How the Next Generation Can Shape Design

The following talk was delivered March 31, 2005 by Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy at the University of Nebraska Architecture School. The audience comprised architecture and interior design students, faculty, and professionals.

I think about the next generation of designers constantly. There are at least three reasons for this preoccupation. 1) I teach design history and ethics to multi-disciplinary groups of students at the New School, which is the mother university of the Parsons School of Design; 2) At Metropolis we are in the second year of our Next Generation Design Competition, which annually awards a cash prize of $10,000 to a young designer or design collaborative that comes up with a big idea; and 3) Our editors tend to find some of the most forward thinking work—work that embraces technology and sustainability—in young designers’ offices. All of these factors, plus my innate interest in youthful thinking and my young staff, keep me involved with what’s coming and how the new generations will change the world of design, including its processes, theories, and public perception.

The good news nowadays is that, in general, design is back on track as a humanist endeavor. It stated out that way back in the nineteenth century, when William Morris fused art with craft and infused the designed environment with socialist ideals, thereby putting the human being—both the maker and the user—at the center of the design experience. This humanist approach was heightened at the Bauhaus, where the founders and instructors defined design as having a social mission, with good design being accessible to all. There, design was seen as an occupation of several connected specialties, each charged with the frugal use of scarce materials. It was also seen as the making of buildings, rooms, objects, and graphics that not only served the life-needs of a war-impoverished German populace, but also lifted their demoralized spirits.

Although Morris fought technology tooth and nail, the Bauhaus and subsequent designers embraced the modern machine. You are the latest, and I daresay, the most sophisticated heirs of this proclivity to embrace new technology, tools, and processes. In fact, your generation and the ones following you stand to make huge contributions to the way design is practiced, even while you are still in school. Some of the best teachers I know work with their students’ technical sophistication and natural relationship to sustainability to infuse courses of study with youthful knowledge and curiosity.

It is no secret to anyone that young workers are making enormous contributions to firms’ technical skills and output. The demand for your talents puts you in a powerful position.

That’s the good news. But there is a caveat: It takes more than being a computer wiz to be a great designer.

Let me tell you a short story in this season of crits and midterms, a story that can be read as a dramatic sign of what may be happening to fledgling designers—and, by extension, society itself. It’s a cautionary tale of how sexy new technologies can contribute to dumbing-down people. It’s also a reminder that sometimes the tried-and-true ways work better than new approaches.

My story involves a design history class I teach to sophomores and juniors at Parsons. Originally, when I designed the course some 17 years ago, it was a lecture, similar in format to the way I was trained as a historian at Rutgers University. About five years ago, the lecture format stopped working. The students couldn’t follow the narrative and had trouble taking notes; the school’s administration explained it was due to shortened attention spans.

In response, I turned the course into an ideas-exchange session where each student was assigned a segment of the week’s material and required to share his or her findings with the class. Together the class accumulated their necessary understanding of major historic movements, figures, and ideas that shape the cultural output of the western world, with design being a major contributor to the physical form of this cultural output. This collaborative system of learning, which implies personal responsibility on everyone’s part, worked very well until this year, a year that has totally freaked me out. This semester, from the beginning, I noticed that the weekly papers that represent each student’s research were cut-and-paste jobs, copied from one or two Web sites.

I continually reminded the class that historic information, especially from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and pre-Web twentieth century, is largely incomplete on the Web. I added that print media—books, magazines, newspapers—provide clues to history just as facts, dates, and names do. I explained that experiencing these older technologies in the real world, as physical objects, could point to how mass production and industrialization worked.

Apparently my pleas were not heard. Few students took notes in class and most continued to glace at Web sites. This happened despite the fact I was now insisting that at least one of their sources—preferably a primary source—be a book or magazine article taken from the period under study.

The midterm has a way of revealing all flaws, both mine and the students’. For the first time in my 17 years as a college teacher, I had to issue academic warnings: to 11 students in a class of 25. This shocked me so much that I vented at every meeting I attended that week, making a nuisance of myself everywhere. The most disturbing part to me, as a magazine editor wrapped up in words, were the students’ poor reading skills.

I have a tendency to sprinkle clues all over my exams. If you miss question one on Wedgwood, when you see question two, you pretty much find the answer to question one. Though I alerted the class to the presence of these clues, many didn’t pick up on them.

I teach design history because history is my field: I loved the subject enough to submit to the indignities of grad school. I am also convinced that history—context, roots, precedents, whatever you want to call it—is essential to design. Santayana and I are one on this score. I believe, as he did, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The operative word here is “condemned.”

And so I ask, Are my students condemned to put forth half-baked design ideas in a world that desperately needs their help? Are they—and we—losing analytical skills? Those questions hang heavily in the back of my brain like over-ripe apples about to fall from a tree.

I would like to suggest that some things cannot be learned without devoting one’s full and undivided attention to them—no matter how much we celebrate multi-tasking. I suggest that it may be impossible to grasp difficult ideas and remember useful facts by surfing from one Web site to another. Without our personal storehouse of well-reasoned ideas and reliable facts, we cannot hope to be analytical, at those many times when life and work require us to use all the gray mater we can fire up.

Analytical designers are in need today and will be in need into the twenty-first century to solve the complex problems of sustainability and universal access in a technological society where the global battles the local.

Though my midterm depression lingers—even to the point that, for the first time, I question of my effectiveness as a teacher—I bring you optimistic news mostly from the minds, hearts, and computers of designers in all disciplines.

Collaboration, research, and social consciousness: Human-centered design is at the heart of the projects you are about to see.

[What followed was a series of images from recent Metropolis articles, starting with the work of the punk band Double Dagger, whose members are trained as graphic designers. After that there were some images of runner-up projects in Metropolis’s 2004 Next Generation Design Competition, including LUME, a lighted fabric that was a collaboration between an MIT architecture student and a Canadian LED manufacturer; Soft House, a space-making concept designed by architects Stephanie Forsythe & Todd MacAllen, who stumbled upon the idea while experimenting with crenellated paper; and Automason, a new software program by Michael Silver created in conjunction with the International Masonry Institute that promises to revolutionize the building craft by allowing onsite masons to receive precise instructions on how to lay individual bricks.]

Enthusiasm, solid knowledge, research, analysis, and talent all make these designers key contributors to society’s real needs. You have a bright future ahead. I hope, for the earth’s sake and humanity’s sake, that you will find your own way to human-centered design.

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