Design Education


“To say that the real decision-making process is a learning process rather than the application of knowledge.”

Arie de Geus

Last semester Ezio Manzini give a lecture as part of The Design for this Century curricula.  It was an eye opener to learn that the process of changing could also be designed. That idea set my goal for this short essay. I want to focus on the process that leads to change. Obviously, this bring us to very broad and open questions considering what type of change and at what scale of time and space these designs should take place. That’s why a narrow and clear frame need to be set.

Big policies and interventions only can lead to fruitful change if they are design to make a shift in how people conceive and think of themselves and the world around them. That leads us to the educational field as one of key places to make critical and clear design decisions that reconfigure the relationship between what is given and the possibilities we what to achieve.

By looking some aspect of the actual educational system and understanding where they came from, we can grasp the surface of the questions we need to make at the light of the challenges of tomorrow.

Any long term change needs to be carefully thought and re-designed from different perspectives, disciplines and scales in order to avoid the same mistakes from the past. This brief essay will fail to achieve such as ambitious goal. The purpose of this essay is to explore the actual configuration and open the question to new possible ways of negotiation.

Origin of modern Education


Written language has been out there for awhile – almost 4000 years  - but it only became something accessible for the majority of people not so long ago.

During the Middle Ages, most of the learning process was moderated by the Christian Church through oral tradition or images in cathedrals. Vitraux, paintings and sculpture where the materials that drove minds into the popular ideas and directions of that time.

Even now, we can see wonderful vitraux with very eloquent messages to any stranger. This unique way of communication provides an insight about the viewer at that time. Through these visual representations, we can understand the psyche and social conceptions of these medieval humans.  We can see a complex and mystical world, where God and his son Christ provided warranties and certainties to the lives of the people of that era. This was a dark world enlightened by the colorful illustrated glasses which were created by talented human hands.

Also, we can realize how little needed to be known back in those days. Quoting Clive’s diagram about the growth of the artificial, we can literally picture how small an amount of knowledge was required for common and daily-life subsistence. Much of what was necessary knowledge was related to the religion.

Technical knowledge was learned in master’s studios and workshops as part of an oral tradition. The artifact represented such an periphery role in society that relay in this unstable and volatile mediums.

This changed dramatically in the time between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. The exponential growth of development and production lead to a need for a higher level of education. As Foucault mention on Discipline and Punish, to satisfy the needs of this period, an education system was conceived from the same model and rules. A educative system forge to sustain and run this socio political growth.

In 1837, the son of a German Orthodox Lutheran Pastor was influenced by cathedral vitraux and conceived a new way of instructing. Friedrich Fröbel ( 1782-1852 ) laid the foundation of modern education based on the recognition that children have unique needs and capabilities. He developed an impressive set of educational toys call Froebel Gifts. Each gift was designed to be given to a child to provide material for the child’s self-directed activity. These Gifts are a series of activity-based playthings ranging from simple sphere-shaped objects and geometric wooden blocks to more advanced gifts pertaining to sewing, cutting, weaving, and modelling in clay. These became the first educational kits and the beginning of kindergarten.

On top of kindergarten, a educational system was designed as training to be part of this production chain. Back to Foucault conception, kids were treated as new elements to standardise and teach them how to follow orders and rules. Young wild kids entered this institution to be shaped and trained to become workers in the factories of tomorrow. To ensure a quality in this process, a pass figures test was instituted that determined which step on the chain students were on.

As we know today, the motivation of this process was the idea of individual development. It was founded on the myth that any individual, by studying and working hard, could achieve great success and status in the society. These kinds of ideas are reflected through grades and other incentives.

“Life is moved by two or three basic principles – one is cooperation, another one is competition.”

Arie de Geus

This design strategy was a clearly successful at achieving their goals. In very little time, the way that we think and see the world was transformed forever. This shift was one of the promoters of the exponential growth of the artifact from been something in nature and small part of daily life to becoming the building blocks of “tomorrow.”

I’m presenting this idea of building blocks on purpose to reflect one Froebel’s gifts that literally shaped the world’s perception. This colorful construction set that triggered the imagination in infinite ways, reflects the spirit of a period where everything could be achieved with enough resources, imagination and manpower.

This “innocent” toy propagate its own logic to its user. Like a perceptual virus, it influenced the way people saw and conceived of things.  The logic of the system gives specific answers to how we recreate things using these basic shapes. Just like the pieces of a Tangram kit, the idea of building blocks have invisible conditions that set rules for the making process. This rules are defined by how the pieces can be link together. These tacit rules determine how the final results will be constructed and how they will look.

This strong influence over the user’s perception is based on the intrinsic coherence between the pieces and their simplicity. These qualities make it easy not only to compose works, but also to decompose reality in the terms defined by these basic and atomic elements.

Another marvelous quality of this set is the concept of reusability. By buying new sets, the options and opportunities for creation scale in a non-linear way. Each set comes with some basic shapes (the blocks themselves) and some unique parts. The latter are heels, triangles, plane pipes, tubes, etc. This combination of generic and unique potentiate reusability and opportunity. The horizon of possibilities expands exponentially upon the acquisition of new sets. In fact, the combination of different sets with unique pieces, leads to new possibilities. While the acquisition of more basic and generic blocks expands the scale of the final product.

