Artistic talent, curiosity, an intuition for the Zeitgeist, a researching attitude, and the guts to ignore conventions. That’s how we would describe author designers – the kind of designers we intend to educate at the master department Contextual Design.
Manmade objects, tools, products, surround us by the multitudes; each of them a node in a web of meaningful relationships. Designs shape our daily lives and they shape who we are, while representing on an abstract level the cultural, social and technological reality of our times. Behind their first appearances layers of references hide, as well as ethical and aesthetical values. Apart from being markers of their time and context, designs can actively influence, change and improve the way people act and experience the world. They can even contribute to significant societal transformations. The criteria for estimating a design might consist of these questions: Which values, beauty, pleasure, does this design represent? Which actions will it enable and enhance? Which relationships to other people? Which larger view on the world can I distil from this artefact? And, the most important question, do I want to live in the world that is implicated by this particular design?
The awareness of design’s role in society challenges designers to link their designs to larger ideals and overarching stories that reach beyond the things themselves. It challenges designers to imagine utopian worlds and realizing their dreams. This can never be accomplished within fixed frames and strict definitions. Therefore, Contextual Design aims at continuously searching for new horizons and re-definitions of the field. Is an on-going questioning of the discipline not one of the main assets of a good designer?
Given the enormous impact a design can have, we expect students are able to develop an original view on contemporary culture and society, and an original view on the ever-changing role design can play within specific contexts. The programme prepares them the best way possible for their future roles, provoking them to learn from history, find inspiration in their personal cultural backgrounds, and question existing conventions in design. When arriving at the concluding phase of projects the students are confronted with questions about the consequences of their choices, not to stop freedom and imagination, but to strengthen the capacity to legitimize the distinct positions they intend to embrace in their professional careers.
The curriculum of Contextual Design underlines the intention of focussing on a mentality, an attitude, rather than a strict area in design. The two-year programme guarantees freedom, time for play, experimentation, time for learning from the serendipity of the hands-on process, learning from failed experiments, and time for critical reflection. Within the frame of the discipline we offer much room for pushing the conventional borders, and if projects require so, trespassing them. Therefore the students engage in distinctive ways of working and get acquainted with artistic research, or ‘design research’, which usually combines experimentation (with materials, techniques, forms, functions, ideas), intuitive insights, critical reflection and literature study. Ample time is also devoted to strengthening the talent to express ideas into designs. As most design practices are collaborative in nature, and authorship often will take the form of co-authorship, multidisciplinary collaboration is enhanced within some of the design studios.
In the first year the programme is focused on enhancing the students’ artistic making skills and creating awareness of design’s impact within various contexts. Lessons are organized within small thematic design studios, in which students learn to 1- research and analyse abstract themes; 2- turn assignments that were given by tutors into personal urgencies; 3- create designs that offer original perspectives on given situations; 4- understand their own interests, talents and weaknesses. A great variety of themes and approaches are explored during three trimesters, and guidance is offered by a changing group of tutors. Gradually the students formulate their own questions of interest, and proactively seek for topics in the outside world they would like to explore further.
In the second year guidance is focussed on enhancing the students’ artistic as well as their reflective talents. The students explore topics suggested by tutors and topics of their own choosing, which are based on personal ambitions. To confront their own approaches and interests with a larger societal context they acquire knowledge, for instance through literature study, and develop a fruitful interaction between a growing body of knowledge and an on-going experimental design process. In the course of this final year the students also research the valid references of their projects (such as ‘which questions have others raised within this area of research; which answers have others provided?’) and they formulate the distinct positions they intend to take within a field of interest. The two-year course is concluded with a design project and a report of the design research, which usually consists of a thesis text; in exceptional cases the research report can take another format, such as film. Both the design and the thesis employ a personal vocabulary to communicate to a larger audience the content of the project.
Throughout their studies, the students engage in in critical debate and lectures, excursions, and collaborations with external institutes. Some of previous lectures and projects: a symposium on the future of dwelling: ‘Domus Communis; Strategies of Intimacy’; a trip to the Vitra campus, production facilities, museum (Weil am Rhein), Schaulager and Depot Basel (Basel). The students worked on two projects commissioned by Dutch governmental organisations: ‘The Radical Old’ (on the potential of a greying society) – a collaboration with the Dutch Office of the Government Architect, which deals with public buildings in The Netherlands; ‘The future of public transport’ – a collaboration with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. In the spring of 2018 the students of Contextual Design took part in a workshop in Berlin under the guidance of the German architects of Raumlabor. And before the summer, students worked on the representation of Peace & Justice in The Hague, the Dutch city where the government resides and many international organisations that deal with peacekeeping in the world, including the Peace Palace. Also before the summer of 2018, an interdisciplinary group of first year master students worked on ‘Designing Design Education’ – a collaboration with the Istanbul Design Biennial 2018: A School of Schools (directed by Jan Boelen).
Lectures took place on ‘The Life of Things’, by Kirsten Algera & Ernst van der Hoeven; ‘Design Research’ by reader / lector David Hamers; ‘Danse and Design’ by designer Aurely Hoegy. In 2018-2019 various workshops and lectures will take place, including a Hackaton, mold-making workshops, a symposium on the relationship between design, technology and philosophy (keynote lecture by Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek), a symposium on the Avant-Garde in design (keynote lectures by Sjeng Scheijen on the Russian Avant-Garde, and Matteo Pirola on the Italian Avant-Garde), a lecture on Semiotics by Ben van der Wal, and various other lectures. Apart from these, the first years will engage in theory classes, given by Laura Herman, Sjeng Scheijen, and Tamar Shafrir.
Images of graduation ceremonies 2018, 2017, 2016. Image of 2008: Contextual Design students in that year (the department’s name was then IM). On the photo from left to right: Andrea Bandoni, Mamie Nishida, Andrea Trimarchi, Michael Thompson, Simone Farresin, Sonja Baumel, Lim Hyun Taik, Shiro Inoue, Gina Hsu, Davide Dulcetti, Joana Meroz.