Don't Throttle Design Education

Tom Kvan , 30 January 2019

Professor Tom Kvan argues the case for broad access to a design-based education and points out the profound societal benefits it brings.

2 - Prof Tom Kvan

It seems obvious. If you are producing a product that floods the market, the price will go down. If prices are too low, then throttle production and make the commodity scarce. So, if professional fees are too low, there must be too many professionals, so constrain entry into the profession! The place to start is to limit the number of aspirants who enter universities to study that profession so that the professional service is hard to access because there are fewer people offering the service. 

This simplistic analysis ignores several important things. (1) Education is not simply professional training; broader access to a design-based education has profound societal benefits. (2) The price for a product is driven by perceived value, not the quantity available. (3) Design services should be widely available, not only for the few who can afford it.

At this point, pull out your smart phone and search for ‘value of design’. There is plenty of material repeating the message that design makes for better services and a higher quality of life and is fundamental to addressing sustainability issues. Design-led thinking reveals opportunities to enhance our lives by identifying new functionality, better experience and more holistic thinking. Your smart phone itself demonstrates the point – a decade earlier you probably did not have one nor did you know you could benefit from using one.

Architectural services also benefit society broadly and those who provide it must be well educated. Professional education does not end with graduation from the university; it is a continuum throughout a life of professional engagement. A good graduate architect is one who responds to and learns from those first years in an office. The skills needed to be a director or partner in an architectural practice must be acquired during practice. A good senior professional is one who has acquired the skills to mentor and nurture younger members of the profession, ensuring successful generational transitions. Earlier, though, the years spent in a university are not only about skill building but also managing that transition from the more protected teenage years to being a contributor and perhaps leader in society and their community. Education and learning at each step has its particular focus but also broader contextual considerations.

Professions globally are facing the same challenges as architects in Australia who see a market that does not value their contributions and then demands lower fees. Consider Doctor Google (as an advisor in the self-treatment of medical conditions), the ready online advisor, which is challenging the medical profession. For architects, the challenge was illustrated decades ago by the distribution in Good Homes magazine of a floppy disk with a simple 3D modelling system, complete with supplier catalogues and model shapes, so everyone could design their own extension and renovation. Who needs expensive professionals when we have the tools to do it ourselves? 

A mature consumer, client or patient recognises that the service is not transactional, as the professional brings insights, knowledge and experience. As you know, the value of design is not just the image but in the way of thinking and in the execution, being able to conceptualise in a large picture and deliver to the detail.

Not everyone will be or wants to be a designer, but it is very useful for a broad section of society to understand the value of holistic conceptualisation and to know how to identify ways to translate this to execution. These skills have been recognised in a wide range of fields from politics to products. In this way, graduates of architecture programs have gone on to lead the change in diverse industries from web interfaces to fashion to social service delivery. The majority of the thousand who enter the architecture program Politecnico di Milano do not practise architecture in the traditional profile of the profession but contribute to the influence of design emanating from Milan. For architecture, though, the value is significant as the discourse of design is not limited to the smallest circle of the architecture profession.

By expanding design education through broader access and also by ensuring the curriculum is integrated across other bodies of knowledge, the university serves a generous role to help prepare society to innovate in all aspects. It also raises the awareness of the value of innovation, of design. If design is valued, it will be rewarded. Thus, professions are rewarded not by making services scarce and thus expensive, but by ensuring they deliver services of value. Medical care has been commoditised so the medical profession has worked to better understand where they provide value such as in the doctor whole-patient relationship.  

Over decades, architects have watched and commented on the proliferation of other roles that have eroded their work. The intrusion of paraprofessionals is not limited to architecture; it can be seen in all professions. This change is a symptom of the changes in professional value in society. Professions must change as previously difficult skills become readily understood and enabled, for example by technology. The magazine CAD package appears to make designing a renovation easy because designing was perceived as drawing lines on paper. We know the value of design but the magazine reader does not, until they realise their renovation is a horrible home. 

If you can come up with a product of high value, you can flood the market and keep a high price. Apple, Samsung and other smart phone manufacturers did that; they persuaded us that this innovation in non-voice communication had to be in our pocket. They are facing problems now. The market appears to be saturated and the production of smart phones seems to have peaked last year at over four billion units globally. Their industry faces the challenge of innovating the next step.

All professions are challenged in a similar way. For the design professions, we need more smart minds innovating not only our profession from within but also broadly in society to innovate the context of our design contributions. This broad design-aware community is informed in part by an education experience that is inclusive, accessible and more widely interpreted. A narrowly defined, prescriptive education available to a few cannot serve our profession well.

Tom Kvan was Dean of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, having previously been Dean at the Universities of Hong Kong and Sydney. He is an innovator in the use of computational approaches since before the personal computer was released, has advised design practices worldwide on their leadership and strategies, and has published extensively in professional and academic journals.

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