Dr. Mark Breitenberg
Icsid President-Elect
Chair of the Education Committee
Dean of Undergraduate Education, Art Center College of Design, USA

"Education by Design"  - This is the first in a regular series of original articles on issues in design education.

6 January 2006
In my visits to design colleges around the world, it is very difficult to find a school that is not practicing some form of interdisciplinary education. With varying degrees of commitment and success, it appears that everybody is doing it, or at least talking about it, as the many conferences on the subject demonstrate. Although industrial design has always stood at the intersection of business and engineering, the trend toward mixing and matching the design fields really took off about fifteen years ago, when design professionals began to recognize the value of collaborating with each other. What are the advantages and disadvantages of interdisciplinary education? As educators, how can we design successful interdisciplinary projects? What combinations of design fields are likely to produce the most innovative results?  How can we plan in advance to insure the best possible collaboration among students and faculty?

To answer the first question, it is important to acknowledge the small but sometimes vocal opposition to interdisciplinary design education. The most interesting opponents argue quite rightly for the importance of disciplinary expertise; they believe that an interdisciplinary curriculum will create “generic” designers who lack deep skills and knowledge in their fields. Other opponents, however, seem more concerned with protecting their own territory, driven by self-interest and job security. If you’re teaching in an Advertising program that’s about to be folded into Graphic Design, you’re likely to be strong proponent of disciplinary integrity and autonomy.

Given this situation, what should we do? Should we maintain disciplinary boundaries that offer depth of field and expertise? Or should we design curricula that encourage students to move across disciplines, producing designers who are able to synthesize different kinds of knowledge and skills and work well in collaborative teams? Do we want specialists or generalists? Like any thoughtful solution to a complex question, the answer here is not one or the other, for there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. Pure disciplinarity can result in professional and creative isolation, preventing students from realizing the creativity and innovation that comes from borrowing and translating from other disciplines. It may also produce professional immobility in a world where we are likely to change jobs every 5-7 years, according to recent statistics. On the other hand, interdisciplinarity runs the risk of creating identical designers, where everyone does more or less the same thing, and that superficially.  An interdisciplinary studio with 9 Art Directors—all “producers” without deep expertise—is not likely to produce very interesting solutions. Dynamism comes from the mix of differences.

My answer is that interdisciplinary education succeeds only when it’s comprised of very strong discipline-based programs. Both are improved and enhanced through the experience of the other. I call this the dialectic of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity-- the mutual dependence of both sides. Each student must bring depth, expertise and differentiation to the interdisciplinary experience. And for that to happen, design curricula must give students discipline-specific skills and ways of seeing before introducing interdisciplinary projects. The stronger the disciplines, the better the interdisciplinary experience. As Michael Press and Rachel Cooper write in The Design Experience: the Role of Designers in the Twenty-First Century: “the increasingly team-based approach to product development has led to a broadening of roles: individuals are no longer seen as specialists with narrowly defined responsibilities, but as generalists with a particular area of expertise.”  

It is equally important to design the interdisciplinary studio with considerable care and planning: the least successful interdisciplinary studios come from failing to consider the overall educational experience and the desired product. This is indeed a design problem and should be addressed with the same insight and creativity we would apply to any other design challenge. Based on my experience at Art Center, here are some of the keys to ensuring a successful interdisciplinary studio. First, a balance of aligned and less-aligned disciplines according to the nature of the design brief is critical. By “aligned and less-aligned,” I mean those disciplines similar in assumptions and ways of working (“aligned”) and those further apart (“less-aligned”). I’ll return to this idea later. Second, not all projects are alike, which means that every project team needs to be tailored according to the desired outcomes (both educational process and final product) for the project you’re working on. Third, advance planning among faculty and department chairs is essential; this includes imagining scenarios in the studio, anticipating potential problems (such as the ghettoizing of the disciplines), and articulating the shared language that will allow for interdisciplinary dialogue. Fourth, it is imperative to establish a strong commitment to working in collaboration among faculty and students in advance—this does not happen naturally. Without this commitment, you are more likely to fall into turf-based protectionism and unhealthy competitiveness among both students and faculty. Finally, assessment of the collaborative experiment needs to be an ongoing practice of all participants. Waiting until the studio is over to assess its success prevents the opportunity to make creative changes along the way. The interdisciplinary experience is like a living organism, which means you cannot always anticipate what form it will take.

I would like to return to my first point above, which involves creating the most successful balance of aligned and less-aligned disciplines in the interdisciplinary studio. In a recent article in The Harvard Business Review entitled “Perfecting Cross-Pollination,” Lee Fleming studied 17,000 patents that had been filed by businesses in the United States. Fleming’s premise was that patents represent innovation, and his goal was to establish how in each case the innovation came about. Specifically, he looked at the composition of the interdisciplinary collaboration that led to the patent. Fleming’s findings derive from innovations in business, but they are quite relevant to the design of interdisciplinary design education.

Interestingly, Fleming found that the number of innovations increased when the disciplines involved were more aligned, that is, closer in governing assumptions and creative processes. However, although there were fewer innovations produced in teams comprised of less-aligned disciplines, they were of a higher value and more likely to produce a significant breakthrough. Fleming describes this as “the inverse relationship between the average value of a team’s innovations and the similarity or alignment of the disciplines represented on the team.” To put it simply, teams with similar disciplines produced more innovations, but of less value, while teams with very different disciplines produced fewer innovations, but of greater value to the company. It follows that to design a team made up of highly differentiated disciplines incurs greater risk but also potentially greater reward: they are more likely to fail, but their successes will be more dramatic. Conversely, a design team comprised of similar disciplines is the safe bet: success is likely, but probably not the breakthrough variety. The main reason for this equation is that less-aligned disciplines may not share enough assumptions or language to interact at all; but if they do, it will produce something radically new. Aligned disciplines speak to each other quite easily, and thus will produce more innovations. But they won’t have challenged the boundaries of their disciplines sufficiently to result in breakthrough innovation. It’s a question of quantity versus quality, safety versus risk.

Fleming also discovers an interesting corollary: multi-disciplinary teams with broad and shallow expertise will also produce more ideas than teams with deep and focused expertise, but once again, the ideas will be less interesting. The most innovative interdisciplinary experience involves participants with deep disciplinary training, but the risk of failure is higher as well. Such teams are the optimal mix, but their success requires careful design, planning and assessment, as I suggested earlier. In the educational setting, which should be less risk-averse than business, we have the opportunity to take chances with less-aligned teams comprised of students with deep disciplinary expertise, but they will require more work on the part of the faculty and department chairs. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that the nature and goals of the individual project should shape the composition of its participants: some projects may call for aligned disciplines, others may require a riskier mix.

Interdisciplinary design projects can be exciting and rewarding experiences for our students, offering new ways of thinking and the potential to produce innovative outcomes. Rather than simply putting different faculty and students in the same studio and hoping for the best, think of the project as educational experience design, where we apply the same research, processes and validation we use as designers.
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