Interview for a magazine of Education
Christian Guellerin has been the director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique for 13 years. This former head of a business school, who has also worked at the Chamber of Commerce of Nantes/St Nazaire, has established a spirit of management and entrepreneurship within his design school – a complete turn around for this industrial design school created 20 years ago.
How can someone who is not a designer with a background in business run a successful design school?
My job is not to be a designer, but to manage a school with the responsibility to ensure that graduates find work as designers when they graduate. Did anyone ask the CEO of PSA if he was a mechanic and able to change a cylinder head gasket? This issue reflects the difficulties that the professional design environment has in freeing itself from its technical mold and in opening itself up to innovation, management and strategy. These are dimensions that the designer legitimately can and should now claim. Design can be defined in a number of ways. We have clearly opted for a socio-economic approach: design enables us to create added value for business, development and social progress.
What practices from business schools have you implemented?
We have built a program which includes internships, partnerships with businesses and apprenticeships. This business approach was highly controversial a decade ago. I then said that the goal of an “industrial design” school such as ours was not to train artists but design professionals who should use their creativity. The success of our school should not be measured merely on the quality of its final projects but on the employment rate of its graduates.
Have the students learnt to work differently?
They have to learnt to work to specifications which are sometimes extremely restrictive. But it is precisely by dealing with these restrictions that students can show their creativity and talent. Students have also understood the importance of being able to communicate their projects. In this respect, drawing is one of the most relevant tools as it allows us to visualise and this approach is often more accurate than any explanation that goes with it. Whereas design was once primarily a technical discipline, it has now also become a managerial discipline. Designers, who were once so concerned to protect their individual work on their drawing board have now enriched their ideas through teamwork and sharing. While it is sometimes necessary to protect ideas, this philosophy has nevertheless led to hundreds of Soleau Envelopes (a sealed envelope serving as proof of anteriority for inventions valid in France) that will never even be opened.
How do you want to develop the school?
I believe that design schools in general have an important role in focussing on the career development of their students. Like business schools, students should be prepared to take on managerial positions after 5 to 10 years of professional experience. After design as a technical discipline and design as a management discipline, the next step is to establish design as an entrepreneurial discipline in schools. It is imperative that the 3 or 4 best student projects are developed in our schools. We cannot content ourselves merely with models, these projects really need to go beyond the academic sphere and companies need to be set up to give us credibility. This construction phase of the Ecole de design will be implemented via experimentation laboratories: we have just set up READI, an interaction design laboratory and a second laboratory, specialising in “new eating habits” is due to open its doors in 2011-2012.
Another practice taken from business schools is the persuit for labels or certification, which have traditionally been unpopular amongst art schools….
Indeed, eight years ago we sought recognition by the state and certification from the Ministry for higher education for our 5 year degree, which would allow us to join the National Register of Vocational Certifications (certified level 1).
This certification has just been renewed for 6 years and the AERES report awarded us with an A+ grade, which we are proud of. We are also a member of the Conference des Grandes Ecoles (a French network of prestigious higher education institutions), a member of the university cluster organisation for research PRES Université Nantes-Angers-Le Mans, and we have partnerships – including double degrees -with the university and numerous engineering and business schools. Our fifth year students can follow a Masters in Entrepreneurship at the University of Nantes, a research based Masters in Virtual Reality at ENSAM or a Masters in tangible interfaces at Telecom Bretagne. Apprenticeship programs supported by the Regional Council of Pays de la Loire have also facilitated this professional recognition. In September 2011 we will be opening a Apprenceship Masters program in Design and Innovation,
As higher education is becoming more and more international, what are you doing to stand out from the crowd?
I was elected and then re-elected president of Cumulus, an international network of Design, Art and Media schools, which has 178 member institutions around the world.
That has enabled us to establish more than 70 partnerships with schools around the world and to set up Masters programs off shore in Shanghai and Bangalore. We are currently working on setting up a program with AALTO university in Helsinki and Politecnico di Milano. It is this international recognition which in the years to come will determine the recognition of an institution and particularly when Masters programs will be obliged to recruit the best students from around the world. It is therefore vital to gain international recognition to attract international students. French design schools have a unique advantage: they are founded on a culture of creation which is recognised the world over. The term “French designer” therefore has positive connotations, particularly abroad.