Open Conference Systems, National Conference on the Beginning Design Student

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A Speculative Essay on Design Process: Agency through Making
Whitney Hamaker, Kory Alan Beighle

Last modified: 2016-12-15


The impulse to explore is a fundamental human need, but for some reason within many institutions of education that impulse is replaced with the obligation to answer.  Many beginning design students come to a design school with just this mentality.  One opportunity of contemporary design education is to reframe this question-answer paradigm by providing the space and time to live the questions and in a sense deschool students.

In his 1987 book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Jacques Ranciere points out that traditional educational models obstruct students, compressing them into a pre-packaged mold.  Ranciere suggests that such students can be charatcerized by their ignorance of what they do not know and how or why to know it.  In Ranciere’s model, the master becomes both the placeholder of knowledge and the position of knowledge dissemination.  In step with Ranciere’s critique, this paper will argue that contemporary desing education must break down this model and shift power toward the learner within the constraints of the learned language-medium.

In response to this established imparative, this paper presents two foundational design experiences and discusses the strategic way these directed investigations are outlined so that the students can have freedom to explore within a disciplinary framework.

The first process explores a sequence of design problems that question materiality in architecture. Students are exposed to Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message.” Learning from the the material (a medium) itself proposes a connection between the physicality of a crafted artifact and the content it communicates; there is an embodied economy within a crafting process that expresses aspects of design that go beyond the infinity of the mind.

The second process explores a desing/build exercise where students begin with a design in hand that must be veted prior to construction.  This vetting exposes the necessity of iteration and the potential of having space to explore beyond the scope of standard detailing and typical construction methods; the design of the components coming together becomes the design of the thing.

By emphasizing crafted objects – purposefully constructed descriptive, analytical, and generative devices – these two discussions collectively describe and analyze the relationship between making processes and the formation of internalized knowledge (and nonknowledge); the discussions also describe the platforms that production offers for jumping off into future exploration.  This idea will be tied to philosopher Graham Harman’s discussion in his pamphlett, The Third Table, which describes the potential of art and architecture to qualify the world in a unique way.

Finally, this paper will conclude by accessing the value of these processes in structuring a situation where students can take on power for themselves.  As a learner, one makes and then evaluates and then carries that forward… it is not an economy of question and answer, but a process of uncovering, re-working and educating one’s self, which contributes to the learner’s agency and their ability to continue to learn once they are no longer within the institution of education.