Design Education Critique: Less Tools, More Brains.

One day, the Maestro Castiglioni observed me painstakingly drawings intricate details with an ink pen on a large sheet of paper. He halted and inquired, “What are you working on?” I responded, “I’m honing my skills, adding all the necessary details for this product.” He smiled and advised, “You must channel your time into nurturing creativity, generating new ideas, rather than practicing technical drawing. Anyone can learn to draw or make things, but few grasp the significance of ideas in our craft. Leave behind these drawings, grab a notebook, jot down your ideas, and sketch freely.”

Antonio Larosa

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Several years ago, I received a phone call from a representative at a Chinese university, inquiring about my interest in relocating to China to teach and lead a design department. Surprised by the unexpected call, I sought more information by posing questions about the state of design education in China and the reason behind their interest in me.

In response to my first question, the representative candidly explained, “You’re likely aware that if you handed any object to a manufacturing company in China, they could reproduce it precisely. The challenge lies in the lack of design skills within Chinese companies to create their own designs.” This insightful observation resonated with my existing thoughts on the matter.

Addressing my second question, the representative acknowledged the necessity for an individual with a comprehensive understanding of design thinking from both European (where I had pursued my studies) and American (where I was presently working) perspectives. This recognition of my diverse experience was not only flattering but also presented an enticing opportunity. I was on the verge of accepting this proposition when a concurrent offer to oversee a design department at a prominent university in Georgia diverted my decision, ultimately leading me to choose the latter opportunity.

During my tenure as a professor and Chair of a Furniture Design Department and Eshibition Design Program, over the course of three years, I frequently reflect upon a meaningful conversation I had with a Chinese colleague. Our discussion centered around the importance of imparting students with not only the requisite design thinking but also equipping them with the essential design skills and knowledge.

This challenge captivated my interest not only when I commenced teaching in Georgia but also during my prior position at a prominent state university in the Southwest. I observed a distinctive emphasis on a “shop-oriented” approach in design schools across the United States, a departure from the prevailing methodology in many European universities. In my own educational experience in Italy, students focused less on physically crafting products in workshops and more on engaging in studio-based courses that emphasized process contemplation and explored the design philosophies underpinning creative endeavors.

My aspiration was to guide students away from a sole reliance on tools and equipment, offering them a unique knowledge base rooted in design thinking. This involved immersive experiences in studio-based classes, collaboration with manufacturers and design offices, exposure through travel, and more. Essentially, it served as a test, providing students with a distinctive real-life experience and thought process crucial for their evolution into professional designers rather than being limited to crafting one-of-a-kind products.

After just one year, the positive impact of this approach was evident in the remarkable improvement seen in both the student body and the department. By the end of my three-year tenure, the furniture design department I led had not only become the largest but also garnered widespread respect both within the United States and internationally.

I firmly advocate for the presence of knowledgeable and passionate instructors who can instill the right motivation in their students, a motivation crucial for success. The transmission of design passion, akin to the mentorship I received during my own academic journey, is indispensable for shaping a future generation of adept designers. Technical knowledge alone is insufficient; a genuine love for one’s work is essential to effect meaningful change in our society. The emerging cadre of designers has the potential to be a driving force in shaping both our culture and economy.

Furthermore, fostering collaboration between design students and their counterparts in other departments—such as business, engineering, and social science—is paramount. This interdisciplinary exposure is the key to addressing contemporary environmental needs and social issues effectively. Our design education programs attract some of the brightest and most talented students; it is incumbent upon us to guide them towards a future that betters society.

Drawing parallels with the perspective of the woman from the Chinese university who emphasized that design thinking, not just tools, is the essential ingredient for a country’s future economic growth, I assert that this approach is a sensible course for design schools. By prioritizing design thinking, we can tackle the challenges confronting design education today and pave the way for innovative solutions.

Antonio Larosa, Designer

www.LarosaDesign.com