An undergraduate education is about learning how to learn. An undergraduate degree in design is typically the prerequisite for employment as a designer. So, what is graduate design education for?
The parameters of design and design practice are continually changing. Recognition of design as a distinct practice happened only in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, and the move from a practice to a profession was an important innovation of the 20th Century. As a child of industrialization, design exists at the more recent end of the spectrum of professional practices in regard to formalized methods. The first conference on systematic and intuitive methods in engineering, industrial design, architecture and communications was held at Imperial College, London in 1962. With less than five decades of scholarship to draw upon, the field of design is still a work in progress. And there remains an ongoing debate concerning whether design knowledge constitutes a discipline, a field, or a science.
How we define design changes based on context. As a process, design is a means through which aesthetic, cultural, social, technical and economic potential is imagined and then translated into objects, environments and activities. It involves many different vocabularies, principles, and working methods. In addition, the profession is subject to cultural shifts, technological developments and broader economic and environmental pressures.
With these complex realities in mind, graduate-level design education is an important step in preparing professionals who possess characteristics, behaviors and mindsets that allow them to excel in unpredictable, fast-changing and ambiguous conditions. Designers should be trained to see their roles as catalysts for transformation and agents of change.
As such, they should be willing to critically examine current thinking and be prepared to revise and expand their understanding of research, development and design methods and practices. They should be intellectually curious; self-motivated and engaged with critical discourse. They should also be dedicated to transforming their career opportunities by addressing complex, open-ended questions across a range of scales relevant to the future of design in shaping everyday life in the 21st Century.
Graduate design education must also mirror current professional practice. For decades, design education has remained focused on providing students with study in a single discipline, despite the fact that, in actual practice, most designers work on teams combining skills from many disciplines to achieve their objectives.
Graduate programs should be restructured to emphasize this dynamic mix of cross-disciplinary collaboration and problem-based inquiry. The work undertaken should bring together working teams of graduate design students and professionals to engage complex social problems that require development of new knowledge and integrative design solutions. Students should also work collectively and in collaboration with a broader community of professionals and stakeholders. The model of the lone designer as hero should be consigned to the wastebasket of history.
Practical, productive, real-world engagement for graduate students is also key. Students need to be anchored in external problems, and expand from there to investigate their own solutions, contributions, and design practice. Acquired skills should be transferable to other situations and other problems—that is, they should be the basis of a productive design career. Thus the program of study is not just doing project work for a client, but a focused investigation of design history, theory, criticism; design planning and strategy; and design methods. Students must be able to relate to various design audiences and contexts; describe various critical perspectives on design; and employ appropriate methods for the study of design as a discipline and as a practice.
This educational mandate also requires new levels of preparation prior to graduate study. It is critical that candidates already have specialist skills that they want to integrate with those of others to deliver design solutions that work in specific cultural and economic contexts. Continuing directly from undergraduate to graduate education should be the exception, not the rule.
There is a growing recognition of the role of design in innovation, entrepreneurship, public service and policy-making. This drives the need for designers with an advanced education. It is critical that this education include those capabilities that will allow designers to perform at a strategic level in companies and organizations as leaders and innovators. Graduate education must, then, provide fit-for-purpose programs based on a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary approach that brings together students, faculty, and industry experts to address a complex problem by integrating multiple points of view, methodological approaches, and areas of expertise. That is what graduate education is for.