Our Jobs as Design ‘Directors’

In the midst of my second semester teaching at Carnegie Mellon, I received an email from Mr. Brock, stating that he was starting an online teaching forum, which I think is a wonderful idea. He asked me to provide some insight and commentary based on my experiences thus far. Given my ‘newbie’ status as an assistant professor, making profound statements may be a stretch. However, I can offer a slew of questions and personal beliefs which I believe warrant consideration.

In ‘What is designed?’ Tony has done a nice job of raising many of the teacher—student questions I believe many of us have. I’ll keep my views on the topic isolated to that section of the site. That being said, I’d like to focus primarily on our jobs as design ‘directors’. As educators, I believe it is our responsibility not only to provide students with the design information and skills necessary to enter professional practice, but also to lend a hand in directing the future course of our field. In order to perform such a task, it is crucial for us to stay on top of current developments, trends, etc., constantly asking the ‘what ifs?’. I believe such activity will not only make us stronger educators but also prevent us from falling into predictable reactive patterns. (I had to throw in ‘patterns’ for all of you familiar with my thesis.)

I believe a lack of time is the biggest obstacle. The demands of course development, student advising, and service work can easily consume more than forty hours a week. Therefore, how do we carve out the time to devote to design ‘research’ (My dilemma with this term follows.) without obliterating the minimal social and family life I’m sure many of us have? Let me add my belief that the allocation of time to research endeavors is not only a luxury but a necessity. My professional well being, not to mention hopes of tenure, depend on it. I can only assume that many of you fall into the same category. So, is it a time management problem? I don’t think so. I believe an effective use of time is one of my strongest assets. Could wanting/needing to do everything for everyone (either by choice or demand) be a factor? Possibly. Which leads me to question how to lighten the load, while limiting the repercussions. Offending colleagues and/or students by falling short of expectations, as well as pigeon-holing caused by a narrow research focus and missed opportunities, can jeopardize pursuits of a tenure position and cause stagnation. Therefore, what’s the best course of action to stay productive, making significant contributions to the field, while staying healthy and happy?

After speaking with colleagues who are either entering, or have passed, tenure review benchmarks, I find myself also pondering the term ‘design research’. Many aspiring professors are studying design topics as a means of fulfilling necessary requirements as opposed to practicing design professionally. However, I have the impression that the study of design still needs to fall within certain parameters to truly be considered research. Therefore, how do we define design research? Does it have certain characteristics? Are there specific steps/actions that need to be performed? Does it need to include testing and validation? Are there commonalities in research outcomes? Is a paper, article, and/or presentation a necessary component?

Fortunately, I am surrounded by knowledgeable, supportive colleagues whom I can question anytime. (However, I frequently don’t approach them because I am possibly too respectful of their time.) When I pose questions I am always supplied with an ample amount of worthwhile responses. The difficulty lies in weeding through the range of opinions to form a solid one of my own. Plus, because I am a ‘newbie’, I believe I’m not always aware of the important questions I need to ask. If there are things we haven’t done or experienced how can we be expected to know they exist? A strong mentor may provide clarification and direction. Therefore, my final question is how best to identify and approach appropriate individuals? I believe such a decision warrants careful consideration since mentors can significantly impact the endeavors we pursue. I am a firm believer that bad decisions are hard to make since every situation can be approached positively. However, realizing that the mark has been missed after seven years of teaching may be an exception.

Needless to say, Carnegie Mellon is keeping my brain active. I could pose more topics for debate but I’ll save them form another time. Tony, thank you for providing the opportunity and forum for design conversation. I look forward to hearing how those of you in the field are grappling with similar issues. Enjoy the remainder of your spring semester!

All the best,
Stacie Rohrbach
Assistant Professor, Communication Design
Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design

posted by Stacie Rohrbach on March 14, 2004 | comments: 2 | post a comment

First off, I would like to thank Tony Brock for pushing this Design Education initiative. Secondly, I would like to thank Stacie Rohrbach for her comments and questions on Our Jobs as Design ‘Directors’.

I have been teaching for almost two years now and have run into many of the same Tenure Track issues/problems that Stacie has addressed. My following comments will be based solely on my experience while teaching at The University of Memphis.

I have found asking colleagues for their insights and experiences in regard to Tenure have proven to be more interesting than necessarily useful. On the other hand though, I have found that the same colleagues in the Graphic Design Concentration at The University of Memphis have defined Tenure and Promotion Guidelines and Procedures for planned success very well. These Guidelines and Procedures are manifested in the form of a somewhat lengthy document. These documents have proven to be the most useful resource when I have questions regarding the daunting topic. They are very specific in outlining what the department/university considers Graphic Design research and how it is disseminated (these of which were defined by the Graphic Design Faculty). The documents were created due to some of the problems the past and present Graphic Design Faculty were having when going through the Tenure Evaluation process. My suggestion would be to ask if your department/college have created some type of documents like these, and if they are on hand for new faculty to review. If they are not in existence, what needs to take place to create them? If they are in existence, can they be revised or updated, again what is the process of doing so. These have made my life much easier and I have found that it gives me more time to focus my energies on what I should be doing rather than being concerned about having any gray criteria hanging over my head.

Maybe this will help maybe not. Thanks for reading

Lucas Charles
Assistant Professor, Graphic Design
The University of Memphis

Posted by Lucas Charles on March 15, 2004 05:44 PM

Thanks for your response Lucas. Carnegie Mellon does, in fact, have similar guidelines for tenure promotion. They are somewhat vague in areas. This seems to be intentional to allow for a certain degree of interpretation. However, the department is in the process of revisiting them, determining what needs to be done to make them current.

Although tenure procedures may vary from school to school, I am most interested in discovering the similarities that exist, which is why I brought up the design research question. I believe a consistent use of terminology between our relatively small group of design educators would enable us to discuss topics more easily based on the common language that we share. Therefore, are we all using the term 'design research' in a similar manner?

The design faculty at CMU discussed design research last evening. One of my colleagues mentioned that Brenda Laurel has, or is about to, launch a book entitled (appropriately), 'Design Research'. From what I've heard, Laurel describes making as a form of research in the new book. I believe making becomes research only when the designer has time to reflect on what he/she has made and articulates his/her findings in some manner. Thoughts? I'll keep a look out for it and let you know when it has been released.


Posted by Stacie Rohrbach on March 16, 2004 08:27 AM