Archive for the ‘design thinking’ Category

Hooray another design manifesto!

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Bruce Nussbaum of Business Week (one of the few non-design publications to take design seriously, and arguably one of the few publications full stop to take it seriously) was at the World Economic Forum in Dubai, where design was discussed. The result? A new design manifesto:

Throughout history, design has been an agent of change. It helps us to understand the changes in the world around us, and to turn them to our advantage by translating them into things that can make our lives better. Now, at a time of crisis and unprecedented change in every area of our lives – economic, political, environmental, societal and in science and technology – design is more valuable than ever.

The crisis comes at a time when design has evolved. Once a tool of consumption chiefly involved in the production of objects and images, design is now also engaged with developing and building systems and
strategies, and in changing behaviour often in collaboration with different disciplines.

Design is being used to:

  • Gain insight about people’s needs and desires
  • Build strategic foresight to discover new opportunities
  • Generate creative possibilities
  • Invent, prototype and test novel solutions of value
  • Deliver solutions into the world as innovations adopted at scale

In the current climate, the biggest challenges for design and also its greatest opportunities are:

  • Well-being – Design can make an important contribution to the redefinition and delivery of social services by addressing acute problems such as ageing, youth crime, housing and health. Many designers are striving to enable people all over the world to lead their lives with dignity, especially the deprived majority of the global population – ‘the other 90%’ who have the greatest need of design innovation.
  • Sustainability – Designers can play a critical role in ensuring that products, systems and services are developed, produced, shipped, sold and will eventually be disposed of in an ethically and environmentally responsible manner. Thereby meeting – and surpassing – consumers’ expectations.
  • Learning – Design can help to rebuild the education system to ensure that it is fit for purpose in the 21st Century. Another challenge is to redefine or reorient the design education system at a time of unprecedented demand when thousands of new design schools are being built worldwide and design is increasingly being integrated into other curricula. Designers are also deploying their skill at communication and visualization to explain and interpret the overwhelming volume of extraordinary complex information.
  • Innovation – Designers are continuing to develop and deliver innovative new products at a turbulent time when consumer attitudes are changing dramatically thereby creating new and exciting entrepreneurial opportunities in the current crisis. They are increasingly using their expertise to innovate in new areas such as the creation of new business models and adoption of a strategic and systemic role in both the public and the private sector.

I don’t disagree with any of this but call me an old cynic… I’m fed up with manifestos. I want action!

(Imagine the scenes from Life of Brian where the supposed revolutionaries are sitting round arguing about the wording of their demands. Then wonder what would have happened if, say, Barack had sat with Michelle and never got further than writing down things they’d like to do. Or if John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been happy just to write and not to act?)

In a discussion on sustainability in design education today I got quite frustrated with colleagues who kept saying that changes to the curriculum need to happen slowly, over time, to help people adapt.
No, I said, they need to happen now. I’ve been hearing that line about gradual change for ten years.

“People don’t like change. But make the change happen fast enough and you go from one type of normal to another.”
(Terry Pratchett, Making Money)

We have a choice: we try to be nice about it, persuade people, get them to come around to our way of thinking, and then in 20 years time we can look back and see how far we’ve come. Which, if we look back 20 years to 1988 and think how far we’ve come along, won’t be much.
Or we can say “look, we haven’t got time to piss about. This is serious. If you’re with us you’re welcome. If you’re not, then go off and tend your garden ‘cos we’ve got some windmills to chop down”. I appear to be mixing my literary allusions there but you get the point. Shirking the challenge isn’t an option. We claim to be creative, radical, free thinking, revolutionary. It’d be nice to show that were true. (I happen to think at Dundee we’re well placed to do that, and already are, with great results).

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one”
(Spock, The Wrath of Khan)

Manifestos don’t work if all that happens is students write essays on them and critics celebrate them years later for what they said rather than what they did. Forty years on from the First Things First manifesto, what’s happened? Oh we got an updated version in 2000 and that’s about it. Forty years on from Victor Papanek’s Design For The Real World, what’s happened? It got reprinted for the anniversary.

What we need are not more manifestos which, by the way, are all saying pretty much the same thing. What we need are courses, institutions, industries and governments who say: “stop talking, and just do it”.

As it happens, my colleagues and I are currently writing our own manifesto for our course but the key thing is it won’t say “we should”, or “we want”, or “we envision” or even “we hope”. It’ll say “we will”. And “we do”. And “we have done”. Essentially, the difference between a wish list and a real manifesto is the grammar.

