Return to / go to ds21 Draft Papers
Return to / go to details of ds21 Members
Return to / go to Design Synergy HOME PAGE

Education for Metadesign

Naomi Gornick October 2005

John's ds21 project overview raises questions in regard to the future of design education:

‘Ecological design as a discipline is still too over-specialised, politically confused and emergent to make a sufficient impact. Our economic system encourages consumers (and designers) to live (and design for) a scale and pace of consumption that can make Eco-design counterproductive. Arguably, designing a ‘total living style’ is too complex for traditional modes of design because it would require the cultivation of a discourse of synergy that goes far beyond what conventional designers are trained to accomplish. Such a high level of complexity calls for the development of an appropriate mode of ‘metadesign’ that will incorporate synergistic methods within whole systems.’ (John Wood, notes - 14/10/05)

Some Notes on What Should Happen Next

In the light of the above analysis we might ask: How do we teach ‘metadesign’ to design students and to practising designers? Should traditional design education transform itself into metadesign education? Could traditional design education transform itself into metadesign education (bearing in mind an equally traditional reluctance among design educators to countenance change)? Should there be a separate discipline of metadesign education, alongside traditional design education? Or should design education remain as it is, highly discipline-based, and other related professional disciplines ie sociology, anthropology, media, move into metadesign education?

In the post-industrial global economy there is now a wider range of career paths for designers that relies directly on new skills acquired in their undergraduate education. In the present economic system, emphasis has been placed on design students’ entrepreneurial and managerial skills in order to be effective leaders in small to medium size businesses, be these design consultancies, designer makers, small scale manufacturers or specialist service subcontractors. Less attention has been given to the large number of design graduates who wish to work within innovative organisations, which may be industrial and commercial companies, or various institutions including non-profit organisations, in an increasing number of different roles – stimulating new ideas and devising new systems as well as designing new artefacts.

In the large, international manufacturing and service corporations of the contemporary world, (many of whom, surprisingly, are helping to drive ecological change) the imperatives of stimulating creativity and harnessing innovation have created a new convergence of roles. We have entered the era of ideas – the idea economy is ascendant (IHT 3-6 October 2005) Companies seek managers who can use design thinking to enhance innovation and design-trained personnel who can take on roles in strategic decision-making positions.


Over the past two decades educators in a small number of design institutions in the UK, Scandinavia, Europe and USA have recognised the need to broaden design education in order to reflect global changes. Programmes exist in several national and international Colleges of Art and Design, normally at post-graduate level, that have been set up to address this need. A number of these initiatives focus on Design Futures, Eco-design and Design Leadership. Programmes have also been established under the umbrella title of Design Management both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. For the most part these new programmes are addressing familiar elements and problems in current business life without sufficient examination of potential future directions. It is inherently difficult to initiate these departures in design institutions under the present systems. The projects require courage, stamina and perseverance from educators. Although the field is expanding, the number of programmes and graduates remains small..

UK design education has a remarkable reputation with many outstanding individual designers. As a result, less need has been perceived for progressive change in undergraduate design education. Changes in programmes that have taken place are disparate, according to each institution’s predilection. Where possible, proof has been obtained of the progammes’ beneficial effect on graduate careers potential. However, there is now an urgent imperative for progress. Complex global conditions, environmental problems, changes in organisational culture, accelerated developments in new technology and new science and management systems urgently require new directions for design education.

A Design Council-sponsored Design Skills Campaign working with the department of Creative and Cultural Skills has started to look at the future of design education. In the new, and very comprehensive, 2005 Design Council survey on the state of the UK design industry there was remarkable disparity between the expectations of basic design graduate skills required by design consultancies and the educators’ response. For example, respondents were asked: ‘Are business skills important in design education?’ The answer: ‘93% of designers think that business skills are either essential or useful in the design curriculum; 54% of design colleges think that business skills are either essential or useful in the design curriculum’. This is an extraordinary mismatch that sadly highlights one of the major dilemmas facing designers today.

