28 February 2017

In August 2016, Jo Johnson, the Conservative Minister of State for Universities and Science, published an open letter to students. “University is a big investment – of time and money – and, like any big investment, you expect a good return,” he wrote. Present within this remark is a perception of education as a principally economic consideration – a financial transaction like any other. This viewpoint, however, is anathema to both Zowie Broach and Sam Jacob. “Being a part of education means listening,” says Broach. “It is not about imposing something predetermined on students.”

Broach founded Boudicca in 1997 with Brian Kirkby, and has worked since then with photography, film, sculpture, collage and choreography as part of a practice that prizes experimentation and deep research over disciplinary fidelity. Broach’s current position at the RCA follows previous teaching posts at the University of Westminster, Parsons The New School for Design, and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. As in her work with Boudicca, Broach has used her role at the RCA to challenge convention. The fashion department’s previously separated platforms – menswear, womenswear and accessories – now share a space, for instance, while her students’ final collections for the RCA’s 2016 graduate show were represented on the catwalk by one look: an effort to develop the ideas behind collections such that they could bear representation through a single expression.

Jacob made his name with FAT, a practice that he co-founded in 1991 as a loose collective working across architecture, graphic design, film-making and photography. At FAT, Jacob and his collaborators deployed tropes such as collage and sampling to challenge the orthodoxy and reductivism of much mainstream architecture, as well as integrating new streams of culture into the discourse surrounding the profession. FAT closed in 2014, with Jacob going on to found Sam Jacob Studio as well as teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Yale School of Architecture. In 2013 he founded Night School, a programme at the AA that encourages attendance from students, professionals and interested amateurs in order to reposition education as a lifelong activity.

Broach and Jacob first met at a panel talk organised by Disegno in October 2016 that explored the boundaries between architecture and fashion. In their second meeting, hosted in Broach’s office within the fashion department at the RCA, the two resumed this conversation.

What is the state of design education?

Zowie Broach One of the problems that surfaces with this question is the use of the word “education”. We ought to remove that word from the debate because “education” implies it’s just one stage of your life. Separating it off from everything else stops it from being something free and exploratory. I prefer to speak about design thinking. When you get to the level of a Master’s degree, it’s really just design thinking anyway, because you’ve already got the basic skills. The key question is whether we’re getting that design thinking right.

Sam Jacob Where I teach, the AA, isn’t just a school – it’s also a cultural institute that runs exhibitions, a publishing house and so on. But even within that school so many amazing things happen which are not visible and accessible to a wider public. I founded Night School to look at what would happen if you eroded the boundary between what is thought of as happening in school and out of school. If you make that barrier more porous, then you get strange influences coming into the school and disrupting the politics and patterns of behaviour that these kinds of institutions typically fall into. It’s also about questioning what education is and why it’s useful. What is knowledge? How do you share knowledge? How do you create knowledge? Rather than sitting in a lecture about the history of public space, why not go on a 10km run through London where you viscerally feel that space as well as aspects such as distance and weather, which then become a part of the experience? I have nothing against an academic approach. But what happens if you think about these things in a completely non-academic environment?

Zowie It’s about looking at the same topics, but attacking them from different places. Education – or learning, design thinking, whatever you wish to call it – is an area where we have had certain patterns of behaviour and codes of learning for a long time. So you need to approach things differently, because otherwise the whole process becomes stagnant. What I love about the RCA is its cross-programming, because it lets you learn from people who have different ways of perceiving something. I still think of myself as a student, for instance, even though fashion has a consistent cycle that keeps pushing you. Because of that cycle, we enforce ways of working at Boudicca that make us do things like play with plasticine or cardboard: finding ways to force you to break the patterns you fall into. That ties to the work I do at the RCA: why are the students here to be educated and in what? Because they’re not here to learn how to be fashion designers, that’s for sure. They are here to learn to master their sense of self and their opinions.

Sam There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about education. One model of education – the postwar idea of how education should be structured – is collapsing or has collapsed, and the pressure is now on universities and students to finance these courses. When I was a student, education was free and that was such an unbelievable luxury. Collectively, we might be thinking there are two options: either we go back to what education was or we continue with what it has become. Well, we can’t go back to what it was, but the current situation seems unviable too. We’re trying to keep the last vestiges of the old idea going, but that just creates tensions for institutions. Even the idea of what it is to study is changing. There’s a sense that there needs to be more of a product at the end because students might ask “What am I getting for all of this money that I have to pay?” We need to find a way to operate within that late-capitalist system, which is so pervasive in the way it organises and constructs both society and individuals, but which pretends to offer us limitless freedom and opportunity. How do you step outside of this quantified, algorithm-led, credit-scored form that human activity has been reduced to?

