The Future of Design Education Initiative


There has been much discussion in recent years regarding the state of college-level design education. Questions range from the readiness of recent graduates for today’s rapidly changing professional practices to the obligations of the field for addressing the social issues of the time. Mounting pressures on higher education in general — the rising cost of a college degree, an increasingly regulatory environment, and greater expectations of faculty beyond classroom teaching — add to factors that affect curricular decisions. Worldwide, the diversity of institutions that teach design, inconsistencies in faculty qualifications for hiring, and wide-ranging degree standards are further concerns for design not typical of many academic disciplines. Furthermore, unlike business, most college and university programs cannot renew the workforce quickly with changes in practice demands. Consequently, continuing design faculty must evolve through self-initiated scholarship or practice and little institutional assistance for professional development relevant to their field.

College design programs often try to catch up to conditions that have already changed by the time their institutions approve and implement curriculum plans. Further, zero-sum resources mean that to do something new, programs must stop doing something else, seen as risky in a counting and-measuring culture that rewards high enrollments, consumerist student satisfaction, and graduates’ gainful employment in traditionally-understood positions. Programs frequently confront these obstacles by adding one course at a time in response to an immediate need but rarely by challenging an underlying paradigm that drives the larger curriculum. Far less common are college-level curricular strategies built on projections of the emerging contexts for practice developed through collaborations between professionals at the front edge of change and academics who understand the strategic environment of higher education. 

The Future of Design Education responded to growing concern that college-level design curricula lag far behind professional and societal imperatives for change. Its volunteer working groups addressed gaps in many traditional design curricula for which there is already evidence of professional demand. At the same time, these working groups recognized that a shifting paradigm of practice should guide planning by schools for the future.The goal in these discussions was to be anticipatory, not simply reactive.


In 2019–2020, design educator Guillermina Noël edited two issues of She Ji —the journal for design, economics, and innovation — on design education.The issue included an article titled, Changing Design Education for the 21stCentury, by Don Norman, Design Lab Director, and Michael Meyer, Assistant Professor, both at the University of California San Diego ( Around the same time, Karel Vredenburg — then Director of Design Global AcademicPrograms, and now Global Vice President of UX Research at IBM — was collaborating with top college-level design programs through workshops, guest lectures, and capstone projects. His goal was to address gaps in the knowledge of IBM hires in an effort to lessen the need for the company to augment graduates’ education with its own extensive bootcamp. Norman and Vredenburg, meeting for a capstone project review at UCSD in June 2019, agreed to launch the Future of DesignEducation to address shortfalls in design education. They were supported for leadership time, along with IBM staff and funding. The World Design Organization provided support through the participation of then president Srini Srinivasn. These leaders formed a diverse SteeringCommittee of senior designers and educators" to guide the project. In March 2020 and the subsequent two years, the committee met remotely. An Executive Committee —including Don Norman, Karel Vredenburg, and North Carolina State University EmeritaProfessor Meredith Davis — organized the committee’s work.

Using survey responses from 700 international volunteers, The Future of Design Education Steering Committee identified several recurring topics and perspectives that should inform curriculum planning in college-level design programs. The committee did not claim that its list of topics included all content important to the future of the field. Neither did it recommend how or where in a curriculum the topics should be taught, believing that such decisions are the purview of institutions. Although committee members advocated for Bachelor of Design and Master of Design programs as more appropriate to practice than fine arts degrees, they also recognized that changing often-regulated historical titles may take time. There was no attempt to define courses for adoption by programs.  Instead, the committee identified missing content critical to the future of professional design practice, and the need for greater depth or breadth in existing coursework. The committee spent no time on existing curricular content with continuing relevance; rather, it encouraged institutions to rethink a persistent but outdated paradigm of practice that guides how they teach all content.

Organization of Work

Topical working groups were responsible for recommending new curricular content. The Future of Design Education SteeringCommittee assigned topical leadership to paired practitioners and educators.These pairs populated working groups and selected advisors from their networks as well as volunteers who responded to the Future of Design Education survey. They made special efforts to diversify group membership regarding geographic, institutional, disciplinary, and demographic representation. However, The Future of Design Education acknowledged that despite countries of origin, many working group members earned design degrees in European and North American institutions as a reflection of current worldwide opportunities for advanced study.

 Working groups had a common assignment: to articulate roughly ten core ideas related to their topics and to generate corresponding lists of things students-should-know-and-do. This task drew on the educational framework from Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Core ideas are disciplinary concepts and perspectives at the heart of the discipline that can be understood only through deep inquiry and synthesis over time. Wiggins and McTighe suggest addressing issues at levels deeper than a single project or course; core ideas should develop across multiple learning experiences. Groups justified their choices by articulating the emerging and enduring relevance of these ideas through concrete evidence in today’s context for practice.

