March 16, 2020

BETTEZ | Forget the Public Policy School, Give Us a Design School

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Here’s a scenario that has totally never happened to me before: you’ve had a long day of classes and you’re ready to finally head home to your apartment in Collegetown, when you find yourself pulling on a push door as you exit, say, Upson Hall. You feel like an idiot; you’re a junior and here you are, looking like a prospective student visiting campus for the first time. But what if I told you that’s not your fault? That, instead, you’ve fallen prey to one of the most common design errors: the Norman door. First coined in the 1988 novel The Design of Everyday Things, the Norman Door is the result of poor and conflicting design decisions that make it difficult to determine how to operate the door, often resulting in a reliance on signage, or allowing its users to feel like idiots every day. But isn’t it ridiculous that a building renovated just three years ago that cost $74 million dollars and achieved LEED Platinum certification failed to make a consistent set of functional doors?

Although a seemingly minor issue, it reveals a deeper issue in Cornell’s campus. Prior to the Coronavirus scare that has drawn campus to screeching halt, the latest drama that enveloped campus was the decision to create a new school of public policy. But that’s hardly the greatest demand that Cornell has as a campus. Fragmented across the colleges is a rising movement towards design, from the Design and Environmental Analysis major in the College of Human Ecology, to Mechanical Engineering, to the various majors in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at least tangentially related to design, to the Information Science major across the Colleges of Engineering and Arts and Sciences. Instead of a school of public policy, why not make a school for design?

The interest of Cornell’s students can be easily gauged by the nature of the clubs on campus. Design is clearly not lacking in this category: Cornell University Sustainable Design, Cornell Design and Tech Initiative, Medium Design Collective and Design Connect Cornell, amongst others, are clubs that have garnered significant membership. New design clubs spring up every day on campus. Yet, these clubs seem to be an attempt by Cornell’s students to fill a glaring void in Cornell’s design education. As of now, the design education offered by Cornell is disjointed and scattered across colleges. The College of Engineering offers the user experience and interactive technologies concentrations in its information science major as two out of the seven of the major’s concentrations. The mechanical engineering major has a few classes concerning industrial design, but many of its students are intent upon finding fulfillment for their desire to design elsewhere, in project teams and minors in other colleges. In the College of Human Ecology, there’s the DEA and Fiber Science & Apparel Design majors that centers on design and emphasizes its environmental impact. The Dyson School has a concentration in Entrepreneurship that includes optional classes concerning product design. In the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, the three undergraduate majors — Architecture, Fine Arts, and Urban and Regional Studies —  all relate to design to different degrees, but fail to entirely fill the void of a design-centered school.

Despite the fact that all of the above mentioned majors and concentrations center on design, the skillsets they offer vary drastically. Mechanical engineers are taught to use Computer-Aided Design for their designs, UX designers learn how to apply their design principles from Human Computer Interaction to game design. DEA majors study the application of the principles of environmental sustainability to their design. Students at Cornell who are interested in design are severely limited in the design skills that they are offered from their programs, forcing the creation of design clubs that serve as some of the only ways they can foster other design skills.

Such a design school is far from lacking precedent. The Carnegie Mellon School of Design is highly acclaimed for its flexible program that allows its students the ability to create their own path to graduation, unlike the rigid limiting by college and major that design students at Cornell face. They are free to major in industrial design, graphic design or a mix of the two: environment design. Even an extremely tech-heavy school like Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers the MIT Design Laboratory to allow for multidisciplinary design studies and projects.

When I return to campus in the fall as a senior, I would much rather see a new school of design than a school of public policy, even if I myself am unable to benefit from it. In such a trying time through which Cornell’s commitment to its student body is being tested, why not demonstrate on a greater level how it can observe and listen to the desires of its student body?

Special thanks to Sheri Guo ’22. 

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mbettez@cornellsun.com. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.