Recent Art Center graduate Kristina Marrero's Dextris is a glove to help astronauts work more comfortably in space.
This is the latest installment of D-School Futures, our interview series on the evolution of industrial design education. Today we have answers from Karen Hofmann, chair of product design at Art Center College of Design.
How different is industrial design education today than it was ten years ago? Will it look very different ten years from now?
The core visual, technical, creative, analytical and presentation skills that we need to teach industrial design students are quite similar today to what they were a decade ago. The process of understanding people's needs, identifying opportunities for innovation, giving form to ideas and realizing solutions is the core of what we teach and do as designers. In the product design department at Art Center, we value strong foundational skills along with a human-centered approach with our curriculum grounded in professional practice. What have evolved over time are the tools (design research, digital visualization and rapid prototyping); the workflow (toggling between analog and digital at a faster pace); the application of design skills (multiple career paths); and the expansion of the discipline (roles and responsibilities).
A decade ago we were very focused on product innovation. The value of design at that time was producing novel concepts and beautiful artifacts as a result of a comprehensive design process. Design education at that time was very "tool-based," as designers were known purely as "makers" or "visualizers." Student portfolios needed to show expertise in drawing, ideation, form development and model-making (analog and digital) in order to get hired. Design research was also emerging as a necessary "tool" and a skillset that added value to the product innovation process. Our curriculum made a serious commitment to emphasize design research and enable students to learn how to be "translators" of human needs, insights and data into meaningful opportunities and concepts, along with being visualizers and makers.
Since then we have seen an expansion of critical skills that are now integrated into our curriculum along with the core making skills—generative research methodologies, envisioning future scenarios, material innovation and advanced manufacturing knowledge, life-cycle analysis and sustainable design principles, as well as social innovation and business practices. The value of design has expanded beyond making products to also designing the entire user experience, services and eco-systems. As business organizations continue to embrace design, the role of the designer expands as well. Designers are not only responsible for visualizing and making, they now are "facilitators" as the design process has become more participatory and collaborative inside of organizations as well as with the emergence of open innovation models. This kind of facilitation role requires leadership skills and an understanding of how to work in a team. More and more cross-disciplinary team projects have been integrated into our curriculum to respond to this need.
Karen Hofmann (left) and a Samsung-powered tennis training system designed by James Cha, who graduated in August
We are also in the era of the "design entrepreneur" in a crowdsourcing culture where designers have direct access to the marketplace. This is incredibly exciting but it also requires more in-depth business knowledge to find success in launching ideas or new businesses. This business knowledge is also critical for the design "intra-preneur" leading innovation inside of organizations. Now more than ever, designers need to be saavy in corporate culture, know how to navigate organizational structures and be familiar with the language of business. As design and business continue to converge, and the value of design is embraced, the responsibilities of the designer will continue to expand. Today our biggest challenge in design education is compression—how many of these critical skills can we integrate into a four-year education?—when the industry is demanding that students have the depth of core design skills but also demonstrate abilities to think broadly and have more breadth across other disciplines.
As we move forward, we are anticipating that in the next decade designers will continue to be innovators and inventors—but that they will also have the opportunity to take on more significant leadership roles in organizations, from startups to leading multinational corporations and even governments. Perhaps designers will become "culture leaders," as ambitious and daunting as that sounds, because business organizations and society at large are embracing design as a process for transformation. Designers are playing significant roles in tackling the world's "wicked problems"—from healthcare and education to creating new economies. With that, we need to begin educating designers to navigate political landscapes, policy-making, economics and social structures.
What would you say to a prospective student who worries about the relevance of an ID education in an increasingly digital world?
Our world will always have objects, environments, services and systems that need design. While our tools and experiences are moving toward digital interactions, there will always be physical, visual or multi-sensorial manifestations that are part of the input and output of those interactions. Design will be the differentiator in how successful or meaningful those product experiences will be. Our physical and digital worlds are converging—a great example being the explosion of wearable technologies. The wearable tech world is filled with sensors, software and devices that need a human-centered approach to bring those technologies to life. Today there is a plethora of technologists and entrepreneurs introducing wearables that are in great need of design's iterative process to define how these technologies can improve or revolutionize a human experience.
Another thing we talk a lot about in regard to the value of an industrial design education—that really is beyond the digital issue—is that the process we teach can be applied outside of traditional industrial design fields. Over the last few years our graduates have been entering the fields of social innovation, advertising, brand strategy and business consultancies. This is largely due to the ability industrial designers have to think holistically and empathetically about problems, and to leverage an iterative process to generate numerous ideas and prototypes to test, validate and refine a series of solutions.
