What Non-Traditional Design Education Can Teach Us

Institutions of higher learning offer rich opportunities to explore the underlying concepts of design. However, these institutions do not necessarily expose students to ideas outside the mainstream curricula. This lack of innovation is partially due to the physical and administrative structures of large institutions, which inherently limit interdepartmental collaboration.

The Ecosa Institute, like many other small, non-traditional educational organizations, offers a more radical approach to learning. Our method—a total immersion program in sustainable design—rests on a belief that real innovation requires both unlimited freedom to experiment and the opportunity to take risks. As Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

It has been argued that programs that exist outside the academic system give institutions an excuse not to change existing programs. I believe this is erroneous. Large institutions cannot be all things to all students. Although they provide many things very well and have the resources to create an excellent learning environment, there are certain experiences for which the university is not equipped.

For example, there has been a great deal of discussion about including sustainable design in design school curricula, much of the conversation initiated by students. And while more and more electives in this field are being offered, they don’t transform a traditional design education into something new.

Furthermore, students often depend on the opinions of instructors and view their professors as their clients; they try to learn what will satisfy the course requirements and earn them credit. There seems little encouragement for new approaches or room for unconventional ideas. In this atmosphere, “failure” is not treated as a learning experience, but rather as a “mistake” which leads to lower grades. This results in a great deal of standardization in the teaching methodology and the outcomes of design education.

What programs such as Ecosa’s provide are environments where students can engage in integrated systems thinking, cutting across disciplines to create more complex modes of learning. Just as in natural systems, this approach provides a rich environment for experimenting with new ideas. One principle of sustainability is that everything is connected, which implies a need for a broad perspective, rather than a concentration upon a single design discipline. For students to achieve these larger understandings, they must integrate different fields of study, from biology and ecology to materials and psychology; they also must broaden the depth and scope of their knowledge of the world. These two requirements are exceptionally difficult within the pressures of a standard academic setting.

Programs that offer integrated experiences—like Ecosa’s—are valuable to both students and academia, yet it is a challenge to persuade large institutions that risk, uncertainty, and exploration can be valuable. Alternative programs are not intended as a replacement for established curricula, but rather are positive additions to the range of experiences available to students. By leaving the classroom and experiencing new ways of looking at the world, students can return to their academic programs energized with new perspectives.

We have received a great deal of support from progressive design programs that have provided student credit for our programs. At the same time, there are still institutions that look on us with suspicion and even hostility, which is unfortunate. There exists a powerful potential for a symbiotic relationship between small innovative programs and the larger institutions. Organizations like Ecosa can be the “scouts” for the future of education. Programs that are not constrained by the daily pressures of the academic world can provide academia with “dispatches from the edge” that may transform their own programs in positive ways.

Students are clearly frustrated by the inertia of some large institutions. This next generation is aware that the planet they are about to inherit is in decline, and they know it will take all their effort and skills to reverse decades of neglect and abuse. Rather than limiting the kinds of experiences that students are exposed to, it is my contention that educators should be encouraging students to explore new concepts.

It is notoriously difficult to predict the future, so it is folly to limit the range of ideas to which students are exposed. Who knows what seemingly crazy idea might be vital to our survival? Indeed, as we move into a world that will continually challenge us in new and unexpected ways, the kind of education used to create the problems of the last century is useless for trying to solve them in the next.

Antony Brown is the director of the Ecosa Institute, located in Prescott, Arizona.

Categories: Design Education, Uncategorized