became content and knowledge creators.

The learning environment

Another key factor in the learning process, which has been recurrently ignored and that remains unchanged along with the teacher’s role, is the classroom. Though undervalued, the physical environment is equally important to the students’ learning process and motivation.

The modern learning spaces need to stimulate the creative skills of the students. Many workspaces are already changing its landscape, replacing the monotonous cubicles with the more collaborative open floors. Acording to Rosan Bosch, schools are still designed to have classrooms following what we believe to be an outdated dynamic.

The learning environment needs to translate the proper needs of each activity, and not follow the same pattern for each and every one of them, limiting the learning possibilities and demotivating students and teachers. This aspect is even more critical when we talk about the creative industry that relies on non-conventional mindsets. To develop creative skills in a boring environment is a critical issue and has to be thought over, for those places can shape the way we learn and think.

Another important aspect to take into consideration is the insertion of technology in the learning spaces. New technologies allow new ways of learning and students today may benefit from its use in the search of information and for work in a more collaborative way with their colleges, stimulating their skills towards a more cooperative sort of work.

Tough the design field seems to be a safe environment for changes to be tested due to its dynamic nature and collaboration characteristics, open space classrooms, as established in this work, may present challenges to be discussed and argued.

The absence of walls, physically, may provoke a sense of dislocation and anxiety on teachers as they must change not only their role but also even deal with interactions with other teachers.

A probable adaptive curve is to be expected from these changes of behavior and landscape, which may lead to adaptations concerning the nature of how design should be taught. The most significant barrier expected from the teacher’s side is for him to be forced to be redirected from the established methods used until now.

Final words

My idea with this article was to reflect on the current state of design education and how it’s responding to the world’s needs. I questioned the necessary skills for a more resilient designer, that needs to be a thinker rather than only a doer, and position him/herself as an agent of change.

Design shouldn’t be at the end of the process. Rather it needs to be seen as a strategic asset to companies. However, that perception also comes from designers positioning themselves as such professionals.

I truly believe that Design Education plays an essential part on this process, as it can foster the right mindsets for the changes in question as it can set students to not only respond to the needs of today but also train the designers that will be needed in the future. Nevertheless, for that to become a reality the educational system has to overcome its barriers and be more resilient.

There is a bright future to Design and there are a lot of good initiatives in motion right now. It’s only a matter of time for design education to find itself again.


This article is an adaptation of the paper Paradigm shift in Design Education: An overview on issues and possibilities for change published at the DRS 2018. The full version can be accessed here.