C. Thomas Mitchell, PhD
Associate Professor
Apparel Merchandizing & Interior Design
Indiana University
  Design Cultures
Using “Radically Under-determined” Project Briefs in Interior Design Education

  What are we trying to accomplish as design teachers? Are we trying to train our students in existing ways of working? Are we trying to teach them to learn new ways of working – many as yet unforeseen? Or is there some kind of balance between the two? I have had the good fortune to see two different approaches to this – that of architects (as a student) and that of interior designers (as an instructor). There seems to be a real philosophical difference in the aim of each type of education – architecture school encouraging the development on students’ individual creativity, and interior design schools preparing students to take a defined role within an evolving profession.

Architecture schools are very demanding, but ultimately are there to help students foster their creativity. Like an art studio, the studio project assignments are backdrops for the ongoing creative development of the students. Briefs tend to be quite short, and there is the expectation that one’s understanding of the project will be developed through doing the project itself. This is good from the point of view of helping students develop, but limited from the point of view of efficiency and responsiveness to what might be termed “real world” constraints. Structural problems? “The engineers can fix it.” No adequate space for HVAC? “They can put it on the roof.” User requirements? “I’m an architect, I know how to design buildings – I don’t need to talk to the users.” The result of all this is that architects are training to be the next big thing, but usually aren’t. Once they graduate from five or six years of school their real education begins.

Interior design, on the other hand, seems to err far too far on the side of the technical. Instead of the short briefs of architecture school, students are given elaborate project assignments – full of technical requirements – and they are assessed via an equally dizzying checklist to determine their “compliance” with the brief. This may all come about as part of the profession trying to distinguish itself from interior decoration and through its aspiration towards the respect accorded the architectural field. The net result of this approach to education is that interior design students from accredited programs are usually highly qualified and ready to go right to work upon graduation. The downside is that, somewhere along the line, they often miss the “big picture” of design – concept, context, and the elements that make designs rich and rewarding to interact with.

So, how can interior designers – within the context of a fairly technically demanding curriculum – learn “problem definition,” and not just “problem solving”? At present, many interior design student projects seem to be analogous to crossword puzzles – complicated, involved, but with a predetermined solution. Of course, for technical issues it is necessary to ensure that all criteria for success are met. But this type of project can have a soul-destroying effect on students who feel that whatever they design is always wrong for some reason or another. They are often “working in the dark” without a real sense of purpose or direction, as if they are executing someone else’s plan inadequately.

The weakness of the current approach to interior design education – one that is not present in architecture – is that it seems to assume that there is a single, known “solution” to a single known “problem.” In fact, the whole purpose of designing is to discover things we do not know. There is no predetermined solution – just a provisional understanding of the design task that will become clearer through the process of design.

In discussion once with Geoffrey Broadbent, a British design methodologist, he explained his use of philosopher Karl Popper’s method of conjecture and refutation as a design tool to help evolve an understanding of a design task. If we were to design any building – say a school – we could make a conjecture that an upside-down egg carton (or anything) was the right approach to the school’s design. We could then ask ourselves, “what problems are there with this approach?” We could refute our initial proposal, determining what there was about an egg carton that did not suit the intended purpose. In doing so we would refine our understanding of the task we were working on, and evolve our formal solution in conjunction with our improved understanding. We could continue in this way co-evolving our understanding of the task and our design itself until all of the key constraints of the project were met.

Practically, the way I do this as an interior design instructor in the studio setting is to have very brief project statements – as short as two sentences. I define the outcome to be achieved, and the initial approach from the outset, but the “direction” of the project is determined by the work the students actually do and bring into class. Subsequent stages of the project are defined as a result of group critiques based on student exploration. Interestingly, the “same” project in subsequent semesters will lead to very different results – and even within one semester there can be significant variation in approach.

The benefit of this approach is it involves students directly, not just in executing a project – but in project definition and direction. It is this inner experience, this inner understanding, which is of much greater importance than merely technical expertise (which has a short “shelf life” anyway). By teaching students to learn how to learn, to see the “big picture” of a project, and to learn how to structure a project and explore independently we actually prepare them for the world they will be entering upon graduation. Design methodologist John Chris Jones once said that the purpose of design education was to help people “learn how to cope.” Using “radically under-determined briefs” in the way just described helps students learn to cope with the ambiguity and rapid change that they will inevitably encounter in the “real world” of design practice.

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Last Updated: February 18, 2005