Limiting creativity

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

Here’s a question I often ponder, and one that’s come up again recently as I mark student essays that ask them to examine the influences on their tastes, and why they are now studying design (graphic, textile, interior, product, and jewellery).
The thing that’s common among them all is ‘an interest in art’, which is odd, considering that design is not art. It looks similar, it uses similar materials and techniques but it is certainly not the same.

So why don’t students who study, say, maths or physics or history go on to study design?

Why is an interest in art seen as a prerequisite for an interest in design? Are we not limiting ourselves by only seeking students who take the art route at school and, in doing so, sending out the signal that other subjects are not important?
In product design, might an interest and knowledge in maths or physics be as important, if not more so, than the ability to paint a stuffed rabbit? So why is it the interview process for design usually uses the portfolio as the first, if not the only, filter to the course?

There’s no demonstrable link between artistic ability or temperament and design ability, so why impose one on 16-17 year olds (and younger, given that choices of specialism are made at 13-14)?

It would be interesting to see what would happen if we started saying to school kids ‘if you want to study design there is no need to do art – do history, English, maths, physics or anything’. I have a feeling we might find design leaping ahead if we widened the gene pool instead of narrowing it, and in the process putting up blocks to those kids who may be the greatest designers who walked the face of the earth, but had the misfortune to go to a school where the art teaching was crap. It shouldn’t matter.

Shame it’ll never happen though. Designers like to pretend they’re artists, and adopt the cultural swagger that goes with it. Maybe that’s the ‘use’ of art as a subject for design students – that’s all it does: lets you walk the walk and talk the talk. But it certainly isn’t a guarantee of design ability.

6 comments on “Limiting creativity

  1. Craig Burgess says:

    It’s an interesting point you raise, about the artistic merit of Design as a whole. When I was at high school and even college I took a very eclectic route to my education – Sociology, English Language and ICT were my A Levels – and it was only by guerrilla advertising that I stumbled across a design course. Since then I’ve taken to it like a duck to that water.However, there <>has<> to be some part of you that’s got a bit of art in you. You’ve got to be creative in an arty kind of way, something which I think can’t be taught. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. I believe it’s very much the same way in design. There has to be something in you, some designer’s instinct, otherwise it’s hopeless. We designers are a very specific breed.Having said that though, I, like you, believe design is a very different ball game to art. It’s like saying football is the same as golf because they are both played on grass.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I think it’s an issue of what you think ‘design’ is, or rather ‘to design’. The ‘art’ aspect of it only comes in to play in the latter stages. I’ve met lots of very creative people who can come up with great ideas that they verbalise – in fact in my experience that’s how most graphic design is done in team-based situations (maybe I’m thinking of advertising).It’s also interesting that many ‘creatives’ in agencies haven’t gone through the art school route but hail from English, History and Law degrees etc (not that I have any figures from that, again I’m going on experience and what those in the know have told me or written.But I have to disagree with this: ‘You’ve got to be creative in an arty kind of way, something which I think can’t be taught.’Believe me, it can. That I <>do<> know šŸ˜‰What’s interesting about this debate is that it has been shown conclusively that all children are born equally ‘creative’ but that the opportunities for creativity are gradually shut off as we grow older.It’s the kids for whom those avenues are not shut off (by their parents encouraging them, a key teacher, visits to galleries etc, someone in the family who’s artistic, school policy etc) who go on to realise that creative potential.In that sense, it’s not taught, I agree, but it is ‘allowed’.I think, though, that what I was trying to say in the post is that we do seem to think design is all about drawing and painting, and it’s not. Look at the things that are being featured on the BBC news web site at the moment, like the wheelchair for disabled kids that looks like a ladybird, or (my favourite) the pet feeder for people who can’t bend down. They weren’t created by people who did art at school – they did maths and engineering (okay, we’re talking about product design here). What I’m wondering is why we insist that a potential designer (graphics or whatever) has a ‘portfolio’ when what really matters is a brain. The two aren’t always one and the same!

