The Growing Competition of Design Schools

Many young people are flocking to the central schools of design, which are doing all they can to withstand the competition among themselves and against the longtime leader of the pack, Bezalel.

"In the past few years, design has become a routine profession, like law and medicine," says Professor Yaakov Kaufman, one of Israel's premier designers.

Indeed, there has been an increase in the past three years in the number of young people registering for study programs in the various design disciplines, primarily graphic design and industrial design. New study institutions are opening, and the existing institutions are expanding activities.

Ascola-Meimad College for Arts and Design reports an enrollment increase of approximately 30 percent for the upcoming school year; the Holon Academic Technological Institute reports a 50 percent rise in enrollment in the past three years; and WIZO Haifa reports a 30 percent increase in enrollment this coming year.

Israel has five major institutions for design study: the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem (ceramic and glass design, industrial design, jewelry and visual communications); the School of Design at the Holon Academic Technological Institute (industrial design, graphic design, interior design and art and design, though the latter department is said to be closing because it has not received accreditation from the Council on Higher Education); WIZO Haifa College (graphic design); Hadassah College in Jerusalem (industrial design); and Ascola-Meimad in Tel Aviv (graphic design, interior design, jewelry design, industrial design and computerized imagery).

Two years ago they were joined by the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, which has opened departments of industrial design, graphic design and building and environment design, alongside its veteran departments of fashion design, textile and design of jewelry.

New courses

Aside from these institutions, courses have recently been opened for the study of graphic and industrial design at numerous regional colleges, including the Western Galilee Campus (graphic design), the College of Administration (interior design), and the Avni Institute (graphic design, and beginning next year, industrial design).

Alex Padua, head of the department of industrial design at Shenkar who is also a visiting lecturer in the department of automotive design at the Royal College of Art in London, says that there is an upsurge in popularity of design studies in many countries.

"Perhaps [it is] because of super-designers like Phillipe Starck, who have become stars and have brought much appeal to the profession; and maybe there is something about design of the new alchemy - you feel a little godlike, because you are creating things."

Kenny Segal, head of the department of industrial design at Hadassah College, points out that "in 1998, Time magazine declared that design would be the profession of the next century. Design is on the upswing because in the contemporary global economy, technology is accessible to everyone, and the advantage can be found in aesthetics, functionality and design."

There is no doubt that of all the design subdisciplines, graphic design has the greatest popularity. The reason is simple: Graduates easily integrate into the job market, even in times of economic crisis. Over the past decade graphic design has come to incorporate a variety of areas, such as website design, design for television, and interactive design.

Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem

"Graphic designers can now be found everywhere," says Terry Shcreuer, head of the department of graphic design at WIZO Haifa College. "It is no longer a field that involves printed texts and visuals. Today, in the era of Internet and the plethora of television channels, there is a lot of work for graphic designers. The departments of graphic design, out of a sober and correct view of the market, have expanded the range of studies offered."

Nevertheless, Shcreuer complains about the proliferation of new schools of graphic design. "It has become a battlefield," he says. "There are dozens of places that describe themselves as institutes for the study of graphic design, but they only offer study of software programs and not analysis, discussion or research on design. These are ephemeral, marginal schools that are misleading a young, naive generation, as well as their parents."

Until the late 1980s, the Israeli design field comprised the Bezalel School of Arts and Design, established in 1906, the School of Design at the Holon Academic Technological Institute, and the department of graphic design at the WIZO Haifa College. But then, almost simultaneously, three private schools that offered an alternative to the Bezalel-esque establishment opened: Vital, Ascola and Meimad.

"They radiated chutzpah and audacity, they were an agitating factor, their instructors were young Bezalel graduates, and the instructional perspective in them was more flexible because there was no academic commitment" as they granted academic degrees from foreign universities, says Aryeh Berkovitz, a senior lecturer at Ascola-Meimad, who writes about design in Haaretz. "What's more, they had an advantage of location - they were in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem."

Nevertheless, says a member of the faculty of one of the schools, "Bezalel continued to be above all the others - veteran, plush, budgeted and academically recognized. For all these reasons, it behaved with great arrogance."

Three years ago, the institutional arena changed once more. Due to the economic crisis the private colleges experienced difficulties, and it was decided to consolidate forces: Meimad consolidated with Ascola, and the Vital people moved over to Shenkar, where they opened the departments of industrial design and graphic design.

Another shift took place two years earlier: The Council of Higher Education recognized the Holon Academic Technological Institute as an independent academic institution that could grant a bachelor's degree in design. Until then the school operated under the aegis of Tel Aviv University, and its graduates were awarded bachelor's degrees in technological design education and teaching certificates.

The academization of the Academic Technological Institute and of the new departments of industrial design and graphic design at Shenkar - a process that is not yet complete - led to a situation in which two schools located in central Israel could grant academic degrees in design that are recognized by the Council on Higher Education. Without a doubt, in the great competition generated between the existing institutions, this is a genuine advantage.

"There is a war over prestige between the schools," says Berkovitz. "Everyone wants to be the place at the vanguard, setting the tone, but prestige also has to do with budgets and donations, and therefore no one can compete with Bezalel."

The race for the exhibition

But there is no doubt that they are trying. In the past few years, marketing attempts of the other institutions have become more sophisticated: public relations offices are under contract, and special audience-attracting design events are held such as the recent "FestiVital" and Israeli-Italian Design Week, both of which were Shenkar-sponsored events.

