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Its fully evident that university education (like many other parts of the ‘public’ sector) is in for a fairly significant assault in the coming weeks and months. While as a general issue, this could merit further discussion, i suspect that is better covered here, here and here, and what I really want to focus on is design education in particular.

The prospect of cuts raises some fundamental questions. What are we educating designers for? Can we entertain a pluralistic and broad-based definition of design in the face of increasing modularisation and ‘skill aquisition’? If designers are creative problem solvers, what problems are they solving and who do they belong to? If design students are paying for the status of attainment, how is that measured, and what is it?

I think in response to these questions, the following resignation letter, written by Laslo Moholy Nagy to the Bauhaus over 50 years ago, captures the key issues far better than I could;

“For the Bauhaus begins now a time of stabilization conditioned by the length of its existence. As a consequence of the growing scarcity of money, it is demanded that it be productive, efficient – today more than ever.

Even though human and pedagogical considerations are not eliminated intentionally, they suffer because of this stabilization. Among the students, this reorientation is noticeable in their increased demand for technical skill and practical training above anything else.

Basically one can’t object if human power wants to measure itself on the object, the trade. This belongs essentially to the Bauhaus program. But one must see the danger of losing equilibrium and meet it. As soon as creating an object becomes a specialty, and work becomes trade, the process of education loses all vitality. There must be room for teaching the basic ideas which keep human content alert and vital. For this we fought and for this we exhausted ourselves. I can no longer keep up with the stronger and stronger tendency toward trade specialization in the workshops.” (Fuller version here)

This letter captures the twist that often occurs when educational investment is taking place — ‘Design’ becomes a noun (as in the profession) rather than a verb (as in the activity, moving, as Milton Glaser puts it, from an existing condition to a prefered condition). But this isn’t some sort of nostalgic defense of the university or an ‘open’ design education. What is really interesting about the current debates around education is that they also include some acceptance that the university system can be fraught with cronyism, beauracracy, and does have a lot of room to change. However it is the direction of that change which is in question. Design can be conscious of and engaged with professional practise without being in thrawl to it. Graphic design can deal with typography without necessarily taking to or, (that classic art school cliche), “breaking” the rules, and so on and so forth…. All of the above can be achieved within looser (less costly) structures that still aspire to excellence but have a far more relaxed and far less measurable idea of what that might be.


Thanks to David Kerr and Keith Dodds for their key part in this blog post, (unknown to them).