When Denmark’s two design schools began to focus actively on research it marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story about Danish design. The schools approached the task in different ways, and the discussions that took place on their way to being recognised as research institutions became heated at times. Mind Design asked three former rectors about their recollection of the process – and the role of the Danish Centre for Design Research.
By Trine Vu
INTERVIEW “One of the main hurdles was that most people simply had trouble imagining that design research was actually possible,” Birthe Sandorff recalls.
As rector of the Kolding School of Design in 1996-2007, she was one of the pioneers in the process to bring the design schools up to university status and help prepare Danish design for the future via research-based education.
Birthe Sandorff fought hard to convince the sceptics that design research was indeed possible, in part by cooperating with business and industry, thus generating examples to illustrate that design research is a discipline in its own right.
In Copenhagen, Peter Bysted and Anne-Louise Sommer were rectors at what was then The Danish Design School in 2007-2009, respectively 2009-2011. They also had to work hard to demonstrate that design research was the way forward. But none of the three former rectors ever had any doubt that establishing a research environment at the two design schools was the right thing to do.
First, it was part of a natural development, where there was a general desire in society to upgrade the profession-oriented education programmes. Second, the drive for a stronger academic profile for design education also sprang from a growing awareness of the untapped potential in design. Disciplines such as user-driven and strategic design required innovation in the education programmes.
|“My experience from the design school is that theory and practice don’t have to be each other’s opposites. On the contrary, they can create lots of interesting syntheses, and the graduates we have produced in recent years master both theory and practice,” says Anne-Louise Sommer, who was rector of what was then The Da�nish Design School in 2009-2011.
Photo: Pernille Klemp
Anne-Louise Sommer, who is now director of Danmarks Designmuseum, says,
“With the expanded design concept, design became a more complex field, and the higher degree of complexity required that we give our graduates academic skills. At first, many students struggled with design theory, because their background was practical, not academic. But when they graduated five years later, they had clearly grasped the value of theory. They had integrated theory into really amazing graduation projects, which reflected the highest creative and artistic element as well as a profound understanding of design history. They had really come a long way.”
Even if the goal was the same: achieving university status, the two design schools took very different paths in their pursuit of this goal. Copenhagen chose to recruit people with a research background to kick off the school’s own design research, while Kolding instead chose to give designers the qualifications to carry out research, for example by offering PhD scholarships.
Birthe Sandorff comments on Kolding’s approach:
“I trained as a textile designer myself, and at Kolding we were determined to put designers in charge of research, because we wanted to imbue research with an understanding of practice, to prevent it from being pure theory, an alienating element in relation to the profession. Not many thought that we would be successful. But one of our strengths was that as early as 1998 we had earmarked funds for a research project, so we had already had a PhD project underway by textile designer Vibeke Riisberg, who was the first PhD with a pure design background in Denmark.”
Birthe Sandorff adds that the school also hired researchers with a purely theoretical background, and that an interdisciplinary research department was established at an early stage in the process: the Institute for Form and Theory, where theorists and designers worked side by side. This initiative ensured that all the students received research-based training at an early stage.
|“Research has really strengthened the field, and the schools of design have received unequivocal recognition. I hope that design research will stick to the design-specific approach,” says Birthe Sandorff, who is a trained textile designer and was rector of the Kolding School of Design in 1996-2007.
Photo: Designskolen Kolding
In Copenhagen, Peter Bysted and Anne-Louise Sommer agree that adding established researchers to the staff of the design school necessitated a targeted effort to anchor and integrate the research taking place at the school.
“Initially, the gap between theory and practice was greater in Copenhagen in many ways, because the new researchers on the staff had a completely different background. The researchers constituted one group, and the designers another, and initially the course content was divided fairly sharply into practice-based part and theoretical elements,” Anne-Louise Sommer explains.
When the time came to devise a research strategy, she therefore launched an involving process where not only the researchers but all the other stakeholders as well were invited to participate, whether their background was design or another field.
“That approach ensured widespread ownership to the research strategy, and thus, the first stage of the integration was successful,” says Anne-Louise Sommer.
Another aspect of the integration strategy at The Danish Design School was the launch of projects where researchers and people with a design background worked together, says Peter Bysted.
“There was no century-old tradition for how to perform design research. It was a completely open research field, and many teachers and professional designers were still sceptical as to whether research could actually be used to develop good design. In this process, some claimed that the new structure would ruin both the institution and the good Danish design tradition. Hence, part of the exercise was to bring together the classic design teachers and the researchers. And when we drew up the new research plan we identified key focus areas in a plan that both groups could get behind,” he says and adds,
“New lecturers with experience from both practice and theory also helped establish cross-disciplinary cooperation. A good example is Sofie Beier, who held a PhD by practice from the Royal College of Art in London, and who has ties to design practice as well as a structured approach to design as a field of research. That made her a facilitator in an integration process where teachers and researchers have worked together and learned to appreciate each other.”
Outside the design schools too, there were efforts to integrate design research. According to the three former rectors, the Danish Centre for Design Research, which was founded in 2004 with the purpose of facilitating the design schools’ efforts to establish a research base, played a crucial role in the efforts to consolidate the seedling research environment.
|“When people of different professional backgrounds dedicate themselves to cooperation they can generate new value. And when designers and researchers really pool their efforts, they will produce amazing results that far exceed our current expectations,” says Peter Bysted, who was rector of what was then The Danish Design School in 2007-2009.
Photo: Steen Brogaard
Anne-Louise Sommer says,
“There’s no doubt that the centre has been really important throughout this period – both in terms of practical formalities by providing a meeting place for the researchers and by serving as a facilitator in establishing the research base. Not least for the younger researchers and PhD scholars, the framework that the centre offers is invaluable – courses, lectures and research seminars where researchers can meet their peers and find answers to all the questions that arise for someone setting out on a PhD project, perhaps without an academic background.”
Birthe Sandorff also points to the master’s degree in design that the centre has established. She considers this an essential offer that lets the school’s lecturers with a practical design background acquire the necessary qualifications to teach research-based courses.
Anne-Louise Sommer adds that the centre’s communication activities are of crucial importance for the design research environment:
“The digital platform behind the Mind Design magazine is a great vehicle for communicating what’s happening in the field, both internally and externally in relation to business and industry and the international design scene. That is essential because the individual schools don’t have the resources to handle that communication task past the individual level related to specific research projects. It’s so valuable that the centre’s magazine now gives us a single platform for presenting the research effort in Denmark,” says Anne-Louise Sommer.
Although design research is now well-established in the design schools, and the research evaluation has long since been completed, this is no time for complacency, Peter Bysted warns.
He considers conceptual clarification one of the main tasks for design research in the future:
“Despite a strong focus on design, there is still widespread uncertainty about what design is, and what designers have to offer. The design concept has been expanded, and the notion that ‘everything is design’ creates confusion. That leads to a tendency to turn back and say that designers should stick to making drawings and creating form. But that would be life-threatening for the design field, so I see it as a crucial task for design research now to be involved in describing the new concepts of design and making them comprehensible and useful,” says Peter Bysted and thus brings the discussion back to its starting point: the new concepts of design and the need to put some of design’s many capabilities into words.