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sinclairstudio inc. | canada




Increasingly today our societies confront daunting complexity of conditions and challenges.  Finding a path forward, that is respectful, responsible, sensitive, sensible, and effective, is a fundamental goal. This aim holds true regardless of scale + scope, parameters + particulars.




Solutions for many projects (both opportunities + problems) in today's ethos should be generated in an interdisciplinary manner, should be holistic in character, and should be simple, clear and potent.


innovation - integration - imagination

brian sinclair on design education


A Canadian Perspective on Changing Design Education

Brian R. Sinclair

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
—William Butler Yeats

Today’s world is rich, complex, interconnected and full of potential. Technology is developing at a rapid pace, ushering in advancements in building products, communication networks, and transportation systems. Science is bringing us increased understanding, new procedures, better medicine, and useful tools that heighten the quality of our daily lives. Education is raising literacy levels across the planet and helping to build and strengthen nations. Countries are working together, sharing and cooperating at unprecedented levels.

Despite all this, our true progress remains questionable. Our very definitions of progress and development are open to debate. The potential of our modern world is countered with an increasing array and severity of problems. Urbanization introduces its share of dilemmas. Food production capabilities erode. The rich-poor divide widens. The north-south imbalance heightens. Poverty is visible. Illiteracy remains. Disease flourishes. Pollution escalates. The coin has two faces.

What role can designers, and design students, play in this picture? What difference can individuals make? Is there hope? My answers are: MANY roles, a SIGNIFICANT difference, and GREAT hope.

This September, I assumed a new appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Over the period 1998-2003 I served as Chair of the nationally-ranked school of Architecture at Ball State University in Indiana, and before that was the director of a research center focused on high technology in design & planning. Over the past several decades I have worked hard to gain a better understanding of the promise of design for positive change, and have remained committed in my belief that design is a potent vehicle to address contemporary problems and to advance our individual and collective well-being.

My own education is versed in both science and art. My research and practice experience runs the gamut from environmental psychology and brain research (hippocampal formation and spatial mapping) to interior/building design and city/regional planning. I have consciously tackled both ends of the telos:techne spectrum in an effort to understand, bridge, and manage the modern divide. My scholarship in recent years has been directed at professional practice (and the professional model as one particular mode of occupational control), globalization, and the gap between science and spirituality. As a practitioner, educator and administrator, I am convinced that design holds a unique and important place in modern culture. Design, by virtue of innovative methodologies, inclusive approaches, and praxis orientation, holds the keys to many possibilities. Design can and must make a difference.

Why move to a college of Environmental Design and particularly, the University of Calgary? The answers to these questions reside, in part, in my understanding of design education and the modern world. My own education and experience have been intentionally and strategically broad. It has become increasingly apparent to me that many problems today, especially the big ones, cannot easily be addressed using a unidisciplinary approach. Neither can their solution be passed off as something to be tackled by technology alone. In fact, many of our globe’s biggest crises have been made possible only because of the presence of advanced technology. I have written elsewhere of this paradox, which I have compared to Plato’s Pharmakon (i.e., medicine rendered as remedy or poison depending on application). New problems demand new approaches. It is my contention that such problems evade investigation, characterization and solution using the tools of a single field of study. Quite simply such problems fly under the radar of individual disciplines—disciplines whose boundaries arguably seem outdated, and whose continued existence seems more related to managing the academy than to handling current problems or realizing significant change in the market.

The Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS) at the University of Calgary is primarily a graduate level college. Housed within neither Engineering nor Fine Arts, but friend to both, EVDS is an autonomous college comprised of programs in Architecture, Planning, Industrial Design, Environmental Design, Environmental Science, and Urban Design. Primary degree offerings include the Master of Architecture (M.Arch.), the Master of Environmental Design (M.E.Des.), and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). The college also offers a very popular Minor in Architectural Studies (ARST), realized in conjunction with the Faculty of Communication & Culture and with the Faculty of Fine Arts. While EVDS is a small college within the collection of 16 colleges on campus, it has proven over the years to be a vital contributor to the community of scholars and an innovator in pedagogy and professional education. Our areas of prominence include:

