I’m often asked what my thoughts are on the future of design. It’s an intriguing question, and one that’s built into us as designers. While society asks, “Where are our hover boards?!” we ask, “How can these things be made?” Or if we’re more confident, we exclaim, “We can definitely do that. We can reach zero emissions. We can create better healthcare facilities. We can rebuild him; we have the technology.”
But one of the things I question constantly is *who* is the future of design.
I’m not a parent, so I don’t have the same type of first-hand experience with the public school system as many do. I’m also not an expert on education. I have many friends who are, and we’ve spent hours discussing the topic, but I am in no position to talk outside of what they have relayed to me. Education is an important discussion, just not one I am suited to lead.
However, I can talk about my own experiences and the windy paths I have followed in my life.
Some of you may be aware that outside of work, my two favorite past-times are volunteering with kids (most recently the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America) and painting skateboard decks. A big part of my love of working with kids is the realization that I wouldn’t be where I am today if the adults in my life hadn’t fostered a love of art, science, and writing.
Growing up, we didn’t have art classes, but I learned my color wheel because a classmate’s mother—whom I unfortunately only remember as “Red-Haired David’s Mom”—volunteered her time with us a few times a year. I know about Picasso and di Vinci because my third grade teachers fought to fit art into their curriculum in any way possible. And, of course, there’s my poor parents who probably despised the day they got a truck, but would still nod and say, “Sure, you can use an old set of gym lockers as a bookshelf… just clean them out thoroughly…”
My “little sister” in BBBS is seven, and she knows my home is a place where reading and art are encouraged; books, art, and antiques are everywhere. We spend a lot of time discussing the trinkets strewn around: that’s a painting my friend did, that’s a prayer jar I picked up in New Mexico, that’s a photograph of New York City.
Last week, I was in the middle of creating two new skateboards for an art show, and she asked if she could paint one. So we dug out my paints, laid out the drop cloths, and got to work.
I remember seeking validation in my art growing up, but it was a different experience being on the other side this time. With every dot of color, she’d look up and ask if it was alright. When the orange of the heart she was painting pulled in color from the black outline, she reacted in frustration. She spent more time looking up in anticipation for my reaction than looking at her board.
That is, until around the 15 minute mark when she realized no matter what she did, I was going to respond with a smile, nod, and pointing out what I liked about what she had done. Hesitatingly, she asked, “So… I can do ANYTHING?... Will you get a photo of me throwing paint?”
The final result is stunning and so far removed from the frustration of painting the perfect heart and stars she had been so painstakingly focused on in the beginning.
Since coming into the position of EIC in December, one of my focuses has been on student exposure—whether looking for bright stars to highlight on our Designers to Watch Out For page, or providing elementary schools with old magazines to introduce them to art and design—because while it’s interesting to think about a future of flying cars and zero emissions companies, the who of the future is something I can actively engage in.
During the last few days of April, I was invited to the Virginia Commonwealth University student show. For 48 hours, students and I discussed their projects while the conversation turned to the future of design education with the professors. It was an experience that left me remembering why I fell in love with design. Sure, there were logistical issues I questioned them on, but that’s the amazing thing about the freedom of creativity that happens outside the corporate world.
One student, Thomas Kennedy (as seen in June’s “Designers to Watch Out For”) presented an office building/co-op market/public farm where the boundaries between public and private blurs. Professionals working in the open office plan on the second floor were responsible for watering the co-ops vegetables blooming in planter boxes in return for a wellness-focused space, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I pointed out that putting employees like me in charge of the co-ops produce would be a terrible idea (I’ve killed cacti before), to which he responded, “That’s ok. Someone would water it.” I asked what company would want to work in an open office above a farmer’s market. He responded, “Someone will.”
And he’s right. That office space is perfect for someone somewhere, and Kennedy is able to create that space because he’s worried about design and responding to issues surrounding wellness in the office place. He isn’t bogged down by the realities of leasing out a space immediately.
It’s exciting to see how universities are raising the next generation of designers to address contemporary issues, and every month we get the joy of seeing a little deeper into that process as we suss out designers for Noteworthy, but I can’t help but wonder about how design will look a little further down the road. Will my Little’s generation feel comfortable throwing paint and proudly proclaiming, “It can be done”?
I wonder about future designers because as much as we are responsible for designing products with zero emissions or bioengineering the next world-changing material, we are responsible for designing the designers who will come next—whether we volunteer our time with organizations like Leap in San Francisco or PubliColor in New York, or donate our used magazines and supplies to public schools. Supporting the designers of the future should be part of our discussion when asking what comes next.