Because many of the generic pieces are combinations of pairs of smaller generic pieces, the user can play with basic principles of economy and reusability.  For example, a pair of four unit pieces could be replaced with one eight-unit piece. Like the others properties described, this multiplicity expands the universe of possibilities and permutations. The infinite number of choices and possible futures is what gives kids a launch point for the imagination. This makes the question not only about how to make something, but also about how to make it using fewer elements, reusing other parts and prioritising the aesthetic of the viability.

This marvelous set of elements brings much more than the possibilities of making things. It develops a sense of a relationship with the work. It defines a specific type of process where the user creates a dialog with the form. Like a conversation, the hands and mind work together with these little elements. The mind designs an artifact and, at the same time, the Legos reveal their own “intentions,” written on the shapes of the individual elemental pieces. This dialectic seems to me a wonderful mirror image of the negotiation process behind every design intention.

The last characteristic of this set of objects I want to emphasize is the lack of fatal consequences. In the playful conversation between the design intention and the inner rules of the elements, the user can explore freely without compromising the future of the work. There is always opportunity to go back, to try new ways.

It’s evident how this kind of toy, created during the industrial revolution, was conceived to shape the minds and the world of unlimited growth that lead the artifact to become the horizon of our society. Juan Bordes even suggests that these toys also shaped the aesthetic perception of several generations, and could be responsible for the revolutionary design paradigm of The Bauhaus School. Nowadays, we can see the influence of Bauhaus’ simplistic spirit everywhere, from the London tube to the Apple Store.


Education and Technology Today


“But the use of a social technology is much less determined by the tool itself; when we use a network, the most important asset we get is access to another. We want to be connected to one another, a desire that the social surrogate of television deflects, but one that our use of social media actually engage.”

Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

The previous review bring us to present times where new technologies and “gifts” are making a path back into the classroom. As happened before, the tools we use to learn have an inner logic that is projected on our way of thinking and conceiving the world.


“The best learning takes place through play, and you play with a toy or a transitional object, and the computer could well be an effective transitional object. The next step was to think, what do you need to make a computer useful to grownups to actually play with it, to experiment?”

Arie de Geus

The interactive interfaces of today are following the long path humanity has been walking down these last centuries. As with the catedral vitraux, we can study current technological devices of mass popularity, such as iPads, in order to understand the type of users these artifacts attract. What have we lost from the process of interacting with building blocks to these hyper-simplified devices of wonder?

 “While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.”

John Maeda – The Laws of Simplicity

Behind these bright and intuitive interfaces a big price has to be paid and not just in an economic way. In their creation, a big part of the technology as well as some interfaces options must be hidden. Everything about how these devices work has to remain in the shadows. Unlike the parishioners in the Gothic cathedrals, users today are easily frightened by an excess of elements or long manuals. We lose tolerance for all that is uncertain and unknown. Everything must be clear and simple for the modern user.

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation and Other Essays

But the truth is that these machines hold a lot of complexity, much of which is ruled by logic and mathematics. In both art and technology, people usually feel uncomfortable and locked out. The mathematical beauty of technological interactions is now invisible to the user: programing languages and mathematical equations seem to belong to a new type of secret knowledge. New scholars are been educated not as makers but more like users.  The new building blocks of technology grow as opaque, inaccessible educational tools which hide innovation disallowing experimentation, hacking, transparency and learning.

“… algorithmic code and computations can’t be separated from an often utopian cultural imagination that reaches from magic spells to contemporary computer operating systems.”

Florian Cramer – Word Made Flesh



Education for the Future


“My positive, ideal image of the future for the 21st century includes the spread of futures studies into colleges and universities, not only as centers and institutes but also as new, mainstream Departments of Futures Studies, composed mostly of interdisciplinary faculty appointments with other university departments. It includes, further, the spread of futures thinking into other departments, bringing a prospective component to most social research on whatever topic it is focused. And it includes bringing objective moral discourse into the social sciences as a legitimate and rigorous concern.”

Wendell Bell, Making People Responsible.


We can grab the building blocks and ask ourselves how much intrinsic logic helps for the future. How much can these toys help to us to think in terms of collaboration?  We can grab new iPads and laptops used by students and analyse how they “share information,” but how transparent is this information to the users.

These two example of learning materials have their own strong and weak points, but neither is really giving an answer by itself to the challenges of the future.  There needs to be a radical shift of mind in terms of efficient energy and renewable resources.

As Ezio Manzini said, we need to move from a society based on wishes to a society based on needs. One that could multiply resources by mutual collaboration. The crisis that we are facing has to be the fertile background that lead to the chance of change surrounded by the feeling of danger.

As John Thakara said, “out of control is an ideology, not a fact.” So is our responsibility as designers to think of instruments of learning that expose what is hidden, that encourage modularity in favor of diversity, and promote thinking in terms of community.

