Searching for Context : Interview with Sharon Poggenpohl

Sharon Poggenpohl has had a lifelong fascination with design. She is a dedicated educator that has focused her career on working with masters and PhD design candidates in the United States and internationally.

I first met Sharon while attending graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design where she became an advisor on my thesis activities. Her accessible style and genuine interest in collaboration was of great benefit to me, both during school and afterward when I had to collaborate with many disciplines in creating large digital systems.

She taught at Rhode Island School of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, and until recently at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design. Her experience in teaching and administering both masters and PhD programs gives Sharon a unique perspective on the challenges and potential of design education. Her desire to both understand and create the context for design and support that context through research and collaboration is rarely discussed. Addressing actual empirical behavior — rather than remaining at an abstract rhetorical level is Sharon’s focus. Sharon is co-editor of the recent book, Design Integrations: Research and Collaboration and publisher of Visible Language, one of a few high-standard journals in design.

What struck me about the interview with Sharon was how thoughtful and disciplined her answers were; they reinforced my direct experience with her at RISD and over the years. Design education has been at a continual crossroads for decades and the cacophony of design educational models, skills and outcomes at an undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level feel in many ways insurmountable bordering on a wicked problem. Sharon has very common sense foundations to address the continual problems that degrade the value of design education and how focusing, assembling, editing and delineating educational goals and methods can increase the level of rigor of design programs.

When you say design education, are you meaning all forms of design education or certain types of design education?
There are many forms of design education. When I use the term, I am meaning graduate design education vs. undergraduate education. I have been pushing for design to take itself seriously as a discipline for a long time. There is a philosophy of science and several philosophies of art; is there a philosophy or philosophies of design? In terms of approach to design education, I recognize that there are many types of design education. I am drawn to advanced design education because I enjoy interacting with students about ideas that are both concrete and abstract, and I am endlessly curious about design itself— its processes, paradoxes, possibilities, challenges, and future practice.


Do you believe that industrial design education as well as the field has made more progress than graphic, visual communications and interaction design?
That is a challenge to answer. Industrial designers have always been aware of functional design needs, but have not thought much about communications. In Asia there is a fair amount of research in industrial design. To understand progress, we would need to compare the number of papers published in industrial design vs. visual communications. This is a measure of development and importance in the development of new knowledge, which is how I would define progress. Just looking at what is in the trade magazines doesn’t measure anything.I would also state that the boundaries between industrial design and communications design are becoming fuzzy due to digital technology. There are many visual communication designers who have an affinity to product or industrial designers because there is an economic return on the creation of new products, which is more compelling as an activity than traditional visual communications that operate in a service capacity.

Communications design, due to the digital revolution has found more functional characteristics to be essential rather than focusing just on aesthetics. Interaction designers come from either field, and both fields can learn from one another due to this convergence. Product designers can share knowledge of function and communication designers can share knowledge of communication. Both work in an arena in which attention to end-users is essential.


Can you elaborate more on defining visual communications?
An area that I have been focusing on is to get people to think about communication as a product that one designs based on what people need, and not necessarily always rely on the usual vehicles that are typical of visual communications. Designers need to think about the need, which may be beyond their skill set requiring collaboration with other specialists to bring these ideas to fruition.

We need to move beyond providing a service and massaging the request with a traditional vehicle and think more deeply how people need and use information. We need to think about the context of how end users interact with and use information. For example, for around eight years I worked with students at IIT/ID on the Future of Learning Workshop where we explored the creation of educational games. It was really challenging to balance gamefulness with genuine learning. Traditional learning strategies need to be challenged.Visual communication courses expand in new directions based on available technology; they may involve the design of websites, games, software interface, visualization of complex or dynamic data. They also expand based on interest in user-centered approaches to various forms of research such as observation, ethnography, or iterative prototyping for example. And, of course, the design process itself changes to include collaboration with others from different disciplines.


