DRINKING THE KOOLAID: THE GIDDY OPTIMISM OF DESIGN EDUCATION

I can vividly remember the first time I heard the words design and impact spoken in the same sentence.

It was the Spring Semester of 2008. I had recently deviated from my art school undergraduate track at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to embark on the archetypal 22-year-old “abandon all materiality and question everything” spirit journey. During this time I spent six months living on my bike between Chicago and Mexico, sustained on carrots dipped in jar after jar of peanut butter. By that point I had abandoned art for art’s sake and was hungry for ways to merge my “out of school” work (moonlighting as a peaceful protestor at the local coal plant, for example) with my creative professional practice.

Spring 2008: It was my first day of class in Professor Lisa Norton’s “Design Denied: The Withholding of Good Design and Its Ethical Implications” seminar. On that first day, Lisa talked about how design affects every one, every day. She touched on the ramifications of bad design, from ecological devastation to enabling criminal activity. The way that she spoke about the role of design in facing these major challenges inspired optimism and a call to action, as opposed to a sense of futility. She mentioned the work of Chicago not for profit educator Archeworks, who I promptly called during our class break and ended up attending the following year. In combination with another class that I was taking at the time, taught by Professor Linda Keane, my life was changed.

Fast Forward: On the heels of recent design education events Learn X Design and the Autodesk IDEAS Conference, I am once again struck by a giddy sense of early twenties optimism. Education leaders from around the world, including Lisa and Linda, are testing the applicability of design thinking across a vast array of social impact challenges alongside their students. Not only that, they are amplifying the rallying cry to other educators: sharing the methods and madness of the process, the tricks of the trade, the epic failures, inspirations, and ideas. Educators, who are faced with massive adversity on a daily basis: limited funding, oversized classes, bureaucratic resistance to change, one-size-fits-all teaching targets, underwhelming facilities, spotty resources, and a general absence of time and support allocated to innovation, are dedicatedly working in all corners of the world to catalyze systemic change. The not so secret superpower: design education.

So what does the design education rallying cry look like, in practice? It looks like Teachers Design For Education (TD4Ed) and the recent launch of the Teachers Guild (from the Business Innovation Factory and IDEO, respectively) both programs that support teams of teachers with online design thinking curriculum that they can use to tackle challenges in education. It looks like students exploring next.cc in their classrooms, an online platform being used around the world that features hundreds of design learning “journeys.” Among thousands of other examples, it looks like California College of the Arts (CCA) President Stephen Beale standing up at the recent IDEAS conference with the simple question, “why don’t we teach every subject the way that we teach art and design?”

At Autodesk Education, our team prides itself in being positioned to offer educators a myriad of design resources, from learning content, galleries of inspirational stories of impact, and community platforms, to design tools. Through our offerings, we strive to empower educators to "imagine, design, and create" a better world alongside their students. However, our primary method, (at best), has been to lead these teacher horses to our overflowing stream of resources and recommend that they thirstily lap it up. It is free after all, right? But teachers are not horses. They are education innovators. They are our advocates, collaborators, users, and inspiration, and many of them need much more support – significantly much more support, to implement effective design education practices. In fact, The Center for Public Education states that “the duration of professional development must be significant and ongoing to allow time for teachers to learn a new strategy and grapple with the implementation problem. Professional development that is longer in duration has a greater impact on advancing teacher practice, and in turn, student learning.” (Gulamhussein, 2013). If we are indeed hoping to create meaningful global impact through educators by exposing them to our resources, integrated with the design education pedagogical framework, then I posit that we can no longer rely on the same touch and go, proverbial horse approach.

So, what then? Let us end with a future brainstorming opportunity. Here is my design challenge prompt to you: How might we better empower educators to reach students (like me, circa 2008), hungry to “imagine, design, and create a better world?”

In the meantime, we can remember that the fire of giddy optimism is out there, just waiting to be stoked.