Design Education: Prestige, Relevance, and Value

November 3, 2010 · by James P. Cramer

Some colleges and universities are better than others, true, but the value of architecture and design degrees is high overall and increasingly relevant.

Why are some design degrees more prestigious than others? How are some academic programs growing their reputation and becoming noticeably more relevant? What about costs and value?

These questions occurred to me a few weeks ago when I was at the University of Minnesota. I was in the Twin Cities to speak to a professional gathering, and with some time between meetings, I steered my rental car toward campus. I was pleasantly surprised to find quite easily a parking spot at Coffman Union. I was eager to soak up the autumn collegiate spirit on one of the great urban campuses in America. The October day was sunny and warm, and it invited a leisurely stroll through the Cass Gilbert-planned mall lined with historic architecture. I went down the steps of the student union and over to the right side of the grassy mall toward Northrop Auditorium and then just to the right toward the new Ralph Rapson Hall and the College of Design.

I was reminded in just a few short minutes that the beauty of the campus environment is important to the quality of an overall educational experience. The sense of place, the feeling of community remind us of design’s importance and its potential. As a former student and junior faculty member, I admit to a bias, but I get few arguments when I say that Minnesota is a significant and exemplary school.

Some colleges and universities, not unlike books, are better than others. Some schools are coasting, others ascending. Some have faculty leaders who are dynamic researchers, innovators, and mentors. And, yes, there are some — more than just a few — that are barely keeping up with the many changes transforming the design professions. Some faculties are less concerned with the future of professional practice and more focused on design theory at the expense of relevance today and tomorrow. Yet we know that theory can also be poetic, provocative, and professional, even richly relevant.

There is a dynamic and constantly changing quality of professional practice education, and this is what drives the annual DesignIntelligence rankings of America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools on behalf of the Design Futures Council. We seek to better understand and measure quality as it relates to preparing students for the future of the design professions.

The architecture and design professions are undergoing fundamental changes brought about by new technologies, globalization trends, stresses incited by economic shifts, and innovations in material form and design management. Markets, technologies, clients, and value propositions have all changed. Dramatic paradigm shifts are unfolding. Some of these changes were forecasted based on projected demographics and trends analysis; others were surprises — unexpected wildcards. The Gulf oil disaster was a wild card. The economic sub-prime bubble turned out to be uglier than almost anyone predicted. There have been economic as well as emotional recessions for architects and designers. As difficult as it is, we know that we should expect these inevitable surprises and stay resilient in our actions, strategies, and emotions.

Expected or unexpected, these events have changed the business of architecture. The Internet, too, has changed us. Technology, innovation, new business processes, and delivery models are replacing what we have and what many of us have become comfortable with. We think we innovate and invent, and we do. However, innovation and technology re-invent us, too. All this change serves up threats as well as opportunities. Trends and times change, and they always create openings. Thinking about the future requires the opposite of myopia: perspective, vision, and judgment. Recessions are times when shifts are the greatest but perhaps so too the chances for favorable new tactics. As the saying goes, when a door closes, a window opens.

The opportunities ahead for architects and designers are very real and in numerous ways exciting (if somewhat scary). These opportunities are not science fiction, but neither will they materialize to their good potential unless design professionals are future-ready and willing to become entrepreneurs of business and navigators of the unknown. This is the relevant sweet spot for future practitioners and needs to be understood by educators and students.

Not only are architecture and design degrees some of the most prestigious of all credentials (no matter where you may practice in the world), but they are also increasingly the most relevant.

Architecture Schools

This year’s survey brought about several significant ranking changes. Take, for instance, the leapfrog ascendancy of the University of Michigan’s M.Arch program. Michigan’s Taubman College moved into the No. 1 position after being 21st last year. How can such dramatic change happen? Educators and practitioners have long held Michigan in high repute, but its ascendancy to the top spot this year will surprise many — as it did us. It is reported that there have been numerous progressive changes internally. The college is delivering both applied research opportunities and relevance to its students, and it is communicating its value.