Zowie It’s about how you contextualise it. I don’t want to be anywhere near the words “customer” or “client”. It’s a capitalist language that has infiltrated the creative language and which destroys the way we perceive things. If you allow that language to come in, you’re being forged by it. You mentioned that university was free when you studied, but it’s also worth remembering that rent wasn’t expensive either, and food and travel were also cheap – so the questions we’re talking about are not just to do with education, but the whole social landscape. We have to look at the political and consumer choices we’ve made as a society. It’s our job to be astute and ask deep questions because we don’t have to accept what’s in front of us – we really don’t. New systems need to exist and they can exist. Really, this debate is about culture and it’s about capitalism: my favourite negative word. In the US, they have always paid for their education, whereas the change to a tuition-fee system in this country has been a harsh, steep learning curve. Whereas previously funding was spread among taxpayers, it now comes from the individual, which can feel poignant, pertinent or painful. I sometimes think that having to pay for education is no bad thing. Look at what it costs to be here at the RCA for one year – give or take £10,000. But for that you get a studio space in central London, all the equipment you need, mentoring, great lectures, technicians and facilities. The important thing, however, is to try and eliminate the financial issue for those who can’t afford it – I am realistic on that. I would never have gone to school if I had had to pay, for instance. So it really comes back to thinking about what education is and why we need it. I have always been frustrated that teachers are so badly paid and education is so poorly funded because it suggests we do not believe that these things are important for our future.

Sam One thing that is interesting about these systems is that they’re now so powerful that – and this sounds very Adam Curtis – they are no longer controlled by the people who thought they controlled them. Look at what happened with Brexit and the situation in which politicians now find themselves. They are far more constrained than we are sitting here, but these are the people who are supposed to be reinventing the world. But an economic logic does seem to have colonised all of these different areas of society. The real value of education is that it allows you to construct something as a form of internal resistance to that. Universities are definitely struggling to figure out how they work and what they are for, but the question they ought to grapple with is what they’re encouraging in the people who come out of them. My most formative experience was studying in Glasgow for my BA, where the architecture department was part of the art school, because there was a culture of just hanging out with lots of different people doing interesting stuff. I think that’s a valid model for both education today and wider life. We need to find ways of providing people with a space where they can begin to figure out what they might want to do.

Zowie When I was in education in the late 1980s, there wasn’t anything in front of you. London was really barren, but that gave you space to build something: architecturally, aesthetically, clothes, theatre, dance. You could mark your own ground and we were fortunate in that respect. There were some amazing buildings and clothes at that time, but very little that joined up to form a cohesive whole. Today, however, you always have to try and clear space for students, because they’re faced with a very elaborately designed world. They have all this noise in terms of the architecture, fashion, art and music that they’re confronted with, so how do you find the space for them to break out from that? London today feels full, whereas it used to be a place where you could feel quite alien and curious in your own city. What I work on is trying to help decode students – sending little viruses to their brains that, even if just for a minute, help shift everything away from what feels understood and final.

Sam In the era we’re talking abut, everybody went to art school to hang around in the toilets and form a band. There was this idea that there was a cultural purpose to education which was not necessarily printed above the door.

Zowie Education was made democratic in the 90s, but nobody really worked out what would happen when it got to a critical mass. It was really positive in that it created such a big industry, but not everyone needs the same education. You could form a band in a squat if you want to – you don’t need to go to Central Saint Martins to do that. I love being at the RCA and I love doing this Master’s, but if somebody wanted to travel the world instead, that’s fine too. People need to know that they can do something like that which might be equally as important for their thinking as coming to an institution like this.

Sam We live in a world where everything is presented in such a complete way. Arguments are complete, opinions are complete, products are complete, cities are complete. There is no room for doubt, which is partly why there is no actual debate: look at Clinton and Trump, for instance. One aspect that is important as part of this is to try and undo some of the certainties that people have about themselves as personalities. Identity is forged within society, so really the first thing that you have to design is yourself. We live in a world where individuality is prized and celebrated – it’s reinforced by every advertisement you see and every song you listen to. Ever since the baby boomers, we’ve had the cult of the individual. So we talk about being free and expressing ourselves, but everyone seems to end up expressing themselves in the same way. A fundamental thing that should happen in educational scenarios is to ask how you construct the figure of the designer. Another area is to look at the construction of disciplines. One of the characteristics of our age is that we recognise that everything is connected – we know the relationship between drinking a coffee in a paper cup, chucking it away and the massive dump that it will end up in. It is interesting to think of what “a discipline” might even mean in a world where we recognise these connections. I don’t necessarily think we should all abandon our stations and become generalists, because specific work is important – but it’s good for that to happen within a much wider context.

Zowie I like the idea of abandoning all stations. I sometimes think that we might be better off if we all just stopped and actually took time to observe and debate. The idea of stillness fascinates me because I am not a naturally still person. Abandoning all stations is really quite a radical position and I think you need these kind of idealistic extremes, because they prompt people to form an opinion in response to them. They invite you to question them and pull them apart. History is built upon the wrong things being done the right way and the right things being done the wrong way – wonderful, serendipitous elements that have given us people like Einstein and Picasso. So interdisciplinary practice in design has been discussed for a long time – working in the in-between spaces – but personally I’m more interested in collisions. Why have an interior designer meet an architect and a fashion designer in order to design a store? Why not have the designer become the architect and the architect become the interior designer? You need to keep things moving. I love the history of the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, for instance, because there was a collision of disciplines there. When you look at significant cultural moments, they don’t just come out of one person, but rather out of a community where people learnt from one another. That’s a way of working that feels natural to me because it’s what Boudicca has always felt like. It wasn’t a nine-to-five – it was the air we breathed; everything that we touched; everything that disturbed us aesthetically; everything we could build and create. Education is about commenting and creating debate, but it shouldn’t be a judgemental process. It needs to be a place where you have the freedom to work without fear. Education is the place to build paper houses.