As the Dubai Institute of Design & Innovation (DIDI) gears up for its first intake this year, dean Sass Brown and associate dean Hani Asfour, explain why the industry is set for a huge transformation and a new learning paradigm.
Sass Brown and Hani Asfour, having moved from their high-profile academic positions in New York and Beirut respectively, are embarking on an ambitious project – they’re at the helm of a one-of-its-kind purpose-built university, the Dubai Institute of Design & Innovation (DIDI), sited in Dubai Design District (d3), which aims to change the way design is perceived.
Catching up with Brown (SB) and Asfour (HA) has been challenging; both travel extensively to drum up awareness about the new learning centre and its technology-skewed design courses. We sat down in their temporary labs (as they call them) to discuss the future of design in the region, and how DIDI is set to not only revolutionise design education, but also create a whole new archetype based on future demands.
How did your involvement with the university happen?
SB: DIDI approached me a year and a half ago. It was such an exciting, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved with designing a design school from the beginning. I had been at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York for nearly 18 years through a variety of positions, the last as an interim dean. I was ready for somewhere which let me bring upon a far greater change.
HA: I was in Boston when I got a teaching opportunity at the American University in Beirut, where I taught the merger between technology and design. I had wanted to spend only two years there and then move back to Boston, but I ended up moving on to the Lebanese American University, and also started my own business. I was there for 10 years when the offer to join DIDI came along. I initially joined as a consultant, but then my friend Hashim Sarkis, now the dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, threw my hat into the ring when they were hunting for an associate dean. I have known Sarkis since before my days as an undergraduate in MIT and then later at Harvard, and now the renowned university has also partnered with DIDI.
How will didi impact the regional industry?
SB: I hope it’s going to have a significant impact. It’s the first integrated, bachelor of design degree in the region; there aren’t many institutes like this around in the world. DIDI is a unique, multi-discipline university. Most universities struggle with integrating design across disciplines, and we wanted to have that right from the very beginning. We didn’t want to silo information and disciplines in specific departments. Increasingly, no matter which discipline you come from – whether it’s architecture, interior design or fashion design, chances are that they work across different sectors within the design realm. They also collaborate with other professionals such as scientists, biologists and engineers. Providing this sort of collaborative environment is very important for the future of design anywhere.
HA: There is an interesting background to my perspective. I had been thinking about the future of design when I was back in Lebanon running my design consultancy. I had hired trained professionals to do that, and we were working in a way where we all learnt from each other. Over the course of time, my clients started asking for things that we were not trained to do. Take an app, for example, for user journey and persona analysis. My team had good architects, and designers, but they were clearly lacking in what the market needed.
I saw the gap early on and tried to find a way to rethink design education. I joined the Beirut Creative Cluster as the founding president, and on my agenda was to improve talent education in Lebanon. But due to the security situation, all the initiatives would either get halted or delayed.
We had signed a MoU with one of the top global universities, but they couldn’t travel to Lebanon. I started talking to the existing universities about reforming design education. They loved the idea but also made it clear that it’s not their priority. The crux of the matter is that DIDI is a manifestation of all those ideas.
How is it different from the more traditionally established arts and design universities?
SB: I think DIDI is significantly different. It’s not an arts university; we’re a design university. It’s not about designing to create stuff, rather it’s based on design thinking, emphasising sustainability. As designers, we’re creators and that comes with a lot of responsibility. Traditionally, the knowledge and understanding of those impacts have not been taught in schools.
I come from a fashion design background, and it had never crossed my mind until 10-15 years ago, when I started thinking about ethical fashion. What happens to the materials and resources at the end of [a product’s] life is very important to be aware of for any designer. We simply don’t have the room for more stuff, as beautiful as it may be. It’s vital that it solves problems and makes our life easier and better. Very few universities do this and, even when they do, they often have just one dedicated sustainability programme, and not an integrated course.
Last numbers I saw, graduates of this generation will change careers at least half a dozen times — not jobs, but careers. So the more cross-disciplinary skills they have, the better prepared they will be.
There are any number of articles on the future of our industry, particularly design, but across industries, the impact that robotics will have on employment, as well as the impact design will have on businesses in general. Design has to become a part of concepts from the very beginning, as opposed to modifying them later to make them look nice. We’re training designers for jobs that don’t exist yet, for the new world.
HA: The idea of cross-concentration at DIDI comes from two things: that there should be no boundaries between various disciplines; and my own work on network theory, back in the ’90s. The future is very machine-based – things such as blockchain and artificial intelligence will become commonplace. All these things will make lots of jobs redundant and will generate jobs that we can’t even think of today. According to statistics, 85% of the future jobs don’t yet exist today. How do we prepare students for a scenario like that? The best defence against future redundancy is to focus on cross-concentration in education.
