Taking a critical look at current educational models, open design will involve a shift in the relationship between designers and potential users in terms of attitude, skills and approach. Caroline Hummels discusses the consequences of open design for the educational approach and for the structure and tools offered. She advocates an educational model that reflects the flexibility, openness, and continuous development of open design.

Caroline Hummels

Does training for open design require a different style of education? Current initiatives like Linux, VOICED and Fab Lab show the beauty of open platforms for sharing and learning, without requiring its contributors to follow specialized  AMATEURISSIMO education. Despite this innate advantage, an educational model that is slanted specifically towards open design is needed. This chapter discusses how we can shape that model in such a way that it enables designers to blossom in an open structure. Although I focus on design education, the model can also be applied to other fields of expertise.

The Aim and Focus of Open Design

So why do we need a specific education style to facilitate open design? In fact, we don’t. I do, however, believe that education should reflect upon its own paradigms, and envision what types of designers society will need in the future. Open design is one of the reasons to look critically at current educational models. Society is always changing.  REVOLUTION What that means right now, for example, is that we have to be able to deal creatively and flexibly with large amounts of constantly evolving information. It also means that we currently have to find answers to large societal questions, now that we have reached the limits of our financial and environmental ecologies, among other frameworks. Open design addresses and works with these overall trends.  TRENDS

Open design assumes open access, sharing, change, learning and ever-evolving knowledge and skills. It is an open and flexible platform instead of a closed one. Consequently, open design emerges from the New Science paradigm of quantum physics, relativity and self-organizing structures, developed by such scientists as Einstein, Bohr and Prigogine. 1 Where Newton’s classical-scientific view is essentially simple and closed – it can be modelled through time-reversible laws and all complexities can be reduced to simplicities – Prigogine’s reality is multiple, temporal and complex. It is open and admissible to change.

Design education based on a New Science paradigm requires a transformative curriculum, according to Doll 2. In such a transformative curriculum, teachers discard the God’s-eye view, uniform curricula and tests that are considered objective and predictive. On the contrary, they emphasize and support a variety of positions, procedures and interpretations. Design education for open design could benefit from theories like Constructivism, where learning is the learner’s active construction of meaning in context.

Open design is based on a libertarian relationship between designers and potential users, and not on a rational one in which the designer is seen as superior.

It is possible to postulate what educating for open design could look like, based on a constructivist learning model. The educational model for open design described below addresses attitudes and skills, approaches, and structure and tools. The figures in the text exemplify these topics by showcasing the educational model we use in the Department of Industrial Design at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Learning the Attitudes and Skills for Open Design

In his book The Craftsman, 3 Richard Sennett describes the importance of a craftsman’s intrinsic motivation, commitment to doing good work for its own sake, and an ongoing pursuit of mastery in his or her craft. This attitude is the basis for the success of open communities like Linux, where the reward system is based on the quality of the outcome, social appraisal within the group (peer review) and the personal development of the contributors. The success of open communities like Linux depends on a set of attitudes, skills and activities that foster learning from experience, developing skills through doing, curiosity, ambiguity, imagination, opening up, questioning, collaborating, open-ended conversation, experimentation, and intimacy. It is these attitudes, skills and activities that will also determine the success of open design.

I therefore consider it essential that design education focus on forming self-directed and life-long learners, who are intrinsically motivated and who take responsibility for developing their own competencies and delivering high-quality work. Design students should learn to trust their senses and their intuition, and to embrace ambiguity, open-endedness and experimentation, as explained in the next section on approaches to open design. Moreover, design students should develop the attitude geared towards collaboration,  CO-CREATION preferably supported by methods, tools and structures that foster collaboration (as explained in the last section on structure and tools for open design). It is not only designers who are participating in open design; in principle, everyone can participate. The key aspect is that everyone contributes their own expertise, while respecting and building on the expertise of others. This is especially true when addressing larger societal questions and designing systems where expertise is needed from a range of fields, including design, social sciences and engineering.  KNOWLEDGE

Blurring Boundaries

Open design implies that the boundary between designers and users is blurring, at least with respect to motivation, initiative and needs. So what does this mean for the interaction between designers and potential users? On the basis of my organizational classification, 4 open design is based on a libertarian relationship between designers and potential users, and not on a rational one in which the designer is seen as superior. Neither is it based on an integrating relationship, in which the designer looks after the interest of the majority of potential users. The libertarian approach emphasizes the freedom and personal responsibility of every individual. This means that the designer is no longer placed above users when determining what is right for them; rather, the designer is part of a larger community. 5

