Everything you wanted to know about the re-launched MA Design Futures

The new term is almost here, and with it, quite a few changes will arrive at Goldsmiths. For instance, the Design department is offering a new and improved MA Design Futures, bringing you the latest research, new projects and new course content. One of the course convenors, Hannah Jones, tells us more about the changes in the programme and what can the students expect from the MA course from now on:

Nadia: What does it mean exactly that the course is re-launched? How does it differ from what was offered in the previous entry year?

Hannah Jones: Design Futures is the longest running MA programme in the department and one of the first MA programmes at Goldsmiths. It was originally written and launched in 1995 by Emeritus Professor John Wood, with the aim of encouraging designers to ‘dream’ of new and exciting ‘futures’, and in response to a lack of discussion in design about business ethics and the role of the natural environment in our lives.

Nearly twenty years on, we are still grappling with complex ethical and environmental challenges but the good news is that design is becoming more engaged. Design Futures provides an established forum for designers to deeply reflect upon their practice and its impact upon society and the environment. We believe that it continues to offer a unique learning experience, relevant to designers who want to become ‘change agents’ within, for example, organisations, governments, or local communities. We have refreshed the course content to include cutting-edge research into systems thinking, sustainability, futures studies, social design and change. Mathilda [Tham, the other convenor of the MA Design Futures course] and I are both active members of the Metadesign Research Group in the department, conducting research into the design of collaborative, emergent and adaptive design processes and tools. The changes to the course also formally integrate metadesign as a framework for exploring sustainable futures.

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Nadia: What are the issues that affect and change design practice in contemporary times and make it necessary for such changes and adaptations in design education?

Hannah Jones: Designers are experiencing the same political, economic and environment instability as other world citizens. One of the trends we have noticed in terms of how this effects design practice is that our design graduates are diversifying their ways of working and there is a growing movement in social and strategic design. This means that as educators we need to prepare our students to be adaptive with their knowledge, skills and capabilities. We need to equip them for working with uncertainty and to be creatively and ethically responsive to working within different contexts and with different people.

Nadia: What makes this course stand out from other postgraduate design courses?

Hannah Jones: We are building an international reputation for our pioneering collaborative research, attracting speakers this year such as participatory critical design researcher Dr. Ramia Maze, and the strategic design outfit Helsinki Design Lab, who identified us as a course offering not only a critical approach to design but as being one of the places to go to learn to become an agent of change. We have developed a unique design-led form of writing as a method for re-orientating design practice that underpins the course, and we are currently developing this further through integrating collaborative design writings and live projects. In this sense it is different from many other design postgraduate programmes because it isn’t product-orientated in a traditional sense. We are, in my knowledge, the only course to offer metadesign as a framework for exploring and practicing sustainable futures.

Nadia: In hindsight, most visions of the future (or what is now our present) in the past were severely limited by the contemporary limits of what people thought was reasonable both from a technological and from a societal point of view. Is it really possible to understand future challenges enough to develop work oriented towards them?

Hannah Jones: I couldn’t think of an answer to that one so I made up a joke…

Q: How many futurists does it take to change a light bulb? A: I don’t know, they’re sooo unpredictable!

We like to imagine the future as a journey into the unknown rather than a destination point. The ‘futures’ in design futures therefore implies multiple journeys that trace an entanglement of possibilities. The students spend their time on the course exploring and mapping the steps towards their future practice.

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Nadia: Can you give some examples of graduates who went on to have remarkable career pathways?

Hannah Jones: Professor Jonathan Chapman, author of ‘Emotionally Durable Design’ and programme leader of MA Sustainable Design at University of Brighton. Eliane Damesceno – Brazilian designer, craft and market access specialist, specialising in community mobilization, product development and entrepreneurship in the social sector, together with an academic background in business, social science and design. Worked for Aga Khan Foundation in Mozambique after completing Design Futures. Alix Kneifel – Information management consultant, worked for 10 years at JPL, NASA, California after finishing the course.

Nadia: What do graduates do with the knowledge gained on the course?

Hannah Jones: The department of design’s multi-disciplined and non-specialist approach broadens our students’ understanding of the potential of design. A Design Futures student’s professional profile might include working in sustainable communications, whilst also doing some coaching, teaching – working across public and private sectors. Designers who come to us are engaging with design at a systemic level and do not shy away from the big questions… In this sense, it is difficult sometimes to judge the effect of their work immediately. Often our students take some time to find their place but when they do they become the decision-makers and influencers in sustainable innovation and social change.

Nadia: Can you tell us of a project from your work which embodies the guiding philosophy of the MA Design Futures?

Hannah Jones: My doctoral research, entitled ‘Practicing Awkward Space in the City’ explores how and why we experience ‘awkward space’ in cities and how this concept can be used productively in design. As part of my research I worked with a group of local residents from the Haberdasher housing estate in North London to collaboratively explore, map and re-imagine spaces on the estate that the residents characterised as awkward. This process informed the development of an action plan for the residents’ future activities on the estate. This experience epitomises design as facilitation, as possibility-seeking and working collaboratively with different stakeholders to develop visions for shared imaginative living. These are central tenets of the MA Design Futures programme.

Nadia Barbu

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