Where Do We Go from Here? A Global Perspectives Essay on Trends in Design Higher Education

This post is the essay I wrote to close out my Global Perspectives Program experience. My research topics were trends in teaching & learning in the U.S. and Europe and Emerging Trends in Design Education, which I explored while developing the following paper. To learn more about our experience & the 2017 cohort, please visit the GPP website.

Where Do We Go from Here?

A Global Perspectives Essay on Trends in Design Higher Education

The Global Perspectives Program (GPP) is about joining the future professoriate. The world is rich in geological, biological, and cultural diversity. Diversity is also present in institutions of higher education.  This could mean type of institution: state, federal, or private; or in programming: applied sciences, liberal arts, or design; or even in student body representation: predominantly white institutions or historically black colleges and universities, native-international-underrepresented populations ratios. It is important for educators, both contemporary and aspiring, to understand and embrace diversity and to learn about the structure of global higher education, learning and instruction, and trends in higher education in general.

The first step in understanding global higher education is learning that education systems are vastly different depending on where you are in the world. A push for harmonizing higher education in Europe was established in 1999 with The Bologna Process so students across the continent would have more access to education in general and to expand academic freedom and mobility. Until this point, degrees, credits, and scholarly works weren’t necessarily transferrable, accepted, or respected from institution to institution. This was the contextual background presented to us as we prepared for our GPP experience. Each student was tasked with exploring a set topic or theme: diversity and inclusion, open access, learning and instruction, and graduate education. In addition, we were also asked to explore an individual, personal topic related to global higher education. I selected “emerging trends in design education” because of my background in Landscape Architecture and Architecture and Design Research. I wanted to know more about contemporary research topics and what was trending for my European colleagues. I quickly came to find I had underestimated the breadth of my topic, as the experience helped me to understand design in a new way–as an effective interdisciplinary research driver and collaborative international language.

Design creates culture.

Culture shapes values.

Values determine the future.”

Robert L. Peters, designer, teacher, & global citizen


Good design is the most important factor going forward in improving quality of life for all biota. Design is everywhere; whether it is good or bad design is the prevailing question. Society is so accustomed to bad design that it has become normalized. Bad design choices have led to some of the greatest challenges humanity will face in the coming decades: rapid land use and cover change, sprawling urbanization, social injustice, unsustainable resource consumption, and changes to local and global climate. My research topic ultimately led me to better understand the state of contemporary design education, applied design, and design ethics. Since coming to graduate school at a land-grant institution, I have heard the call for communicating research, participation and engagement with the public, and service to the people we represent. After this experience, I now hear the call to champion for art and design as a global good.

This essay unpacks the basics of design education in higher education through discussion of design education at three different types of art and/or design institutions we visited on the GPP 2018 trip.

A Global Perspective on Design Education

Design schools vary by geography, philosophy, and in their expectations of student transformation. Universally, design students should become independent thinkers, able to employ critical thinking and self-analysis (Tovey, 2015). In general, art and design students are receiving similar opportunities and training toward their professional development, but national values seem to play an extremely important role in the success of a developing artist.  In the United States, the terminal degree in fine art is a master’s. This is usually completed after a student has studied for 6 years. Some might argue that this is enough; but at FHNW  (Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst-College of Art and Design) in Basel, Switzerland, a student can pursue a fine art Ph.D. after their master’s and graduate having dedicated an additional 3 years to their craft; where time, space, and funding is provided so students develop into mature artists with their own unique character and style–growth that begins during master’s studies, but certainly not to the degree which FHNW students achieve during their Ph.D. program.  It was clear from my observations during the GPP trip and conversations and presentations with academics (some of whom are now active politicians) that Europeans, and the Swiss in particular, value the arts. I found it refreshing to discover these “soft” disciplines are just as important to quality of life as engineering or medicine.

Figure 1: Typical Fine Art Higher Education Models

Figure 1. The terminal degree in Fine Art in the United States is the master’s. In Europe, arts are supported through the Ph.D. level. Coursework requirements vary.

Figure 2: Typical Design Higher Education Models

Figure 2. Rates for degree completion vary between continents, each produces similar deliverables.

We visited eight universities between Switzerland, France, and Italy. Every university we visited shared examples of design-centric innovation, an indicator that the need for good design is in fact, increasing. To answer my questions about what is happening in European design programs, I knew I had to focus on the different types of schools with faculties (colleges) of design. Examples will come from SUPSI, Strasbourg University, PoliMi, and FHNW.


SUPSI (University of Applied Sciences of Southern Switzerland)

SUPSI, located in Lugano, Switzerland, is one of nine applied science institutes in the confederation. Industry driven, funding sources range from national agencies to private companies and institutions. They offer a wide variety of programs where students can pursue up to a master’s level of advanced studies.

My first impressions of SUPSI were that this place was about everything innovative and sustainable in fabrication and production. Studio/workshop pedagogy drives their innovations in design research. This became immediately evident as we took tours through several production labs, including the leading lab in photovoltaic panel research for the past thirty years.

Dr. Massimo Botta invited us to tour the FabLab as he elaborated on SUPSI’s Research in Interactive Design program: a multidisciplinary master’s program which focuses on people, technology, and design. The FabLab is associated with the program. It is a 24/7 maker-space, classroom, and materials library where students can develop and test product prototypes. The goal of this program is to produce skilled professionals who will advance industrial and design fields. One concept they demonstrated for us was gamification, where play is emphasized in the user’s learning experience. Open access in design is another core principle for this program, so the FabLab works with others like it, each with a different theme, to help advance the knowledge of the collective.

