Why study APD?

Pete Avondoglio
Pete Avondoglio
Professor Emeritus and Senior Advisor

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 possibility arises.
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