Back in 2004, I wrote an article called 1000 Words of Advice for Design Students. Flattered that several departments were using the document in their curricula, I followed it up with 1000 Words of Advice for Design Teachers, in 2006 (not used very much in curricula, that one!). For the past year I've been putting together the bones of a new MFA program in Products of Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, welcoming its first students in the fall of 2012. (Applications for the inaugural class open this month.) So now it's a year in and a year away, and I thought it might be a nice idea to revisit the 1000-word format, document some of the thoughts and strategies and arguments for the new program, and lay the groundwork for the certain learning ahead. It turns out that 1000 words is woefully insufficient for discussing the most important aspects of the program, but it's a taste, and if you'd like to learn more, please do head over to productsofdesign.sva.edu where you'll find mission statements, Q&As, and more curriculum information than you'll be able to save to Instapaper. In the meantime, here we go, again: Exactly 1000 words below.
You Are What You Eat
The first decision made for the MFA Products of Design department had nothing to do with philosophy or pedagogy or accreditation; it had to do with food. We've devoted a significant amount of the architecture and planning to what we eat—with generous prep space, two full-size fridges and sinks, rice cookers, steamers, slow-cookers and other industrial-grade implements that will help students do better, think better and feel better by supporting their food energy needs. Butcher-block classroom tables gang up into short and long dining tables; drawing demo mirrors double as cooking demo counters. One of the preeminent greenmarkets is five minutes away from the school, open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays of every week. Several of our faculty are passionate about, and plan to do coursework around, food and food systems. Students will be encouraged to form dinner co-ops (you cook a meal to feed 6 people once a week; the other days you eat someone else's).
I've gotten two major criticisms on this one: The first is "But the studio will smell!" Yes, it will. It will smell like food. (Most smell like plastic.) The second is "Students are out of control! I mean, who will clean the coffee maker?" Oh hell, I will.
Build a Place, Not a Space
It's been a big challenge finding the sweet spot of what to provide students in terms of individual workspace, collaborative space, leisure, model making, presentation and celebration space. But space has been the wrong word all along of course; the goal is to create place, not space. And that's where architect Andrea Steele and her team have landed, taking a holistic approach to how the philosophy and the pragmatics of the program get instantiated in its built environment.
We've used several principles here: Build as little as possible, keeping elements versatile, resilient, and nimble; Give everything more than one purpose, leveraging vertical elements for both display and domain; Recognize that the biggest waste of space in a school is the classroom. Ours are sundrenched, tech-equipped, and furnished as students' project rooms. And once every day, from 5 to 8pm, they turn into classrooms. Provide welcome for bicycles, accommodate personal phone calls. You get the idea.
Have Class Outside
People learn best when they're immersed, so several of the classes will be taught off site (the Material Futures class will be taught at nearby Material ConneXion; the Design Research and Integration will be taught at IDEO; the Design for Sustainability and Resilience will be taught at The Brooklyn Kitchen, on greenroofs, at farmers markets). The Interaction Design Fundamentals and Framing User Experiences classes will be co-mingled with MFA Interaction Design students.
Acknowledge That Teachers Teach What They Teach
The dirty little secret of design education is that sometimes it's best to simply let teachers teach what they teach, rather than having them teach a set curriculum that took years of committee meetings to configure, negotiate, and roll out. All of the faculty in the Products of Design department are adjunct—working professionals who are passionate about sharing their expertise and point of view. They're on the faculty because they bring a piece of the puzzle that is uniquely theirs. But that puzzle is organic and ever changing...and so should our curriculum. This department is a collision of where design is headed and a cadre of some of its most disciplined and renegade practitioners. We're going for heat, not harmony. I'm hoping the tradeoff is worth it.
Don't Do This Alone
I have, and continue to have, extraordinary input from faculty, advisors, critics, potential students, past students, chairs of other programs, and countless others. I've taken notes and read them. I've licked my wounds when the feedback was harsh, and I've raised a glass when we've passed various milestones. We've worked in teams, over Skype, and over dinner. On the floor, in the cloud, and in open Q&As. Thanks to David Rhodes, we have the wind at our backs and a future that calls out for great work from fantastic people. But John Thackara was right at the beginning when he encouraged me to "build the box, not the contents." The box is made of people of course—the amazing faculty and the fledgling students. No argument that that's the beating heart of the thing.
Plan, But Maybe Don't Have One
Recently the provost of SVA, Jeff Nessin, quoted Dwight Eisenhower: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." The number of documents that have been created, shared, critiqued, recomposed, reconfigured, rejected, and met over since the inception of the program number 5,346 on my computer alone (5,347 counting this one, and not counting untold thousands of emails), but most of those documents and sketches and prototypes will never see the light of day. And that's precisely as it should be, just like in design.
Prepare For a Moderate World
Finally, last October at the Winterhouse Symposium on Design Education and Social Change, I was sitting with Terry Irwin, one of our most thoughtful design minds and head of design at Carnegie Mellon. She remarked on the irony and contradiction of current design school practice: "We push our students incredibly hard for two years, overload them with homework, they eat bad food and get no sleep, and then we expect them to leave and go help create a moderate world." The notion of creating a "moderate world" is one of the most eloquent I've ever heard, but the observation is devastating. It's easy to build a program where students say, at the end, "I never slept, the work was absolutely crushing, it almost killed me, but I learned so much." We know how to make that program—that's easy. But is it possible to balance the depletion that most students experience with a framework that replenishes them while they're in school—not just upon reflection when it's all over? That may turn out to be the biggest challenge of them all.
Learn more about the program, RSVP to the open house on November 5th, and sign up for the mailing list at http://productsofdesign.sva.edu.