The future directions at Parsons, the School of Design Strategies

I could do with a little help :-)

I have been asked to participate in a workshop at Parsons New School for Design New York.

Naturally I am very honored. Specially since the other participants (so far) are Fred Dust and Ryan Jacoby from IDEO, Roger Martin from Rotman, Jannene Rae from Peer Insight, and Bob Feldman, Feldman and Partners and David Armano.

So needles to say... I could do with a little help.

The general purpose of the workshop is strategic advice, about the future directions at Parsons, the School of Design Strategies, and particularly about its undergrad business degree program, which is currently focused on Design + Management. This is not the same as Design Management, so I'm told, but more like business design or design thinking about value propositions.

I'm trying to form an opinion on this and I would love to hear what your thought are on this matter. I'm thinking out load, so forgive me for rambling.

We can discuss what a future graduate needs to have under his or her belt to be successful. This is probably very important. But I can not predict the future. For example, I have not been trained to do the work I do now. No one ever heard of service design or self organizing-online-social-networks back than... come to think of it, there was no such thing as 'online'.

So maybe its an interesting possibility to turn things upside down. Designing a program bottom up, human centered.

It's not just about what you teach, but how a school connects to peoples life's. To me a school always seemed to have a strong claim on 'learning'. As if I could only learn if I went to this building and do exactly what I was told. I felt that only when I read a book approved by school I was actually learning. It took me a long time to realize I could learn very well by myself. Even though no one would hand me a diploma for it. The diploma is definitely not what matters. Like I said, I was never trained by school for the work I do now.

Learning is something we do all the time. It doesn't start when we enter school and it doesn't stop when we leave it. One could easily argue that we learn a lot more from real life anyway. In real life we learn the essential stuff. Does what we learn at school not reflect real life? Or is it simply that we can not predict the future. But than we should stop pretending that we know what we are training our children to do when they grow up. We haven't got a clue.

The school system and what we are tought in school should be a natural part of life. Turn learning into an ongoing process without focusing us on the end. The graduation, the diploma, freedom.

A school is a service provider, and could providing a platform for ongoing conversations. Empowerment is essentially what it is all about. School should provide us with the tools to keep learning.
Don't offer short moments in time, but be organic. Don't see school as a building and some moments during the week you have to sit down and study. See it as part of the community we belong to... School is a community. We should come up with more ways to co-producing value, create a feeling of co-ownership. Turning school into a community of practice.

I'll be doing a bit more thinking! And I will tell you what results the workshop produces.

But for now I would appreciate your thoughts!!!

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Comment by cameron tonkinwise on February 10, 2010 at 21:12
As Arne indicated, this discussion was often taken up explicitly in the workshop by all involved. So thank you. Bruce Nussbaum has posted a summary of the event on his blog, and I have added a comment that mentions some of the main outcomes:
Nothing radical of course or even very new. But a nice public rod for our own back to start changing the direction of this tanker, or repairing this car while it hurtles down the highway at dangerous speed (are there non-carbon-intense metaphors for this?).
Comment by Michael J on February 10, 2010 at 18:07

"Parsons has various departments and that influences the ability to really think outside those departmental boxes I can well imagine." I think one error is to ignore the specific knowledge of departments and declare collaboration instead of nurturing it. In our enthusiasm to "break down the silos" the value created by the silos is often ignored.

The way I see it, a necessary condition is to increase the depth of each department in their specialties. Earning 10,000 hours of reflective practice takes time and very unusual people. Truly expert faculty usually requires a single minded pursuit of expertise.

I think that's the power of the Stanford model, as I understand it. My bet is that anyone on the Stanford faculty is an expert at whatever they are expert at. Bringing those expert points of view together to focus on the same problem can produce real value and innovation. Staying away from awarding degrees protects the design activity from at least some of the pressures of academic turf fighting. Each expert can fight for turf in their own departments.
Comment by Andy Polaine on February 10, 2010 at 17:57
Ellen - I agree. I had misunderstood you. The challenge, then, for any design school or education institution older than a few years is that "develop[ing] strategic thinking in a non-discipline focused way" is extremely difficult when the structure of the programs and institution is discipline based, which is generally the case in higher education. For example, Parsons has various departments and that influences the ability to really think outside those departmental boxes I can well imagine. So the challenge is about thinking of ways for the school to be as barrier free as possible as an entire body.
Comment by Ellen on February 10, 2010 at 17:46
Michael - Yes, I like that idea!
Andy - I'm not advocating the waterfall approach to strategy/execution. I think that as Michael suggests, an iterative if/then is a better way to describe it. What I am advocating is that we recognize that developing strategy is a different exercise than developing an execution within a discipline, and requires a different thought perspective. Yes, some people are better suited to strategic thinking than others, but I don't think this is dependent upon discipline. I think it's a problem that strategy is often relegated to people with business backgrounds, and design is often relegated to execution. I'm adovcating that schools focus on the skills that help to develop strategic thinking in a non-discipline focused way, in addition to helping students to build skills within their discipline. These are different.
Comment by Michael J on February 10, 2010 at 17:31
Ellen, we agree. It's just that for many at the top of pyramids they still trapped in a mindset that implies 1. Make a strategy. 2. Execute the strategy. 3. See what happens. Usually followed by find the person to blame for bad execution. It does wonders for self image with the notion that the problem is setting the "correct" strategy.

