Cautious thoughts on STEAM not STEM

…or how business schools stole design from designers and how John Maeda might be trying to steal it back.

STEM is a staggeringly successful meme. My employer re-sorted whole faculties, almost the half the university, to buy in to it (and in the process cleaved design from engineering, taking design out of STEM).

Concurrent with the STEM push, Design Thinking (which almost requires a tm) has risen, first in the design consultancies, and rapidly in business schools. This is to the consternation of designers who are pretty sure they’ve been thinking for a while now. Design Thinking has been rapidly assimilated into the business school canon as something to be taught in a twelve credit point unit instead of something that’s part of a whole system of professional practice. The power of the business schools has meant that design has found its moment in the sun fleeting. Outside of universities, Design Thinking increasingly means using visual methods and iteration to develop new business models. There’s very little room for designers in Design Thinking.

Enter STEAM. In STEM, science, technology, engineering and mathematics all sit at a big table together. There’s room for physics and chemistry to sit next to civil engineering, computer science and statistics. And now with STEAM, everyone can shove down and make room for Art.

Maeda’s argument is that STEM is really good at inventing new things, but it’s bad at bridging that last mile that connects new things to new ways to use them. He says that the people who do that bridging are artists. Which is news to designers as they always thought that making things for people to use was their main point of differentiation from artists.

I’m never clear if Maeda really does mean Art when he talks about the ‘A’ in STEAM. On the STEM-to-STEAM website the “A” is presented as Art/Design. But in his latest Wired piece Maeda focusses on Art. It’s not the Art that I’m familiar with; it sounds closer to — it seems to be — design. I guess that pesky D makes for a bad acronym. Or maybe it’s a way to move away from design-as-in-Design-Thinking?

In any case, design once more finds itself on the sidelines. The business schools have taken away design’s ball and Maeda’s piggybacking an A into STEM has changed the rules. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next.


One thought on “Cautious thoughts on STEAM not STEM

  1. I’ve always thought it as an “art/design” A. One word.


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