The tuition investment to attend Michigan is considerable. Out-of-state tuition is now $33,972 per year. By comparison: Yale is $37,750, Harvard is $37,432, Kansas State is $22,888, and the University of Minnesota is $19,550. There are some relative bargains today, but not many. For instance, the highly selective program at Texas A&M currently has a per year, out-of-state graduate student tuition of just $15,022. In-state tuition is a good option for students wanting even more value. For instance, the in-state tuition for the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin is $10,446; the University of Washington, $10,872; and Georgia Tech, $12,626.

For a complete school-by-school comparison that includes special fees and payment cycles see the DesignIntelligence Special Report: 2011 College and University Tuition and Fee Survey at www.di.net. This report lists the current accredited programs, the term schedule, related interdisciplinary programs on each campus, in-state tuition fees at both undergraduate and graduate levels, tuition per credit hour, international student tuition and fees, special registration fees, mandatory institutional fees, mandatory college fees, and rate of variance for mandatory fees. This special report will be updated annually or more frequently by Greenway Group research staff and includes all accredited programs in architecture along with a growing list of programs in other design professions.

The Taubman College at Michigan is an exemplar in communicating powerfully its relevance to alumni and beyond. It has a voice to the design professions broadly, which includes professional practices worldwide, government organizations, and the corporations that will be hiring its graduates. Other schools, too, are putting increased importance on communicating with professional practices, which should bring about better relationships, understandings, and alignments between schools and the practitioners who hire graduates. There is an added benefit as well, as donations and financial support to schools has increased coincident with better communications.

The undergraduate story in our architecture (B.Arch) rankings is fascinating for a different reason: There is continuity of strength from year to year. For the sixth time in the past eight years Cornell University’s undergraduate program topped out the rankings, followed by Syracuse (2nd), Rice (3rd), Cal Poly, San Louis Obispo (tied for 4th), and Virginia Tech (tied for 4th). Tuition in this group for out-of-state students ranges from a low of $15,390 at Cal Poly SLO up to $39,450 at Cornell. Many schools have impressive scholarships and special programs for students that lower the effective rate of tuition, and the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union in New York City is tuition-free.

Additional Design Programs

This year in the landscape architecture program rankings, Harvard garnered the top position in graduate school education, followed closely by Louisiana State University. In undergraduate programs, Louisiana State and Texas A&M landed the top spots.

In our interior design graduate rankings, Pratt Institute took first place, followed by Cornell, Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons, and Savannah College of Art and Design. In the undergraduate category, the University of Cincinnati again captured first place honors, as it has in five of the past six years.

Industrial and product design is a category that many of our readers follow, and it will come as no surprise that Art Center College of Design in Pasadena again came out on top in the research. It has dominated both undergraduate and graduate lists, and only the Illinois Institute of Technology has challenged its No. 1 position over the past six years.

Ambitious Times

It is timely for architecture and design schools to have bigger ambitions. The design professions do, as indicated in their strategic plans for the future. They understand that the world is waiting. New city design, robotics, advanced health care, sustainable building design, green transportation, renewable energy, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, next generation ventures — all these zones of innovation will need architects, interior designers, landscape architects, and product designers to bring design entrepreneurship and positive change to this time of opportunity.

We are entering a new normal period full of accelerated change. Designers will be looked to as navigators of positive change, entrepreneurs who will be agents of enterprise that improve the planet. Agents of servant leadership. Agents of hope.

To do all of this, we do not need merely theorists or technicians. Instead, we are moving to a time when we need dynamic and entrepreneurial professionals. We need professionals who will take us toward new understandings of design as organic science. We need future professionals who will take us from a time of construction as an extremely wasteful industry to construction as a lean and clean industry. We need professionals who can take us forward, moving from the majority of design’s value perceived as economic investment in objects to a new moral design capitalism that serves society’s interests.

At the heart of the future of architecture and design are today’s colleges and universities. There is considerable admiration for the leadership they are providing and a restless expectation that they might be able to provide even more. The future will need a kind of designer who is characterized as having bold ideas and lots of talent combined with strategic optimism. As we interview students in these top programs, we see the enthusiasm and the potential of this time.

 

Related Content

America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools 2011 Survey Methodology



James P. Cramer is founding editor of DesignIntelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.

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