To be clear, this does not imply that everyone now becomes a designer, as IKEA and many others are implying.  WYS ≠ WYG The design profession is still something that requires many years of education and practice, like any other profession. It does mean, however, that potential users now add their own experience and specific competencies to the mix.
Based on the aforementioned, I consider it essential for current design education to teach students to cooperate with other experts, respecting their expertise and simultaneously reflecting on their own competencies. This means, for example, that design students need to learn to work as part of multi-disciplinary teams, collaborating with students from other departments and schools, both on the same level and on different levels, e.g. students from a regional training centre, a university of applied sciences and a university of technology working together on projects. Moreover, design students need to learn to collaborate intensively with potential users, not as objective researchers that perform one or several user studies, not merely as facilitators that run co-design sessions, but also as subjective participants in an intensive process in which they themselves are part of the solution.

The Approach to Open Design

Due to the flexibility, open-endedness and often innovative character of open design, students should have first-hand experience with the fact that design decisions are always conditional; such decisions are always based on insufficient information, are but taken to the best of their and the community’s experience and knowledge at that point. They can use two strategies to generate information to support these decisions, which reciprocally provide focus: design making (synthesizing and concretizing) and design thinking (analysing and abstracting).

Since open design depends highly on different people and expertise, including the element provided by potential users, tangible solutions that can be experienced are essential throughout the design process to validate ideas and to guide further developments.  STANDARDS Moreover, design-making opens up new solution spaces that go beyond imagination, especially in group settings and when focusing on innovative, disruptive products which lack a well-established frame of reference for users or the market. It recalls the adage ‘quality through quantity’.

I consequently advocate that design students learn to use a highly iterative process of generating dozens of solutions and testing them in situ, in their proper context.  The Reflective Transformative Design Process 6 offers such a flexible and open process that it regards the act of designing not only as thought, but as a generator of knowledge. The process supports developing a vision of social and societal transformation, exploring solutions in situ with others, as well as offering moments of reflection.

Structures and Tools for Open Design

Open design requires a place to co-operate. That said, a hybrid design environment would both take advantage of a digital space that is always available all over the world, while making use of the intensity of collaborating in a physical workspace, making things, exchanging ideas and knowledge, and testing designs in context with potential users. A beautiful example of such a hybrid community is Beppe Grillo’s blog, 7 which enables people to share digitally  COMMUNITY and to meet each other all over the world. What does this mean for design education? Faculties, departments and schools have to think both physically and virtually about workspaces that enhance collaboration.  CO-CREATION At the Department of Industrial Design here at Eindhoven University of Technology, we have structured our workspaces thematically to provide areas in which students can work together, share expertise and learn from each other. In addition to a supportive structure, open design would benefit from tools that support designing and sharing, for a variety of contributors. Design education can support students in exploring these tools through methods such as participatory design, co-design or rapid prototyping equipment at Fab Labs. Universities and schools can also develop open design tools and methods, such as Skin 2.0, 8 the Fab@home printers or design tools developed by former ID students at Studio Ludens.


Open design not only forces designers to think about their profession, role, attitude and competencies, but also challenges design educators to scrutinize their educational system. In this article I have discussed what open design means for the designer’s attitude, skills and approach as well as for the educational structure and tools offered. Since we have stressed the flexibility, open-endedness and often innovative character of open design, the educational model for open design will also be flexible and open, and will need continuous development and testing with all parties involved to become a truly open design system.

  1. Doll, W, ‘Prigogine: A New Sense of Order, A New Curriculum’ in Theory into Practice, Beyond the Measured Curriculum 25(1), 1986, p. 10-16.
  2. Idem.
  3. Sennett, R, The Craftsman. London, Penguin Books, 2009.
  4. De Geus, M, Organisatietheorie in de politieke filosofie. Delft: Eburon, 1989. Cited in: Hummels, G, Vluchtige arbeid: Ethiek en een proces van organisatie-ontwikkeling. Doctoral dissertation, University of Twente, Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences, Enschede, The Netherlands, 1996.
  5. Hummels, C, Gestural design tools: prototypes, experiments and scenarios. Doctoral dissertation, Delft University of Technology, 2000. URL: id-dock.com/pages/overig/caro/publications/thesis/00Humthesis.pdf, accessed on 16 January, 2011.
  6. Hummels, C and Frens, J, ‘The reflective transformative design process’, CHI 2009, 4-9 April 2009, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, ACM, p. 2655-2658.
  7. link: www.beppegrillo.it/en/
  8. Saakes, D, Shape does matter: designing materials in products. Doctoral dissertation, Delft University of Technology, 2010.
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