The department of industrial design at Bezalel has for the past three years participated in design exhibitions throughout the world and in international forums, and the Academic Technological Institute has followed suit: Last year it exhibited at the design week in Berlin, and this year students exhibited at the "satellite salon" exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair.

Similarly, the Institute has held approximately 20 student exhibitions outside the walls of the school, and has made efforts to bring in well-known designers. Members of the administration invited the designer Ingo Maurer to visit Israel - for now he is considering his response - and the chief curator of the Centre Pompidou, Marie Laure Jousset, will visit the graduate exhibition in July.

"One of the means of moving ahead a design mechanism is presenting it in an exhibition," says Boaz Tal, dean of the School of design at the Holon Academic Technological Institute. "You have to expose design without fear - without discourse creativity cannot take place."

Conversely, Shcreuer admits that "we are taking action in order to bring out what is being done here. We cannot afford not to have our voice heard, when around us there are so many places in which to study design."

She claims that the academic accreditation recently received by some of the schools is the product of the all-out competition between the institutions, which are making efforts to draw a larger and higher-quality student body.

But are the different institutions maintaining their unique character, and training a different type of young designer? A visit to the student exhibitions reveals that there are more areas similar than dissimilar, but nevertheless there are discernible differences in the educational philosophy of the schools. Hadassah College and Holon Academic Technological Institute have a clearly technological orientation, but also take care to address cultural, social and theoretical aspects.

Engineering vs. art

David Grossman, head of the department of graphic design at Shenkar, cites differences between Bezalel and Shenkar, which stem mainly from the fact that Shenkar is a school that includes engineering studies, while Bezalel is an institution that integrates art studies.

"Naturally, Bezalel has a more artistic orientation, and Shenkar is more oriented toward industry," Grossman says. "At Shenkar, the designer is taught to see himself as committed to the user, while at Bezalel the commitment of the designer is first and foremost to himself as a creator."

One of the designers says that for years, Bezalel had a patronizing approach toward Israeli industry, which placed difficulties in the way of graduates of the department of industrial design seeking to find their niche in the labor market.

"The myth is that at Bezalel, individual expression is the most important thing," says Padua. "In our opinion, the image of a designer with an ego the size of a soccer field, sitting in his ivory tower, is a little irrelevant. That is the profile of the industrial designer that I came to know when I was a student. At Shenkar, we educate toward a dialogue with industry, but without losing the spark and the creativity."

All of the people interviewed for this article - designers and faculty members alike - concur that in the past two years Shenkar has become a major player in the arena of design schools. The new departments are now in various stages of academization: Industrial design is accredited to award degrees, and registration for the third year is now about to end. The department of graphic design is now enrolling students for the second year, but has not yet been accredited to award degrees, while the building and environment design department, which includes interior design, is waiting approval from the Council on Higher Education to enable it to register second-year students.

"There was a strategic intention to create an academic focal point of power in the field of design that would compete with Bezalel," says the designer Hanan Kedushin, a lecturer in industrial design at Hadassah and Shenkar and a past member of the faculty at Vital. "For many years Shenkar set the tone in fashion design, and Bezalel led the way in other design fields. This link between the creative strength of Vital and the prestige, the academic infrastructure, the budgets and subsidies offered by Shenkar can create something great. This is the only way to build a body that can compete with Bezalel."

Reducing the gap

Yossi Ohayoun, head of the department of visual communications at Bezalel, feels that there is a long road faced by Shenkar until it can truly threaten Bezalel. At the same time, he says, "the assumption is that in light of the reputation enjoyed by Shenkar until now, in the next few years it is likely to reduce the gap with Bezalel."

It seems that even at Bezalel school officials are not apathetic to the changes taking place in the graphic-studies map in Israel.

"We are not ignorant of what is happening around us," says Azri Tarazi, who recently completed his turn as head of the department of industrial design at Bezalel. "In two years Bezalel will mark its centenary, and as the national academy of art and design it is committed to be the pioneer and the leader."

In order to maintain its status, a decision was reached at Bezalel to reduce the number of students admitted next year to all of the departments, in contrast with the past few years in which the quota had risen. Two years ago Tarazi set up a masters program in industrial design - only the Technion has offered a similar program for the past 10 years - and this year the school initiated a program for fashion studies as part of the jewelry department.

Was this program conceived out of a desire to contend with the potential threat posed by Shenkar?

"It is a natural development of the department," says Reuven Zahavi, head of the jewelry department at Bezalel. "Twelve years ago we had already expanded the activity from pure jewelry design to fashion. We offered courses in the area of fashion accessories, and afterward we began to offer a program for clothing and accessory design. The transition to fashion was natural."

Nevertheless, Tarazi emphasizes, Bezalel's real struggle is to maintain its status as one of the finest schools in the world. "It's like Maccabi Tel Aviv in basketball - it doesn't mean that others are not trying to catch up to our status. Everyone wants to be Bezalel, and that's good. Israeli culture will only gain from the fact that there is no hegemony of a single institution."

There is complete agreement on one thing: The competition between the schools encourages the institutions to innovate, and causes them to offer students more than has been offered them until now. The question is what future awaits young designers - primarily in the field of industrial design - in light of the harsh reality in which the local community operates.

"Maybe industry will eventually wake up," says Padua, "and understand the importance of using designers."