Actions, not aspirations. That’s my manifesto.

Designers win medals too

Friday, September 19th, 2008

This is something I wrote for the study guide for my Design History, Theory and Practice (DHTP) module which starts next week. The first lecture asks “what’s the point of DHTP?” and I try to head off the usual complaints about having to write and read and go to the library. I’ve found spending the first lecture on making the case for approaching design from an intellectual point of view not only saves time later, it tends to improve attendance and grades!

Plus, I happen to believe in it.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics offered a showcase not just of excellence in sport, but in design as well. Everything from the equipment being used to the garments being worn was designed. Ask the average person what we mean by this and they will undoubtedly talk about what things look like – the ‘style’ of the outfits, the shape of the bikes and so on.

brennan_sydney_main.jpgBut to take a view like that is to miss what we might arguably call the ‘real’ design, the design that’s the product of years (if not decades) of intense research into textiles, alloys, aerodynamics, ergonomics and more. When people talk of the millions of pounds spent on sports in the UK, they may think that all gets spent on training. But it doesn’t. Chris Hoy’s bike, Rebbeca Adlington’s swimming costume, Charlotte Burgess’s bow, and Deborah Brennan’s wheelchair are all the result of investment worldwide in design research.

And then there are the games themselves – everything from the obvious opening and closing ceremonies to the transport networks, the global television feeds, the ticketing systems, the catering, even the queues — all designed.

Design history and theory are no longer simply endless slideshows of the great and the good; pictures of this designer and that piece. Over the next three years you’ll be exposed to, and encouraged to discover, not what’s gone before but what’s possible. DHTP is about the future as much as it’s about the past. It’s also about broadening your view of what design is, from the ‘man on the street’ idea of design as style to something a little more ambitious and all-encompassing. And it’s about encouraging you to pursue a role in the cutting edge through your own research.

If I get the time, I’m going to do a video to go with it too…

Designers asked by UK Government to tackle MRSA

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Design Week is reporting that five UK design consultancies are being sought by the Department of Health and the Design Council to collaboratte with scientists and healthcare professionals. They will be asked to develop “innovative design-led hospital furniture and equipment that could improve cleaning and reduce patients’ exposure to healthcare-acquired infections”.

The programme, called “Design Bugs Out” starts with a briefing on 2 September and will focus on research in three hospitals, identifying key problem areas.

Having identified five key areas, each team will be asked to focus on one and given a £25,000 grant.
After the closing date for submissions on 10 October, final teams will be announced ten days later and given seven weeks to develop prototypes. Winning designs will be exhibited next summer.

Kermit on Visual Thinking

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Via Qin Han

What design is versus what design was

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Aaron at Product Behaviour contributes to an age-old discussion:

What is ‘design,’ anyway? Is it the ability to draw stuff? Is it the ability to cobble together a mechanism? Those may be part of it, but they miss the real point. Design is how you decide what to draw, and what to cobble together.


The project teams are made up of smart people with widely varying backgrounds. They’re capable of analyzing the situation in the field, coming up with solutions, building and testing prototypes. What they need help with, in the end, is making decisions: filtering the requirements; rating the criteria for a ‘good’ solution; knowing when to stay within the paradigm of current solutions to a problem and when to develop completely new technology.

Those are the things ‘professional’ designers really do. The technical skills are important, sure, but it’s decision-making that separates an OK solution to a problem from a great solution.

(Via Product Behavior.)

This ties in to previous posts here, and to the thinking at the New Views 2 conference. Design, at university certainly, shouldn’t be focused solely on ‘skills’ as traditionally perceived (life drawing, typography, pattern cutting etc) but on ‘higher skills’ (strategy, decision making, analysis), and the design industry should be employing graduates in roles that use those higher skills.

Unfortunately, look at any issue of Design Week or Creative Review, or look at the D&AD student awards, and you see higher skills almost completely ignored in favour of technique and aesthetics. And this drives what design courses try to achieve, meaning that what design is, as defined above, gets shoved out in favour of what design was.

Does design education work against ‘Indie Fever’?

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

As Michiel van Meeteren points out in ‘Indie Fever’, one of the hallmarks of the independent programming community on the Mac is their willingness and desire to share tips and discoveries. Will Shipley is a good example of this – he blogs code, sets puzzles, and twitters. John Gruber of Daring Fireball is another example of what Gladwell would call a ‘connector’ – indeed it was via him that I found Michiel’s paper.

