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Assignments in Design Education

Foreword in Making Zines from/with Design Manifestos, published by Temporary Press, p.5–7, 2018

This is the first booklet from Temporary Press documenting assignments in design education, which hopefully is the first of a series of the same title (Assignments in Design Education) that sources and publishes specific assignments developed or used by designers in their educational practices. The aim is not only to provide insights into the kinds of assignments present in design education, which for now stays within Singapore, [1] but also to create a discourse around the contents, approaches, contexts, and even outcomes of teaching design.

Instead of showcasing educators or student works, we hope that the broader purpose of publishing contents of such nature (including the way they are being presented) questions common notions that assignments are simply a means to train or develop skills, and not a way to develop and produce understanding, even one for the educator him-/herself. The former represents the view that assignment-based work are merely a reflection of the learning of any participant and hence have no value beyond that for assessment and the classroom/studio; the latter describes the view that a well-designed assignment [2] contains considered parameters that potentially allow participants to generate valuable understanding/knowledge in a collective manner, sometimes outside of their own awareness. To put it in another perspective, the former is an approach that assumes an ultimate authority of the educator; it is simply about imparting what one knows through an assignment that is already “mastered” by the educator. The latter in contrast, sees the educator as a masterful facilitator of learning. In this sense, the educator is also a co-learner who initiates and develops a shared interest and a process of discovery with their participants through an “assignment” that he/she is equally interested and actively participates in. [3]

These ideas, though common in theoretical discussions on education, is seldom conventional practice in design education in Singapore. We have to admit that this is a hasty generalisation largely based on our own observations and past experiences as students in design, but we also question if there is a need to justify this claim when institutionally, it is clear that grades are still a huge indicator of performance (sadly, also a major motivation for students). This therefore means that institutionally, assignments are primarily needed to generate “evidence” for evaluating performance, and not entirely for, or on top of, cultivating learning and exploration (although for both educators and students, learning to navigate through these limitations are also valuable in itself). [4] If we do not already realise, the relationship between the motivation for grades and for learning are neither mutually inclusive nor exclusive. Processes in experimentation and risk-taking for example, do not at all guarantee “good performance”, yet most will agree that these qualities make an excellent practitioner. For this reason, designing an assignment that equally balances the purposes of both evaluation and learning remains problematic. Either one has to be given greater importance.

In this case, it is rather unlikely for an assignment to become a shared pursuit between a teacher and student when its outcomes are used to measure student performance/capacity. This is perhaps why for many programmes in design education, such opportunities are only afforded to extra-curricular workshops by external guests or occasionally, faculty members, where creative energy, experimentation, and more specific interests are temporarily emphasised over technicalities and requirements normally developed to meet market expectations. It is evident now that our interests are in assignments that favour experimentation over prescription. Selection of student works (whenever faced with quantities too large to be published in its entirety) will not represent those “better” than the rest, whatever the measure one uses. We hope to instead present the broadest possible range of outcomes as insightful objects to be read in relation to the contexts and themes within the assignments and alongside the ideas communicated here. Again, this emphasises the importance of seeing assignment outcomes as artefacts in their own right, valuable for understanding subjects of and processes in learning.

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[1] These will never be fully representative of design education in Singapore, as with any other compendium that is based largely on the effort of an individual.

[2] In our opinion, this is not to be confused with complexity; the use of elaborate guidelines that require listing clear learning objectives or systematic processes do not in itself ensure learning. In fact, an obsessive focus on crafting a “foolproof” assignment plan might hinder other intuitive faculties needed
for what is essentially a practical, social activity.

[3] The assignment was described as a “shared path of inquiry”, “with student and teacher forming an investigative partnership” in the epilogue (chapter 3) of the book Taking A Line For A Walk: Assignments in Design Education, a valuable work that informed and started this project.

[4] Of course, changing these conditions might be something beyond the responsibility or ability of the individual educator and are what we have to work with and sometimes work around, but seldom challenged.