How has the rise of digital technology and new professional areas of interaction design affected the education of designers?
I can only speak about communication design. In undergraduate programs there are digital components, but this exposure is not connected to a broader picture of the digital world of use and business relationships, etc. I am not sure how undergraduate programs can cover such a broad amount of contextual information and skills and also specialize in specific digital communications. Undergraduate programs should deliver the digital fundamentals, open the student’s mind to digital operations, how to think about them, and how they interface with people. Further, they should be exposed to the literature (there is some excellent stuff), exposed to new digital objects and ideas — all the while suggesting that these doors open the possibility of lifelong learning. With technology there is no completion — it keeps evolving.

Graduate programs are where one can dig more specifically into aspects of digital communication like interface, interaction, searching, etc., expanding the possibility for experimentation in the digital realm in a more focused way. Some years ago, a graduate student I worked with at IIT/ID was interested in the problem of searching. He wanted to go beyond lists to show relationships and support idea organization with writing and diagramming. He developed a system that coordinated these goals. He did this based on searching existing literature in the field, observing people searching, and prototyping something through several iterations that had previously not existed. This is what I mean by focus. Graduate school should support risk taking and support a student’s genuine interest — it should be an exciting time when innovation can be entertained.

Doing research means making connections and proposing things that may be ahead of present day realities or established behaviors. I am sure someone has written a book on the history of innovation and ideas that were ahead of their time. In the 1960s AT&T invented the videophone and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill procured one of these but had no one to call as there was no market for it at the time. Ideas are linked to audience acceptance — market penetration and if ideas have no market then how does an idea spread? Understanding the context in which to insert a new idea is important. Maybe an idea needs to be staged over time, or link the idea to something that is already accepted. If the context does not exist, what will it take to create the context for an idea? A prototype of something new is a rhetorical idea that needs to be backed up by a good argument. The advantage of the something new needs to be visible, demonstrable and clear. Today, many things are “new” but are not improvements and have little value. If you cannot create that argument and the context is resistant then the idea will not come to fruition.


How has the emphasis on collaboration affected the teaching of design? Are collaboration and facilitation skills being taught to effectively work with other people that are not designers?
Based on my experience – no. Many programs now address teamwork, but teams usually are comprised of the same discipline (because disciplines are siloed at most universities), which raises the temperature for competition and decreases collaboration. Even within teamwork there is generally little to no preparation; no guidelines for addressing the problems that inevitably arise among people working together — teams are just thrown together. IIT does have a program that invites students to participate in interdisciplinary projects, which provides a more legitimate and real experience of collaboration, but this program is not typical.

More and more designers in the digital realm are working with people in other fields in science, engineering and/or the social sciences. What designers do not understand is the epistemology of these fields — what constitutes knowledge, how it is developed, analyzed and accepted. Design does not understand its own epistemology and it certainly lacks a shared one. So how can designers appreciate other people’s mindsets and address possible conflicts that arise while collaborating?Designers bring something important to collaboration; they are largely pragmatists who are very good at synthesizing ideas; creating something more real out of abstract ideas. This more real prototype supports investigation and decision making that collaborating specialists can appreciate; it brings ideas together in a more understandable way and pushes the collaborative process forward. Their skill in divergent thinking is also an asset.


You mentioned once that education needs to “break through designer’s straightjacket of technique and aesthetics.” What is the balance between teaching designers to be makers of objects vs. makers of processes? What is the role of the portfolio in 2012?
For a very long time I have been encouraging students to create process documentation in their portfolios as the take away from educational experience is process. There is always a process in the making of things. However:

  • How aware is a student of this process?
  • Do they think about alternative processes of what to include and/or exclude?
  • Do they consider context, user or recipient, technology change, lifestyle, financial sustainability or any of the many design connections that go beyond the obvious characteristics of a visual artifact?

The notion that the portfolio is about technique and aesthetics feeds the notion of design as only a service of making things. Process is about thinking and developing things, the making is there, but it is not paramount. This is what a creative designer wants to do in terms of variety — they don’t want to be put into a production straightjacket, whether one of technique, style, typical problem or whatever.


What progress has design education made since the 1950s and what areas are languishing?
Previous to World War II, design was linked to the crafts and an apprenticeship model. Since the war, design supported by a distinct educational model has become more accepted. When I graduated in the 1960s with a degree in design and interviewed with older designers, they thought is was ridiculous to have a degree in design. In the 1970s and 1980s undergraduate programs grew in number. Then masters’ degrees arose in the 1980s and the same questions from the field appeared.