We’re aiming to teach our students a broad range of skills, so when they graduate, they have skills in multiple fields, and no matter how the market goes, they’ve the flexibility to adapt. The programme has been designed such that they’re fluent in two disciplines, and exposed to two others. Because of the way we’re building the open pedagogic space, they’ll be seeing each other working in one big space. For example, if a student does fashion design and multimedia design, the whole rage today is about digital fashion. They can do interactive clothing, wearable clothing and all sorts of inventions by combining user interface design with creative ideas. So they will be designers with a digital edge when they graduate.
What are some of the ways that industry professionals can contribute to DIDI?
SB: Our model is very much based on real-world learning. In design space, when you’re working in studios, you make mistakes and that makes for a profound learning experience. It gives the industry an opportunity to come into the classrooms, to brief them about the real world requirements, critique their work, evaluate it, give lectures and participate. We’ll have interns for the industry, so it’s a two-way integration. I think it’s a two-way symbiotic relationship.
HA: We’re embedded in d3 on purpose. We want to complete the ecosystem by nurturing talent and we want them to have immediate access to industry resources. We want established local firms and industry experts to come forward and either teach a relevant course or conduct their own workshops – there are many combinations which could work to the benefit of both parties. After the third year, there will be mandatory training with credits. Our priority will be to find them jobs within d3, Dubai and the region. If industry professionals are reading this, and if we haven’t already reached out to them, they should feel free to reach out to us.
What are the learning experiences to be expected at didi?
SB: Technological savviness. Five years ago, who would have thought that drones could be delivering food and other items. We have faculty coming in from all over the globe including someone who specialises in habitats in inhospitable terrains. The importance of designers in user development is very crucial as new opportunities come up. Ultimately, I hope designers will bring about a change for a better world.
HA: We offer four disciplines – product design, multimedia design, fashion design and strategic design management – and students can pick any combination of two. The curriculum in the first year is based on what MIT offers. They will learn how to make anything, understand scale and the history of design. After being exposed to all this in the first year, the students will then sit with us, and we will advise them on which two they should combine.
A good way to understand this is to take the example of Elon Musk, who launched the SpaceX Falcon rocket. If we were to train the next Elon Musk, we’ve to teach them product in transportation design, and strategic design thinking. Musk doesn’t need to know about space. He just needs to know how to position himself to take the lead.
The DIDI programme will familiarise students with the power of collaboration and it will teach them empathy towards other disciplines. It’s a known fact that interior designers often fret when engineers, especially mechanical engineers, want to lower the ceiling and put the compressor in that space. We will help them understand a lateral understanding of the system.
What are the challenges faced by the regional design industry?
SB: One of the challenges, I hope we will be able to support is the back end of the supply chain. There’s a great deal of talent in the region, innovation, history and tradition. There’s incredible textile richness and silk route history.
Production-wise in the furniture and clothing industries, we’re hoping to fill in some of that support network that’s been lacking. To be successful, it needs a cluster of different capabilities from resource through production, sourcing and talent. We can support with information and resources. As an educational institution, we can help build the production support, which even the greater industries can also benefit from.
With only 150 seats for the first intake, What are you looking for in the candidates?
SB: We’re looking for potential. We’re looking for talent who will use design to change the world. We don’t care whether they come from a coding background or a visual arts background – it’s fabulous if they can draw, but we’re not looking for illustrators, but designers, creative minds, problem solvers and people who have a social conscience.
With so much emphasis on technology, is it going to completely replace craftsmanship?
SB: Absolutely not. Traditional craftsmanship plays an important role in all design industries. It is, in many ways, what differentiates a region from others and identifies with specific cultures. It makes it unique on a global stage. Ultimately, technology is a tool, it’s not an end product. It’s a means of doing things; it’s a collaboration between craftsmen, designers and technology.
What are the benchmarks you’ve set for the first cohort of DIDI?
SB: We’re talking about the next five years, at the end of which the first cohort would have graduated. It’ll be very exciting and we look to them to impact research and development, as well as educational and commercial publishing.
HA: In five years, we would have graduated and placed design students, who will help Dubai become an innovation-based economy on a global level. According to a recent survey, 30,000 design jobs need to be filled in MENA. For the industry to meet that demand, the number of graduates will need to increase eight-fold. We can’t meet all the requirements, but we believe we’ll be able to contribute.