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October 2013; Circulation: 54,707

Notes From the Dean: Parsons The New School for Design’s multidisciplinary curriculum evolves with the twenty-first century. By Joel Towers

Every generation is presented with challenges specific to its time and place. We live in a world changing in ways that were unimaginable at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when design education first began to take shape. Technology (aided and abetted by design), advances in scientific knowledge, and shifts in social and cultural norms shaped design in the twentieth century. Our problems today involve more complex and interconnected systems—climate, cities, resources, networks, flows—and call for a new paradigm. Design in the twenty-first century is of critical importance in both addressing these challenges and transforming them into opportunities to remake the world around us. To do so, design education must change. Design schools have traditionally adhered to a model that builds programs based on a foundation year, a welldefined and contained introduction to the basics of material, form, and color. And while that foundation is an important cornerstone of design education, it leaves little room for the more exploratory methods of crossdisciplinary and technology-based learning, and for understanding and applying design in the context of the larger world. That old model needs to evolve to reflect design’s enhanced role as a catalyst for innovation and creativity. Almost a decade ago at Parsons, we began reevaluating our academic programs to respond to this new context. Over the past several years we have introduced a number of graduate programs that educate designers for this era, from Transdisciplinary Design, to Design and Urban Ecologies, which explores the complex forces that influence


urban growth and development. And now, this fall, our incoming freshmen are the first to take part in a redesigned undergraduate curriculum that provides greater opportunities for self-directed learning, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and exposure to academic areas beyond the traditional boundaries of art and design. The new Parsons curriculum is about choice. Students today absorb information constantly from a variety of media and sources. The process of learning has become so multi-directional that it requires purposeful navigation. The proliferation of massive open online classes (MOOCs) and open courseware has created unprecedented opportunities for the self-directed learner and introduced a radical and productive disruption to educational models throughout the world. Online learning, however—at least for those who pursue it toward a formal degree—still operates on the model of assembling courses within the narrow context of a subject area. This assumes that knowledge can be gained or downloaded as discrete units (courses) and pieced together upon completion. Design education requires more curation and context. If the goal is to facilitate an experience that helps students define who and what they might become as designers, then we must provide vehicles that allow them to veer off traditional pathways of learning. So from day one, Parsons students are actively considering what is compelling to them about design, and they are empowered to make decisions that shape their education. Our course requirements are still defined (and the result of many years of development), but within these parameters students are presented with possibilities. We continue to teach the fundamentals of drawing, making, technology, and critical thinking, but those skills are integrated across four years of study rather than organized into discrete courses. This structure encourages students to push the boundaries of disciplinary learning beyond the routine questions of fashion vs. architecture vs. graphic design, and into the larger issue of design’s potential as an agent of change. This will require them to understand the relationship between design and society. They might, for example, explore ideas of authenticity and memory, attempt to understand time as a form of composition, and work with space and materials as they relate to the human form and cultural objects. In addition to promoting choice as a key element of the experience, the changes to our curriculum place significant emphasis on integrating studio learning with the liberal arts. Every student takes two sets of paired courses in their first year—a design studio integrated with a liberal arts seminar—that are intended to generate unexpected connections between the two classroom approaches. In the seminar, they explore concepts through critical analysis, presentation, reading, and writing—and in the studio they apply them through research, prototyping, and creative process. Students in these Integrative Studio and Seminar courses are able to select a thematic lens through which to approach the course material, choosing from such options as Avatar, Memory, Community Engagement, and Visual Culture. (These types of thematic options are also made available to them in their required studio courses: Drawing/Imaging, Space/Materiality, and Time). Across the Parsons curriculum we have ensured that disciplinary learning will not preclude more exploratory studies—that students will be the ones deciding whether to dive deep into their majors or further expand their coursework. To that end, we established that every program will include, at minimum, enough free space for students to pursue a minor in addition to fulfilling their


Metropolis Magazine, October 2013: Notes from the Dean  

The Executive Dean of Parsons The New School for Design pens an article for Metropolis Magazine on design education in the 21st century, and...

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