Most industrial design schools in the world are offering courses
or degrees in product design. Most people know about the other
Scandinavian industrial design departments in Oslo, Stockholm,
Helsinki and Copenhagen. They also know that there are reputable
industrial design departments in London, Milano and New York City.
But if I ask you what makes these schools special other than the
city they are located in, I doubt that many of you could give me a
reason, and I could not give you one either.
With this in mind one can ask what is so special about Umeå.
Most people just talk about all the money, good facilities,
workshops, etc. and at the same time they excuse the fact that it
is so far away from everything, but the air is clean and the people
are nice. But honestly, is clean air, nice people and good
facilities enough reason to choose a design school?
Not really, I feel there should be something special, a
character that raises the quality and reputation of the school far
above the others. It should be that if you apply for a job, and say
you went to Umeå Institute of Design, then people would react as
they do when a Lawyer says he went to the Harvard Law School. Or an
economist says he went to Oxford.
A major question we often face here, to use a trendy word, is
how do we brand the Umeå institute of Design - and even more
challenging, does the department of Advanced Product Design (APD)
here in Umeå have a special profile or identity?
I think there are a number of strengths in the current APD program
one of which is the emphasis on the design of advanced products -
or in other words, working with products and problems that have not
already been solved countless times by others.
I think in many ways this is unique in itself - a quick survey of
what is happening at most other design schools (not all) reveals
that they are presenting the same problems to their students, year
after year. Many schools organize their projects according to fixed
themes, such as communication, recreation, transport,
medico-technical, universal design, and every year their students
design mobile phones or PDAs or the other popular evergreens such
as running shoes, bicycles, city taxis, hand tools, etc. Age-old
products in which the most important issues were solved decades ago
and thus almost automatically result in styling. The goal seems to
be to produce a portfolio of slick, uncomplicated, easily
understood models and digital reproductions. But the question
remains - What was the original problem, and even more important,
what kind of students are they producing? A look at the many
portfolios we receive confirms the incredible uniformity of the
bachelor programs all over the world.
I think we can agree that Industrial Design is a problem solving
education and we have a standard method that we all employ - that
is: problem definition, research, ideation, design, presentation
etc. This is what we have always done - but perhaps the real issue
lies in how these problems are defined and by whom. One of the
greatest quandaries today in the profession of Industrial Design is
that the designer is brought into the arena far too late in the
process, often when the problem has already been described.
This is why, several years ago, I chose to extend the design
process backwards - or in other words start at an earlier phase of
development, and that is what I call problem
identification. In our program here, instead of the
traditional teaching method of giving the students a design brief
with a stated problem, like "design a telephone for a business
woman" or "design a shelter for homeless in an urban environment, "
we expose our students to a user group or a process and train them
to identify potential problems that have not yet been explored.
This is a group process and often results in a wide range of
questions and issues, sometimes amazingly obvious but yet to be
addressed. The next phase is also a group process and involves
identifying design opportunities, or how products or processes can
solve these problems.
At this point the first selection or decisions are made. Due to
the nature of the program, we usually shelve problems that can be
solved by systems or software (the telephone answering machine is
an example of an old product that has been replaced by software).
The students thus choose design opportunities that can result in
products. From this point, in most cases, as individual work, the
second research phase starts and the students are required to write
a design brief themselves. They are given a short course and an
outline of what this should include, background studies, where is
the problem? Why is there a need for this product? What demands
they will satisfy, and what wishes they will satisfy if the
It is first at this point that the student enters the traditional
design method, with further research.
The difference here is that he or she has a very precise and
highly motivated approach to the project as they themselves have
identified the problem.
This method leads inevitably to highly innovative solutions as
they are often entering unchartered waters and are forced to
improvise and seek the advice of a number of consultants in a wide
range of areas.
Another unusual feature of the APD program is that we
deliberately try to avoid life style products in the traditional
sense - products that have left the realm of problem solving and
are more affected by marketing and fashion trends, rapidly changing
styles and short-term consumer tastes. This implies that most of
our work is aimed at the B2B market, where one is dealing with
professional users who are critical, demanding and place quality
and functionality above fashion and style. These areas include the
medico-technical sector, professional equipment, the public sector,
devices for the disabled, emerging technologies, etc. In most
cases, these projects have also proven to give the most satisfying
results, both for the clients as well as the students. It is also
in this area that many of our competition awards and media reports
have been based.
This way of working opens the possibility of maintaining a
social awareness in the design process, which has again proven to
be one of our strengths - all of the competitions we have won, had
as a primary or secondary demand, products to improve peoples
lives, social responsibility and environmental compatibility.
We see a growing demand for innovation and conceptual thinking,
as well as the emotional aspects and the concept of experience
design. Industry today usually has marketing people, technical
experts and production know-how - and a major need for most is
innovative product development - the identification of problems and
the development of products and concepts to solve them - a good
area for industrial designers.
This is why "Advanced" is included in the title of Advanced
Product Design, and why I think we have something special at the
APD programme here in Umeå.
Text by Pete Avondoglio, January 2008