Big questions for big times: What makes a good design education? And what exactly will the designers of the future be expected to do, above and beyond (or as part of) a design career?

Over at the AIGA Conference last week, three mornings were devoted to the amorphous, faceless, “designers of 2025” and how their teachers now can best prepare them for a time that sounds futuristic, but is really just eight short years away. 

At the crux of AIGA Designer 2025, the name of both an exhaustive document (you can find the full report here) and the three days of symposia, are two fundamental questions: What principles underlie design practice and design education in the knowledge economy? And how are these principles different to those of the industrial age?

While these questions are general and their answers apply to courses, students, and educators around the world, a look at the predictions of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics helps explain how the landscape of design is changing. The Bureau estimates that there will be only a 0-1% growth in traditional graphic design positions between 2014 and 2024, falling well short of the anticipated 7% growth across all sectors. (Plus, 20% of graphic designers working now are self-employed, suggesting their successors will have to build careers from the ground up.) 

The contrast to this apparent stagnation of traditional graphic design-focused practitioners lies in design positions in “networked communications” [social media, app design, basically anything to do with the internet], which are expected to increase by 27% over the same period. As designers gradually change shape, the expectations on them are changing as well. How might educators change the shape of their classes accordingly?

Technology fluent, yet human-centric 

As the AIGA Designer 2025 report points out, “People are no longer passive consumers of information in this complex social and technological landscape, but active participants in generating the content and quality of experiences.”

That shift, coupled with a recent move towards adaptive and personalized ways of consuming and delivering information, has led to that ubiquitous chatter about “human-centered” design, an approach of design centered on people, rather than messaging or objects. That in turn means that the very nature of how and what designers class as research has changed: the research process is now not just something undertaken at the start of a project, but something that must continue through “ongoing feedback and evaluation of the consequences of design action” across the lifespan of messages, products, environments, and services that have been designed.

“Design is critical because it is the first signal of human intention… Humanity at the core of the design process is something we have to harness and take forward,”

says Mariana Amatullo, co-founder and former vice president of the Designmatters department at Art Center College of Design. Amatullo points out that society at large is experiencing “tidal waves” of changes. At the heart of these changes, of course, is our rapidly and constantly evolving technology.

Designers need to understand how technology is changing the world, and educators will have to prepare them for designing for these shifting circumstances. “A design education for the future is not one in which technology is simply a tool for the design or display of information but a data-rich, data-aware landscape that is reading and responding to everything we do,” writes the AIGA Designer 2025 team.

Well-versed in areas besides design

In the report and symposia, the AIGA team distilled the challenges and machinations of these changes into identifiable trends. One such trend is “complexity”—in that design problems are “increasingly situated within larger systems,” characterized by interdependent physical, psychological, social, cultural, technological, and economic relationships. This means that interdisciplinary teams are becoming more necessary, and that design problems increasingly hinge on collaboration.

Amatullo adds that design is now more widespread in quantity and quality than ever, and the boundaries of “design” are less certain. “The temporalities of design are more varied, and territories of design have been altered,” she says.

Design students today should therefore be addressing design problems across varying scales, and be able to identify the relationships between people, things, and activities within complex systems. That means educators should teach management and collaborative skills, and make sure that students are armed with the tools and processes they need for negotiating with multifarious stakeholder groups that will likely each bring their own differing agendas to a project.

Following on from that is a trend towards “aggregation and curation.” In other words, designers of the future will be expected to bridge gaps between seemingly disparate products, services, and information sources. This is particularly relevant to branding projects that draw together various messages, products, and services from different sources.

For example, audiences prize consistency between the messages and values that a brand or organization purports to uphold across all their products and services, as well as their social behavior (be that digital or IRL). Designers need to understand consistency in symbols and words, and recognize how these might be (mis)understood by their audiences.

They also must be taught how to design for the breadth and depth of how today’s (and the future’s) technological systems respond to context. A large part of those considerations relate to bridging physical and digital experiences, making the journey through a product or service as seamless as possible for users. As the AIGA Designer 2025 team points out, “new platforms amplify experiences in the physical world but also create gaps among devices and diversify the interactive behaviors required of users.”

Increased awareness of the implications of design 

As the Designer of 2025 report suggests, design students of the present and future need to be able to both deftly negotiate the concerns of various stakeholders within projects and also evaluate their work in terms of its potential social, cultural, technological, economic and environmental impact. What that essentially boils down to is accountability: designers now more than ever need to justify their research and outcomes, and be aware of potential issues around representation, interpretation, and dissemination of products and images.

Tyler Galloway, associate professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, nicely sums up how design educators should think: “Become a facilitator of dialogue, not a disseminator of ideas, but don’t withhold knowledge and experience,” he says.

“I have to acknowledge the power and experience disparities between myself and students; between students and audiences, and work to diffuse that. Give them space to become the experts.”

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