illustration: Katrine Bælum
Illustration by Katrine Bælum

Troels Degn on the design education in Denmark: Academization is not the problem

Although academization in itself is not a dirty word, it has taken on a negative connotation when it comes to design and crafts education, according to Troels Degn Johansson, former associate professor and head of department at the Royal Academy – Architecture, Design and Conservation. For many years, he has followed both the development of craft and design education as well as the discussion and debate that has surrounded them. According to him, the term ‘academization’ is used pejoratively and interchangeably, which makes it difficult to have a nuanced and constructive dialogue about what education can and should do:

“Academization has often been used negatively in the criticism of design education as an indistinct umbrella term for all the very different reforms that have been imposed on the artistic design schools by the government. ‘Academization’ usually refers to a rather uncritical and unbalanced notion that things were better in the past,” he says.

Troels Degn. Fotograf Johan Wingborg.
Troels Degn Johansson, former associate professor and head of department at the Royal Academy - Architecture, Design and Conservation.
Photo: Johan Wingborg

But academization is a broad concept, explains Troels Degn. It encompasses everything from research-based teaching and the development of academic skills in students to curricula, development and assessment paradigms based on national qualification keys that focus on learning and developing a wide range of skills in students. Among other things, they must learn to collaborate and think about their design work in a business context. Basically, academization has therefore benefited both craft and design education, he says.

Academization creates better education – and greater development

According to Troels Degn, academization has had a major impact on the development of the design profession over the past 20 years. Academization has influenced design education and raised the quality of design education, partly because research-based teaching has given the education a stronger, evidence-based foundation. At the same time, new types of design companies and new business models have emerged.

Troels Degn points out that the design field has become more broadly based because graduates with a background in business, engineering or social sciences have also entered the arena. This has contributed to the development of the design field, but it has also sharpened the requirements for what qualifications a design education must provide a student with, he explains:

“It has been crucial for graduates from artistic educational institutions that research-based education has given them a basis for competing with graduates from other types of educational institutions and for helping to shape the design profession on an artistic and scientific basis. There is also no doubt that research-based education with active researchers as teachers has really raised the level of artistic competencies in education. Here I am thinking, among other things, of the systematic work on developing experimental artistic and research methods involving new materials and technologies.”

He points out that artistic research has developed in the design education programs in ongoing collaboration with international research environments – and this development has been for the better, he explains:

“This has meant a huge boost for the artistic dimension in design education. Take, for example, evidence-based design research, which has strengthened user experience and accessibility by pointing to concrete guidelines for design.”

Education must lift all students

Although some believe that academization has occurred at the expense of apprenticeships or at the expense of practical experience, Troels Degn believes that the crafts education has found a good place as an artistic professional education that also offers the opportunity to further education in a more artistic and research-oriented direction at master’s level. The master’s degree gives students the opportunity to both specialize and immerse themselves. Another important point he sees is that design education today is obliged to educate and promote all students – not just the privileged few:

“Design education today is obliged to uplift all enrolled students – and not just the few who, with their particular artistic talent or perhaps their background from academic homes or artistic families, were particularly well placed to navigate through a more apprenticeship-oriented education. When I started as a researcher and teacher at the Danish Design School (now the Royal Danish Academy), I often got the impression that it was perfectly acceptable that the education only led to a profitable and prestigious career in the profession for the very few. Fortunately, this is not the case today,” says Troels Degn Johansson.

He is pleased that the education programs today prepare all students for their future working life and career.

Design education helps solve our societal challenges

The strengths of the current education programs in crafts and design are easy to spot, says Troels Degn. “Danish design education programs have committed themselves to solving the major societal challenges we face, such as the climate crisis and the transition to a sustainable society,” he says and concludes:

“These efforts have only been possible thanks to strong research environments and research-based education. Take, for example, the work of educating graduates from the clothing specialties – it is extremely important that they, as future professionals, can play a leading role in the development towards a sustainable and socially responsible fashion industry. This requires not only deep artistic skills, but also the ability to understand business and read industries critically.”

Troels Degn does not want to guess what the consequences of the upcoming reform of the design education at master’s level will be. The political decision has been made, and now it’s up to the schools to figure out how to meet the new requirements.

Theme: The changing education landscape

Formkraft examines changes in craft and design education. Education has changed significantly over a number of years, but what has been gained and what has been lost?

Schools must keep up with the times, for better or worse, but are we seeing a shift that calls for a debate about what we want to do with Danish design? Have artists taken over textiles and ceramics? How are things developing in the Nordic region? Read the editorial here

In 2022, Formkraft has focused on student protests over the development, and the archive contains many themed issues and debates about changes from crafts to design schools and the balance between artistic and vocational education.

Learn more about craft and design education in the ongoing publications in Formkraft.