Why Design Education Matters Now


Design exists within the context of culture and economy. So do ideas of the good life. Designers create within that context, but they also help to shape it. And they help to shape our ideas of what a good life is.

Designers are ideally suited to shape a good life because they are educated to understand “ethos, logos and pathos.” Lofty Latin and Greek, but easily translatable and important in design education. Design education deepens understanding of  the fundamental character or spirit of time and place and culture. It enables the understanding of the underlying sentiments and beliefs that inform the cultural practices of a group. It values the importance of intuition and imagination as channels to the creative wisdom of the universe. And, it encourages a sentimental education—an education of the sensibilities and feelings, including empathy and compassion.


Design education does more than provide the theory and tools of the various design disciplines. It also provides a framework for choice making and ethical practice and encourages creative minds to bring into form the spirit of being fully human. Not a small job! Especially in a century where human choices will impact: energy, mobility, community, health, materials, and global prosperity – a century where the good life can be hard to find. Design education deepens under-standing of the fundamental character or spirit of time and place and culture.

The Cooper Hewitt exhibit of “Why Design Now?” helped to host a conversation about design’s role as a shaper and sustainer of a life worth living. Bill Moggridge extended this conversation at an innovation summit organized by Pratt Institute along with 33 schools of art and design from across North America. The PALS (Partners for Academic Leadership on Sustainability) summit was designed to provide an opportunity for academic leaders to better understand the role of their institutions in shaping a good life that was also sustainable.

This summit is one example of the emergence of a sense of urgency about the sustainability of our world and our practice. Urgency is critical to urging innovation into the world and into our institutions. But, as Kotter’s model suggests, urgency alone will not enable change and innovation. Real change will require the formation of collaborative networks of teams across institutions charged with educating design leaders. Once formed, these networks can then help to guide the formation of a vision and help communicate that vision to assure buy-in, enable action and achieve some short-term wins.

Innovating practice requires a sustained effort to learn and to reinforce new learning. Persistence is a necessary ingredient in any change process. For innovation to become routine practice a “new normal” must be established and be made to stick through new incentives and measures that redefine excellence in design education and practice. In short, if sustainability is to become part of the teaching of ethos, logos and pathos, it must be institutionalized as a core value and a necessary practice.

The summit was designed to effectively channel urgency into concerted, collaborative action that could impact vision and practice and institutionalize sustainability as a core value and necessary practice. It established a time frame for action of five years, encouraged a commitment to common goals and set up mechanisms for leveraging and sharing resources and best practices. It created a replicable process and an infrastructure for collaboration that allowed for progress to be measured using agreed-upon and standardized measures across institutions.

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And, it is creating a pattern of short-term wins that is establishing a “new normal”. Specifically, group actions for 2011 include a portal for “on demand peer-to-peer dialogue for best practices” and a sustainability resource marketplace for the sharing of curricula, syllabi and expertise. New work to emerge from sustainable practice will be exhibited and curated at the next summit, along with new tools for measuring sustainability which will be developed. 

"Collectively, designers are seeking to enhance human health, prosperity, and comfort while diminishing the conflicts between people and the global ecosystems we inhabit." – (Why Design Now? National Design Triennial, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum)

Why the emphasis on sustainability? Because design education today must address the issue of sustainability if it is to remain viable. Sustainability is not about green. It is about creating a world in which we are capable of thriving. It is about creating a good life – one in which we can be fully human, surviving and growing under favorable conditions.

Conditions today are hardly favorable for a good life. The threats to human health and economic prosperity have been made terribly real most recently in Japan. The fragility of our ecosystem and our economic system must begin to inform design practice. Design can and must make its difference.

Designers today require the full value of an education that informs both an understanding and a critique of cultural practice. They will need help in developing and trusting their intuition and imagination. They will need learning experiences that help deepen their compassion and empathy.

The “bottom billion” and the less advantaged in even the most affluent countries need design solutions if they are to ever experience a good life. Their needs are no less important and arguably more urgent. Their power to destabilize is real and is being recognized by nation states faced with forced regime change. In order to create a 21st century version of a good life for a world that may soon be 9 billion, design will need to enable nations and communities to re-imagine mobility, improve human wellbeing and generate alternative energy.

The affluent are already demanding design solutions. They are purchasing hybrids and buying organic. They are investing in solar, wind and biomass. Design solutions and design education will need to become more life-centric, more focused on aliveness and fecund generativity. The shift has begun with the climate action plan signed by university presidents and the development of curricula that encourages an understanding of the complex web of life.

As a species, we are learning and unlearning all the time. Institutions also need to keep learning and unlearning. As Einstein suggests: We cannot afford to be collectively ignorant of the very real threats to our good life posed by the depletion of our biosphere from industrial practice. Economies that do not enhance wellbeing are not sustainable. Trade-offs that build wealth at the expense of wellbeing are increasingly unacceptable. Design practice will need to help new economies emerge through innovations in methods and materials. Design helps shape mindsets and behavior.

Institutions are beginning to move from awareness of the urgency of innovating practice to action. Pratt helped lead this movement with the innovation summit. Together all of the participating schools helped create a new vision for design education that can respond to the complex nature of our world. Together they responded to the question, “What can we do together to ensure a sustainable future and a good life?”

The summit was a beginning, a small but significant step in assuring that our definition of a good life was one that is sustainable. It will help to institutionalize this definition into design education. It will help designers shape the good life.

The participating schools continue to work collectively to better integrate sustainability into art and design programs. They continue to meet monthly online. They are now co-leading and have formed a Partnership for Academic Leadership on Sustainability (PALS). PALS will help lead the change in design education and help to define and demonstrate the critical role of art and design education in locating a good life in a sustainable and viable future.

This was originally published in Issue 8, Catalyst Strategic Design Review, Summer 2011. Authored by Mary McBride and Giselle Carr.