Free hand that draws inspiration from peers

November 9, 2001

A Cologne design course where no one tells students what to do is a teaching model. Pat Leon reports.

Cologne Design School is still turning teaching upside down ten years after its creation. It was hailed by its founders as a revolution in design education, but critics said it would turn out dilettante generalists rather than specialist designers.

The controversial school has become the flagship department of the University of Applied Sciences Cologne, which with 18,000-19,000 students is the biggest Fachhochschule in Germany. A state committee of experts recently praised its teaching as a model for other departments to follow when the university streamlines from 28 to ten departments within the year.

The school was the brainchild of Michael Erlhoff, the man who integrated design into the Documenta, the world's biggest contemporary art show, and former director of the Frankfurt-based German Design Council.

Brigitte Wolf, deputy dean of the school, who moved with Erlhoff from the design council, says: "In the beginning we had lots of discussions about the teaching and learning structure. The process of appointing a professor in Germany takes a long time so we invited people from all over the world to start one-week projects.

"We abandoned the traditional divisions between graphic, product and media design," Wolf says. "As a designer you have to be at the cutting edge of knowledge. That is not taught, you have to teach students to learn how to learn and to gather the knowledge they need."

The undergraduate course runs for eight semesters and is project-centred. There is no foundation year and no set syllabus. Projects, which start in the first week, are open to anyone in any semester, assignments are open-ended and specialisation is frowned on. Only people with a year or more of design-related work experience can apply, although "we have a wide interpretation of what is design-related, for example working at carpentry or in a library as much as in a design agency", Wolf says.

"It's not easy for students to study on our course because no one tells them what to do. It's very important that they do a year or more in advance. If they were direct from school, it would be difficult."

Students are expected to sink or swim but, in the absence of project grading, even failure has a positive spin as students are expected to take risks, learn by trial and error - and report it.

From 50 students in its first year, the school now has about 320, with 12 full-time professors, each representing an area of competence. Strict selection criteria mean that of 1,300 applications each year, only 60-80 are accepted. The selection process is unusual in that all applicants are set a task or topic to be reflected in three or two-dimensional form and completed within four weeks.

Wolf says: "In formal art and design schools it is still the tradition that young people have to hand in their portfolio of artistic work. We want people who are able to solve problems and think. If they are good at drawing, it's fine, but not sufficient to be accepted."

The first week of the course has a Cologne theme. The students are divided into groups to get familiar with the way of working, the teaching environment and the city as a resource.

Every professor offers a series of projects of two, eight and 16 weeks' length. Students choose what they want to do and agree it. No project ever runs twice and half are with partners in industry, the public sector or commerce, with which the school has built strong ties.

With so many links with industry, students can find themselves compromised. Sven-Anwar Bibi, whose diploma show design was an orthopaedically sound school backpack, says: "There's always a danger in doing diploma work in a company because they want the results. It means we cannot always develop all our ideas and skills. There is a risk because we might not get a good evaluation for the discipline."

Students have to cover ten of 12 areas of study for a degree and are expected to learn from one another and to be resourceful, adaptable jacks of all trades. They have one formal lecture, design history, a week plus a guest lecture. They attend technical and scientific seminars, workshops in wood, metal, plastics, printing or other practical work, plus compulsory English classes. Professors' seminars are generally linked to their research and area of competence, much of which is financed by industry or government.

Most of the professors also run consultancies or businesses. Wolf, for example, mounted a travelling exhibition, "Designing the Environment", part-funded by the Goethe Institute, that got major German companies to show their approach to saving the environment.

Assessment is based on points and exams. Students get four points for a short project, eight for a medium and 16 for a long one. They also get points for attending seminars and working on committees. All students must spend at least a year on a committee overseeing, say, PR, the cafeteria or the website.

The school has not yet switched to a bachelors and masters system, but it offers a European studies in design MA.

Despite the school's undoubted success, there are some unresolved problems. Many students complain they want more guidance and detailed critiques of the work, Wolf says. "We have to find ways to monitor individual student's development."

Teamwork has also become more difficult to sustain as more students work on their computers at home and most also are working to earn money.

The forthcoming university restructuring will be a big test. Despite the lavish praise heaped on the school, it faces merger with the much larger engineering and photography departments.

"We've been fighting so hard for the idea of mixing students it would be a shame if the departments don't listen. The outcome of our course is not 50 graduates with the same qualification, but 50 with different profiles because they've developed their strengths and talents so that they do what they like and work is fun. That's important for being successful in this world."

The automatic café project

"I see myself as a supervisor," says Brigitte Wolf, who teaches design management. " We meet as a team once or twice a week. I do one-to-one meetings. I have responsibility to make sure everything is under control.

"Projects have to fit teaching objectives. I ran an IT project with nine students called 'the company'. Students were told they had to raise €1,000 (£300) to develop a design management strategy to set up a business and run it for four weeks, make a profit and repay the €1,000.

"They decided to open an 'automatic cafe'. They had to rent a location, get vending machines, juke boxes, email terminals, furniture and so on. They wrote a business plan to attract sponsors. To get across the idea, they created a digital mood chart with sound and music, put the plan on a CD-Rom and sent it around. They got sponsors for automats and machines.

"They did the market research and finally got a room, did the contracts, licences, insurance, painted the room, installed the automats, light, furniture. They even had an opening ceremony attended by the mayor of Cologne, the rector, three TV teams and lots of journalists.

"They were doing PR. You have a good concept, nice, but it's no good if no one knows about it."

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