The process you describe sounds right to me. Consider that title of the original post "Parsons, the School of Design Strategies" Might be more useful if it were "Parsons, the School of Design Practice and Ethics."

Although I have to say that the most precise title (2me) would be something more like Parsons School of Art. Then they could join with the other clearly defined departments to follow the IDEO model of design as an activity as opposed to a degree granting enterprise.
Comment by Andy Polaine on February 10, 2010 at 17:30
One thing that happens with that strategy/execution split, though, is what currently exists in many design agencies – strategy people do the strategic thinking, then it's passed onto designers 'execute' it and all the integrated thinking either doesn't happen or falls apart.
Comment by Ellen on February 10, 2010 at 17:18
Michael I agree with you. The if/then statements would go from broad to specific. For example, we collectively develop a strategy, then apply the problem to each discipline so that we can see potential conflicts, go back and modify the strategy, etc. My point is that too often the discipline focus overwhelms the thought process necessary to develop the strategy. In order to do the if/then statements, we need to recognize the cognitive difference between the "if", and the "then". I think this is understood in theory, but often gets confused in practice.
Comment by Michael J on February 10, 2010 at 17:08
I wonder if "developing strategy and "Discipline expertise comes into play when it's time to execute the strategy" is the right way to frame the problem. One possibility is that "strategy" might be a series of if- then statements. But in general I think the focus on decision making rules as in "principles" or "ethics" might be more productive. That might make the problem "What do we mean by design ethics?"
Comment by Ellen on February 10, 2010 at 16:20
Hi Arne,
I'm very interested to hear about the outcomes from this panel. I wish more schools would focus on developing general critical thinking skills. Once a solid baseline is established in thinking critically, then focus on how to blend and balance critical thinking and creative thinking skills.

The problem I often run into is that each school is so focused on honing skills that are specific to their discipline (design, marketing, engineering, etc), that they lose sight of the fact that clear thought is not dependent upon any discipline. Yet the act of developing strategy requires that people elevate their thought beyond what is specific to their discipline. Discipline expertise comes into play when it's time to execute the strategy.

I know that there is a lot of buzz now around design thinking and integrative thinking, but what I'm talking about is different. Yes, it's necessary for designers to incorporate a broader perspective, and to blend analytic and creative thinking when solving problems, but developing a strategy is a different task. It requires different skills, and is less discipline dependent. It's learning when to suspend a specific discipline focused response that will enable students to be more resiliant in the future.
Comment by Michael J on February 10, 2010 at 15:20
Thanks for posting the vid here. My take away is that the very notion of "strategy" and strategic thinking may be at the root of the problem. His discussion of Google as having "principles" instead of "strategy" might be just what is needed to get into the convo at Parsons and other design enterprises.

The point is that it's bullshit to have a "strategy" in a future that is changing so rapidly. Especially when those changes are as fundamental as we are now seeing in every sphere. I think it points to the value of ethics as much better guides to decision making in the face of uncertainty. It's similar to the "moral compass" meme that has guided human decision making forever.

On a more prosaic point, I recently saw adverts for Arts Institute on MSNBC. They are a private education enterprise with 45 campuses in the States. The web site is worth a visit as they have a single minded focus on careers in the Creative Industry. What I think is the implication is that the easy admissions of the mass market of those looking for the craft skills for careers in creative industry will continue to be under growing stress.

I haven't check to see what they are charging for tuition, but I have to believe that whatever it is, sooner rather than later there will be new competitors, perhaps from the Open Source community, that will offer the training for less.

Not a pretty picture for the real business model going forward for design edu enterprises.


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