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What will Future Design Education look like in the post Covid-19 era?

In the days following the FutureDesignEd Symposium 2020 in San Marino, the Covid-19 virus forced the entire educational system to adopt adequate measures to guarantee distance teaching. In light of this situation, we think it is important to further the reflection on education in the field of design.

To inspire reflections, we invited both the organizers and the speakers of the two editions of FutureDesignEd to answer to the following questions:

What do you think the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be on the future of design education?

What are the potential opportunities for innovation in design education and education by design after the event?

Below the answers:

In the sign of discontinuity, there are the path creators, Renaissance ideators who discover the unknown unknowns that dance the can-can behind their back. They perform ideation processes disregarding the knowledge maps designed by incumbents. So, path creators travel lightly and are ignorant of rules and set ways to do things. They feel accessible to ideate without the risk of being labelled a failure even after failing. The Renaissance way of thinking recognises failure as an experience to build upon rather than a sign to stop. Their disruptive ideas shake up the existing ecosystem.

Ultimately, path creators are ideators who explore virgin and unknown cognitive territories to create ideas and funnel them into original avenues of knowledge that they map out ex nihilo. Those ideas are rapidly scalable by moving along these paths, and their entrepreneurial transformation is accessible and inclusive. A new and better time and space open up on the horizon. Cognition, the search for a new perception, and conation, the passage to action, strengthen the human mind’s power, which voluntarily builds its future by using mental gymnastics to manage uncertainties since what tomorrow will bring is unpredictable.

Covid-19 has jeopardised learning; kicked him out of classrooms. To prevent learning from being taken away from the new generations, educational authorities have intervened on the organisational front, first and foremost with distance learning through new technologies. There is not only the digital gap to be bridged. There is also the macabre dance of the cognitive divide in which skeletons are the personification of today’s school, and learners represent the agents of the future. They do not want to end up under the debris of the crumbling edifice of education.


  1. Nurturing the imagination and cultivating the open-mindedness of the pupils, who can then direct their passions and pursue original ideas – an epiphany of original thoughts that challenge the status quo.
  2. Letting the students practice the intellectual gymnasium in which the different branches of knowledge interact until they merge. By building transdisciplinary bridges, students will be able to design their tailor-made study clothes, merging scientific and humanistic subjects. Among the “tools” of the gym, narratives give a glimpse of the paths to take. Think of the human story of the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a scientific star of the Baroque age and a traveller in many worlds of knowledge. Kircher moved between the study of volcanoes and fossils, the observation of microbes under the microscope, mechanical inventions such as automata, the magnetic clock and megaphone, Egyptology, music theory, and comparative religion.
  3. Allowing pupils to swim in the waters of doubt, where conventional thinking is in danger. Not to drown, the swimmers’ minds must be free to move, not exposed to the scrutiny of experts looking for possible heresies. Nor, even worse, should they be subject to the control of sponsors who judge as heresy those ideas that are at odds with their own judgments and opinions. It was the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith who denounced the extent to which commercial companies financing colleges and universities were keeping in check academic opinions counter to their perceived needs.
  4. Aiming at the richness of diversity and the intensity of interactions for learning.

Piero Formica, Founder of the International Entrepreneurship Academy Network. Senior Research Fellow at the Innovation Value Institute, Maynooth University, Ireland. Professor and Mentor, Contamination Lab at the University of Padua.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse for the future of design education. The blessings have been in the development of new ways to engage with design students and colleagues to prepare them for the possibilities of multiple future scenarios that pandemics might possibly bring or by offering them insight and understanding of engaging with and interacting through video technologies. It has been a wonderful and positive experience having design students present and discuss their work remotely and to contextualize these interactions by presenting the idea that design futures can be both nomadic and remote. It is through the idea that design education is in the business of folding time. We look into the future and predict the multiple scenarios of where design practice will be. We prepare students today for future careers and give them the competitive advantage. COVID-19 has made me a better and more effective design educator because I have had to create new course projects that embrace this new normal and to also develop multiple and different mechanisms for students to emotional connect and respond. The curses have been in creating a community experience for design students. Isolation can be daunting and debilitating, and it is easy for students to fall between the cracks when they are engaging in a remote and virtual experience. One always needs to be mindful to engage with the individual, ask the right questions and to provide them with multiple and systematic mechanisms to improve their projects and experiences. Interacting remotely can also be challenging because one does not ‘really’ know who is on the other side of the screen and on the periphery. For example, a student might be at home, and in the kitchen. A parent, a sibling, a friend, might be listening into the conversation or class, and design diplomacy has never been more important to enhancing the learning experience. Another concern about remote design education is developing community engagement and social justice projects. The consequence of not being able to engage in and with communities has been to develop course projects where students are given complex scenarios that are either based on real-life events or are theoretical. Students have to develop a creative strategy on how to respond, and then decide on the appropriate deliverables and interventions based on their strategy. It is a move from proscriptive to interpretive design education.

