When was the last time you were asked the question, “So what do you do?” and your answer began, “I’m a ______”? Whether you thought it consciously or not, your ______ was probably the name of the discipline with which you most closely align in philosophical outlook (i.e. I’m a graphic designer, architect, photographer, etc.) This foundational issue of discipline is so deeply embedded in our origins as designers through our first formal educational experiences that we rarely think to question our allegiances to the intellectual framework we inherited from teachers and mentors. It’s just the way we do things.
But what is a discipline anyway? How is it so powerful that it comes to define our deep identities? And what does it mean to profess discipleship? (After all, that is indeed what pursuing a ‘profession’ involves.) As a ‘professor’ at the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program in the late 2000s, I spent over six years considering this question as I developed class curricula. And after reviewing the scant academic literature that directly invokes meta-discussions about disciplines, the answers are not entirely clear.
Even after centuries of our best efforts to invent new disciplines—and to manipulate, blend, and destroy them—they seem to have a life of their own once discovered. Their boundaries sometimes shift and overlap with those of other disciplines nearby on the spectrum of knowledge, sometimes become unstable or permeable, and sometimes resist and challenge each other. But, they tend to defy our best efforts to corral them into the shapes we desire. It is the rare thinker whose work is so off the beaten path that the disruption it creates breaks entirely new ground and we classify it as a new discipline altogether. This seems to happen only a few times in any given century across all knowledge areas (think “the great minds” like Newton, Freud, Einstein, Picasso…)
For now, I offer a provisional definition: a discipline is a way. It is useful to imagine your discipline as a path, well-trod by those who came before you, along the same way, addressing similar challenges in the same way, with the same tools, technologies, and accumulated skills. Graphic designers seem to have a particular and identifiable way of reading, writing, thinking, doing, and making. Others with backgrounds in other fields may have also cleared paths to those same challenges, but from a different direction, using different tools and methods. Same destination, different origins and orientations.
For members of SEGD, the topic of discipline has caused considerable collective debate. For decades, the organization has struggled to define precisely what it is ‘environmental graphic designers’ do, how they do it, and how one should be educated to do it. The recent name change of the organization to shift ‘environmental’ to ‘experiential’ reveals a perceived shift in the disciplinary boundaries of its practitioners. While empirically recognizing that many practitioners of the EGD arts come from varying disciplinary backgrounds, we have settled on the notion that the true work of EG designers lies between all of them. In other words, we believe that EGD is an interdisciplinary field (stopping short of being its own discipline).
The problem with being interdisciplinary is that it’s hard work to hack your way through a jungle of ideas with a machete when everyone around you has it easier, walking on comfortable paths that simply don’t go where you want. One senses that becoming a radically successful EG designer requires a serious examination of your disciplinary allegiances: shedding at least some of the core tenets with which you were first baptized, overcoming feelings of inadequacy about the breadth of your training, summoning the willpower to claim expertise, and reveling in the uncertainty and messiness of path making. Not for the faint-hearted or those without entrepreneurial spirit!
The schism between academia and practice couldn’t be much more evident here. For one thing, practice moves much faster. In practice, when a client needs a specific outcome to which there is no one pure disciplinary path, you simply hire specialists who have the broad range of skills to get you there, put them in a room like cats in a box, and pour money on the problem until something happens! This cannot happen in academia, where knowledge must be validated through the slow process of research, writing, and peer review before it’s considered a solid foundation on which to build.
I’ve read no more brilliant account of this conundrum than Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Menand spends almost a fourth of the book developing this thesis on interdisciplinarity: the anxiety surrounding the topic of disciplinarity in American schools is really a displaced malcontent among professors with the intellectual system they collectively devised and a feeling of irrelevance within the larger culture.
