Role Reversal in Design Education

A new generation of students and an industry shift toward multi-disciplinary project teams forces professors to rethink their teaching approach.

by AnnMarie Martin

While each design school across the country might have its own brand identity and stake in the ground somewhere between theory and practice, all design education is grounded in the same traditions.

“Interior design education itself is very interesting because of its roots,” said Dr. Ellen Fisher, vice president for academic affairs and dean at the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). “It began from several sources: schools that focused on design history and the decorative arts; other schools that started with home economics, such as Cornell; and it also started from the field of industrial design and efficiency engineering,” she explained.

And while a solid foundation in elements such as color, fabrics and furniture selection and arrangement, texture, pattern, and balance has always been there (and is still to this day at NYSID in particular), that wasn’t always the case when it came to evidence-based design (EBD) and the study of what is truly good for inhabitants’ well-being, health, and safety.

“Projects got very complex and complicated,” said Grazyna Pilatowicz, IDEC, IIDA, LEED AP, and associate professor, chair, and founder of the Sustainable Interior Environments program at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) School of Graduate Studies. “And you cannot base your decisions on just intuition. Preparing students for the programming and the research of programming—that became more and more pronounced, and part of the education and expectation of what students have to know how to do. They need to know how to justify their design decisions. And that will apply to issues related to behavioral concerns or sustainability. It is about bringing whole systems thinking integrated design [into practice], where we realize things are working together and impacting each other, and students have to be aware that it isn’t about designing a piece in a void. This is a space which we’ll be interacting with.”

Today, ergonomics, biophilia and sustainability—all of which are supported by evidence-based design and the more systemic, programmatic way of thinking Pilatowicz identifies above—are of course now just as powerful a force in design education as the basics were and still are. This is in part due to more consistent quality controls that are in place thanks to the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), but also because of a new breed of design student with an ingrained sensibility for these matters and a heightened social conscience. “It’s something they’ve learned throughout their lives,” said Fisher. “They truly believe in and are committed to things such as accessibility and universal design,” and don’t just view it as simply a wheelchair ramp.

“I think we see ... in many programs a real awareness of all different sectors of our culture, and needing to design not just for the wealthy and residential, but all kinds of environments that help people to be happier and healthier and safer of course,” she said, speaking as a member of the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC).

These students have not only grown up with these values in place for what they want to learn, but there has also been a dramatic shift culturally in how they need to learn. Gone are the days of the lecture and even the lectern itself says Doris Guerrero, adjunct professor at California College of the Arts (CCA) and principal of San Francisco-based firm dForm.

“This semester I said, 'Let's try something different. Rather than being didactic about the work, let’s reveal the information and structure the exercises so that people have a chance to interact with each other first.'" she said. A lecture on ethics would begin with some reading assignments, followed by a discussion amongst students about the questions posed to them by Guerrero and her co-instructor. They would then report back to both the instructors and the other groups. “So it was more of a dialogue, and they were able to formulate in smaller groups their opinions and feedback.” Professors were “embedded” with their peers, she explains, rather than students having a sense of “I have to give this to my professor for approval.”

“They appreciate our wisdom but this issue of evaluation is the nuance of the different cultures. They want to be evaluated on their engagement in addition to the actual work,” said Guerrero. The new approach was a success as the semester resulted in the best round of finals they’ve ever had. “And they really taught us a lesson. They expanded my teaching, and I respect them for that. At the same time they appreciated that we took the time to slow the class down and really address what they needed culturally as a group. I really believe that with millennials it’s about them feeling empowered,” she added.

“We call it flipping,” laughed Pilatowicz. “Flipping is where you are creating an environment in which students are learning through teaching each other. And when you look at the pyramid of retention of information, the highest retention you get is if you teach others.”

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