There are many ideas circulating about just how design education should change. There is very little action, too little experimentation. At Brunel, we always maintained that the development of our graduate program had long- term implications for future under-graduate design education. If long-term solutions are not found speedily, in due course the whole profession and industry will be compromised.

New models of design studies have to take in account the new contexts for designers. Dynamic flexible individuals are required for new design-based roles in industry and consultancy to deal with the rapidly changing arenas of commerce, politics, legislation and society and the changing demands of both individual users and user groups

There is requirement therefore for enlarged sets of skills and abilities and new kinds of knowledge and knowledge processes. This metamorphosis has already begun; these new roles are emerging gradually. The numbers are small, but there is a steady development. Here’s an example:


Jake McLaren? was an excellent industrial designer who became a student of the Brunel University MA Design, Strategy and Innovation programme and graduated in 1996 with distinction. For the last five and a half years he has been working with Nokia at their HQ in the UK as Environmental Specialist, Design for Environment.

His role is to embed and manage environmental issues within the R&D function of Nokia. The scope of his work is development of mobile phone products, within the Multimedia Business Group. This is very much about operating in an influencing mode to make sure all the disciplines involved in R&D take care of various environmental issues. In short, he is acting as a environmental design champion within the company.

His tasks include,

  • defining and managing environmental requirements,
  • managing research and internal implementation projects,
  • supporting & training R&D programs during product development,
  • verifying requirements are achieved, monitoring & reporting.
  • process development, to embed the issues in the business functions.
  • external communication, representing the Nokia UK regarding environmental issues to suppliers, customers, media & govt.

In Nokia there are four environmental programs, of which the Design for Environment program is one. The others are, Supply chain environmental Issues, Environmental Management systems in our factories and offices, and end-of-life management (recycling issues).


In the UK and the West there are cultural shifts away from manufacturing. The movement is to services and to the looser affiliations of the creative industries ( arts, theatre, film, software, games ). Design is central to the new industries, new coalitions and cooperative ventures eg in extended supply chains. Invention/ research/design/ development /marketing/ retailing and wealth generation are linked components in the innovation process. According to UK government’s own figures, the design professions are the most efficient revenue earners (CI Report 1998 and Design Council Report 2005)

Creativity is seen as a central prerequisite of innovation. Creativity is not well understood by industry nor well taught (explicitly) in design schools. Design skills and ways of thinking are the principal access to creativity now recognised by most industrial, commercial and non-profit organisations.

The work of designers is now more universally pervasive and at the forefront of modern consumerism. And yet the designer's traditional role is being re-appraised by both clients and design practitioners themselves. Designers appear to have reached an important stage of public and corporate recognition, but at a level that does not adequately reflect their diverse range of activities and their true worth to society in the largest sense. Designers are now in a significantly enhanced position to lead. There is an expanded new world opening up for designers to enlarge their range of activity. Whether they choose to take up new roles or not, the expectations of their position in business life have become significantly heightened. Design consultancies are increasingly rising to this challenge by broadening their horizons and enlarging their frame of reference. Seymour Powell (UK consultancy) and Ziba Design (USA consultancy) are just two examples where executives acknowledge the changes they have had to make in their own organisational strategy to fulfil client needs.

Advanced design consultancies seem to be embracing the same type of strategic organisational development being prescribed for the integration of an innovation culture in industrial and commercial companies. They understand that they must advance to a position where their value is based on more than simply their aptitude to provide style and multiple choice.

However, many design professionals are still unwilling to countenance new activity that would remove them from their traditional pathways. In the current economy of consumption with all its concomitant panoply of waste and toxicity, it seems that they are firmly stuck in the status quo. In today’s complex conditions, designers will need to make up their minds where they want to be, and how they want to work. One has to ask: What issues are the most important to me? Designers have to put the whole of their intellectual life, not just their discipline training, into the deliberation.

Larry Keeley of the Doblin Group in Chicago said this in 2004 “In a world with far more designers, designing far more artefacts, some commoditisation is inevitable As ever, there is a cadre of individuals who want to think deeply about what life could be, what it should be, and what our role is in closing the gap with our daily reality. Thoughtful designers must find one another, and continue to ask the tough questions.