There are so many opportunities for design innovation in design education and design practice I have often thought about using “design politic” where design is always a political action. I have also reflected on how design education would change significantly if we gave names to course like “Civic Typography” or “Empathetic Graphic Design Studio” or “Design Politic Typography.” We are afforded the opportunity to come together and to come to gather. The belief that an international group of design educators can reach across the table and discuss design culture and design ethics. To discuss the important roles that design should engage in and to consider the most effective and sustainable best practices that will prepare students for the future.

Bernard J Canniffe, Iowa State University, USA

“On a short-term, we might be witnessing increasing stress levels amongst students and faculty given that our capabilities for teaching and learning in digital environments are still developing. In addition, distance learning has also revealed structural inequalities as not everyone has equal access to internet or a dedicated space for learning.

 Looking ahead, however, we will see strategic-level changes aimed at transforming design schools into truly student-centric institutions. Design education’s focus will also move even further beyond commercial gains, and as such design can become a catalyst for social change. (Design) education once again will be informed by strong values.”

Miikka J. Lehtonen, Assistant Professor of Strategic Design Management, Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, Dubai, UAE

“The COVID-19 pandemia is a consequence to the ongoing environmental crisis. Its understanding needs to be part of the education of a designer so that it can help shaping our collective planetary consciousness, and urge us to respond to it and act accordingly. This crisis reflects not our lack of knowledge but our inability to fully relate and empathise with each other, to other Earthlings, and to our planet as a whole. It reflects things that we are doing to the Earth, not just things that are happening to us. Design education always occurs in a set of political and social conditions which must be understood, felt, and redesigned for the benefit of all Earthlings.”

Massimo Santanicchia, Associate Professor and Program Director in Architecture at the Iceland University of the Arts

“In the first phase of the COVID-19 emergency I held several design and communication courses in different universities and with numerous teams of students. Being “challenge-based” experiential units, the distance between all the participants created a challenge within the challenge.

The pandemic has generally given a huge boost to the spread of digital services. In an experiential design course, where the activities are both cognitive and collaborative, the introduction of digital services never used before was decisive for effective remote interaction. These allowed to stimulate student involvement and ensure pre-established learning outcomes. The impact was both in operational terms (live remote conferencing, collective online visualization, project management), and in socio-economic terms in which democratic and inclusive access to the educational offer was safeguarded despite the contingent limits.

 From these challenges, I expect two changes: that when the emergency ceases, some advantages of the remote mode (especially the socio-economic ones) will not disappear, on the contrary, they will be valued, and that the teaching and learning of digital service design will be ever more relevant.”

Omar Vulpinari, Service Design & Innovation. Consulting, Training, Facilitating, Mentoring

“Information is the starting point for knowledge. Information can be conveyed digitally and knowledge can be acquired digitally. But that is not enough. Design students in particular need to be able to experience information and actively appropriate knowledge so that it becomes a skill. After Covid-19, this means that we must concentrate on making sure that design students experience information. Experiencing information means hands-on involvement with topics and things, means first-hand encounter with people and their situations. Information and knowledge must be actively put into context and linked to experience by students in order to create the kind of inspiration that leads to design which makes a difference to the world.

Angela Grosso Ciponte, Sociologist lic.phil., adult educator SVEB, lecturer, researcher, training & didactic support, developer University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland

“As most will confirm, the disclosure of all of us in home and the need to deal with internet-based communication tools has boost the use of the latter even to those who are less convinced and more resistant in adopting new tools of communication. Why they were (and perhaps will be again) resistant, has to do largely with personal background and experience which makes us all different: who is born with a cellphone in hand has sure a different approach than the one who learned the profession by using pencil, ink pen and rulers. 

Never the less, a simple question – at some point after perhaps two weeks of lock down – to some students, made evident that social life for young people keeps a high ranking in daily life and being (again) locked in home with commanding parents and noisy sisters was not an option. Therefore, the acceptance of using a communication tool or not is not the only parameter of comfort towards new learning methods. 

