Practice and Theory


22 March 2017

The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, one of the finest pedagogues of the 20th century, prized lucidity. The key to any teaching or practice, Feynman argued, was clear thought and presentation, as well as close observation of the subject matter. Writing in his book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!, Feynman set out a threat to such an approach: “[Textbooks] always simplify things so the world will be more like they want it to be”. In the face of such simplification and easy answers, Feynman encouraged students to grapple with the world as it was – embrace complexity, and approach the subject matter as it actually stands. “The questions of the students are often the source of new research,” noted Feynman. “I find that teaching and the students keep life going”.

From across disciplines, Feynman’s words find fresh resonance with Space & Communication, an MA programme at HEAD, the Geneva University of Art and Design. Founded in 2009 and subsequently reformulated by the design theorist Alexandra Midal and Rosario Hurtado of El Ultimo Grito in 2012, Space & Communication is a transdisciplinary programme that enacts Feynmanian ideas around education within the context of design. Rather than narrowly focus on a single form of practice, Space & Communication embraces the nuance and messiness of the issues faced by contemporary design, blurring disciplines in order to achieve answers that acknowledge the social and political challenges facing the world at large. “We want to convey the complexity of the time we are living in and the complexity of the kind of interests that students now have,” notes Hurtado. “University is the place when you generate new ideas and where you can be experimental. It is the place where you can invent the new possible world in which we can live.”

Space & Communication’s remit is, therefore, broad. Led by Hurtado and her co-director Arno Mathies, students work across self-initiated projects that incorporate elements of spatial design, narrative practice, performance, media and art. The topics approached by the course are diverse – with past projects having ranged across themes such as the legality of borders; the construction of histories; and society’s relationship to catastrophe – and students are encouraged to foster this plurality within the work. “We are challenging them to think about what the new frontiers of design are and where design can now present itself,” says Mathies. “How does that merge with the personalities of each student, and where can they take it?” In this respect, Space & Communication constantly modulates to meet the requirements and interests of its students. “The course is designed by the students’ work and we don’t really tell them what that work should look like,” says Hurtado. “It’s through their work that we are defined.”

Central to this ethos is the course’s methodology of the Design Essay – “a group of objects, films, plays, writings that, taken together, are a way of talking about a subject,” says Hurtado – which is fostered through regular workshops with teaching staff and guest lecturers such as Matali Crasset, Ruedi Baur, Tristan Kobler, Marguerite Humeau, Dominic Robson, Maki Suzuki and Noam Toran. Students create a series of physical outputs and theoretical reflections that, together, address an issue through both theory and practice. This emphasis on design as many-headed – rooted in numerous disciplines, and incorporating both practical and academic elements – is distinctive of Space & Communication. “Its not only that the students investigate a topic and then design something,” says Hurtado, “but they use design as a way to enter into the issues that surround them. It's a complex combination, because it’s a constant process.”

The MA is spread over two years, with the first year of the course devoted to a mixture of personal projects in which a student’s Design Essay begins to coalesce, as well as projects executed in collaboration with external partners such as the Salone del Mobile, Petit h Hermès, or the Natural History Museum in Geneva. “We really have to consider the total experience of making a project for brands like those,” says Mathies, who stresses the role of these projects in helping students gain core skills. “Not only what the client wishes, but how a designer could be nourished by that experience. This is kind of thing that Space & Communications can answer to, because design is everything. That’s why this course is so holistic.” Throughout all such projects, students are encouraged to collaborate with one another and to influence one another’s work. “Collaboration today is not even a question any more,” acknowledges Hurtado. “Design is reciprocal in nature, and the students really benefit from each other.”

Work completed in the first year of the course provides a grounding for the second, in which students work either individually or in groups in order to a design a 1:1 scale environment, which is produced and exhibited in a gallery open to the public. This sense of reality is essential to the course – students are encouraged to be ambitious and to execute projects on a scale that allows their ideas to take full flight. A 2014 project, We are Criminals, for instance, saw students create inflatable structures that incorporated video, graphics and texts in order to explore social perception of crime, with influences and sources ranging from Adolf Loos through to Fyodor Dostoevsky. “Ambition is so important in terms of acquiring confidence as a designer,” says Hurtado. “Just try to go as far as you can, and we will support you, we'll find a space, and we’ll find a medium. And then you see what you are actually able to do. If you don't have that opportunity, how can you acquire confidence?”

Space & Communication allows its students to develop their own distinctive design practices, but it also pushes against the barriers of what design is or could be – the work of the students sets out a challenge to the way in which design at large is framed. By employing design skills from across a spectrum of disciplines, the students are able to present alternative approaches to the received wisdom of traditional design disciplines or practices. “The students are going to be the people who create the new way in which we have industries in the very near future,” says Hurtado. “When they graduate, how will they work? What kind of designer will they be? What is going to be their professional context? The work we do on the MA does not clearly fit into any sort of specific context – it's not product design, it's not interactive design, it's not anything specific. It’s not a discipline as we currently understand design disciplines.”

“This MA is really about trying to generate new contexts for industries,” says Mathies. “It’s extremely important for students today to find inspiration in not only the practices they already know, but in contrary fields too, and we don’t necessarily know what will result from that – it’s the students themselves who are forging and shaping these new frontiers and outcomes for design. There’s no limit to what they do.” Here, Hurtado, in true Feynmanian fashion, is clear about the value of education and free exploration to the discipline at large. “Education is the one place that you can really change design, because you don't only work on your own – you work with the students in so many directions,” she says. “It's so important that education is being talked about because it’s the only future – it's the only way we can really get to have a fairer society. And right now, more than ever, that is so important.”