Thinking Academically About Design
Too practical and devoid of the sort of hard-hitting academic theory that gives disciplines like architecture such credibility are what design's leading thinkers say must change. And that starts with education.
Fashion is still often seen as a frivolous pastime of the young, a hobby of wealthy women with too much money and time on their hands or a subject for women’s magazines. Studies about the topic often start with an apology or an explanation of why an academic would get involved with such a subject.
“I do not know of any other discipline in which this happens,” says José Teunissen, lecturer in fashion design at ArtEZ in Arnhem. Teunissen was the first speaker at the symposium Design Denken (Thinking Design) organized by Premsela – Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam this week.
Design, like fashion, is often seen as nothing more than luxury products in flashy packaging, devoid of any intellectual underpinning. To continue its successful streak of the last decade, Dutch design needs a scientific base, says Premsela director and the event’s host Dingeman Kuilman. “Design education is too much tilted towards mastering the craft, and too little attention is given to theory,” says Kuilman. “This means that students lack the necessary theoretical context and when results are detached from knowledge they are not sustainable.”
Thinking Design was organized to garner more support for this idea, and to publicize the special masters course on design culture the VU-University will launch this September in close cooperation with Premsela.
Teunissen, one of those rare theorists now working in an art school who left a university position to take the job, says recent studies and exhibitions are finally beginning to show how fashion is a cultural phenomenon – not just a superficial lifestyle choice. It can best be described as a mirror of the hierarchical stratification and the various sub groupings of society. “There is common ground with architecture and design,” says Theunissen, “but a difference as well: fashion is worn on the skin, by everyone. Knowing how to dress is an essential part of being a member of society. It’s what makes us an individual. At the same time it shows developments in democratization and globalisation. Fashion might be the most complicated topic one can study.”
The next speaker of the evening was Gerard Unger, a professor of typography at the University of Leiden. Typography, he says, is connected with our daily lives in a similar way to how fashion is. “With a swipe of a finger the reader of an iPhone can enlarge the font of whatever he or she is reading,” says Unger. “If that had been possible with a book, one would have immediately ruined typographical balance like spacing and breaking off words.”
Technology can’t be stopped and software designers have already solved these issues. “It is often said that with so many technological developments, young people no longer read, but is that really true?” asks Unger. He quotes a recent headline in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad: “E-readers have made reading hip again.” There’s a whole generation growing up reading from screens, not books. Again, like in fashion, design interacts with, adjusts to, and mirrors developments in society.
The final speaker was one of the teachers of the new VU-course on design cultures, Dr. Javier Gimeno-Martínez. He traces the development of the theoretical underpinnings of design back to the United Kingdom with the establishment of the Design History Society in 1977. The essential element of this new discipline was, however, its openness to influences from many other fields of study: from corporate history to anthropology. It took more than twenty years before this was followed up internationally with the establishment of the International Committee of Design History and Design Studies in Barcelona in 1999. The seventh conference will be in Brussels this September and Gimeno-Martínez will be the convenor.
Images: small from top Teunissen, Kuilman, Unger and Gimeno-Martínez - all except Kuilman by Sander Marsman.
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