He asserts that in the gradual shift from liberal arts education toward professional programs of study, American intellectuals created an institutional structure of clearly defined disciplines that could provide relative job security for professors within myriad fields of study (“Garbage may be garbage, but the History of Garbage is a discipline!”). But, that kind of specialization has also led to a professoriate with narrow boxes in which to operate and an ever-diminishing ability to engage in meaningful fights that can affect society: the proverbial Ivory Tower trap.
And so, this is the thicket from which SEGD practitioners emerge, degree from some field in hand, ready to tackle big complex design problems, but without much understanding of how to navigate into the cracks between the established disciplines. To help put a more detailed point on SEGD’s existential crisis, Julie Buckler of Harvard University provides the following dictionary to the prefix soup of disciplinary approaches:
Multidisciplinary work draws upon knowledge from more than one discipline, but preserves the disciplinary identities of these multiple disciplinary elements. Certain objects of study—opera and the city, to give two of my favorite examples—seem naturally suited to multidisciplinary investigation.
Crossdisciplinary work, in contrast, illuminates the subject of one discipline from the perspective of another, as when, for an example, a physicist discusses the acoustics of music production or a literary-studies specialist performs a “close reading” of a legal contract.
In contrast to multidisciplinary and crossdisciplinary work, interdisciplinary work ideally produces knowledge that integrates two or more disciplines, contributing to a new foundational unity of understanding, perhaps even a new hybrid field. Interdisciplinary work thus both creates knowledge and redraws the boundaries of that which can, in theory, be known, but interdisciplinary work also entails an understanding of the disciplinary norms that are being challenged.
To continue with our survey of disciplinary evolution: The term postdisciplinarity evokes an intellectual universe in which we inhabit the ruins of outmoded disciplinary structures, mediating between our nostalgia for this lost unity and our excitement at the intellectual freedom its demise can offer us. Is the era of postdisciplinarity upon us now?
Finally, transdisciplinarity refers to the highest level of integrated study, that which proposes the unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives and points toward our potential to think in terms of frameworks, concepts, techniques, and vocabulary that we have not yet imagined. It must be acknowledged, however, that the very notion of transdisciplinarity may strike many of us as chimerical, sinisterly monolithic, or as a ruse for smuggling back in old dreams of objectivity and universal knowledge. Are we then right back where we started, or does our investigation of disciplines and the nature of knowledge maintain our historical perspective?
—Julie A. Buckler, Harvard University
“Towards a New Model of General Education at Harvard College”
This reminds me of the often-quoted model of the ideal design employee proposed by Tom Kelley of the design firm IDEO: he looks for what he calls “T-Shaped People” (perhaps the best model for EG designer?) They are people with broad understandings of the context in which design occurs but who also approach individual problems from a deep disciplinary perspective coupled with hard-won expertise. T-Shaped people can form teams that surround a challenge with interconnected cultural sensitivities and a formidable array of pragmatic skill sets. It looks like this:
…which leads me to propose an expanded system of Kelley’s thinking using typography as a base for addressing disciplinary issues:
It has always seemed a bit overambitious to expect undergraduate design programs to produce truly T-Shaped people, hence I propose they instead shoot for “lowercase-t shaped” people and expect them to grow into Kelley’s ideal through graduate study and presumably a few years of practical work experience.
Those with purely disciplinary training (‘pure’ theory heads, master-apprenticeships, trade education) may take years to develop broad understandings of the interconnectedness of their skills with culture at either high or low levels while Interdisciplinarians attempt to occupy the areas between established fields and exploit their overlaps.
Perhaps postdisciplinarity is about connecting directly to the larger culture (‘popular’ scholarship) at several depths within a discipline while transdisciplinarity requires a broad interconnectedness of very deep disciplinary skills and perspectives…probably only possible with networks of coordinated specialists rather than within any one designer’s education.
Finally, I propose a new word, Diversciplinarity, to satisfy our collective bloodthirst to constantly commoditize new fields of study, and I end with a question: what shape should EG designers of the future look like?
Darrin Scott Hunter