I said in my last post that I thought this paper has implications beyond the programming community, and that this sharing of knowledge is typical of design in general. But then I wondered if this is true. While I can think of many examples of designers who blog, and who run workshops for others, or who meet up socially to discuss what they do, I can also think of many more who guard their knowledge jealously.
This even happens among design teachers – I once worked with someone who told his students “I’m not going to tell you how to do this because you might be a competitor one day”, which half the class actually thought was entirely reasonable!

Design education is horribly individualising. We set students briefs and then set them against each other, making it all a competition to see who is better than everyone else. The ‘critique’ or ‘crit’ is a great example of the sort of judgemental, competitive element we’ve built in to how we teach what we teach.

Of course, most programmes include ‘group work’ which, as a colleague and I tried to explain to others recently, is not really the same as ‘team work’. I’ll let you try to figure out the semantics of that one.
But team work isn’t really ‘taught’ – we just put students in a group, tell them to get on with it, then punish or reward them for producing something at the end based on whether they got on. Teamwork needs to be taught, not just assumed to be a natural talent.

Whatever, team work is pretty much a ‘tick box’ exercise, something programmes include because it’s on the list of key skills, but it’s not something students enjoy or see a value in doing (because what happens if they’re in a ‘bad’ team?) and I haven’t met many teachers who are particularly good at it (either teaching it or, let’s face it, doing it themselves)

But team working, or rather collaborative working (another important distinction, see below), needs to be part of the culture of design education, not the focus of a single project, because it is the culture of design practice.
There are many who do this, or encourage this. In my own teaching I’ve encouraged students to collaborate in ‘tutorless tutorials’, peer mentoring and chats over coffee (or even beer), and though it’s unscientific I suspect there’s a direct link between students’ desire to talk about stuff socially and their grade.

But there is a proven link between collaboration and success: Angela McRobbie’s study of fashion graduates from Central St Martins makes it clear that success is not a measure of the skills you’re taught at university, but the social and cultural capital you acquire just by being there (something that the ‘skills agenda’ being driven by industry at the moment completely misses). Every time I think of that I think this is what university should be about. Not the accumulation of skills but the accumulation of social and cultural capital. Without this, you stop learning the moment you stop being in class. With it, you never stop learning.

And so my programme for second years next year is based around collaborative ‘design quests’ that are all about developing this sense of shared knowledge-finding and out-of-hours discussion. And in the past few months we’ve launched a book group, a sustainable design group, and a documentary film club to get this culture of sharing going. (Some people reading this will no doubt have been doing things like this for a long time, or their students will).

The future of design practice depends on collaboration, not just at the client/designer level, or even designer/end user level (co-design) but more fundamentally between designers for continuing development and research. The indie developers Michiel writes about are working for themselves, by themselves. Yet they still collaborate and this definition of ‘collaborative working’, as opposed to ‘group work’ or ‘team work’ is not something we encourage in design education.

It’s something we need to make a core aspect of what and how we teach.

Two quotes worth sharing. A jewellery student complained to me about having to work with others. “It’s a waste of time, I don’t need to learn that. I’m going to be a jeweller, I’ll never work with other people”.

So wrong on so many levels, but do you see how a culture of ‘collaboration’ rather than ‘team work’ might have helped here?

And my favourite (told to me by a colleague) from a computing student: “I’m not very good at working in teams, but that’s okay because I’m going to be an academic”.

Indie Fever

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Michiel van Meeteren (University of Amsterdam) has published a study of the Macintosh independent programming community as a PDF. It looks like it might be interesting to anyone involved in programming, but also has wider implications for the studies of communities of practice and how people share knowledge to improve their own skills – in other words ‘design thinking’ in general.

Excerpted from Michiel’s website: “

‘Indie Fever’ is the first result of a multi-year human geography research program to investigate the social and economical world of so-called ‘Indie’ developers on the Macintosh platform.  ‘Indie’ is the self-chosen nickname of software developers that serve worldwide markets from the Internet, hold their artistic values in high esteem and celebrate their ability to make high quality software as small companies.  […]

Indies have organized themselves informally but strongly in a virtual community.  Although they are scattered over several continents, they continuously interact over the Internet, share rumors and code, and discuss business and private interests as if they were coworkers while –technically– they are competitors.  They share a common culture which is intertwined with the history of the platform they develop for and the Cocoa programming environment in particular. […] it analyses how Indies sustain and reproduce their particular culture primarily through online means, something that is argued to be rather difficult in the social-scientific discourse.

