For as long as they’ve both existed, design education and “real-world” professional design practice have been engaged in a funny kind of dance, with design practice typically taking the lead. Design education is forever doing a two-step, shifting between skills training and critical practice; keeping close ties with or maintaining its distance from the business side; upholding strict definitions of practice or being open to trans-disciplinary approaches. And it’s unlikely that design education will settle into a groove any time soon. We want our universities to be nimble, but education also requires depth. Institutions can’t always keep up with the pace of change, partly due to bureaucracy, but also because of education’s foundational principle of rigor.
Here with a nifty potential solution is Acid House Barcelona, an “innovation center” founded on a “strategic alliance in education” between Barcelona’s design and engineering school ELISAVA and local communication agency Folch. The intention is to develop a “new training model” for education, as well as playing host to the Folch studio, a cafe, and spaces for brand showcasing. Innovation centers led by design businesses are nothing new, but the link to ELISAVA shifts the project into a different space that bridges university and industry.
Acid House is described as “a hybrid program that aims to be a pioneer in its field. Merging the incubation of ideas and projects with an academic vision… [uniting] education and entertainment in a radically innovative program endorsed by ELISAVA.” It’s a big statement, that involves some considerable challenges. Courses don’t start until 2020, so it’ll be awhile before the balance between education and brand partnerships becomes clear: how much will the program be geared towards learning and imagining, and how much will be focus on fulfilling promises to its partners?
There’s a big shift going on, and we see the world of education as a bit stuck.
Folch actually has experience in education, as well as close ties with ELISAVA. Creative director and founder Albert Folch co-directs ELISAVA’s Master’s in editorial design, and COO and head of brand strategy Rafa Martinez teaches strategic thinking in the Master’s graphic design course. Acid House’s head of education Vincenzo Angileri teaches in two Master’s programs at the university, and many of their staff either teach or study at ELISAVA—which all begs the question, why set up a secondary operation?
“In the last few years at ELISAVA,” says Vincenzo, “we’ve been pushing the bar beyond the classic figure of the graphic designer, to understanding the role of a designer as a director with multiple sensibilities: a global understanding of art and business, a knowledge of production systems, and a cultural background. Somebody who is able to create outstanding projects, more than just giving shape to it. Technique is not everything, it’s about ideas. There’s a big shift going on and we see the world of education as a bit stuck—when everything is changing, there’s the opportunity to rebuild, and create something new.”
By setting up as Acid House, there’s the potential to work with established approaches and to test other ideas. “The program aims to be agile, experimental, contemporary, and to move freely in a system that’s more traditional. We want to change that system from within, to create an alternative within a wider system that’s hard to change,” says Vincenzo. “We’re trying to understand what the role of a designer is today, to support unestablished, non-linear, and unconventional practices. Not giving answers, but helping find solutions.
“Students are rarely provided with the tools and means to learn how to understand their professions, and the increasingly multi-faceted, malleable role of a designer today” he continues. “We want to maintain a speculative and project-based approach and at the same time, be business-oriented. We want to prepare people for an ever-changing work scenario, and on the other side, to think academically, propose solutions, and create theses. As citizens and as designers, that’s crucial.”
It’s definitely true that design education needs to tackle the changing nature of work and the many directions designers can take professionally; and the fact that the Acid House Master’s program is legitimized and accredited by ELISAVA makes it an interesting proposition for how other traditional systems could innovate. That being said, it also raises questions around whether relying on private business to move things forward absolves public institutions and government of the responsibility to drive things forward.
We want to change that system from within, to create an alternative within a wider system that’s hard to change.
The MA program will be fee-based, with “partnerships and strategic alliances with brands,” Vincenzo says. And rather than focusing on portfolios, recruitment will consider a student’s goals and intentions. It’s still unclear exactly how the program will be structured, but the intention is that it’ll be nimble, “When we say ‘hybrid’ it means that in the future this programs can grow with new strategic alliances and new scenarios for education,” Vincenzo says.
Assuming that students have already covered the basics in their undergrad studies, an experimental and unconventional program sounds ideal for an MA program. It also aligns with Folch’s to work as well as Vincenzo’s practice, which he describes as being “woven together with creative writing, strategy, narrative formats, performative acts, speculative design, and activism.”
It’s undeniable that we connect to teaching and learning most when it’s done in a way that’s engaging and fun and feels vitally connected to our lives—as well as being rigorous and critical. The Acid House program acknowledges these potentially conflicting priorities and seems ready to make improvements and change as needed. Education benefits from restlessness—on the part of both students and the establishment—but as we move forward, it’s equally important that it remains a space of exception, offering temporary exemption from market constraints.