This shift will be about showing how things works, in order to democratize technology and knowledge, promoting a new generations of people to be aware of the presence of the artifact as a vast horizon that we can re-negotiate.

For this I want to rephrase one of the axioms of my first project but apply it to designing a new education system.  A better education system in which the content and mediums are:

  • not based on real needs, not on magic solutions and wishes
  • propose a transparent model
  • promotes collaboration and not individual realisation
  • is conscient about limits resources
  • invites reflection


Some of these ideas are related to Jonah Brucker-Cohen. We can picture the educative field as an excellent place to “reconfigure rule sets to allow for new relationships to emerge.” And to explore how:


  • “altering established rule sets changes the engagement structure of a system” (Jonah Brucker-Cohen)
  • “creating openness produces increased opportunities for risk and play” (Jonah Brucker-Cohen)
  • “increasing the proliferation of ways of connecting demands new relationships emerge.” (Jonah Brucker-Cohen)
  • “amplifying metaphors deconstructs expected norms” (Jonah Brucker-Cohen)


What is happening now?

Looking around we can see the emergence of new ways of gathering and working. New moves represented by the word “open” are appearing with more strength and radical ideas. Words like open source, open hardware, open farms and so on are no longer utopias. They are hidden and decentralized institutions that are reusing the building blocks of network communication to reshape the way we learn and share knowledge.

Movements known as Do-It-Yourself are reflecting a true spirit of sharing and unofficial education that is challenging all institutions, changing the complete conception of making from product manufacture to media entertainment.

We are near the epicenter of this phenomena in the arts fields. Amazing artists such as: Golan Levin, Casey Reas, Ben Fry,  Scott Snibbe, Zach Lieberman, John Maeda and Robert Hodgin, are pushing the limits of art education and creative thinking by motivating students from different backgrounds to learn how to code and write their own programs for expressive and creative purposes. Each and every one of these people has to learn a new cold and abstract language very different from the skills they are used to.

A new, hidden career was born. In this new media field, developing platforms, projects, and tools such as: Arduino, Processing, VVVV, MAX/MSP, openFrameworks, Cinder and Pure Data are becoming skills and need stops on a tacit syllabus in a new generation of artist.  There is an invisible path to follow through these tools and each novice will prefer one over others.

It’s not written anywhere but these tools configure a new curricula not for tomorrow’s professionals, but for today’s new media artists. Like a new Renaissance, this movement is making its own expressive elements, art pieces and philosophical manifiestos. Traditional educative institutions are fighting to catch up to satisfy this need and re-writting everything that has been said about learning in order to cope with this paradigm revolution. Now, as never before, people of completely different backgrounds, ages, and levels of expertise coexist. The educative model is being pushed to the limits and must be review and update its frameworks constantly. Programs as Parsons MFA DT, NYU ITP, and Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University are pioneers in this process.

From the perspective of those who start learning, it’s a journey for curious and self-driven people that involves audacity and hard work. Sometimes the transition from one language or platform to another could be harder than expected. Most people experiment with the tools until they find one platform / language that satisfies their expressive and creative needs.

People choose not just because of the technical skills required, but also because of the type of community that surround each platform. The gathering and share of knowledge it’s an important part of these communities that learn how to collaborate with each other.

Also, new members are driven by curiosity and artists’ precedents. Open source projects published on Internet have literally widened the spectrum of what’s possible not just with technology but in terms of careers opportunities. This movement has made it possible to create amazing work with little technical background and make a living out of it.

Following this creative need most people engage in a self-driven learning processes through video tutorials and forums. This suggests the opposite of a traditional, archaic, passive learning and implies that the knowledge is achieved by making and having a direct experience with the materials.

All this exposes the need to have better ways of teaching and encouraging a better practice.  We are just scratching the surface of a deeper and a more profound change that is happening and I invite both students and teachers to meditate and review it constantly.

By seeing this through the words of Ezio Manzini, we can realize how this movement is not just happening strictly in social innovation, but also in the heart of new technologies where “participatory design,” that includes “linear co-design process and consensus building,” is driving artist to “creative and proactive activities, where the designers’ role includes the role of mediator (between different interests) and facilitator (of other participants’ ideas and initiatives), but involves more skills and, most importantly, it includes the designers’ specificity in terms of creativity and design knowledge (to conceive and realize design initiatives and their correspondent design devices).”

In my opinion, these new media movements are not just agonism of political ideas. Understanding agonism as a “generative frame shifts us to considering adversarial design as a process” (Carl DiSalvo) and as the manifestation of a new process of learning, sharing and collaboration. One which has the intrinsic logic of critical design as interface proposed by Jonah Brucker-Cohen based on: “Supplementing,” “Uncovering” and “Hacking.”

I believe this movement reflects Humberto’s Maturana second conception of an emergent social art.  I think in the next years this emerging style education will be one of most important change shifters. This way of learning will open humankind into new ways of perceiving the richness of difference. Hopefully this will redefine the relationship between the part and the whole.