Tom Fisher followed in the footsteps of his architect grandfather, sort of.
As an architecture student at Cornell University, he realized that he was more interested in writing than drafting plans for buildings, and his career turned toward urban design, theory, writing and teaching.
Fisher, who grew up in Cleveland and spent the early part of his career in New York, moved to the Twin Cities to become dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, a job he held for 19 years. In 2015, he became director of the U’s Metropolitan Design Center.
For decades a leading voice in the world of design, Fisher seems to have sat on nearly every committee, commission and advisory board around, including ones that gave input to the new Guthrie Theater, I-35W bridge and U.S. Bank Stadium.
So it may seem strange that his newest book, “Designing Our Way to a Better World” (University of Minnesota Press), contains no images and almost nothing about houses, landscapes, streetscapes or skyscrapers.
While he’s long been interested in the tangible, physical world around us, Fisher’s new book is a collection of essays about “the design of what we cannot see.” He argues that designers — by nature and training — seek to solve problems involving complex systems, and that “design thinking” can and should be expanded into such areas as education, infrastructure, public health, economics, even politics.
Q: You argue that designers should be more involved in solving big problems. Why?
A: We’ve been doing a lot of work in this area of “design thinking,” which takes the thought process and the methods that have been developed for millennia around the design of physical things — products, buildings, cities — and applies that to the so-called invisible world of design, which is all of the systems and organizations that are designed, but we don’t think of them as being designed. And we’re seeing a lot of these systems not working very well.
Well, when our economy isn’t serving lots of people, when our political system seems to be at loggerheads, when our educational system isn’t producing students to be well-prepared for the new economy, that’s a designed system as much as the buildings that they are in and the streetscapes that people travel across, and when something that is designed but is not working very well, you redesign it.
Q: Are peers in the design world embracing these ideas?
A: It’s not as accepted as I had hoped it would be.
A: This is a vast new area of work that I think a lot of people don’t feel comfortable in. Paradigm shifts and lateral leaps is something that every designer is good at, but they have to get used to the idea that the outcome may not be anything that’s tangible. I argue that the systems have even a bigger effect. A building affects the people who work in it and visit it, but you redesign a system like global health, and it has an impact on so many more people.
Q: Isn’t this a kind of mission creep? Why should designers poke their noses into other professions?
A: I certainly hear that criticism. I compare it to the change that happened in the legal profession in the 20th century. You used to go to law school largely to become a trial lawyer. Eventually, they changed into a field where you were getting a legal education to apply that thought process to a wide range of human activity, not just trying cases in court. The same transition is going on in the design fields, where the core skill of designers isn’t the outcome — isn’t the apparel, or the car, or the building — it’s the thought process they used to get there.
Q: Is this happening now?
A: It’s starting to happen now. We can’t meet a fraction of the calls we get from organizations that want help with this kind of work. We see a tremendous amount of work to be done and many opportunities for practitioners as well as for schools to be dealing with this.
Q: Speaking of schools, how easy is it to sell this expanded notion of design to young people?
A: Younger people understand this in a way an older generation doesn’t. Younger people have been immersed in the digital environment, which is all about building webs and networks and lateral connections among seemingly disparate things. They’re also much less tied to the traditional disciplinary boundaries than an older generation is. We find younger people completely latching onto it.
Q: How have you redesigned your own classroom teaching?
A: In one class recently we empowered students to decide where we were going to meet. Never once did they pick a classroom to meet in. So, we are building classrooms that students don’t want to learn in. A larger point was that we are in this on-demand economy, this sharing economy, an economy that’s about empowering everybody to participate in finding solutions to problems. It’s not about expertise, it’s not about doing what you’re told to do, it’s about imagining another way to do ... everything. This is the future of education, it’s the way students will learn in a much more engaged way.
I think lecturing will largely disappear. I will do lectures online that students can look at in their free time, and then when we’re together in the classroom, it’s all about participation and conversation, debate, dialogue. That has been a shift that many faculty have made.
Q: Have you worked on the dysfunctional system that is public education?
A: Yes. We have a mass-production, 20th-century idea of education, where you come in, you run through these standardized curriculums, you come out the end with a degree. We now are in a mass-customization economy that privileges and values innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial activity, and our original system is completely misaligned with that.
Q: We see many examples of forgettable, subpar, even ugly design. Why then, should we put designers in charge of even more things?
A: Great question. I don’t think we should put designers in charge of more things. What I would love to see would be these design thinking skills taught to everybody.
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