Design practices do not exist in their own little bubbles. They exist in relation to the ‘bigger picture’ of the world we live in. To address the many cultural, social and environmental issues that designers must consider, CSM runs the collaborative ‘Bigger Picture’ project for second year students in the Autumn Term. Design students from Product, Graphics, Ceramics and Architecture work together, and use a blog to work towards a collective understanding of big issues.
In this article, Sarah Kante looks at what the Big Picture is for designers, as well as how blogs might mediate collaboration.
The Bigger Picture project is an opportunity for students to think about the world beyond design (politics, society, technology…) and work in cross-disciplinary collaborations.
The students start the project by attending six keynote lectures from invited guest speakers. They then work in small teams to identify what they perceive as the driving forces in the varied arguments presented, and use group blogs as a platform for discussion and debate. Whilst the blogs are used as commenting platforms, the students are also expected to deliver a presentation, and submit an essay for assessment.
The primary purpose of the project is to offer students an opportunity to reflect on their discipline from a ‘bigger picture’ context. Asked to consider the role and impact of their practices in relation to and from the perspective of areas such as sociology, anthropology, science, philosophy or economics, the students have to think and interact with contemporary cultural issues, contexts and agendas such as globalisation, smart cities, sustainability, etc.
Academic Coordinator, Stephen Hayward insists on the importance of the unit: “There are logistical problems in teaching a unit to 450 students all at once, but it is important because it is live and there is the possibility of interaction: between students, but also with the speakers.”
I asked Stephen why the project is so relevant now, which led to a discussion on the changing nature of design, a perceived loss of communal disciplinary values, and the intrinsically globalised culture we live and work in – at CSM, in London as a capital city, and through our everyday digital lives.
“The Bigger Picture is an old idea: the constituents change all the time. It is framed towards the pull of immateriality, globalisation, values changing… The old relativism and the identity crisis of design: what its viewpoint is having been completely reframed by digital. There are structural changes in design, as well as a change of values and a change in the way designers view the past.
Design is now more embedded in the everyday, there is a sustainability agenda, but otherwise not many fixed points. The recession also made society question design as aspirational, fashion and luxury.
The Bigger Picture project is happening now because design has to reinvent itself, it has to understand some of the bigger picture issues and try to identify current discourses, such as happiness and wellbeing, flow, trust, risk, narrative identity… there are debates going on around these issues. Design needs to be aware of it.
The role of design is to be between roles: between the public and the experts.”
Whilst design needs to be aware of the bigger issues surrounding it, designers have very different approaches to the same problem. The only common ground for designers seems to be an understanding that they don’t have much in common. Not only are shared values and the understanding of the past shifting, but the cultural references and understanding that could be taken for granted when teaching design at university in the past are disappearing.
“I am always surprised at the different levels of knowledge: there isn’t a sense of shared history, no canon, you can’t make any assumptions about what people know. People have become much more spoonfed, they need boundaries, structure…”
It is interesting here to focus on the ‘different levels of knowledge’ and the lack of ‘shared history.’ Our digital lives have no barriers, the online world has no countries, cities, or even, to a certain extent, languages. The different levels of knowledge and the different takes on history that can be experienced at CSM are a result of our international student body as much as they are a symptom of the digitisation, and by extension, globalisation of our lives, cultures, understanding and practices.
It is often said that nowadays we have access to virtually all information through the Internet, and as a result none of us really knows anything deeply anymore. History disappears in a whirlpool of the present; information is so plentiful that no two people have the same set of references, and with the breaking down of barriers, we do not follow a school of thought, or even know what that school might be. The long tail effect does not only have economic impacts, it impacts our practices in ways older generations could not have dreamt.
But whilst the digital and the long tail model have broken down our shared history and disciplinary similarities, they are also opportunities for a new individual and designer, someone who picks and chooses from all over the place, is fluent in many different histories, discourses, schools… This is what, ultimately, I see in the Bigger Picture project: a chance for CSM students to be open to a world outside of design, outside of what they know, outside of their comfort zone. And this is what digital offers to all if you want it. Having the world at one’s fingertips can be overwhelming (this is the only plausible explanation for all those cats memes), but the digital world means that access to most information is available, and whilst we may never be experts in anything, we can strive to understand and know about a bit of everything, thus feeding our practices and making them richer, and more relevant for a wider audience.
The technology supporting The Bigger Picture project’s collaborative efforts is the blog – using the University platform myblog.arts. As the designer is between the experts and the public, the blog is a centre point between students from different courses, with different references, practices and nationalities.
Whether or not a blog is the best collaborative digital tool is probably a question for another article. But it is worth noting its use in a unit that is not concerned with the digital per se.
Using blogs as a collaborative tool might not be the most obvious of choice: blogs are not necessarily the best platform for group communication. But what the blog enables is a digital space for multiple authors to share their thoughts, and maybe react to someone else’s posts. There is, of course, the situation that in our technology-mediated world, interactions seem more comfortable through the digital tools, especially when, like with Bigger Picture, the collaborators are initially unknown – strangers with different perspectives and sets of references. This is something that needs to be considered: blogs give a “safe” environment to articulate your ideas, without interruptions, fumbling for words or the need to worry about speaking skills. Language is not a barrier as there is time for editing, and, very importantly, blogs are stored online: space, location, time, etc. are irrelevant.
Are blogs the most conducive tools for collaborating? Stephen Hayward tells me that the Bigger Picture project “is a template for CSM’s definition of creativity. It stays at the brainstorming level of what the courses are doing. This is the in-house equivalent of Future Fest, looking at current trends and questioning the design world through external issues.” Blogs are communication tools, more than collaborative: they are, in other words, perfect for brainstorming, sharing references and ideas.
Another thing that may be considered as problematic is the place of blogs in the academic framework. Paul Rennie explains: “There is no framework for blogging at CSM, it is outside the university’s comfort zone. There is no academic framework to integrate it into teaching, or to grade it.” And indeed, the Bigger Picture project is not using the blogs as an end, but a means to an end, namely, an essay. It begs the question, how do you grade or crit digital within art education? What kind of pedagogic framework is valuable within a digital realm that is still evolving and often misunderstood?
To wrap up, through speaking with Stephen and Paul, I can see that The Bigger Picture project – a collaborative design project using blogs as brainstorming platforms – has raised many questions. Within the pedagogic framework, where does the blog as a collaborative tool stand (and digital tools in general)? What is the bigger picture for a group of designers who have very few (if any) sets of references in common? How much are digital technologies the reason for the possible loss of shared disciplinary values, history and identity (and to what extent could they be a solution)? Whilst these could be topics to explore further here, at Digital Present, they are also issues that art and design practitioners and students should bear in mind when collaborating, or brainstorming (online or off). These are issues that are central to our practices in a digital world: they are the big picture of the big picture.
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