We are now experiencing this with the growth of PhD programs, and I believe that there are now about 100 PhD design programs worldwide.There has been a progression of degrees in education, but the quality of these programs is very inconsistent. There is a challenge to discriminate between undergraduate, masters and PhD programs since there is little agreement about what is fundamental knowledge in design and how to scaffold learning to the next degree. We need to have this basic conversation, to clarify educational goals, as students would benefit from it, and consequently society would benefit. Of course designers continue to learn through professional practice, but given the continuing impact of technological change, informal learning may not always be sufficient.


What is your view of the state of undergraduate programs in areas of design?
Undergraduate design programs are stuck in the Bauhaus, Basel or other historical models. Students do not have enough background to carefully evaluate undergraduate programs. So lackluster programs continue to have an audience. Some programs are trying to introduce a few basic research skills, which I applaud. These skills get students beyond the romance that the design they create and everything they think about is new, as these ideas are usually not new at all. Certain concepts need to be taken seriously in undergraduate programs, like research and theory.

Much innovation is the result of scientific research — to ignore this is to deny the amplified (Internet, birth control, cell phone, wind-farm, vaccination, etc.) life we live. Theory provides abstract models that are a shortcut to clear thinking — it gets us out of immersion in detail, reminds us what is essential and reliable, and helps us move forward. We need programs that are intellectually rigorous; use both sides of the brain and are also value driven and artful. These concepts need to start in undergraduate programs.


What is your view of the state of masters degree programs in areas of design?
Masters programs need to figure out what they are trying to do, as there is a general lack of definition in them. They continue to be dogged by legitimacy, especially by practitioners. General masters programs that focus on remedial work for former undergraduate design students, who didn’t develop sufficient understanding or skill in their first degree is a mistake. If an applicant has fundamental undergraduate design skills and some work experience, a masters program needs a particular focus to enable the student to make a careful choice about how they extend their expertise and career.

Three year masters programs that accept students from other fields and place them through a first year boot camp – I am not sure how well this model works. At IIT/ID, for example, masters’ students who went through this experience never really became designers because they could not catch up to someone who had a four-year undergraduate design degree in terms of making skills or developing aesthetic sensibility. IIT/ID students were intellectually equal to graduates of undergraduate programs, sometimes much more than equal, but the development of designerly skills was not as sophisticated. They went on to work with other designers that had the design skills or became project leaders because they understood the context in which design operates and the relationship to business, research, and user-centeredness.

Programs need to be clear with potential applicants what their mission is and how to align with applicants’ interests. In any of these cases, there are many factors that determine the success of a master candidate. Now other fields such as medicine, law and the like are coming under stress as their educational programs are being challenged based on contemporary problems and changing expectations. Design needs more structure, and these other professions need a bit less structure or more diversity in their programs. It may seem strange, but undergraduate programs need structure and masters need differentiation. The idea is to begin with fundamental design knowledge and then to develop more specific expertise later.


What is your view of the state of Ph.D. programs in areas of design? Are there trends in certain areas for dissertations?
I am disappointed in the United States as there are very few PhD programs in design. We have to wake up if we want to really consider ourselves engaged in a knowledge society; this relates to design as well. There have been discussions here about linking a PhD to professional practice. I am against this model because it is too soft, too subjective and little real knowledge would be gleaned from this approach. This concept is currently being implemented in the United Kingdom.

In contrast, Asia has looked to science to shape their design PhD programs. I believe both the practitioner and science approach to PhDs are a mistake; there needs to be a third path to generate original knowledge. I don’t think a PhD makes someone a better designer — it creates another variety of design; a design researcher and/or a design educator. Design research is a young sub-field in need of investigation and method development. More programs should be geared to designers as researchers and to help designers become better educators. There needs to be a revolution in teaching design as many teachers continue to replicate what they experienced as students decades ago in contrast to what is needed in 2012.