We must fundamentally embrace a watershed change in the nature of the role and the source of value that designers contribute today. The essential challenge here is to rethink what we ought to do and with whom. The times we inhabit are ambiguous, complex and volatile. Designers must make active choices, otherwise unpleasant options will be forced upon them. So many parts of human life need to be humanised, reinvented, made more gracious, involving and understandable. Corporations can’t and won’t do this in the best ways without being led by people with an acute design sensibility.”


There is already some provision within universities for building students’ awareness of the commercial contexts within which they will operate as practicing designers. Generally each offer differs according to the predilection of the college where the programme was developed. The programmes do not seem to be shared between colleges. There is a singular emphasis on SME type of design business and on individual design stardom. These programmes do not address those many graduates who choose to work in client companies in various roles or on experimental projects of their own choice.

A programme needs to be developed as an umbrella over the existing offers, providing a meta-view of design. It would provide a view of the future in a number of directions: design and technology, eco-design, design and the infrastructure of modern life, design and the economy, design and society. It is aimed at those students who wish to work at the interface between design and industry, who are accustomed to being ‘boundary crossers’ and who see themselves in roles as catalysts for innovation and significant future change.

In effect, education for metadesign would address the advice of Charles Handy (2002) ‘It is absurdly impractical to prepare oneself for the world as it was or as you would like it to be, when the reality is so different, and it is arguably immoral to educate others for a life that can’t be lived as it used to be,’

The problem we face is that it will be almost impossible to take a long jump to the ideal programme with one bound. Suppose we start with existing conditions in design education and create outward stages (in the manner of Charles Eames ‘Powers of Ten’) always moving towards a stage that could be called ‘Attainable Utopias’. A proposal could be to develop a series of programmes over differing time scales: Short term, medium term and long term. The knowledge generated in the short term would provide themes and activities for development in the medium and long term.

In essence the change required would need to be incorporated in stages. The long term would see design-trained graduates moving change as ‘idea practitioners’ in systemic ways through society, economies and politics.

These developing programmes will represent, at gradually enhanced levels, the main elements of the ‘metadesign’ curriculum: global issues, cultural and environmental issues, current characteristics of international organisations, analysis of creativity, communication skills

To an extent, the short term programmes have already begun. This new type of PG programme sees design and its management in a historical perspective. For example local studies within specific sectors are made of evolutionary trends. Significant case studies of evolutionary product portfolios can be part of the curriculum, specifically those companies with eco-design policies eg Toyota, VW, Herman Miller

Entrants will already have some experience of industry and commerce and come from
national and international backgrounds and be English speaking. There is starting to be a cross over of design professionals to management and from management professional to design and Fine Arts (See recent HBR article on the virtues of recruiting from MFA courses)

The ideal programme structure would be taken from material based upon existing enhanced PG courses, reformulated and extended. Modules could include the following:

  • Creativity/Teamwork/ Technology/Organisational culture
  • Outcomes/ Users/ Context/Systems

The main themes in the programme would be:

  • Creativity and visualisation
  • Business basics and innovation choices
  • Understanding users and system of consumption, intangible assets, ethics and sustainability.
  • Overviews and contextual studies of global changes in production, consumption, culture.

A major component of the programme is a design audit of major organisations carried out in small teams.
Internships are a desirable component of any programme.

The short term would begin to help design students to understand their position in a wider context – the following is an example of a new educational model for design

Traditional design education Towards Metadesign education
Design discipline pathways Holistic design
Individuals Teams
Designers and Design Designers and synergistic context
Starting from Zero Value of the ‘Real World’
Technical skills Analysis and Synthesis
Design in Theory Design in Practice

Three curriculum elements need to be addressed speedily: First, students need an understanding of the relationship of their own discipline to other major design disciplines in order to create an idea of ‘holistic’ design. Second, students need to understand the key global issues that currently affect design activity. Finally, students must be made aware of the range of career roles open to them and the type of new contextual knowledge they will need to fulfil those roles.

Naomi Gornick

Return to / go to ds21 Draft Papers
Return to / go to details of ds21 Members
Return to / go to Design Synergy HOME PAGE