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I have been a teacher in several design schools for over a decade, and I’ve been hearing the term interdisciplinary throughout my varied experience. The word is being frequently used to describe a certain attribute that designers should embrace and imbibe. There is also no single interpretation of the word.
In fact, there are multiple similar terms such as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, all of which generally have a similar value but have differently nuanced meanings. It means to go outside one’s native discipline, domain, or expertise. But what’s the value in it? Why is it something that almost every design college says that they embrace? And, more importantly, why is it that everyone wants to do it, but find it difficult to actually do?
Part of the answer lies in the curricular model of design studies as a professional course of study. When we say that a course, degree, or diploma is a professional study it implies that a graduate of that course will become a sort of an expert in a service-related field. Being an expert is much of what being a professional is about, and traditionally, as one learns more and more in professional studies, the skills get sharper, specialised, and more defined. Students in professional courses often get asked what specialisation they will get into.
This tendency to specialise is actually a fairly modern phenomenon. Most professionals before the 20th century were generalists, not specialists. But industrialisation, technological complexity, and many other social factors created a world where people tend to specialise in certain disciplines and sub-disciplines.
However, increasing complexity has also affected a kind of backlash against specialisation because in a highly complex system as expertise gets narrower, specialists find themselves becoming quickly obsolete. Not only that, but because of the multitudinous ways in which one can now achieve the same design objective, it’s become necessary to know how to solve a problem from several approaches.
For example, a client like an environmental NGO may approach a designer and say that they want a certain solution, but at the outset, they may not know what that solution could be. The NGO may want to increase awareness of a clean environment. The solution may be a website, a mobile app, a print media campaign, a television ad, an experiential space or VR display, or even an innovative new product.
Or all of those things! If this job goes to a designer who only knows how to do one of these things, he or she would quickly be in trouble. Sure, they could hire other designers to fill in the gaps, but they would at least need to be experienced enough to work in tandem with those other disciplines so that the final outcome(s) would be complete, integrated, and holistic.
This increasing complexity of design problems in the new millennium has given rise to a sort of renaissance of interdisciplinary design thinkers — people who either have talent in multiple disciplines or have the ability to empathise and collaborate smoothly with other disciplines. And I use the word “renaissance” purposely, because it was indeed that period of heightened artistic and cultural innovation that produced such legendary interdisciplinarians like Michelangelo, DaVinci, and others.
And the simple fact is that when I speak to the design industry about the type of design graduates they want to hire from my institution, there are a small fraction that says they want specialists and far more that want graduates who are flexible, adaptive, and multi-talented.
Students who are interdisciplinarians in the true sense of the word, can work in an environment where people from many backgrounds and disciplines continuously collaborate with each other. It therefore becomes my responsibility as an educator to ensure that my graduates fit this bill.
The writer is head, school of design, Pearl Academy.