Thursday, July 15, 2010

Teaching in a Time of Uncertainty

Since the beginning of professional industrial design – throughout the entire twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first ­– a designer has been a figure of confidence and authority. He (rarely, she) was a person to provide answers, to solve problems, to know more than the public could possibly knew.  A notion of an unsure designer, a questioning designer, or, heaven forbid, a doubtful designer would appear almost oxymoronic, and certainly unprofessional.

Perhaps the beginning of the new decade will go down in history as the outset of Design Uncertainty. For the first time ever, designers are willing to ask themselves, openly and publicly, about the nature of their profession, and whether they are dong the right thing. People took note of the question mark in the title of the National Design Triennial, Why Design Now?  Eindhoven Design Academy’s 2010 exhibition in Milan expressed the same sentiment with an even more succinct title, a simple “?

The reasons for self-searching and doubt are obvious, and they are not pretty. Two seemingly never-ending wars contribute to political uncertainty and fuel fears of terrorism.  The economy meltdown of 2008 continues to reverberate around the world. Unimpeded flow of oil gushes out in the Gulf of Mexico, in spite of the efforts of global powers and feats of the world’s best experts. Alice Rawsthorn, The New York Times’ design critic, captured the spirit of our time, speaking of design as “a quest for meaning in a dystopian era.” This existential quest, rather than pursuit of new shapes, is going to define the design effort for years to come.  And any search for meaning always starts with a question.

Clive Dilnot, a professor at The New School University, writes (in an essay, characteristically titled Ethics?Design? ) that the basis of any design activity derives from a fundamental query posed by Socrates: “How should one live?” According to Dilnot, this question cannot lead to a singular answer. Rather, the argument is brought up again and again, by every new generation. Thus, the ethical dimension in design “ is always in question, always in doubt”.

It is not surprising that the best design schools got to be in the forefront of design’s quest for meaning. Unencumbered by market considerations, academia is well suited for experimentation, creative research, and production of ideas. It is good to be a student in times like these. But what about the teachers? The traditional role of all-knowing professor is rapidly changing. Instead, a teacher becomes a fellow researcher, a team leader who works with the group in an interactive, collaborative way. The work inevitably becomes interdisciplinary: a design “product” could be an idea, a service, a material, a narrative, and it is viewed as a process rather than as a finished artifact.

With these thoughts I start a new chapter in my professional life. Recently, I have become a Director of Graduate Design Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. All complexities and contradictions on the modern world are reflected in the microcosm of Qatar: East and West, old and new, national and global, rich and poor. This is a world in transition, full of its own uncertainties. As such, it should be a great testing ground for new ideas and new solutions. A small group of young men and women from different design backgrounds are joining our program, the first of its kind in the entire Gulf Region. Let the experiment begin. Together, we will be trying to work out our own answers to that nagging question, Why Design Now?