Almost 50 hours of interviews were recorded for Indie Fever.  These interviews were combined with the results of extensive data mining of blogs and other online resources.  The resulting thesis focusses on both the cultural and economical aspects of the Mac Indie world and the ways these reinforce each other by applying theories of, amongst others, Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Porter, Norbert Elias, Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell.”

Bourdieu and Gladwell, eh? That’s basically my reading list for my first years…

Check out the site for a link to the PDF (I would link here but I suspect Michiel would like to track numbers). There’s also a blog related to the research project.

Coincidentally, at the same time I heard about this I also read several reports about a new website launched by developers of iPhone apps for whom the Non-disclosure agreement they effectively signed with Apple means they are forbidden from sharing knowledge and tips – precisely one of the things that defines the indie culture. When you see the title of the site you’ll see they’re not best pleased with the restriction. According to a publisher (I forget the link, sorry) the NDA is also holding up publication of books on iPhone programming.

New Views discussion

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

It’s an hour or so long but if you really want to listen in on the (at times rambling) final conversation of the Responsive Curricula group at New Views 2 feel free.

Bear in mind some of the trains of thought relate back to two full-on days of discussion so may not make sense. Oh, and because I was holding the camera, my voice is the loudest…

Apologies for the jumpy video – something wrong with the encoding, not sure what, but the audio’s fine.

(If you were involved in the discussion, or want to add comments, use the (+) button to type your thoughts, bookmark important points or clarify anything that needs it)

Valuing design graduates and academics

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Skillfast 1.jpeg

On February 11, during London Fashion Week, Skillfast-UK staged a mock protest outside the Houses of Parliament in which models dressed in toiles (the technical mock-up of a garment) waved placards calling for, among other things, ‘pattern cutters, please!’ A press release sent out to the media entitled “Research Warns: Lack Of Technical Skills Threatens London Fashion Week” gave more detail:
“Today MPs including Skills Minister David Lammy threw their weight behind a new campaign “No skills, no fashion,” launched by Skillfast-UK, the Sector Skills Council for the fashion and textile sectors. The campaign aims to encourage fashion colleges and universities to put more focus on pattern-cutting, garment construction and other technical fashion skills.”

Lammy was quoted as saying “The Government is committed to increasing the level of skills training and advice available to employers, as well as encouraging colleges and universities to form partnerships with local companies to ensure young people are equipped with the specific skills they need to succeed”

The campaign has so far gone unchallenged. But they contain a series of assumptions and misconceptions, as well as signalling a somewhat dangerous approach to the concept of ‘skills’ that is more of a threat to London Fashion Week than anything Skillfast-UK have identified.
At a very basic level, the questions we need to ask are these: if the fashion industry needs pattern cutters, why doesn’t it train some? Why does it expect degree programmes to do it? And why is the fashion industry recruiting graduates to be pattern cutters anyway? This is like asking history courses to award degrees to students who can colour in pictures of the Battle of Hastings without going over the lines.
In medieval times the trades and crafts established guilds, in part to retain independence from the role of the church in education. Taking control of who could practice, and what standards they had to achieve in order to do so, was vital to not only maintain quality, but to control demand, respect and prices.

Membership of the guild required the completion of a period of apprenticeship, resulting in an apprentice piece demonstrating the apprentice’s abilities. Successful completion of this period would result in entry to the profession, but starting at the bottom and undertaking another, higher level, apprenticeship.

Over time this responsibility for training, which involved broader in loco parentis roles, was passed to technical schools and colleges. The ‘contract’ between employer and college was that the latter was now taking on responsibility for training potential entrants to the profession to an accepted standard.

As educational provision expanded, and as courses began to develop in to degrees, the nature of this relationship changed. Degrees are not intended to train people for specific jobs but for a range of possible futures. And the number of students on such courses expanded to suit demand, destroying any link between the ‘need’ for new workers and the ‘supply’.

Meanwhile demand from students for vocational qualifications dropped in relation to degrees, and so the supply of the sort of entry-level worker began to dry up. But as degrees became more popular, they began to be seen as the basic requirement for entry to the profession and, as a consequence, a mismatch developed between what employers assumed degrees were for (apprenticeships) and what they provided (a liberal education).
The end result is that the ‘guilds’ are seeking to reclaim their authority over the ