Alexander Wallberg, a candidate graduate from the School of Craft and Design and Emma Wedel, a master’s graduate from the School of Business, Economics and law in Gothenburg.

Building bridges for design

Is language crucial for successful design? That’s certainly the view of a pioneering team in Gothenburg who are building cognitive and linguistic bridges in a new researchbased training programme linking business and design.

“Language and communications are central to the design process”, explains Ulla Johansson, business economist and associate professor of the newly started Business & Design Lab in Gothenburg. “Economists think in numbers and words, whereas designers have an imaginative, visual approach. They think mainly in pictures.” We are meeting on Gothenburg’s Lindholmen campus, a newly built urban landscape in the old shipyard district alongside the river. The new two year masters programme in Business & Design is run as a cooperative project between the School of Business, Economics and Law (Handels) and the School of Design and Crafts (HDK), both parts of Gothenburg University. The programme was launched last autumn with twenty students, all of them graduate economists or designers. “But everything actually started with a completely different building,” says Ulla. Midway between these two institutions in central Gothenburg is a well-known building popularly called “Victory”. It happened to be standing empty when the rector of Handels agreed with the HDK management of the time to use it to link the disciplines of design and management in a spirit of fruitful creativity. When Ulla Johansson who came from Växjö University, where she had worked on similar dialogues between design and economics – joined the programme in 2006, the plans took off seriously. “The essential point was to set up a creative and research-intensive environment”, she explains. “Because the area is so new, it’s important to link up to the smartest and most focussed expertise.”

Problem-based learning
A key principle is problem-based learning, which means that the students do much of their work on real projects. This approach is facilitated by associating several partner companies to Business & Design. Smart projects offer a shared platform for students to meet despite the diverse knowledge cultures of their respective backgrounds. The partner companies, which are of all sizes, also contribute their resources.

“For example, they handle the project management for smart student assignments”, explains Henning Eklund, study leader with a background as an industrial designer from HDK. The partner companies include representatives from the automotive and components industries as well as the communications sector. The first year has been revolutionary for the pioneering students. Alexander Wallberg, who came to Business & Design with a candidate degree from HDK, thinks that he has above all learnt to reason in a more methodical and strategic way. As a designer, his approach had been largely intuitive; he had learnt to rely on his feelings. “In contrast, I was less keen on seeking explanations and reasoning.” Emma Wedel came to the course from the “opposite” direction. She was equipped with a master’s degree from Handels, where the intuitive aspect was not at all stressed. “An eye-opener for me was that it’s not always necessary to analyze everything”, she says. “One can be freer, rely more on oneself. At the same time, much of the design process can be transferred directly to the strategic work.”

A common approach
It’s precisely these diverse starting points that are the missing link in contemporary design, according to Kersti Sandin, another key player. A former professor of environmental design at HDK, her practical experience as a successful designer and entrepreneur has led her to create much of the trans-disciplinary knowledge that the new training programme is all about. “It’s usual for differently stressed competences to play a role in the design process, but none of them have a complete overview”, she feels.

“We must bridge this gap,” says Kersti. But that does not mean that economists should become designers or vice-versa. They merely need to be trained in a common approach. Thanks to a grant of SEK 40 million from the Söderberg Foundation, a chair was linked to the training programme and is being set up at the time of writing. In the meantime, reconstruction of the “Victory” – where the whole idea was born – is in full swing. The character of a trans-Disciplinary meeting place will emerge from the interior, whose entire ground floor is now being rebuilt to become an inspiring design lounge. The provisional meeting room at Lindholm is already vibrating palpably with expectation.