Université de Strasbourg

Strasbourg University in Strasbourg, France is home to a Faculty of Arts composed of 4 departments: Visual Arts, Performing Arts, Music, and CFMI (Center for training of intervening musicians). We didn’t get to tour this part of the university on our visit, but I spent some time reviewing their faculty website. Research follows the contemporary approach on artistic creation and process (ACCRA) where attitudes, categories, representation, and possibility of being are explored conceptually. We did get to tour graduate student housing and social activities, a place which reminded me a lot of Virginia Tech’s Graduate Life Center. It was minimalist in furnishing, but the design was clean, stylish and contemporary. Each area we explored carried a different theme, which was immediately apparent as we moved from room to room. It was refreshing to find valuation of interior design in the graduate student spaces. This was a signal to me that the university takes the arts seriously and understands the restorative nature of providing good spaces for people to live, work, and play.


PoliMi (Politecnico di Milano)

PoliMi, the biggest technology institute in Italy, focuses on architecture, industrial engineering, and design.  The institute is research oriented, with 77 facilities across five campuses in Milan. The dean of the doctorate school, Dr. Paolo Biscari, explained that their main motivation is to produce students who know a lot and who will also carry this knowledge forward to benefit society. Within the five design schools housed at PoliMi, research topics include sustainability, regeneration, risk and resilience, materials, building technologies, social inequality, local democracy, social & environmental sustainability, cultural diversity, and environment, government, and technology.

Touring the campus, I discovered that students don’t have studios the same way design students in the United States typically do. In most U.S. schools, each student at a minimum, gets an oversized desk and personal space for storage of materials. At PoliMi, students do not have this luxury. Students must work it out for themselves where they will get their assignments and projects done: either on campus in common space or at some other off campus location. When I returned home to Blacksburg and described this to my advisor, he told me that this was something he had been noticing as a trend in studio-based programs. Real estate is expensive, and universities rely on student resilience to figure it out for themselves.

FHNW (Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst (College of Design and Art))

FHNW, in Basel, Switzerland, provided me a genuine breath of fresh air as I listened to their Director, Professor Kirsten Langkilde (President equivalent) describe the role of aesthetics in society and the current fight for upholding the integrity and importance of the arts. At FHNW, art for the sake of art meets industry. Students are provided massive shared open studio spaces to create their work—we even traveled in an elevator designed to carry a full-size pickup truck—because why not?! FHNW, which was established in 2012, is the product of ten schools merging and coming together on a “new” campus that was once an industrial storage and transportation hub. They consider themselves a “hotbed, cultural catalyst, and seismograph” for contemporary art and design (FHNW website). After touring their facilities, I do not disagree—connected to industry, the design produced here is fed back into the economy, creating a synergy between art, society, politics, and economics.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Here at Virginia Tech, we have a College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS), which houses the School of Architecture + Design, the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, School of Visual Arts, and the School of Public and International Affairs. Programs are diverse. From Art History to Interior Design, Building Construction to Public Administration and Policy, there are many diverse areas of study that explore contemporary design issues and innovation. There are ten research centers advertised on the CAUS webpage—focused in either funded research, scholarship, or community engagement. Our new Dean, Richard Blythe, Ph.D., is mission minded leading CAUS towards “solv[ing] complex global issues, including climate change, sustainability, political stability, and overpopulation.”

One example of trends in art and design at Virginia Tech are the inclusion of new integrative technologies that can be used to both create experiences and conduct research. The innovative space, called “The Cube,” at the Moss Arts Center on the Blacksburg campus allow students to create and implement their design and performances in a “highly-adaptable [space]…used to create immersive environments, intimate performances, audio and visual installations, [conduct] research, and experimental investigations of all kinds.” The facilities are shared between the Center for the Arts and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, but the music program in the School of Performing Arts has used it also (VT Cube website). Because the infrastructure is now in place, there is near-unlimited potential for both allied and transdisciplinary collaborations. This supports the “Beyond Boundaries” university vision, where core values are leveraged with technologies to “address the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of higher education” (VT Beyond Boundaries website) with an end goal to prepare the university for the next generation of students and global challenges.

Trends in Global Higher Design Education

After the GPP experience, it is clear to me now that design education is trending towards solving the world’s wickedly complex problems. Leveraging creativity and industry partnerships, higher education institutions are making a measurable impact in the lives of the people and the communities they serve. Seeing our European colleagues publicly acknowledge climate change was a big part of this revelation for me. As designers, we create the world as we know it; we live in the world we create. Higher education is poised to make a huge positive impact on the world if it can just get past the hurdle of communicating science and research. The public must embrace the message that we all must make responsible, sustainable choices to protect our futures on this planet together. To answer my original research question, I have decided that trends in global design higher education are centered on social and environmental sustainability, government policy, cultural diversity, (applications of) innovative technology and resource consumption.


GPP 2018 Cohort with the Swiss Ambassador, Virginia Tech Graduate School Dean, and other dignitaries and scholars.



FHNW website: https://www.fhnw.ch/de/die-fhnw/hochschulen/hgk

University of Strasbourg website: https://en.unistra.fr/

PoliMi website: https://www.polimi.it/en/

Robert L. Peters’ website: http://www.robertlpeters.com/

SUPSI website: http://www.supsi.ch/home.html

Tovey, M. (2015). Design Pedagogy: Developments in Art and Design Education. Farnham, Surrey, UK England: Routledge.

Virginia Tech Beyond Boundaries website: http://www.beyondboundaries.vt.edu/

Virginia Tech CAUS website: https://www.caus.vt.edu/

Virginia Tech Cube, Moss Arts Center website: https://www.performingarts.vt.edu/get-to-know-us/location-facilities/the-cube

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