The Innovation Classroom

Oct 18, 2013 // IMPERIAL / RCA, KMD


The Innovation Classroom

by Daniel Steinbock & Naohito Okude

In London, GID partners with the “Innovation Design Engineering” (IDE) program, a joint venture of the RCA and Imperial. Students in the program earn a double Master’s degree from both institutions, but are primarily housed in the IDE studio at the RCA.

One’s first impression of the IDE studio and its adjoining workshops is of a well-equipped space -- almost luxurious. A strong sense of craftsmanship pervades the many workshops devoted to wood, metal, plastics, ceramics, glass, etc. Students spend long hours here, under the guidance and watchful eyes of workshop technicians, in addition to the more technically sophisticated shops at Imperial (a ten minute walk away).

The creative center of student life is the IDE studio where students each have personal desks and are free to make a creative mess so long as they clean it up afterward. Projects are both solo and collaborative. Either way, students gather in the studio; they talk, eat, sketch. When they have a new idea, they go to the workshop and make something, then bring it back to the studio and discuss. They repeat this process again and again, producing an enormous variety of prototypes very quickly. This is the signature strength of the RCA/Imperial approach to design. Students explore a wide variety of design concepts through physical prototypes that they design, build, evaluate and improve on. This enables them to rapidly innovate through many cycles in a short amount of time.

Another distinctive feature of the IDE program is the way teaching and learning is organized. The small number of professors is supplemented by a large pool of tutors, most of whom are recent alumni of the program. Most remarkably, there are no courses. Instead, students work continuously on a series of design projects, posed by the faculty, each lasting 3 to 4 weeks. A day or so of lectures/workshops at the launch of a new project presents the project basics, in a hands-on way; for example, introducing new machines and tools they will have access to. After that, students get to work immediately.

Over the course of a project, professors and tutors regularly come to the students’ studio and move from person to person (or group to group, in the case of team projects) giving personalized advice and feedback. As one tutor said, they think of the teacher’s role as ‘leading’ as opposed to ‘instructing.’ When students have an idea, they go to a workshop and learn by doing, with guidance from the workshop technician on duty. If their idea calls for a particular machine or technique, someone teaches them how to use that machine or do that technique. This is ‘just-in-time learning’ which is becoming more common outside of design schools in the emerging ‘maker’ movement. A student can be a complete beginner at some craft, but the learning resources are always at hand to go into a workshop and start working right away.

This self-directed model offers less total time with an instructor than a course-based model, but those minutes of one-on-one tutorial are extremely valuable, totally individualized to the student and project, and leave more time for designing and making stuff. It is a classical ‘studio’ approach to design education, closer to how a professional design firm operates. But it is expensive to employ such a large teaching staff, provide personalized instruction and maintain abundant facilities. Students pay a lot for their education. The results, of course, are amazing, as can be seen at any of the frequent public exhibitions.

There is a huge opportunity for synergy between the Global Innovation Design partners of KMD, Pratt, the RCA, and Imperial. Each contributes its unique strengths to the education of GID students. Pratt is great at branding, visual language, and aesthetic precision. The RCA/Imperial are great at fundamental innovation, conceptualization, and early prototyping. KMD excels at user-centered research, digital technology, and interaction design. Each center’s strength is in a different area. Together, there is a great synergy and GID students are its lucky beneficiaries.