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Charles H. DuellIn an oft-repeated urban legend, U.S. Patent Office Commissioner Charles H. Duell is said to have claimed in 1899 that the office should be closed because “everything that can be invented has been invented.” Nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, he wrote that:

Our future progress and prosperity depend upon our ability to equal, if not surpass, other nations in the enlargement and advance of science, industry and commerce. To invention we must turn as one of the most powerful aids to the accomplishment of such a result.

—U.S. Patent Office Commissioner Charles H. Duell, 1899

As true now as it was then, this way of thinking occasioned a veritable orgy in 20th century American inventiveness that led over the next 100 years to the design of:

  • The hearing aid (1902, Miller Reese Hutchinson)
  • Powered flight (1903, Orville and Wilber Wright)
  • Flush toilets (1906, William Elvis Sloan)
  • The toggle light switch (1916, William J. Newton and Morris Goldberg)
  • The flow chart (1921, Frank Gilbreth)
  • The liquid-fueled rocket (1926, William H. Goddard)
  • Sunglasses (1929, Sam Foster)
  • The electric guitar (1931, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker)
  • Frequency modulation, a.k.a. FM (1933, Edwin Armstrong)
  • The Phillips-head screw (1936, Henry F. Phillips)
  • The digital computer (1937, George Stiblitz)
  • The automated teller machine, a.k.a. ATM (1939, Luther George Simjian)
  • The microwave oven (1945, Percy Spencer)
  • Cancer chemotherapy (1946, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman)
  • The transistor (1946, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, William Schockley)
  • The video game (1948, Thomas Goldsmith and Estie Mann)
  • The Polio vaccine (1952, Dr. Jonas Salk)
  • The Ziploc bag (1954, Robert Vergobbi)
  • The hard disk drive (1955, Reynold Johnson)
  • Videotape (1956, Charles Ginsberg and Ray Dolby)
  • The laser (1957, Gordon Gould)
  • The integrated circuit (1958, Jack Kilby)
  • The child safety seat (1960, Leonard Rivkin)
  • The oral contraceptive pill (1960, Gregory Pincus)
  • The light-emitting diode, a.k.a. LED (1962, Nick Holonyak, Jr.)
  • The computer mouse (1963, Douglas Englebert)
  • The Moog synthesizer (1964, Robert Moog)
  • Hypertext (1965, Ted Nelson)
  • Dynamic RAM (1966, Robert Dennard)
  • The hand-held calculator (1967, Jack Kilby)
  • The wireless local-area network, a.k.a. LAN (1970, Norman Abramson)
  • The personal computer (1971, John Blankenbaker)
  • E-mail (1971, Roy Tomlinson)
  • The global positioning system, a.k.a. GPS (1972, Bradford Parkinson, Mel Birnbaum, Bob Rennard, Jim Spilker)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging, a.k.a. MRI (1972, Raymond Dramadian)
  • The hand-held mobile phone (1973, Martin Cooper)
  • The digital camera (1975, Steven Sasson)
  • The graphical user interface (1981, Alan Kay and Douglas Englebart)
  • Ant robotics (1991, James McLurkin)
  • The Segway P.T. (1994, Dean Kamen)

Few would argue that reading, writing and arithmetic remain the mainstays of many educational systems. Yet we can see from the diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy that, as Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli states, “Designers are the biggest synthesizers in the world. Design is making things better, for a better world.” With the advent of affordable design software and 3D printing hardware, I contend that integrated design is the new basic skill for the 21st century.

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsSo what is design? In his 1973 paper titled, "The Need for Design Education," Bruce Archer states that:

“design is that area of human experience, skill and knowledge which is concerned with man’s ability to mould his environment to suit his material and spiritual needs.”

Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius felt that:

Design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.

Polymath Buckminster Fuller wrote that:

A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.

And for modernist designer Charles Eames:

Eventually, everything connects.

But does everyone see these connections? “A lot of people,” noted Steve Jobs, “haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

Envision for a moment an educational system that emphasizes design thinking in all its modes, pairing a trans-disciplinary approach with hands-on, experiential and apprenticeship learning. Imagine students taking credit-based sabbaticals of discovery where, in the course of a school year, they define and attempt to solve a complex design problem through a process of inquiry, research and worldwide collaboration. Perhaps in addition to training qualified doctors, lawyers, soldiers and sailors, the American educational system should put conscious energy into cultivating tinkers.

Is there a place for integrated design in higher education? Speaking in support of the $500 million in grants recently awarded to community colleges for training and workforce development, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized that “the president knows that building a well-educated workforce is critical to reviving and strengthening the American economy.”

Indeed, President Obama is looking to the community colleges as partners in his Skills for America’s Future initiative. “They may not get the credit they deserve,” Obama stated, “they may not get the same resources as other schools, but they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.”

2020 Vision For Student SuccessIn our little corner of the country, California State Education Code 66010.4 clearly states that the “primary mission of the California Community Colleges is to advance California's economic growth and global competitiveness through education, training, and services that contribute to continuous work force improvement.” Moreover, the Community College League of California Commission on the Future 2020 Vision report includes the following recommendations:

  • Develop alternatives to traditional curriculum sequences using linked or contextualized curriculum across curricular areas.
  • Schedule classes in an inter-departmental manner with the goal of meeting the needs of first-time entering students, promoting full-time enrollment, and enhancing program completion.
  • Expand the awarding of credit for demonstrated competency and knowledge using multiple assessment instruments as determined by faculty.

The Institute for the Future’s report titled Future Work Skills 2020 identifies “six drivers of change” and the skills our students will need in order to grapple with these new challenges. These skills include “a design mindset,” “transdisciplinarity” and “novel and adaptive thinking.”

Future Work Skills 2020

Why should design become an educational meta-category? In 21st Century Innovations, Intel Corp. Senior Fellow Eugene S. Meieran identifies the following areas as ripe for design. It is far from an exhaustive list.

  • Energy conservation
  • Resource protection
  • Food and water production and distribution
  • Waste management
  • Education and learning
  • Medicine and prolonging life
  • Security and counter-terrorism
  • New technology
  • Genetics and cloning
  • Global communication
  • Traffic and population logistics
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Integrated electronic environment
  • Globalization
  • AI, interfaces and robotics
  • Weather prediction and control
  • Sustainable development
  • Entertainment
  • Space exploration
  • "Virtualization" and VR
  • Preservation of history
  • Preservation of species

The core curricular components of a trans-disciplinary Center of Excellence in Design could scaffold subjects including: 1) ideation, 2) rapid visualization, 2) 2D layout and design, 3) 3D design, 3) rapid prototyping, 4) intellectual property protection, 5) licensing and manufacturing, and 6) entrepreneurship. Beyond this, the curriculum could be developed to allow students the freedom to track into areas such as: industrial design, architecture and landscape design, information and communication design, game design, robot design, experience design, and more.

You have probably heard the old adage that it is foolish to “redesign the wheel.” Yet if we had we not done just that over the millennia, we might still be driving on hewn stone blocks or wooden wagon wheels. Design can be seen as a process of simplifying form to function. If we give our college students the time they need to explore, discover, fail, analyze and try, try again, they may end up designing simpler solutions. Prolific designer Raymond Loewy wrote that:

"I can claim to have made the daily life of the 20th Century more beautiful."

—Raymond Loewy, 1953

Who will make the daily life of the 21st century more beautiful still? With the right education, experience and support, it could be one of your students.<>