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Designing Design Education

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In this section, we will introduce a perspective on some of the challenges of fitting design into the academic programmes of higher educations. This is to be seen in the light of the on-going debate about how to frame design as its own independent research paradigm (Gaver 2012). In the early 1980’s Cross (1982) argued how design was placed between the fields of natural sciences and the humanities. This distinction was rooted in Dilthey and Betanzos’ (1988) division between the natural scientific study of observed (positive) phenomena, explaining these phenomena’s causal relation to other phenomena, and the humanities and social sciences interpretative studies of the lived human experiences in both individual and societal scale. In contrast to these two major scientific fields, Cross argued, design had its own epistemology and ontology in its pursuit of knowledge about man-made phenomena. This has been further emphasised by e.g. Buchanan (2001) defining design as the synthesis of ‘products’, as well as relating to Simon’s oft-quoted broad view of design as a ‘science of the artificial’.

In addition, Deserti & Rizzo (2014) has detailed this further separating engineering design from human-centred design and understanding this as a division between studying the man-made in ‘a world of limits’ (engineering), and a world of ‘opportunities’ (human-centred design). Thus, near ‘design thinking’ has emerged as an omnipresent term in the field – separated from engineering through not emphasising the man-made product as something in which its premises are to be inferred as something which ‘must happen’, but rather concerned with the world as it ‘could be’ (Kolko 2009). This indirectly relates engineering to the causal explanations of natural science, and human-centred design as primarily related to the interpretive traditions of the humanities and social sciences.

These roots of design thinking are further supported by Buchanan’s inclusion of the social planning terminology of ‘wicked problems’ (1992), where design is framed as “…a new liberal art of technological culture”. More recently, Kolko (2011) has argued for design as a new liberal art. He argues that in our current technological culture the focus on user experiences is on par with earlier critical idealogical considerations found in arts and craft practices. Because of this, aligning design thinking with the liberal arts might then seem like an unproblematic classification. Subjected to scrutiny, however, it is clear that due to the continuum between design engineering and human-centred design, attributes from the former are also found in the latter. As Krogh et al. (2015) and Koskinen et al. (2011) have indicated, substantial parts of design research as well as design thinking are, in one way or another, concerned with the instantiation of ‘experiments’, i.e. as an active intervention forming a product synthesis to be experienced and interpreted.

Design experiments are argued to contain both convergent and divergent logics in which construction is seen as knowledge production on its own merits, but emphasizing the process just as much as the end-product (Krogh et al. 2015). This is different from the classic studies of the humanities emphasising critical, comparative, and historical analysis forming the basis for an interpretation of its phenomenon. As the empirical impetus for the natural sciences, the experiment has historically played a much less significant role in the humanities. Until a few decades ago, the humanities research foci on design was mainly an idea-historical inquiry into and study of the aesthetics of the artifacts produced by the arts and crafts fields (Buchanan 2001). Only in recent decades, with the arrival of design thinking, has the constructive practice of design found its way into the humanities as an area of academic interest.

In recent years, despite the philosophical challenge of fitting design with other fields of science, design research, and especially design thinking as a topic, sparked much interest in academic and practice contexts both in- and outside that of traditional design. This has led to an increase in fields seeking to include design thinking into their disciplines and research programmes. In a broad scope of the fields, Krippendorf (2005) pointed towards more than 650 different areas, which in some way relate themselves with or claim that their field has a strong kinship to that of design and design thinking. But if design can be seen as an addition to a wide range of practices, is design then always to be considered adding the same value?

Furthermore, in a cross-disciplinary perspective, how can the knowledge contributions of one academic programme be substantiated, extended or critically evaluated through either the scope of design or with design as an addition to a different discipline? Unlike pedagogical challenges within ‘traditional’ design schools, these intertwined problems emerge and pose a clear risk-taking for students in academia, since design is here often seen as an ‘addition’ to be adjoined and merged into the traditional academic treatment of e.g. an essay or exam assignment. How does the student balance the core curriculum with the added design, and the related traditions of knowledge generation and reflection, which often differ in some degree from the core curriculum? To address these questions we will present an example of a design course, which will be described in detail below, namely the U-CrAc workshop at Aalborg University.

Students are here asked to combine a critical reflection on previous and current theories, artworks and designs while exploring and creating a practical design or artwork. This implies several challenges: managing the risk of either focusing on solving the problem presented, perhaps downplaying the academic reflection in the process, or meeting the academic requirements, often lacking the time dealing with the design in depth. Students capable of aligning the academic theoretical and the practical design or artistic part, often manage risk in an imaginative and contextual manner, but as teachers, we are often incapable of explicating how this alignment can be made, hence taught. At least we cannot, as the DigCompEdu proposes, present a taxonomy with predefined appertaining methods the following of which will ensure problem-solving.

This is probably one consequence of risks being non-calculable, i.e. we cannot design didactics ensuring the desired effect beforehand. Learners have to rely on a combination of design and critical thinking, with the application of computational thinking as yet another method. The three methods together, on par with each other, can guide a particular inquiry. This implies also that neither the logic of critical, computational or design thinking are enough on their own, but are rather to be seen as complementary skills to grasp the risk-taking in modern educational and practice settings. This, however, begs the question of how to establish a suitable didactics and pedagogy teaching risk-taking to students? To answer this question, we now elaborate on Ulrich Beck’s notion of risk-society, and what this generally means for education.

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