What skills for the designer tomorrow?


The EDII Secretariat invited the leaders of Cumulus association to reflect on the report of the European Design Leadership Board. The authors of the following article are Prof. Christian Guellerin, president of Cumulus and Ms. Eija Salmi, secretary general of the association. Cumulus the International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media was founded in 1990 and today it includes 189 members from 46 countries.

What skills for the designer tomorrow?

Universities and colleges offering Design Education and Research also in the European Union are today opening up to different socio-economic backgrounds, making more partnerships and collaborating with institutions of engineering and business. The best ones have become innovation centres oriented towards business and research, where design is a discipline of management of complex projects, placing the user, meaning and progress at the centre of all concerns and needs.

The “Design for Growth and Prosperity” report published by the European Design Leadership Board reveals that design is definitely a strategic discipline for society. It allows a reflection on how we will live tomorrow. It is about giving new meaning to the future and reinventing the concept of progress, when we live a systemic crisis, a crisis of excess and morality that casts doubt on the future and creates distrust in science and technology. We are also going through a crisis of the capitalist system, where 97% of international financial exchanges are not based on a real economy. The end of the Oil Era, which comes along with the disappearance of coal, and more generally that of fossil fuels, coupled with issues like global warming, makes us reinvent our economic and social models. The era of moderation and saving could replace that of hubris.

It is clear that design has become a discipline of management and strategy. Management, since design gathers the staff and their skills around the solving of complex issues. Strategy, because design uses creation and innovation as a way to project into the future to ensure the durability of the structure and its profitability. For many companies, the future will be made of innovation, adaptation, flexibility and will depend on the ability to mutate or to change jobs. The flexibility of Apple is admired, allowing them to move from computer science to selling music, or selling phones, or iPhone services. They even offer us tools like the iPad, with which users can define on their own the functions they wish to get for themselves.

Designers are tomorrow’s managers

In this context, design schools and universities will occupy a prominent place amongst universities of technology, business and social sciences, the first two having to reinvent themselves, at a time when the share industry holds in the GDP of Western economies keeps on declining, and when mass marketing and the economy of consumptions tend to mutate into an economy of contribution and moderation.

This place will be even more strategic since it will carry strong cultural values. Institutions educating designers will become showcases for their countries’ and their territories of creation. If science and management are universal disciplines, creation is not. It is the vehicle of culture, identity and distinction. While globalization tends to standardize everything, defending one’s identity is essential. Whether it is for mankind, or more modestly for a brand, the matter is the same.

The question is being asked to training establishments: how can you turn designers, who were trained for creation, into project managers and strategists that can deal with the challenges that companies, territories, countries, and society in general are facing?

The evolution of design curriculum is on its way. If it was difficult ten years ago to work along with companies, this relationship is now free of restraint for most institutions. Companies are somehow a laboratory, enabling designers to forecast the uses of tomorrow. Companies entrust students with specifications reflecting their problems and thus feed educational curriculums in turn.

The objective of the training itself has evolved. If training creatives was once the goal, now it is about delivering diplomas to creative professionals. The quality of graduation projects is not enough. We judge the quality of schools at the rate of employment after graduation. It should even be judged on the careers that designers issued from training lead, a matter far from academic concerns today but which will become essential in the years to come.

Communicating, team-working and entrepreneurial skills are essential

Students have learned to work with the companies that will hire them tomorrow. The professionalization of curriculum is probably the most obvious of recent evolutions. This professionalization comes along with an obligation: That of working with others. If before the sole culture of individual talent was cultivated, professional collaboration has made designer students learn how to share. It is not only their creative talent that must be celebrated but their ability to work with others to enrich their ideas. Then design becomes a management discipline which requires skills in communication and entertainment. Creation is by essence a transgression, and it is inherently difficult to accept by others. It must be explained, in order to convince. Maintaining designers in the illusion that creation on its own is enough to justify its relevance is a mistake. The product created must communicate by itself, certainly, but without the force of persuasion of it’s author, many projects don’t get past the drawing board, by want of convincing explanations. Design is definitely a profession of communication.

Today’s students have the same talent as those of yesterday but they have more skills since they can animate workgroups and communicate better in order to convince. The students do research turning to serve the society and business and industry.

But the most essential changes are yet to come. Professionalization and the recognition of design as a discipline of management make students’ projects more and more relevant. The students’ conscience is more pragmatic and concrete. It is no longer about presenting scale models to degree juries, but functional prototypes or outcomes of research. To justify ones creation is no longer enough. The ability to ensure that the project is tested, delivered to the public or launched on the market is now crucial. Thus, design institutions become innovation centres, bringing together the scientific expertise, researchers, companies and institutions working on development and progress. They become mediators of a “research – training – business” relationship, definitely turned towards innovation, with the aim of identifying new uses, where scientists aim for technological performance and marketers aim for financial profitability.

The next step is obviously that of entrepreneurship. The more projects developed in design schools will be relevant, the more designer students will be inclined to developing them, rather than having it done by others, especially since the protection of intellectual property is increasingly difficult to control across the planet. Most students in China do not patent their projects any more, since they know that this is the surest way to have them stolen from them. Designers will become the entrepreneurs of their own creation. Having ideas is not enough; one must also make sure it is set in full motion. It will be a new era of entrepreneurship, more responsible, led by designers who are not only guided by the notion of business, but by the responsibility of defending the relevance of their ideas and that of inventing a future, different from the dark omens we are faced with. Design Education and Research has an important role for the success of future.

Christian Guellerin President of Cumulus International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media
Contact: www.cumulusassociation.org; c.guellerin@lecolededesign.com Eija Salmi; Secretary General; eija.salmi@aalto.fi

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