A further, general observation shared with colleagues was the missing value of “dead” times between single tasks: having coffee at the bar, chatting about work and others, walking down the corridor and then driving home for a longer or shorter time, gives important moments of digesting the enormous amount of input and thoughts that come up in meetings with colleagues and students. The passage from home to University prepares to what will come, a distance which is not long enough if you move from kitchen to the living room to assume work.

But what about the future of Design Education? First of all, the experience of the disclosure itself. Life condition can change dramatically from one moment to the other without necessity of a war, also in stable social and political environments. What has been a “theoretical” scenario in design briefs of social and future studies, has now the experienced background that motivates for better studies and solutions. While the use of online tools definitely 

  • can merge distant design communities by more regular meeting events on a “kilometer 0 sustainability” basis,
  • can ease consultation before exams
  • can ease international collaboration
  • can ease attendance of students abroad (Erasmus, foreigners etc)
  • will push forward new tools for problem solving like VR and AR
  • etc…

All agree that however personal contact will keep its high value in establishing the necessary relation between individuals, on all levels (professor-student, colleagues-colleagues, conferences attendees etc). Therefore, I expect that the change will consist in a more ease use of online tools to participate in meetings and conferences (which will provide for more professional online participation), and partly use in teaching where convenient. Beside this, there will be perhaps even more charming moments of co-working and workshop in order to balance the social distance, in which we will be pushed by time by using internet always more.”

Andreas Sicklinger, Full Professor in Industrial Design, Department DA – University of Bologna

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced an awakening of global proportion, which has made the human race become even more acutely aware of its vast shortcomings. The world is an interconnected, complex network. Every decision – good and bad – has a ripple effect, affecting business, government, community and individuals who are all plugged into a global ecosystem and value chain. Despite the Earth’s inherent beauty and magic, we have for years succeeded in engineering an unjust and often destructive world for living in.

As an optimist, I do believe that we have the capacity and the ability to design the exact opposite if we shift our priorities to the development of relevant skills and creative intelligence. In order, to effect systemic and sustainable change, we must invest wisely in appropriate human capital like empathy, agility, resourcefulness, multiple perspectives and holistic thinking, skills development that’s optimised and underpinned by creativity. Such an investment will enable us to design with context, the resilient, just, and prosperous future world we are now desperate to realise. The UN SDGs give us very clear outcomes of this desired world. The time is now to write the most important design brief since our existence: we need to design and develop new orders and strategies for education, systems, services, environments, policies and cities so that we can collectively deliver on the demands of the future with purpose and agility.  

Investing in the integration of creativity across all curricula will strike a much needed balance in developing the whole child, the whole brain! With a special focus on STEAM education (integration between science, technology, engineering, art and math), from kindergarten and beyond tertiary education, is not only crucial to create conducive, playful and inclusive learning environments but also to develop creative and emotional intelligence, nurture human problem-solving capabilities, design and creative thinking and other future skills; doing so is imperative to unlock and optimise new potential, identify appropriate innovations, technologies, solutions that ultimately change mindsets and behaviour, which will enable us to create new aspirations to design our preferred future. 

Design Education and all other disciplines in Academia plug into the global ecosystem and value chain and have a collective responsibility to rethink and redesign their curricula in order to develop human capital that will be equipped to navigate the design of our preferred future world to achieve the UN SDG’s. How will you adjust the curriculum of your discipline so that students develop multidisciplinary perspectives, skills and human qualities that will enable them to “design to include”, “design for change and impact”, “design life and wellbeing” or to “design a circular economy and community resilience”? How will you change your approach to teach students future skills as well as how to apply multiple disciplines as powerful activation and execution tools? Design Education is well positioned to take the lead in achieving these crucial agendas. 

Within this changing and current context, creativity has become second to none and needs to be seriously prioritised if we truly want to empower future generations. We can achieve this aim with pride, purpose and a higher level of insight, empathy, authenticity and the confidence that will stand us all in good stead to navigate what lies ahead in all spheres of life. Most importantly, these skills are uniquely human, and cannot be automated by machines. Hence, striking a balance also through financial investment in humanity and technology, will underpin a solid foundation for creating a strong, symbiotic relationship that is crucial for humans to thrive in. Ultimately, it is only through our collective actions that we can pledge to co-create a better world today, by and through design.” 

Suné Stassen, Founder And Executive Director Of Open Design Afrika