Rethinking Design Education

By Fred Stitt

Years ago, when I was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and planning a new school, the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, I did a national survey of problems in architectural education from the viewpoints of students, faculty, administrators, and alumni. Not surprisingly, I got a lot of negative feedback about the quality of technical and managerial education, which was almost nonexistent in many schools.

Most surprising were reports about intellectual repression that students were experiencing. Students who wanted to combine studies of architecture and ecology were often turned down. Students who wanted to explore the effects of interior landscaping, solar design, and alternative construction materials were frequently prevented from doing so.

Students complained that a “look” representative of Postmodern or Deconstructionist design was more important  to success in many design studios than nonconforming creative design, ecological design, or technological innovation. After documenting the complaints, I started the new school in San Francisco with a basic list of 30 primary problems and goals in design education.

For example, one goal was to get students to better appreciate their own creative potential, liberate their imaginations, and apply far-reaching creativity to very practical problems. We’ve found that students had often spent a lifetime keeping their most important ideas under wraps for fear of criticism and ridicule.

So part of our job as educators was to find ways to allow students to be fully exploratory. We’ve had to allow that early, experimental work will be unfinished or amateurish and not penalize people as they work through this formative process. That’s the opposite of most schools where students have to choose between trying a risky experiment or going for a grade by imitating what they know their instructors will find acceptable. At our school in San Francisco, we quickly proved that students thrive in a free environment.