Matthew Edgar, Sheffield Hallam University

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As part of the effort to ICAD Design Days to stimulate deeper discussions with the design community on the nature of being a design professional and the values of our work as a collective, we reached out to various industry practitioners and stakeholders, seeking their perspectives on a series of thought-provoking questions on current issues in relation to the core values professionalism.

Matthew Edgar, the Principal Lecturer in Design from our partner university Sheffield Hallam University, UK shares his thoughts with us.


What should the relationship between the academia and the industry be? How are we able to bridge the gap between what the academia is producing and what the industry is demanding (skills/traits/attitude, etc.)?

Its important to define what we mean by ‘industry’. For the purpose of this question I am referring here to the graphic design industry. The relationship between industry and academia should ideally be circular. There should be clear structures and processes to be able to share knowledge and insights when these occur. Examples of this in our practice have been Employer Advisor Boards, Knowledge Exchange frameworks, professional practice lecture programmes, Continuing Professional Development opportunities, amongst others. What is required are forums where all parties can meet on an equal footing where they can share opportunities and challenges that are needed in contemporary contexts.


What does “multidisciplinary” mean to you? In your practice/industry, do you think it is more important to be a “generalist” or a “specialist”, and why?

Multidisciplinary means holding a range of specialist competencies within a particular discipline (or closely associated disciplines). For example as a graphic designer there are disciplines of typography, user experience, strategy and (copy)writing amongst a myriad of others. Interdisciplinary practice means connect subjects and disciplines that draw on significantly different knowledge domains and research methods. Interdisciplinarity is vital in being able to respond to the complexity of contemporary (wicked!) problems. Generalists are generally better equipped to engage in interdisciplinary practice, as they tend to be ‘looking across’ or ‘see above’ problems. Specialists tend to spend more time ‘looking down’. Of course both generalists and specialists are important in a well rounded practice. I would say that our course works hard to get our students to understand problems at scale and embrace the complexity as part of their design thinking. In this way we are biased towards generalist but would not discriminate against a student who is clearly a skilled specialist!


How has your industry incorporated ethical practices, if there are any? Do you think ethical responsibilities fall on the shoulders of the artist/designers or the client, or both?

This questions links to the response above. If students learn to think in and through systems they have to confront ethical complexity. Once a problem is framed culturally, economical, socially, environmentally and politically, the responsibility and complicity of the designer is inescapable. It is important that designers do not preach but learn to find aporia and empathy with their clients and their concerns. Ken Garland’s First Things First is a useful milestone in the history of graphic design, but he also always invested in developing long lasting relationships with his clients. I think it’s important to listen to the clients ethical stance and be able to engage in constructive dialogues. We are all responsible.


Are the nature of awards and competitions still relevant today and why?

I think it depends on what the competition brief is! Interesting and transformative ideas have come out of well thought through competition briefs. I’m not very interested in awards but recognise that extrinsic drivers are important to some designers. I’m more interested in seeing a designers process and attitude than in shiny statues on shelves.


What do you think is important for the arts practitioners/designers of the future to think about and challenge?

I think that the discipline and profession of (graphic) design is one of constant change. Our challenge for visual communication design is to match form to context – and these contexts are rapidly changing. How we face these challenges, is to read, listen and observe – and to engage with these emerging settings and practices. What we learn together, when we look and listen in the right way, helps us prepare students for future professional practice.

We are learning that traditional graphic design practices fall short of what is required in these new contexts. The need for a practice that focuses on the social, political and economic consequences of design are clear. User-Centred research methods and design approaches that adopt current technological digital shifts must be at the heart of a good design education. Meredith Davis talks about the need to work with rather than for people to ‘create the conditions for authentic user experiences in this technology-driven world’. In response to a 2017 Design census carried out by The American Institute of Graphic Arts, Davis and her collaborators identified 7 key trends that intend to inform design professionals and educators of processes and concepts addressed by successful design practices.

What emerges reading through the trends and their associated competencies that students now require is a challenging but immensely rewarding future for the discipline. A discipline that connects other disciplines, that listens, empathises and works alongside stakeholders to resolve wicked problems. A focus on planning, research and strategy become central. Increased complexity demands interdisciplinary collaboration and an understanding of the larger systems we work within. A core competency within the complexity trend advises that; Students should frame design problems at various scales, nested at the level of components, products, systems, and communities. It brings to mind Jamer Hunt’s new book ‘Not to Scale’, and the message on the cover: How the small becomes large, the large becomes unthinkable, and the unthinkable becomes possible. Through continued scholarship and research and open dialogues within the design community, our currentS unthinkable can become possible.