What is the current state of design research at the master’s and PhD level?
It is hard to generalize since there is so much educational diversity in design. Faculty should have genuine and specific research interests and be immersed in these areas. PhD students can support faculty research activities by carving out an adjacent research question. Design research is still using other fields’ methods, especially from the social sciences. Maybe over time there will be the development of more designerly methods, but this is going to take a long time to discover, experiment with, evaluate and codify.

Faculty coaching PhD candidates and PhD programs themselves cannot continue to be a smorgasbord to support a candidate’s interest. This is a poor way to run a PhD program. A program cannot address every variety of design or every research question. Programs need a particular focus that will draw research funding, and find and shape PhD candidates to create a reputation for a particular program.

Faculty and PhD candidates also need to understand that whatever they are interested in, others may also have worked or are working on their topic of interest. Unfortunately, the romance of design gets in the way here too, this propagates the belief that everyone’s interest is unique and that creativity is endless. Finding out about what other people have done within an interest area is important and it is essential to be respectful of that work and realize that they can build upon and extend the work.

The University of Reading in the UK, for example, focuses on communications design research using psychological research methods. Due to their focus they are generating useful original research. There is also some interesting research coming out of the design PhD program at Hong Kong Polytechnic, some of which relates to collaboration and learning design.

A larger question is what kinds of PhD research and knowledge really needs to be built? To answer that question we would really need input from high performing practitioners concerning how PhD research could support their work in the field, and advanced researchers, who might be able to anticipate issues just emerging on the horizon. Unless you’re doing historical research, you’re looking to the future, because research takes time and you don’t want to develop research findings a year after they become common knowledge; old news. Design looks to the future; design researchers in sympathy with this must also look to the future and identify emerging research needs.


In the most recent issue of Visible Language on Education, you structured it in these areas: Clarity in educational goals, Attention to dynamic change and Differentiation and research. What should design education be doing at the graduate and PhD level to achieve excellence in these three areas?
These three areas are large challenges. For example in educational goals and research, design needs to figure out how to meaningfully insert research into all levels of design education as an experiment and observe what happens in order to make the educational experience make sense. Too often designers fail to recognize that life and any context they may consider is dynamic — they arrest a situation or a need.

Design education needs to introduce planning and design for dynamic change. Technology forces us into change — many things now are never complete, only stopped for a time. How should design handle this? What new skills are needed? I’ve already spoken about differentiation in programs and research. This is especially important to understand from a student’s perspective of how they found and used the research methods and what they discovered in the process. Did the methods make sense to them? Were these methods valuable? This would then build the foundation for masters and PhD research.

There is currently a big gap between research findings and applying the findings; this may be due to an interpretive gap; this needs to be addressed at an advanced level. There is not one research model, but there are several research frameworks that need to be experimented with to find out what works and then create a body of research methods and evolve areas in which knowledge is needed. Yet another issue is that designers have short attention spans and research expertise takes time to develop. Again design’s lack of research structure and support may discourage potential design researchers from staying the course.


Your book Design Integrations calls for new methods of approach that focus on interdisciplinary collaboration between the academic and business worlds. How are masters and PhD programs addressing these issues to create purposeful designers?
In Hong Kong there is a masters program in strategic design for people that have industry experience in a number of disciplines. This program looks at the context of business and design opportunity as a complementary situation — the program has been around for ten years and is doing well. At IIT/ID, there has been a focus on design and business from a strategic perspective. Both programs have an interdisciplinary student population that experience cross-disciplinary work and are encouraged to make a deep examination of the problem/project/opportunity context.

Often design practitioners can identify a research need they are unable to address because of lack of time and money. University faculty and advanced students could be engaged in this research as they might have the time, interest, and ability to acquire the necessary money. This could be a win-win situation. Many design programs seek out corporate sponsorship of projects. Expectations have to be carefully managed on both sides, but the interaction enriches both parties.

It is not sufficient anymore to say that students have a fresh vision or have a creative edge. Faculty must be able to identify something they can achieve with students for a corporate sponsor. For example, a suburban bus company wanted to improve their service. They had a lot of demographic information and survey results to share. What they didn’t have was on the ground research: driver interviews, ride-along observations, critical examination of signs, shelters, maps, schedules, etc. This complementary research was done by students, and synthesized into recommendations and prototypes.