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental Design Theory & Practice

Innovation and Creativity in the Arts

Founded in 1971, the Faculty of Environmental Design has at its core tenets of interdisciplinarity and praxis. While many voices in higher education today tout the value of multidisciplinary cooperation, EVDS has since its arrival realized the importance of both multi and interdisciplinary approaches to environmental intervention. Spanning the spectrum from art to science, the teaching methods and curricular content at EVDS underscores that benefit of disciplines working collectively under the same roof. An interdisciplinary core provides a shared experience for students and faculty from all disciplines—together individuals discover and apply knowledge in the quest for appropriate and effective design solutions. The notion of praxis looms large. Theory is coupled with practice as design teams tackle real world problems. This service learning, or experiential learning, is commonly studio-based and field-applied. One of the core courses, Advanced Environmental Design Practice, sees highly engaged interdisciplinary teams involved in community-based projects ranging from industrial design of medical products in Calgary, redesign of a central business district of a small town in Alberta, master planning of a large housing development in Europe, to the development of international environmental management strategies.

Another consideration in my move north to assume the deanship at the University of Calgary pertains to my beliefs concerning higher education and professional education. Given the complexity, severity and implications of modern problems, it is important to critically examine the education of design professionals. In particular, I have been concerned with students gaining the requisite foundations in the liberal arts and being able to think outside of the borders of their “home” disciplines. Perhaps over the latter half of the last century, many design disciplines erred on the side of increasing specialization and technical focus. Looking way back to the industrial era and the split of engineers (Ecole Polytechnique) from architects (Ecole des Beaux Arts), western society has increasingly been obsessed with dualism , classification, and neatly packaged disciplinary-based knowledge. With the arrival of professions as self-regulating bodies established to guard and protect public health, safety and welfare, the education of such professionals became increasingly prescriptive and debatably rigid. Often the gains in technical content and specialized courses within design education have come at the expense of liberal arts content and general knowledge.

Earlier I referred to the pressing need for solving problems from an interdisciplinary vantage point. Coupled with the need for shared knowledge is the need for a solid grounding across the expansive landscape of knowledge. Architects need to have awareness of politics, economics, art, culture, psychology and sociology, to name but a sampling. It is exceedingly difficult, but not impossible, to gain such a base given current accreditation parameters and curricular regimes. From my perspective, requiring students to have a baccalaureate degree prior to embarking on a design education makes tremendous sense. Not only do students arrive to design education with more maturity (very helpful), they enjoy the benefit of a cache of knowledge about the world, how it works, and what role they might play to realize positive change. As our world confronts more difficulties, and our troubles become more egregious, design practitioners must be increasingly adept at understanding the situation, assessing the problems, and inventing and implementing effective solutions. To this end, I believe that an ideal design schooling marries a liberal arts undergraduate foundation with graduate level interdisciplinary professional education.

Another increasingly critical dimension of design education is global knowledge. Environmental designers need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills and values to compete and engage beyond political borders. Design students must learn firsthand how to work across cultures and foreign jurisdictions, in order to realize sensitive, valuable and exceptional projects. When it comes to internationalization, book reading is no substitute for cultural immersion and study abroad. I have personally taken students into other countries, such as Thailand, Nepal, and India, in an effort to open eyes, minds and hearts. Study abroad works! As a result of such experiences, I remain steadfastly committed to international education as a vital component in the education of environmental design professionals. In EVDS we offer a range of international opportunities to our students, including a well-supported semester abroad in Barcelona, Spain.

We live in uncertain yet exciting times. On the upside: building communities, rapid transportation, improved technology, better education, improved health care, environmental consciousness. On the downside: uncontrolled urbanization, unbridled globalization, growing bureaucracy, and escalating environmental degradation. The challenges are profound in scale and the problems staggering in scope. Never before has there been a more urgent need for good design. Knowledge, skills and values must be carefully developed and wisely applied in an effort to make our spaces and places better. Art must join science. Heads must join hearts. Balance must be sought. Success must be achieved. Education is key. Given the stakes, it’s worth the effort to get it right.



Excerpt from invited Sinclair article in Design Intelligence November 2003