Creating Education by Design

Design is too easily dismissed as ‘nice to have if you can afford it’. Yet pretty well everything we use from tax forms to education involves design. We should be smarter and consciously apply design thinking to these things.

Benefits of design: A creative environment for learning at Northern Beaches Christian School, Sydney

Venerated German industrial designer, Dieter Rams, came up with Ten Principles of good design. He was primarily talking about product design, but they reach far beyond physical objects and could inform how we create education systems or the ‘learning experience’.

My thanks to Karissa Rosenfield (click here) who sets out the principles in full, so I will not repeat them in full here. Instead, here are some thoughts on how they might apply to education environments.

Good Design…

…is Innovative: The design process, however you define that, is one of problem solving. Innovation plays a role in solving many problems, often part of the solution lies in the uniqueness of the context. Finding better solutions to current problems demands creativity, vision and imagination.

…makes a Product Useful: It is surely true that utility must be the ultimate purpose of any product of design. It goes for a physical object, but equally for the non physical. For example, one might question the usefulness a curriculum in supporting real learning.

…is Aesthetic: This is the principle that might cause the most debate. For while the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant might argue for absolute agreement on beauty, the chances of us all agreeing that a particular object is beautiful is virtually nil. However, we recognise whether something looks and feels right. Rams’ makes the point that only well executed objects can be beautiful. If so, then even the education experience can be beautiful.

…makes A Product Understandable: Design should be for people not just a sales pitch to consumers. Those things that we find comfortable and easy to use are often intuitive. Do we really need a 300 page technical manual to run a school?

…is Unobtrusive: In a way you shouldn’t notice it. Perhaps like good administration, it is just there. Design like management becomes obvious to us when it fails.

…is Honest: Design should not raise the expectations of users beyond what the product of that design is capable of meeting. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, through innovation it creates the unexpected, and enables the user to do more than they might have anticipated.

…is Long-lasting: As soon as something is designed, something changes. The question is to what extent is it possible to adapt to the new context? Is there enough wriggle room within the design?

…is Thorough Down to the Last Detail: This is about careful thought being given to every part, acknowledging that it is the user who is important.

…is Environmentally Friendly: It cannot be denied that design and innovation has been in part responsible for problems we have today, for example the car. As we recognise past failings, perhaps it should be axiomatic that good design today must give not take. This can be applied in the physical sense of using resources, but also how we create systems of education for environmental awareness.

…is as Little Design as Possible: Iconic architect Mies van der Rohe put it another way: “Less is more”. Too many parts in a system, abstract or physical, create too much complexity and more options for failure.

These principles are of course open to subjective interpretation, but they do at least form some sort of menu against which we can make some sort of judgement about what we are creating – education system, or education building.

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