Our Eighth Annual Survey is especially gratifying to us at the Design Futures Council because we note the positive changes happening in the way architecture and design schools are communicating with and responding to a profession in transition.

Our Eighth Annual Survey is especially gratifying to us at the Design Futures Council because we note the positive changes happening in the way architecture and design schools are communicating with and responding to a profession in transition. Many of the schools in our survey are consciously communicating their diverse and frequently more overt value propositions to leaders in the design profession and those in the construction and real estate arenas – those hiring graduates. A refreshed alignment is critically important to fuse future leaders with professional practice and to foster holistic thinking. New levels of rapport and respect are being achieved; metrics clearly show satisfaction beyond what we could measure ten years ago when our research was begun privately.

Connectivity between the university and the design professions is improving. Can we say that the gap has been closed? No, not quite. But, it has been narrowed significantly and alert leaders see anew how improvement can move yet further forward.

Schools do transform to stay relevant. To harness the two cultures of practice and education, to achieve the common goals of creating better communities and a better planet, new partnerships with relevance are forming. However, there are still schools today with a brand repute that is relatively flat which are believed, rightly or wrongly, to be moving more slowly than fits with today’s context for leadership and successful future employment in professional practice.

Perhaps I can best explain the differences we see through a story: It is a story of two schools, one a school within a medium to large size university (school A) and the other a school of similar size and located just a state away (School B). School A has had some budget problems due to state cutbacks. They have not been a national top fifteen program although they have a credible reputation in their region of the country. Recently, they put more dynamism into their advisory board and expanded the size by fifteen members. They have updated their mission and vision and they have implemented a strategic and communications plan with both internal and external aspects. They have created a data base of alumni and hiring organizations and have begun communicating their unique value to leading firms and corporations. They have also established an outreach program that includes eight or more quality contacts a year with their key audiences – this includes alumni, local and national media, current students, past students who have taken classes but not graduated, practitioners, design heads in corporations and governments, and other “friends.” Their communications data base is now updated weekly. They have established a higher profile with the professional associations including AIA, ASLA, IIDA, ASID, IDSA, DBIA, CSI, ULI, and others. They maintain an attendance plan for faculty and staff representatives at all professional events. They are on a mission toward advancing the quality of the education in their school and they have set written goals of measurable achievement. They have privately raised several million new dollars which is already benefiting students and faculty as called for in their new strategic plan. Their action plan has been noticed and their standing in our rankings has a positive trajectory. Practitioners and students give this school a grade of A.

School B is also accredited and was established about the same time as school A, but they appear to many in the profession to be stuck and operating on auto pilot. They are usually not at professional meetings except when they are asked to speak or serve on an expert panel, which is becoming less frequent. Networking with the profession is not seen as particularly valuable as evidenced by their low participation levels. They communicate somewhat well with their alumni on a, roughly, quarterly basis but they have missed several publishing deadlines and have neither an internal nor national communications plan. They argue, whenever they get a chance, that their students may or may not be interested in going into professional practice, instead they are being educated to problem solve generically no matter what career direction they pursue after graduation. They perpetuate the myth that designers don’t make much money and they teach little about the business and entrepreneurial aspects of the ascending design professions. Their advisory board is sometimes labeled by its members as being dysfunctional and meetings are poorly attended. Internal politics are ripe for disharmony and inefficiency – administration and faculty alike admit that there are areas of waste and missed opportunity. Tenure, they say, is responsible for some faculty laggards. The facilities are poorly maintained, providing an “anti-design” experience. Their mission has been watered down over the years to satisfy sacred cows and there is no acknowledged vision, although they are quick to admit that they would like to be more respected by other faculty on campus and have a higher standing with their peers. Given the current condition that they have drifted into they don’t get much loyalty from alumni or the hiring corporations and organizations. There is unrest and chronic dissatisfaction. Practitioners and students give this school a grade of C-.

There is not sufficient space here to report more fully on the differences between these programs. Yet, as you can see in this story (which is a fictional composite of true stories) both schools are accredited. Both have brilliant faculty. Both have good and even great students. Still, there is a noticeable difference in quality. There is also difference in direction. School A is consciously working at being in closer alignment with the changing profession of architecture and design. And there is an increasing transparency internally and externally with more people taking notice of programs that are relevant and exciting as it relates to changing context of a world in need of design leadership and wise and timely design solutions.

While the design professions are getting stronger and more engaged in the community they cannot be continuously stronger without the design schools also becoming stronger. Bottom line: If our design professions are to thrive in the world ahead we must have strong alignment with schools that are preparing their students for the rigors of professionalism. Our design schools need the active involvement of the profession. This includes offering leadership and even cheer leading. It also means making significantly greater financial contributions each year to the schools believed to be both visionary and accountable. Financial contributions should be made on the basis of merit. Some schools are facing budget cutbacks which can be demoralizing. This trend is expected to continue to threaten and marginalize higher education. Thus the design professions need to support the schools as a part of their own strategic planning. The future of a stronger architecture and design profession depends on refreshed strategic alignment between the world of design delivery and the academy.

James P. Cramer is editor of DesignIntelligence, co-chair of the Design Futures Council, and chairman of The Greenway Group, a foresight and strategic consulting firm. His latest book The Next Architect: A New Twist on the Future of Design, is now available through the DesignIntelligence bookstore, www.di.net.