Spirit of Place and Design Education
The world’s great schools of design tend to be embedded in vibrant metropolises, distinctive regional cultures, hubs of creative energy, and other contexts that – in their rich design histories and unique social and cultural patterns – provide grounding, inspiration, challenges and nourishment to the teaching and learning of design. Local industries and natural resources, the geographical and climatic factors of the local environment, and the demographic and cultural specificities of the local society all have a formative influence on design students and teachers, and the institutions in which they operate. The place in which an educational institution is situated is the archive of tangible evidence of a heritage of design. Equally so, it contains the inheritance of intangible ideas and values, and is the stage for the ongoing performance of a local habitus.
In learning how to think and act in designerly ways, students become sensitized to the environment within which, and for which they design. The geographical locus at which design education takes place is among the most fundamental and profound of the resources on which design education draws – as a laboratory, library, museum, sounding board, palimpsest of memories and canvas of future visions. Not merely a site or situation that is probed in the name of design research, the place in which one learns design is the very medium within which the process of one’s acquisition of ways of thinking, learning and doing is enmeshed.
Design education can empower students to draw on the resources, values and heritage of a place in critical and exploratory ways, educating each generation of new designers to drive forward the evolution of local design knowledge, identity and practice. However, a narrow and superficial notion of the spirit of a place in design education can lead to stultifying conservatism and trivialization of a locality’s heritage, cloying appeals to fetishized clichés, prejudices sacralized as “traditions”, hackneyed appropriations from a canon of artifacts from the past, and uncritical hagiographies of “local heroes”.
Even as design markets and tastes become increasingly globalized, as ways of teaching and learning design become more and more internationalized, and students around the world make reference to the same iconic projects, trendy ideas and styles, and star designers, the importance of place in design education remains.