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Design schools: from creation to management

Given the turbulent socio-economic climate, the number of remarkable opportunities awaiting design schools is not only impressive, involving the training of students who will occupy tomorrow’s top managerial roles, but also commensurate with innovation challenges facing businesses and society on the whole.

In the past decade, they have already undergone many changes, and are the focal point in several countries. That said, their evolution is not over: they will lay the groundwork for “centers of innovation” aimed at serving the financial front, and more generally, society.

Design schools are schools of creation, and for years, they have legitimately trained creative individuals, students comfortable with what engenders the specificity of the designer: that is, representation – namely through drawing – of products, space, life scenarios. The students were perfectly aware that what was asked of them did not necessarily need to be understood at once, for it involved a creation, a transgression of reality whose inherent nature did not always coincide with that of the general public.

For years, the designer has voluntarily delighted in this logic that made him a “creative person” donning a “singular” inspiration, who worked alone on his drawing board, and sheltered himself from others who could steal his ideas. Schools – in France especially – have encouraged this particular approach of “creative designers”, “artist-designers.” They have developed on the fringes of all academic institutions and/or prestigious schools incapable of working together during the rise of major university economic and/or technological research projects. Similarly, they have had little to do with companies on the grounds that the economic aspect and profitability could alienate the designer’s ability to create. Numerous establishments over the world continue to function on this model. Their success has enabled them to produce “artist-designers”, some of whom having acquired international acclaim.

Two factors forced some schools to move toward more professionalization. One was the awareness that design, creation and innovation were a superb engine of growth and development for businesses. The other, new to the field of design education, was the requirement that an institution was not to be judged only on the quality of its graduation projects, but rather on the quality of job opportunities found by students.

The responsibility of design schools has evolved: the focus is no longer solely on training “creative individuals”, but “creation professionals.” These minds are creative ones, exhibiting adaptability and continuous change, aware of the economic obstacles lining the paths of those businesses with which they will be working. Joining forces with a multitude of backgrounds is capital, including engineers, marketing minds and financial folks, not to mention philosophers, sociologists and artists. To further embellish the creative process, exchange with those from myriad horizons is indispensable. Design has become a discipline of project management at the same time when innovation is becoming a strategic move for business and society.

Student designers must learn business at the same time as they learn sharing, collaboration, team spirit and the need to work together.

They must also learn management: design, a creation discipline boasting the individual aspect there within encouraged by teachers, has become a collective problem-solving activity of increasingly complex socio-economic issues. The designer is a project manager. Within the company, he is the driving force behind collective thought on new products, corporate services, image, brand, culture, etc.

As obvious as it may seem, learning the need to swap ideas was revolutionary in the apprenticeship phase and in the minds of designers. Teaching methods adopt a completely new approach, and engender a radically different responsibility.

From innovation to a new entrepreneurship

The chance to work transversally with companies and other academic disciplines triggers a new type of responsibility, one that targets the creation and production of the objective, achievable and profitable. Imagination works wonders, and is indispensable in brainstorming, but its value is best optimized when transformed into viable scenarios, commercialized products and services and market consumables. If, on the one hand, creation can – and must – justify subjectivity of its creator, then, on the other hand, innovation’s job is to ensure that the projects are viable. Faced with this requirement, design schools, aware of their responsibility, will, ultimately, take on a new identity: a center of innovation exhibiting an objective and reproducible nature. They will become “centers of experimentation” needed by engineering schools to lay out scenarios of technology usage in a less threatening way so as to sway undecided voters. Business schools, also, will seize the opportunity to revisit an approach to product design that has often been neglected in favor of distribution marketing or fundamental marketing research neither in tune or in sync with current business needs. The academic drift imposed by the Shanghai ranking of best universities will be offset by a return to what business schools do best, namely business management.

The most relevant schools have already created their “experimentation laboratories”, their “design factories” or are turning into corporate laboratories for those companies that have incorporated them. Befitting “research – training – corporate” ecosystems are already in the midst of assembling Masters of Design programs that increase the hybrid learning, dual degrees and multiculturalism.

Thus, the era of “entrepreneurship” is in motion. The more viable projects are, the more tempted students will be to develop them, and will not give others the chance to do so in their place. A new quality criterion will be implemented for the most efficient creation venues. The percentage of students who start their own business based on products they devised during their studies will be decisive. The more relevant the innovation approaches are, the more convincing students will have to be, by “taking the plunge” into the world of self-employment. In some schools already, and namely at the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, nearly 40% of 4th- and 5th- year students are already self-employed. The task to achieve is starting up a company for those students who have the ability and desire to do it. Implementation of “incubation centers” is expected. French design schools have a great asset in that they are sitting on a culture of creation recognized all over the world, and for their students, being a French designer is definitely a distinctive touch to exploit.

At a time when universities of management and economics are struggling to get a handle on the crisis, when engineering schools must demonstrate and defend progress, design schools could well be on their way to becoming “centers of innovation”, centers of experimental research needed by companies to help them think with a more objective lens and from another angle. A major social and economic issue is waiting to be addressed here, and it is notably in need of public authorities’ attention.

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