Agency and Structure

January 2010


The world is in a rut. Previously successful systems, business practices and infrastructures are breaking down in our society on all sides. The policies, methods, and problem solving approaches of the twentieth century have been turned on their head over and over again. Amid this social upheaval, the powers that be seem to have come upon a miraculous solution once again–this time, it is the process of creative thinking. Across boardrooms, executive offices, and on bookshelves, the call from science, industry, business and technology could not be louder– they see “creatives” as the next big thing, the saviors of business. Call it whatever you’d like, design thinking, creative problem solving, innovation, the semantics are irrelevant, and only add to the navel-gazing and empty speak that is being written by hoards of successful business people and designers alike.

Unfortunately, design thinking or creative problem solving, no matter how well integrated into a company’s culture or mission, will never change paradigms or shift the direction of our ailing institutions. We must begin at the source and the source is education. If designers are ready to demand that they get a seat and a voice in management, strategy, and systems thinking then the models of design education need to reflect the shifting responsibility away from the design of objects (which dominated the twentieth century) to the design of interactions and experiences.

This is by no means a small task. The current methods of design education were born out of post-war Europe and steeped in the philosophies of craft, process, and theory. This is all to merit, but in today’s shifting landscape, the old methods must be expanded upon. As the definition of design has burgeoned in our technology-driven world, a design education needs to be flexible and responsive. The expectations that a modern student has of both the technical and intellectual training from a school can no longer be limited to categories like print, motion, or interaction. In the new design school paradigm, the model must shift away from the discipline specifiac rigidity and allow for more cross-divisional projects, interactions, and opportunities. Students must be able to follow their personal passions and work together in teams that prepare them for the breadth of interactions that they will encounter in the professional world.

The current problem with design is not that it is too focused on the aesthetic or that it is difficult to quantify its monetary value, today, it is rather that the majority of design students are not educated or prepared to be leaders in organizations. Taking an audit of every one of today’s championed “creative” organizations: Apple, Martha Stewart, IDEO, Google, etc, each is led by an inspired, creative individual. In this model, all of the decisions are led by a sound design process and ideology.

If our society hopes to tackle the mounting problems of the 21st century and if creative problem solving can be a vehicle to motivate that change, then it has to start with a new strategy for educating tomorrow’s design leaders.