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Blow Up the Design School! Part 2
Rah! Rah! Sis! Boom! Bah!

by DK Holland

As baby boomers1 (former 1960s radicals, idealistic hippies) start slowing down, the hope is that the new boom generation, the millennials (18- to 28-year-olds, savvy optimists), will rev up and lead us to a bright, new future.

While baby boomers have achieved the highest level of volunteerism in US history, they are also dropping out of the workforce, often not by choice. This may be why a designer (an active member of the Revolutionary Communist Party while in design school) confided in me recently, “I sit in meetings with my younger colleagues and somebody brings up the ’60s. I want to jump in but I zip my lips.” She is not wary of revealing she’s an ex-Commie; she’s terrified to let them know she is over 60.

The experience that comes with age is not always valued in the workplace, especially since salaries have been flat for eight years and good design jobs are highly coveted.2 Research3 shows that the stress of rapid change has taken its toll on the calcified brains of baby boomers as they struggle to keep up with new technology (if in fact they try at all). Since boomers define themselves by their careers, all this has led to a conflicted relationship with the technology that now dominates, indeed has redefined, the professions of graphic design, illustration and photography.

Millennials, on the other hand, are tech-boom babies who cut their teeth on bytes and bits. But while technology is an essential in their design toolbox, they know it has limits. If there’s a ray of hope for us aging professionals, it’s that the wisdom we've gained (which only comes with a diploma from The School of Hard Knocks) is coming back into vogue.

Terry Irwin was a senior designer when she left Landor Associates, perhaps then the largest branding agency in the world. The year was 1989. She went on to become a partner in MetaDesign, also a San Francisco-based international branding firm. Frustrated by the ethical compromises she faced in the world of business, 9/11 was the final straw for her, Irwin “sold everything” and left the country to pursue her master's degree in holistic science at Schumacher College in England, studying with revered physicists and deep ecologists as well as environmentalists including Fritjof Capra. But she continued to straddle the professional/academic world on two continents, serving on AIGA’s national board as well as organizing AIGA's 2003 Power of Design Conference4 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Power of Design was meant to start a dialogue with designers about their roles as agents of social change. Ahead of its time, this message was not well-received. For one thing, many established designers did not want to hear they needed to adapt to a changing world: They staked their futures on maintaining the profession's status quo. However, Irwin says, “At the end of every talk I gave, I was deluged with questions from young people wanting more information about how to design differently and about the changes in lifestyle that working this way implied.” This enthusiasm and courage from young designers–their gusto to tackle wicked problems—impressed Irwin.

Fast forward to 2009. Irwin was nestled away in a quaint cottage in the countryside of Scotland, happily married to a fellow professor and PhD researcher, when she was approached by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to become head of the design school. She knew and they knew that she could make a difference by implementing all she had learned and the wisdom she had gained. This opportunity was so unique and appealing, it lured her home.

Irwin’s study of living systems has prompted her to take a longer view. She observes, “Humans (and therefore designers) often rush head-long into solutions based upon new and/or powerful technologies without considering the ramifications: The focus instead is on quick, usually profit-related, results. Designing for society and the environment requires designers to take a longer view. This challenges educators to become co-learners along with their students. At CMU we are increasingly more focused on real-world, place-based solutions that incorporate both social and environmental concerns. Designing this way requires students and faculty to develop: trans-disciplinary collaborative skills, a commitment to lifelong learning, a fundamental understanding of eco-literacy, place-based knowledge as well as a deep understanding of living systems' principles such as emergence, self-organization and diversity.” She adds, “Each course adds elements relevant to the school's new mission.”

CMU design students have helped develop business plans and models that lead to actual implementation. Students work with various museums, community groups–developing new thinking in broad areas. For instance, FitWits5 was developed by a CMU faculty-led student team to strategically communicate the importance of nutrition to disadvantaged families in Pittsburgh’s schools, and online, in a very graphic, engaging way.

Irwin says, “Students are always working on two or three reality-based projects, sponsored by, for instance, Motorola, Microsoft, Nissan.”

Since it’s a university, the tuition is steeper than a design school's ($44,000 a year for a BFA versus $30,000). But CMU grads are highly sought after and Irwin says, “Our job fair, Confluence, is a big event. Starting salary offers range from the mid $40s to $90K for a grad with BFA or masters.” CMU graduates are known for striking a good balance between theory and process and form giving.

Irwin observes, “As Einstein famously said, ‘You cannot solve problems from within the same mindset that created them.’ And I believe there are two meta-level challenges that we as design educators face: to incorporate knowledge from outside the design disciplines into design curricula (as part of the challenge to re-skill society) and to develop a new ethos, i.e., a more mindful way of being in the world.”

Seemingly design students and professors pick projects on a whim, develop it to some degree, present it and then move on, tossing it into ye ole landfill or, at best, filing it away. We need to get away from the dilettante mentality. (Which, like masturbation, is a lot of fun but what are you left with?) Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.