The University of the Underground is looking for the Willy Wonkas, Joy Divisions and Marie Curies of design

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A new free, postgraduate design university programme has been established by the design consultancy Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios, which hopes to attract young designers excited by politics and social activism. With classes split between London’s Village Underground and Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie, the University of the Underground will grant Masters degrees by the Amsterdam-based postgraduate arts university, the Sandberg Institute. It offers a two-year Masters (MA) degree in design that will ask students to consider contemporary affairs such as politics, sustainability, new technology and scientific developments like artificial intelligence. Students will spend three months in London and the rest of the course in Amsterdam.


The University of the Underground will offer a unique curriculum that teaches students to design experiences, events and situations that support social change. Incorporating art forms such as theatre, film and music into the syllabus, the first year of the course will consist of four-to-eight week briefs around redesigning government and social design systems, including workshops and radio podcasts where students will be expected to direct, perform and talk as well as design, and field visits to conferences and test laboratories. The second year, meanwhile, will focus on coming up with concepts and developing designs. The aim is to encourage students to use their own voice and enable them to make an impact on wider issues such as governmental systems, institutions and power structures. For example, the design systems of an organisation like Greenpeace. It will initially offer only 15 students a place on the course, and will be completely fee-less, with 80% of the cost covered by donations, and 20% by government grants.

I believe that institutions like universities owe it to be the place where politics get actively challenged and discussed” Nelly Ben Hayoun

The course has been masterminded by experience designer, filmmaker and activist Nelly Ben Hayoun, who acts as course director alongside other tutors such as Kate Davies, Nina Pope, Tom Greenall, Nicola Koller and Mariana Pestana. Guest tutors thus far have been confirmed as Pentagram partner Paula Scher, science-fiction author Bruce Sterling and professor of experimental architecture Rachel Armstrong. The University of the Underground advisory board, meanwhile, includes a series of directors, journalists, designers, music managers and academics from institutions and groups such as the British Film Institute (BFI), The Economist, WeTransfer, Airbnb and Icelandic post-rock pioneers Sigur Rós. The university is looking to attract students who are bold, hard working, engaged, and ready to experiment with various teaching disciplines to develop meaningful, unexpected experiences.


Nelly Ben Hayoun

While the course might seem like a direct response to today's highly charged political climate, Hayoun says the idea has been in development for some time. For her, a turning point was being exposed to critical design at the Royal College of Art while studying Design Interactions. She has also explored the intersection of design and politics throughout her practice, in projects such as the feature film Disaster Playground, which looked at real-life emergency procedures for events like an asteroid impact, and the The International Space Orchestra; an orchestra of space scientists re-enacting a Greek tragedy.

The University of the Underground will connect a network of creative soldiers who can positively challenge institutions and power structures” Nelly Ben Hayoun

Of her motivations behind starting the course, Hayoun said: “I believe university should be a place where politics is discussed.We want to support students in their dreams or beliefs. We’re looking specifically at design, social action, theatrical practice and political practice together. There was a need to create a network of creative soldiers. We are looking for the Willy Wonkas, Joy Divisions and Marie Curies of design. We want unique students who will challenge everything.” Sounds like they're asking for a lot, but then why shoot for the moon when you can shoot for the stars? She adds that the course will ask students to focus on and define four areas; social action, social dreaming, the institution and experiences. Students will be expected to work with a “bottom-up” approach, creating things, communicating them then aiming for “global change.”


Applications for the University of the Underground are now open online until 1 April 2017. The first course will begin in September 2017. The first class of 15 students will commence the programme in September, entirely scholarship funded. They will graduate two years later with a Master of Arts degree, officially licensed and funded by the Dutch government. The organisers aim for the institution to also offer PhDs in the future.

Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK.



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