A Brief History of the Design Summer School

The 2008 financial crisis and the draconian political decisions that followed, were bluntly felt in many countries with tuition fees suddenly doubling or tripling, and universities restructured to mirror the typical corporate governance. Precarity became the norm. For students with hefty loans, and faculty with redundancies and the rise of employment of young associate or visiting lecturers. This was lighter on the institution’s budget and social obligations, while taking advantage of the contagious energy and commitment of recent graduates. Studio spaces and rooms are rented to each course to define the criteria for (financial) relevance, and recruitment centres are positioned in strategic positions of the globe to maximise profit. Rebranding across universities was a consequence of substantial investment in marketing as business strategy, turning students into customers, and the transfer of the focus from education to brand equity.

Neoliberal Adventures
With unsustainable fees preventing access to design schools, and universities transformed into super-companies, education could finally become consumerism. Aligned with Silicon Valley’s language and blind promise of technology as a bright, inevitable future, design education bought into the market imposed facilities and their worshiped environments. ‘Smart Labs’ are recurrent in design schools, with ‘new media’ and ‘digital studios’ still proudly displayed as a sign of progress and forward-thinking education. Nothing is more illustrative of innovation in design schools than the abundance of technology. In each school there’s an oppressive battalion of iMacs, staged to impress both young students and their parents, ready to feed the Adobe monopoly, and increase the list of skills to include in CVs. Data analysis is a key, complementary investment. Rankings and stats are the defining badges of merit spun by universities’ PR teams, under constant pressure of accelerating and condensing learning processes. ‘Intensive’ and ‘immersive’ are mandatory keywords in the rush to optimise resources and present new course portfolios to the next batch of customers waiting in line.

It is in this context that an increase of short courses, quick degrees and especially the ‘design summer school’, became a popular format for the discipline. It flourished out of easy profit. The emergence of low-cost airlines and the rise of Airbnb created the foundations for the exploration of alternatives or complements to academia. Summer is the obvious period of the year in which this can happen—an opportunity to practice a foreign language, hone a technical skill and visit a different country. In short, privileged tourism. Summer courses are far from new in US universities, particularly since the 1970s, with 2-week trips traditionally to Europe, especially historic and idyllic cities in Italy such as Rome, Florence or Venice, but also London and Paris. Inversely, European students fly either to New York or California, typically Los Angeles. This has always been, of course, a rare and expensive treat for elite students.

But since the mid-2000s, the summer school as an enjoyable and fun small business that could be a condensed experience of a semester, became a fashionable endeavour among designers. The idea of being able to spend two weeks with a handful of (sometimes) popular designers, talk to people with similar interests and walk in sandals and t-shirt all day in a beautiful setting is seductive. However, two weeks in the summer can be profoundly influential in a young designer’s education. They can be opportunities to question academia, learning processes, ideology, politics. In short, design itself. But in their majority, design summer schools are overpriced tourism gatherings with good weather and a nice view. Short descriptions and platitudes are recurrent, with alluring photos of their respective locations, while exhibiting the happiness of former participants. Eager to get ahead in their education, prepare for an upcoming academic year, develop their knowledge, rub shoulders with established designers, and have a crash course version of a semester, the packaging of a design summer school is clearly attractive to many young students.

But while most summer schools can be seen as inoffensive d€sign touri$m, and short courses at universities a way to recycle and maximise resources, appeal to potential future students or genuinely attempt to provide an informed introduction to a subject, there are more dangerous capitalisations of the context described above. From courses shockingly titled Home-less to create VR environments, to schools that announce that they’re “hacking design education”, it’s possible to see both an alienated co-option of political, social and cultural phenomena and self-absorbed, uninformed gestures appropriating tech language to sell technical workshops as revolution. The New Digital School is an example of this, asking participants to develop their (digital) skillset—UI, UX, front-end development—through masterclasses and hopeful jargon, underlined by the title for their pedagogical model: The Student-Centered Learning Framework.
 A title which one of its founders says that it “should be flashy, catchy and sexy.”

Through expensive tuition fees and generic techno-utopian language, the school can both boast the word ‘new’ in its title and ‘hacking’ in its subtitle while effectively doing the opposite of what they preach. This illustrates the essence of the neoliberal promise, without the burden of all the ethical, moral and political considerations and previous studies in pedagogy. Education is therefore not citizen-building, liberation, human development, emancipation and knowledge-sharing, but a private, semi-relaxed design spa for the market. Unknowingly or simply allured by the pressure of entrepreneurial conformity, both participants and initiators are victims of what the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire called “fear of freedom”.

Possible Summers
To undermine the importance of two weeks in the education of a young designer is dangerous. There is no such a thing as a neutral education process, as Freire’s seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) importantly notes. It either conforms students to the logic of the dominant system or becomes the practice of freedom, working towards the transformation of society. Education is not something that designers can add as just another entry in their portfolio in the quest to ride design’s next trend wave. Freire argues that “the oppressors are the ones who act upon the people to indoctrinate them and adjust them to a reality which must remain untouched.” Adopting a banking model in which tutors tell students how design and reality should be shaped based on their worldview—the typical master and apprentice relationship—is reinforcing the status quo. It’s the fear of realising one’s own incompleteness or oppression. It’s fear of freedom.

There are, however, schools that aim at challenging such propositions, forming a growing network of projects
with shared agendas. Some examples include the educational projects Trojan Horse and Hackers and Designers. The first sets out to “explore the boundaries and preconditions that define the field in which architects and designers operate today”, while the second, focus on a different theme each year dealing with the construction and distortion of reality. By committing to a critical questioning of reality and design’s role/ potential in understanding and challenging it, projects like these share an agenda with Freire and work towards the development of alternative educational models. Hackers and Designers note that “tutors and mentors will become participants, participants become workshop leaders–everyone will be taken on the collective venture of shared responsibility, bringing in own expertise, urgencies and experience.” Both are free.

It’s possible to identify three main approaches in the design summer school. 1) a group of designers act as the specialists, teaching students their concept of design, adopting a typical brief and crit scenario predominantly focusing on form and technique, and often showing their own work as a possible example of success; 2) a group of politically-engaged designers visit the participants during a period of time, typically 8–14 days, to share their methods and their work, unified by a specific (popular) theme and adopting the banking model; 3) a group of designers come together to critically examine the conditions affecting and constructing reality as co-researchers, questioning design’s role and often grounded on a specific context and relation to local communities.

Perhaps the summer can be a time to consider different points of view, not feed the European and North-American indoctrination of how design should be. Working on a laptop on Indesign overlooking a lake or a glamorous city is not a spiritual retreat to charge creative batteries: it’s just privileged illusion. If young students, recent graduates and professionals wanting to invest in continued learning refuse to partake in this playful exploitation of education, then it is possible to support, imagine and develop a pluriversal design education. Together, it’s possible to not support oppressive models in flip-flops, and abandon the fear of freedom.

Article originally published in Lindgren, J. Ed. (2018) Extra-curricular. Eindhoven: Onomatopee.

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