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Conference Theme

Each year the National Conference on the Beginning Design Student is organized around a theme developed by the hosts. The theme for the 36th NCBDS is AFTER FORM. Scholars are asked to question whether the idea of form is still a suitable beginning for the education of a designer. Or, has the idea of form lost its effectiveness? “The idea of form,” David Summers wrote in Real Spaces, “for all its admirable reach, has proved to be an unreliable means of engaging cultures outside the European tradition and tributaries. This failure has become all the more unfortunate as the ever-increasing contact and interaction of cultures has made the need for their sympathetic mutual engagement more urgent.” This theme asks beginning design teachers and researchers to reflect on the biases of “form,” and through this, to question the cultural dimension of beginning design education.

The 36th National Conference on the Beginning Design Student is dedicated to a critical inquiry of the idea of form. The title—AFTER FORM—intends a meaning of the term “after” in at least three senses: 1. in the sense of pursuit, when indicating a target, as in the claim that we are after something significant; and 2. in the historical sense, as in the question of what will happen after this; which 3. may be seen also as a kind of critical negation. In beginning design education, form has long been the object of a believing game and a confirmation bias. We call for presentations of papers and projects that subject the idea of form to a rigorous doubting game and to the possibility of refutation.

Scholars were prompted to respond to one or more sub-themes: genealogies of form; the informe; forms of conduct; and formats. This last sub-theme has been expanded to encourage the presentation and discussion of recent developments in remote or hybrid teaching and learning in beginning design education.

Geneaologies of Form

There is in ‘form’ an inherent ambiguity, between its meaning ‘shape’ on the one hand, and on the other ‘idea’ or ‘essence’: one describes the property of things as they are known to the senses, the other as they are known to the mind. In its appropriation of ‘form’, architecture has, according to one’s point of view, either fallen victim to, or taken mischievous advantage of this inherent confusion. - Adrian Forty, 2004.

What is the contribution of our present work to the tradition of form and formalism in beginning design education? Furthermore, is there one or are there many traditions? This sub-theme is interested in the various kinds of argumentation and affirmation that introduce and support the idea of form and formalism in beginning design education. Adrian Forty has argued that “the real significance of ‘form’ has been its use as an oppositional category to define other values” (150), such as “meaning,” “content,” “function,” etc. Is this also the case in beginning design education? What different schools or lineages do we engage when we take up an idea of form? How do we advance these schools or lineages as one advances a body of knowledge? This sub-theme seeks papers and projects that critically recount or operationalize particular genealogies of the idea of form in beginning design education.

The Informe

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. - Georges Bataille, 1929.

George Bataille’s notion of l’informe (the formless) is perhaps the earliest and most vivid 20th century example of the suspicion of the idea of form. Just as there are genealogies of form in beginning design education, so too there are traditions of the formless; traditions that resonate with the philosophies of post-structuralism, deconstruction, weak thought, etc. Against affirmation, there is negation. Against construction, there is demolition. Imagine that Bataille's dictionary was illustrated: What is the designer’s analogy to his spiders and earthworms? How have drawing and modeling practices limited or enabled the exploration of the informe? How has or may the informe affect beginning design education?

Forms of Conduct

‘Proper,’ ‘seeming,’ and ‘rightly’ in this principle are not mathematical terms…, nor are they aesthetic; instead, these terms intend ethical considerations because they ‘measure’ conduct and common sense, not as practiced in everyday experience, but as imagined or envisaged. - David Leatherbarrow, 1993.

In contrast to the art of arranging ideal or typical shapes, and to the science of distributing concrete habits or functions, one might construe design as an ethic of striving after ideal or typical forms of human action or conduct; forms of action or conduct “not as practiced… but as imagined or envisioned.” In such a supposition, ethics is intrinsic to the discipline of design (i.e., it is not something “applied”), which raises questions about how ethics is engaged (or not) at the beginning of a designer’s education. More than a concern for demonstrating social conscience, this sub-theme calls for papers and projects that challenge and condition ethical or meta-ethical knowledge in beginning design education.


An oil painting presupposes a canvas, the canvas is of a certain shape and size, meant for a more or less definite location and a more or less definite use. These locations and uses, these immediate contexts, are always culturally specific. The word ‘format’ is from the Latin meaning ‘formed’, and, although some artists might invent new formats, this happens very rarely. - David Summers, 2003.

This sub-theme is dedicated to an inquiry into the idea of format. How are formats different from media? What formats do we presuppose in contemporary beginning design teaching and researching? Where did they come from and to whom do we owe credit for their invention? Just as we ascribe histories to various movements in design, can we imagine the critical history of a format? How does an awareness of format impact students and teachers who are concerned with the projective nature of the beginning design studio? Furthermore, how have our ideas about the formats of teaching and learning changed during and after the pandemic?