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Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design, encourages his students and faculty to find innovative, design-related ways to address the world's challenges.
Design in your future
A new path for a new college
By Thomas Fisher
From M, winter 2007
Editor's note: We asked Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design, to write this story for M, the U's alumni quarterly that reaches 420,000 readers. Fisher describes the importance of design in today's economy and how the new college is bringing together nearly all design-related disciplines on campus in a vision of creativity and social responsibility. To browse all of the stories in the current issue of M, visit M online.
Most of us give little thought to design, yet it plays a part in areas as varied as the curve of your TV screen and the placement of the kitchen in a homeless shelter. As you read this, look around you. Almost everything you see has been designed: the publication in your hands, the clothes you're wearing, the equipment you're using, the furniture you're sitting at, the room you're in, and the cars, roads, buildings, and landscapes visible out the window.
Design influences nearly every purchase we make, whether we know it or not. It has an increasingly crucial role in the competitiveness of companies in the global economy, and it will help shape the future of the environment.
Ready to take on the demands of the 21st century is the new College of Design--formed from the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel. Created as part of the University's goal to be among the top three public research universities in the world, it is one of the most diverse design colleges in the country. Its disciplines include architecture, clothing design, graphic design, housing studies, interior design, landscape architecture, and retail merchandising.
A new age Daniel Pink argues in his best-selling book, A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, that left-brain, analytical thinking will eventually be done with software or outsourced overseas, and that the greatest economic and social value will come from right-brain thinkers. The practical imagination of designers puts them near the top of Pink's list of those who will lead in the coming "conceptual age."
Preparing students to enter this new age of thinking is one of the challenges of the College of Design, and it will often involve working in close collaboration with other University colleges and departments.
Planning for a design program focused on new products and innovations, for example, has brought together faculty from several colleges to build a curriculum that can better serve Minnesota's companies and communities. The program's students will be able to see the relationships among organizational structures, economic opportunities, and product or service possibilities. It will also be a design think tank for the region, bringing in people from around the world to expand the boundaries of design and connecting to fields where Minnesota is already strong, such as biotechnology, human health, information science, and food.
Socially responsible design Though design is generally thought of as a way to make things look good and work better, more and more it is being recognized as a way to improve lives and make the world a healthier place. The College of Design educates students to be leaders in the field of social change via design and to be visionaries for a better future.
And there are plenty of places to apply such leadership. With homelessness and slums growing at exponential rates around the globe, the need for better shelter and infrastructure has become a pressing equity issue. With greenhouse gases and solid waste rising due to increased consumer consumption, we need to design our world more efficiently. And with development taxing finite fossil fuel resources and degrading limited fresh water supplies, more sustainable ways of living and working have become essential to our future.
These opportunities and challenges guide the work of the new college. It already has some of the only programs of their kind in the state and some of the best among public research universities in the country. Preparing students to enter the "design economy" and to address the need for a more sustainable and equitable designed environment will focus the attention in the coming years as it works to connect design disciplines to each other and to other fields not normally thought of as design related.
For example, the college has created one of the nation's first masters of science degrees in sustainability to meet the growing demand for sustainability coordinators who work for companies, institutions, or universities to help foster a more environmentally responsible workplace. Meanwhile, faculty in the college have started planning an expanded interdisciplinary and intercollegiate graduate program and research center focusing on affordable housing. Joining with partners like the Wilder and McKnight foundations, it will bring together the best work going on around the University and in the Upper Midwest.
And in the spirit of the University's emphasis on global involvement, the College of Design is the first U.S. college to begin a pilot program with UNESCO's World Heritage Centre in Paris to work with countries around the world to identify and manage their cultural heritage sites. The program's first project this summer, in Baku, Azerbaijan [see M spring 2006], showed the great potential this has for internationalizing teaching, research, and outreach and for creating productive alliances with universities around the world.
The transformation happening in design education represents the "whole new mind" of the students now in school. They have always had computers in their lives, and they tend to think in more Web-like and non-hierarchical ways, with little patience for the neatly defined disciplines or the resolutely defended professions we have constructed in the past. And just in time, for we have entered a century of dramatic change, one desperately in need of alternative futures and imaginative solutions. The world has become, in other words, a giant design problem, and we, at the new College of Design, are ready for that challenge.
Thomas Fisher is dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.
Further reading Extreme makeover: neighborhood theater edition