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InsightJan 23, 2023

Insights from the future of design education panel at DesignThinkers Toronto 2022

Moderator of the Future of Design: How Will Educators Adapt? Panel from DTTO 2022, professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the host of Talk Paper Scissors podcast, Diana Varma RGD shares takeaways from the discussion.

In an inspiring session at DesignThinkers TO 2022, three visionary educators took to the podium to address an important question about the future of design: “How will educators adapt?” I had the pleasure of moderating the session with Ana Rita Morais (Chair, George Brown College’s School of Design), Bonne Zabolotney RGD (Professor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design) and Ali Qadeer (Professor, OCAD University’s Faculty of Design). Below is an overview of each of the three panelists’ thoughts about how they believe educators will adapt to the future of design.

Ana Rita Morais’ Human-Centered Future

Ana Rita wholeheartedly believes that the future of design education is human. In her presentation, Ana Rita spoke of the ways in which human-centred approaches to education will be the most valuable area of focus, versus technologies and trends like the metaverse, NFTs or AI. She explored four key facets of the design education landscape including the learning environment, the learner, the instructor and the curriculum itself. Ana Rita brought to light the ways in which human connections — particularly those created through working collaboratively and across disciplines — will continue to be the beacon of light at the center of a noisy, tech-heavy landscape.

“When I was asked to give this talk, I was excited and nervous — mostly by the omnipresent f-word: future. We’re incapable of reading anything these days without confronting what is forthcoming. We have seen it most prominently in this epoch characterized by the pandemic, with the ubiquitous discussion of the future of work. When we talk about design and digital environments, there is this preoccupation with “innovation”, which seems to be equated with speed, technology, disruptions, progress and improvements. So, in true Ana Rita Morais fashion, I am here to call bullshit.”

Ana Rita spoke about ways in which instructors must become collaborators, why curiosity and empathy make good teachers and the importance of re-examining how we evaluate students, with coaching, encouragement and feedback. Ana Rita feels strongly that design education won’t be rooted in the newest technologies but rather “the future of design education is manifestly human — it is synonymous with slowing down and connecting across disciplines and the sector collaboratively.”

Bonne Zabolotney’s Future Full of Curiosity

What stood out the most In Bonne’s presentation was the way in which curiosity is key to the future of design education.

“Adapting to the future needs of design requires a curiosity and the knowledge and skills to interrogate that curiosity. Our students learn how to build flexible design research practices to address complex and unsolvable issues such as climate change, political instability and global pandemics by focusing on practice-based design research. Practice-based design research expands traditional design learning (where solution-based or form-given projects are assigned and completed) towards a multiplicity of designerly spaces (where open-ended projects are explored and prototyped and insights are reflexive and shared within a community of practice). It focuses on design research education that transforms students from, what Laurene Vaughan describes, a designer (someone who knows their field) to a designer-practitioner (someone able to understand the trajectory of their work and its role within the field).”

She explained the ways that designers often describe design as being synonymous with research (because of the requirement to research materials, context, markets and more). This is what Christopher Frayling referred to as "research FOR design" whereby thinking is embedded in the design artifact.

“Practice-based Design Research goes beyond this level of ("small r") research in order to expand knowledge. Design action research, for example, appears to use all of the tools of the creative process to proceed, but follows a different line of inquiry. Design/creative process is solution oriented, but Design Action Research is guided by a research question and is only focused on generating knowledge or information. Expanding our design practices to include practice-based design research allows designers to work with complexity and avoid the danger of poor research or misinformed thinking to be embodied in future design artifacts. It contributes to resilient and long-lasting design. It keeps designers ever-curious and ready to confront the future.”

Ali Qadeer’s Collaborative Future

In his presentation, Ali shared that “the kids aren’t alright”. He spoke to the importance of teaching students how to collaborate with one another to create sustainable futures, including the ways in which unions and labour movements can shape the future of design industries. Ali believes that, collectively, educators are failing to teach students a model of agency that considers different and fairer models.

“We need to provide tools for ensuring students are able to advocate for their professional well-being and understand working models for design labour, beyond just the professional categories we learn about (editorial designer, product designer, UX researchers, etc.”

Ali shared some simple math about the realities of designers’ (relatively low) starting salaries and high costs of living in a city like Toronto, leaving little left over for anything else.

“Namely, I think we’re in a key moment in labour history that could see the return in popularity and saturation of labour unions and I think as we prepare students with a formal practice, a sense of ethical obligation to the work they make, we need to provide students with an expectation that they will be paid and treated fairly in working environments.

The Future is Rooted in the Present

No matter our individual pasts, a graphic by Tim Urban of @waitbutwhy provides hope about the future, reminding us that there are many paths available for exploration. Educators have the privilege and responsibility to show students a future that lives within the classroom present practices, whether through making our classrooms more human, sparking curiosity through inquiry and/or helping students reimagine collaboration. This article was written by Diana Varma RGD in collaboration with the panelists.

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