Things-to-know-and-do are knowledge and skills necessary to act on core ideas, which can be observed and measured through students’ project-based performance. For example, it is impossible to observe and measure understanding, but there are specific actions that are evidence of understanding that faculty can evaluate. These competencies define graduates’ exit knowledge and skills as they transition from college to the workplace or more advanced study. Working groups framed things-to-know-and-do as student centered learning objectives so that programs can use them in curriculum proposals and assessments.

Special Issue of She Ji

In considering how the work of the Future of Design Education would reach its audience, the Executive Committee approached SheJi editor in-chief Ken Friedman and managing editor Jin Ma at Tongji University about a special issue. Meredith Davis accepted the invitation to serve as guest editor and work with leaders to expand recommendations to articles on relevant topics. The open access special issue is downloadable at:

The opening article describes paradigm shifts in design practice since the first half of the twentieth century when many design programs entered colleges and universities. It challenges persistent curricular principles that served an era of industrial mass production. The discussion describes a continuing information revolution that now accelerates and transforms not only what designers make but also the very definition of the design field.

The second article discusses the diverse educational pathways for credentialling today’s designers. As students and employers confront rapidly changing conditions for higher education degree study, alternative credential programs offer faster and cheaper approaches to acquiring focused design skills. The typical students in these alternative programs already hold a college degree and seek different educational outcomes from those of degree study. The result of educational options and increasing work by multi-disciplinary teams is that no singular definition of qualifications is sufficient to take on today’s complex design tasks.

The subsequent four articles offer a comprehensive view of systems yet to be addressed by most design education today. The working group on systems frames the discussion as an existential shift in practice. It describes the need for meta-level understanding of the dynamic interactions among systems that are complex, experienced over time, and difficult to predict. The article argues that systems exhibit recurring patterns that can be modeled and viewed through a number of goal-driven lenses. The following three articles analyze types of systems. The working group on sustainability addresses the impact of design on natural systems content that should span various levels of design study. Its discussion adds to the chorus calling for immediate action to the environmental crisis but also identifies tools, methods, and metrics necessary to go beyond product greenwashing. The working group on the pluriverse engaged a diverse group of twenty-two practitioners and educators from eleven countries in response to the historical imposition of a Eurocentric design monoculture worldwide. Reflecting on the diversity of local and indigenous socio-cultural systems, the group modeled its approach by teaching each othera bout issues specific to where they live and work. The working group on technology addressed an imperative to prepare students for rapidly changing environment of uncertainty. It argues that data is the enduring phenomenon and that complex situations call for a focus on adaptation and resilience rather than predictability and control.

Other working groups explored product-service systems design and community engagement as two examples of systems-level practices. As products and services converge, designers must approach them as ecologies. The authors on product-service systems design describe the transformative demands on organizations and the challenges of anew hybrid field. The working group on community engagement describes the importance of participatory design processes, suggests borrowing project management strategies from service fields such as healthcare, and offers case studies from Africa and Latin America. The unique contribution designers make through representation supports the recommendations of these first six working groups. While sketching underpins traditional design practices, systems-level work requires new types of representation and embodiment in the team and participatory processes of analyzing, framing, and negotiating situations that require design attention.

The working group on representation discusses the use of data, maps, models, and interfaces in design. The authors widen the sensory modalities critical to these forms of representation and address principles for describing complex relationships and an abundance of data. 

A working group of nine faculty and administrators of doctoral design programs from around the world addresses concerns arising from the growing number of advanced programs. They discuss indeterminate standards and consequences under the conflation of traditional research with reflections on one’s own making under the same PhD degree title. To sort out the differences between research that produces generalizable knowledge for the field and research conducted in practice settings that informs case-specific design decisions and products, the group proposes curricular distinctions between PhD in Design and Doctor of Design degrees.

Although there is no separate report, work on design ethics informed the overall project and contributed to the principles for practice in the opening article. The Future of Design Education maintained an interest in integrating ethics with the working groups’ content. The Future of Design Education made an effort to select topics that represent an ethical position by their very inclusion, as well as to identify values-oriented concerns within each topic. And while there is no She Ji article on design methods, related principles appear on this website.  

Finally, this special issue is not a once-and-done answer to issues facing higher education in design. It encourages the work of college and university programs in a form of action research that explores concepts through ongoing collaboration with practice. The Future ofDesign Education hopes that its recommendations will prompt discourse, experimentation, and improvement in how design education responds to a rapidly changing world of practice.