  3. Craig Burgess says:

    I think with the “portfolio” aspect of things, it’s an issue of practicality rather than whether or not it is the right way to present yourself at an interview or a presentation for example. What’s the easiest way to show you’re good at what you say you’re good at? Show them. In fact most jobs that have some kind of practical skill that has an end product it would be handy to create some kind of portfolio.I also think there’s a hidden meaning behind the portfolio too, because it’s a chance amongst others to present yourself in the way that you want to be presented. It starts first with designing a good CV, then it’s naturally followed at the interview stage with a portfolio.But I agree with you on the brains side though. On my course at the moment I’m always talking about that we should be more than designers, and not just focus on arranging the things that we have on the page. We should take an active interest in ALL parts – the photography, the copywriting etc. I’m a big believer that the more things you are good at, the better the chance of you being employable.And what better time to practice a wide range of skills and experiment than in education?When I ask my fellow colleagues “well, what about writing?” the reply most of the time is, “I don’t do writing.” My answer:Why? (Apologies for sort of trailing off at the end there.)

  4. Jonathan says:

    <>What’s the easiest way to show you’re good at what you say you’re good at? Show them. In fact most jobs that have some kind of practical skill that has an end product it would be handy to create some kind of portfolio.<>I did some research last year in to application and interview procedures for several art, design and media courses in England, and looked at what employers said they looked for in employees.In terms of interviews for college I found some real horror stories, but the general points were that for both college and employers the portfolio was the least important aspect in deciding whether someone was ‘one of us’. It boiled down to things like personality, knowledge of the discipline, knowledge of the wider world.Decisions made on portfolios alone were often problematic because it tends to be a judgement of aesthetics and the final product, and not the process (assessment at college and uni suffers from the same problem unless you have particularly enlightened staff, I’ve found).There are some innovative (or rather ‘different’) interview processes around. I used to sit applicants round a table along with current students and just have a general chat. I’d then ask them to pick out one piece they were particularly proud of and talk about it. I then asked them to pick out one piece they wished they hadn’t brought and asked them to talk about it.Then the current students would take them on a tour while a colleague and I (and maybe another student) would look through the portfolios for evidence of thinking, not finishing, usually just to confirm our impressions from the chat.The most important thing though was the feedback from the current students – would the applicant be happy here? Not ‘would they fit in’ but would they be happy? No point taking someone who has a great portfolio if they’re going to be bored by the city, overwhelmed by it, and so on.I think too many courses take ‘the best’ students because they have one eye on D&AD awards or (in the case of one famous college I worked with) getting students who needed the least teaching! But I suspect those courses also have the highest dropout rates, while the courses whose approach is more ‘sociological’, using the portfolio as a discussion point rather than anything else, probably have the highest completion rate.(Note the ‘probablies’ there!)

  5. Wee Me says:

    Its interesting that you’ve been discussing portfolio applications as I was just having a similar discussion with some friends from school recently. We all did art together in sixth year (because that was what you had to do if you wanted to go to an art or desgin school! whether thats fair or not!) and, in my opinion, some of the most enthusiastic people in my class, who really wanted it, didn’t get in. One of my good friends had the most energy of us all, always coming up with new ideas and trying things out, although she didn’t have the most ‘technical ability’ in the eyes of the SQA and then the art colleges as both she applied to didn’t let her pass the portfolio stage, they never got to speak to her before just simply saying no. They’re missing out!I was reading a book lately which pointed out how designers can become so isolated in themselves that they forget about society and any wider issues when they design. If institutions teaching design are only looking to take in ‘artistic’ people, this problem will probably worsen. Bringing other skills to the table from the social, psychological and phyical side of things, product design especially would benefit. Aesthetics pale into insignificance when issues such as safety and suitability must be considdered.(oops, have kind of lost my trail of thought, dunno if I make sense! I’m new to this whole blog thing!!)Interesiting posts though, thanks!

  6. Jonathan says:

    No, you make perfect sense! What a shame about your friend, and what a potential loss.Though it has to be said, I don’t have a design qualification and I managed perfectly well šŸ˜‰It’s interesting to note that the Design Council has just published its report on the future of design skills and design courses (< HREF="" REL="nofollow">read it here<>) and concluded, like me, that design courses need to liberalise, seeing themselves as producing <>graduates<> rather than <>designers<> and emphasising interdisciplinarity. Whether this will actually happen, I doubt, as design schools are dreadfully conservative. But one of the simplest ways to start would be to stop selecting students based on their portfolios and start selecting them based on their brains instead…

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