(written in 2014)
If I wrote a manifesto for the people I’ve been privileged to interact with over the past three years at NYU Abu Dhabi, I would start with this line: We are those who refuse to specialize. Not in a single discipline or a single field, not in a language or a solitary way of thinking or a strategy. We take it everything in equal measure and demand to understand it all. We cross borders and dig under fences and make ourselves understood without language. We rebel against the pressure to specialize and revel in the chance to explore.
The paradigm of the modern world and the modern educational system was developed in gritty urban factories two centuries ago. Division of labor, which made production processes dozens of times more efficient, produced experts who did the same job repeatedly and perfectly. This specialization has made its way into our minds. Society values specific experts over general thinkers in the interest of effectiveness, and so do universities. Neuroscience departments are totally separate from psychology and cognitive science, although they share the same goal. And this is only a subset: art and science never cross. Separate buildings are just a symptom of the mental division between fields of study.
But the greatest questions arise from crossing disciplines, and the greatest answers too. Hubble’s iconic images, evoking some of the deepest awe humans can experience, depend on both the creative application of color and the mathematical precision of Fourier transforms. They generate wonder from raw numbers. The design of something as ordinary as car dashboard lights also depends on multiple understandings: color perception changes in different lighting conditions, and only dim red lights will keep certain neurons unsaturated to maintain good night vision for driving. Neuroscience isn’t just for technical journals, and design isn’t simply a matter of artistic intuition.
In one of my classes, I developed an experiment exploring the cognitive basis of language and how it may have arisen from universal sound symbolism: a question never quantitatively tested before. The experimental design was only possible because it was informed by linguistics, philosophy, culture, psychology, neuroscience, physics, statistics, and art. I had to understand the physical fundamentals of visual perception and have the creative skill to make appropriate stimuli, and only from a multiplicity of understandings could we have even theorized the experiment, much less conducted it.
Designers refuse to specialize. They learn continually and have an insatiable curiosity. They solve problems from every angle, test all kinds of strategies, can weigh their value, and practically implement solutions. As we strive to create this university that breaks the assembly-line stereotype of higher education, we are all designers. The multidisciplinary mind, the mind of a designer, will position us to ask new questions and find the true solutions that our world needs.