What sets Art Center's product design program apart from ID programs at other schools?
Art Center is a year-round program. There are three 14-week terms a year, with three- to four-week breaks in between each term. This model has shaped the Art Center culture to be one that is quite intense and reflects the pace of work that is found in the industry. This cycle allows for students to take internships in the fall and spring term, not just over the summer, which has proven to be an advantage for our students, who all work and learn at different paces. Being in Southern California, with numerous design consultancies, automotive studios, entertainment designers, startups, artists and fabricators in our own backyard, provides great access to creative resources and influences the mindset at Art Center. The majority of our faculty teach only one or two courses, as their full-time commitment is to their practice. These working professionals bring a high level of industry relevance into the program that keeps the curriculum geared toward contemporary professional practices. Along with these practicing designers are very loyal alumni that come back to the campus to speak, critique and mentor our students. Plus, Art Center's industry partnerships with corporations and other educational institutions influence the curriculum and the educational experience, and help prepare our students to enter the industry as working designers.
As faculty and educational leadership, we are discussing how the "experience portfolio" has become just as important as the students' portfolio of work. We believe that students need to have global experiences via our study-away programs; have at least two to three internships prior to graduation; participate in sponsored projects; and become involved in the community through clubs on campus or local organizations. These are a few models that are unique to Art Center and have proved to add tremendous value to the students' educational experience.
Over the last decade the product design department has had a partnership with INSEAD international business school, and once a year we send several students to the campus in France or Singapore to collaborate with MBA students on a design and innovation project and take a series of business courses. This kind of immersion has enabled our students to attain a "mini MBA" and gain a deep understanding of business culture. Art Center has also developed a satellite program in Berlin where the city becomes the lab for a variety of design challenges. TestLab Berlin is a cultural immersion in one of the most accessible, creative and entrepreneurial cities in Europe. Finally, Art Center's trademarked DesignStorm gives students from various disciplines the opportunity to collaborate with industry professionals to define future market opportunities for an organization. These immersive three-day sessions that are outside of the curriculum bring together diverse mindsets and give our students the opportunity to experience a professional rapid-innovation process.
Calientamigos is a system that allows families without running hot water to heat and pressurize water for bathing and cleaning. It was designed by current seniors Tianyi Sun, Della Tosin and Kevin Chang.
What's the job market like for recent graduates of your program? Is now a good time to embark on an ID career?
Perhaps there has never been a better time to pursue an industrial design career, or any kind of design career for that matter. While the global economy remains uncertain, there is no doubt that creativity is being embraced by business and society at large. The design process—design thinking, design doing—is playing a lead role in organizations' innovation process. The career paths within industrial design also reflect the growing "multiple personalities" that are available for this next generation of designers. Areas of focus can be on the "front end" of design—design research and brand strategy, envisioners and concept development. Opportunities are growing on the technical side of design in 3D development and design engineering. Quite a few of our students are focusing on material innovation, color and material design, soft goods and footwear. And we are seeing a growth in the areas of social innovation and entrepreneurship.
We recently had 17 product design students graduate from our summer term; within a week, half of them already had jobs secured—this is before they even got their diplomas. The other half of the class now have multiple interviews coming up with a variety of corporations, consultants and startups. It's very exciting to see this trend grow from where we were a few years ago, with some very talented students entering the job market in one of the most challenging economic climates in history. Those tough times did force designers to become far more entrepreneurial, and that spirit plays a large role in our program today—we encourage our students to think about their goals in the next three, five and ten years, not just their first job out of school.
It is critical in today's competitive marketplace that designers know who they are, what their value is and what they can offer to an organization. A lot of this comes from having internships and real-world experiences that gives them an understanding of industry culture and helps formulate their perspective on their own careers. We also talk a lot about designers having multiple careers in the future—and the importance of being lifelong learners. Just because you graduate does not mean your education ends. The most successful designers are the ones that continue to add tools to their tool belt, as there is a good chance that this generation of students will have multiple careers over their lifetimes.
If you had to give just one piece of advice to an incoming student in your program, what would it be?
Don't forget to dream and develop your unique point of view—Art Center is going to give you all of the tools you need to be a successful designer, but it is up to you to craft your voice and shape the future.