Review of the Critical Design Panel at the BE+ More Symposium

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Two weeks ago, the PhD students in the Built Environment program hosted their first annual spring symposium with the general theme of “BE+ More: Interdisciplinarity + the Built Environment”. The second of three discussion panels was on the topic of “critical design”, inspired by this graduate interest group’s mission of fostering a dialogue about how design can adopt a more critical approach. The panelists included: Ginger Daniel, a Masters of Landscape Architecture student and board member for Architects Without Borders Seattle; Brian McLaren, a professor in the Department of Architecture, who teaches history, theory, and graduate studio courses; Rick Mohler, a practicing architect and graduate studio instructor; and Julie Parrett, a practicing landscape architect who teaches design studios and courses on representation in the Landscape Architecture Department. This (extremely belated) post is the panel moderator’s attempt at summarizing the main points of discussion. Therefore, this post should be read for what it is: my own personal, retrospective reflections, and not necessarily the actual beliefs or perspectives of the panelists.

The 40-minute discussion covered a range of topics, including the nature of design, the relationship between the design process and critical thinking processes, and between design education and professional practice. In general, the panelists tended to believe that critical thinking fits quite naturally into the design process along with other modes of thinking and doing, such as creative and intuitive processes. However, this should not be understood to mean that instructors and students can resign themselves from improving the development of critical thinking skills and advocating for their relevance in future practice. Ideas for doing this from an instructor’s perspective included: increasing transparency of studio teaching methods; granting students more freedom to determine the site and program for studio projects; and encouraging students to ask questions, rather than find “right” answers.

A couple issues revealed disagreement on the panel. The first was made mostly in passing  but is worth highlighting; it concerned the relationship between academia and professional practice. Seemingly a timeless fault line of tension, the question remains as to whether academic settings (the studio environment, in particular) should attempt to simulate practice as much as possible or whether the value of educational experiences comes from something outside of their instrumental role as a training ground for future professionals. Embedded in this debate are considerations of what falls under “on-the-job training” (that ostensibly could be left until after graduation) and which skills are necessary to hone in the practice-simulating setting of studio education. The overall point being grappled with–the give and take of the most appropriate ways of preparing future design professionals–is probably a healthy debate to continue for eternity, as the struggle over ideas itself leads to some oscillation in design education around a golden mean or happy medium.

The other point of conflict raised is significant if for no other reason than it highlights a potential generational rift. Under question is the issue of whether (and how) design quality should be evaluated, both for accountability purposes and as a learning tool for those seeking “best practices”. The faculty members on the panel seemed skeptical of attempts to measure “success” of design products objectively along qualitative lines (of course, environmental performance measures are a whole other topic). To them, measuring design quality is a contested and historically unstable process, and necessarily so. It occurs through argumentation, criticism, and experience, and therefore cannot be reduced to some quasi-scientific enterprise. There is far too much ambiguity in the world, too much in flux–just as design is inherently contingent, any consideration of its quality is bound to be contingent. This is not to say that designers cannot learn from history, just that no design should ever be considered a complete success, and that “success” itself should not be considered an objective or permanent label.

On the other hand, the other side of this argument is that there is a growing demand for some benchmarks of design quality. Currently, there is almost a complete lack of post-occupancy studies (beyond environmental performance assessments), not to mention those done critically by third parties. This is frustrating for students and young practitioners who often are hoping to learn from the past experiences of designers. In seeking critical approaches to design, how can we be sure that designed spaces actually meet the needs of users, for instance? Embedded in this line of argument is a call for new criteria for measuring quality design. Whether or not something like SEED (the socio-economic version of LEED, more or less) is the appropriate tool for this, it is undeniable that the design industries could do a much better job of sharing their successes and failures. The current culture of company secrets, media puff pieces, and general disdain for honest, public discussion and criticism in the design industries means that knowledge sharing is typically conducted through whispers–behind closed doors and in back alleys, so to speak. Again, this seems like an important debate to have, particularly in the context of a symposium about interdisciplinarity. I myself have a hard time remaining on one side or the other of this issue: while both arguments have merit and are genuine and well-intentioned, the touchstone of “designing critically” fails to consistently point to one side or the other. Skepticism of positivist lines of reasoning seems defensible enough, but the demand for improved resources and knowledge sharing so that designers are not constantly redesigning the wheel (or worse) is an equally valid point. If this debate continues to amplify, as my gut tells me it will, the notion of “critical design” will only become increasing more valuable–to either side, in theory and in practice.

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