There has been much discussion of the role of design thinking in design. What is your view on what design thinking is and its role in design? Can non-designers use design thinking?
Interestingly there is a new book called Open Design which argues with case studies that more and more people will become designers and use design thinking to create artifacts. FabLabs from MIT are a great example in support of this. People engage with design thinking in their everyday lives as they order their living space, engage in DIY projects, or plan their vacation. The protocols of design thinking, if articulated clearly could be of value to just about anybody. This has caused a flowering of design thinking as a way to create both terrible and wonderful outcomes.

Designers engage in thinking differently than other professions, especially with regard to divergent thinking, creativity, understanding use and context for example. Design thinking is a process that switches among exploratory ideas, questions and factual information needs, trial and error with users, research, logical analyses and comparison, and yes, aesthetic refinement to name a few aspects. The more one engages in design thinking, the more fluid it becomes and the more fun. I think this is related to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow.


When will the market for design and the skills of contemporary designers align? Until then, what is the role of design schools to prepare students to be productive in the work environment?
Ideally, one should become educated based on interests and skills as a way to live a life, not just getting a job. The current focus has become so job oriented that knowledge for its own sake has gotten lost. Some intelligent graduates cannot get a job. The fallback position could be to think about educational experiences as a kind of liberal arts study, but most undergraduate programs do not have much substance as a liberal arts experience. Are we overproducing designers?


This is a critical statement. Are schools overproducing designers and why do you think they are?
I think a certain form of low-level designer is being overproduced, one with technical skills, who follows the trade magazines for style issues and that can’t think about design as a change agent, or in a broader context.


Are these designers being educated to be creative disruptors and do they have the skills to be contributory employees and collaborators, or is education creating too many creative form makers that are commoditizing design?
I think between technological templates for novices and low-level or backward facing design practice, design is becoming both common and commoditized. It takes time, perspective and confidence to become a creative disruptor. This might happen based on a good undergraduate program, a few years of work and a focused graduate program.There is always the age-old question, who leads and who follows? Is it the profession that directs the education or vice versa? Alignment requires best ideas from both sectors, but there is precious little interaction or collaboration between the two. That is dysfunctional and sad.


Since you have become involved with Visible Language, how has it changed and are there particular areas that you are focusing on? Why aren’t there more high quality academic journals in design?
Visible Language has survived because it is interdisciplinary. If I had to rely only on design, the journal would have disappeared long ago. It has been a struggle to keep Visible Language going, but it has exposed me to interdisciplinary thinking and methods, which has enriched my understanding and perspective. I have much curiosity about informatics and linguistic systems. Of course design research and ideas about design education have been a focus for the journal. They need an array of opportunities for dissemination; Visible Language is one such venue. It has evolved beyond typographic research into broader issues of design.

Maintaining the journal’s interdisciplinary focus is a value of Visible Language and it will (hopefully) continue. The reason that there are not more design journals goes back to the lack of structure and purpose in design education and that faculty doesn’t appreciate scholarship and rarely engages with it. Journals are viewed as inconsequential or frivolous, not connecting to their interests or work because they are operating superficially, by following short-lived trends and doing more making than thinking.


Based on all your answers about the current state of masters and PhD education, are you hopeful, or concerned about the future of both education and the students that are coming from these schools and their ability to become the next generation of leaders?
Design education and the people that emerge from it are an international phenomenon. There are wonderful programs turning out creative, contextually adept designers in some places worldwide. The US is too insulated, it needs to compare itself with the best that is available worldwide. It could be a mover and a shaker, but instead I think design education has its head in the sand. Much design education is comfortable and predictable; it is based on the past. We are going through dramatic changes not just in terms of how we access and use information, but also in big ways — culturally, economically, socially — in terms of work, lifestyle, reinvention of institutions like libraries, universities, medical practice, and more. Are designers thinking about these changes and how they as designers fit into and contribute to the new schemes of life? Generally, I think not, and of course I think they should.

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6 years ago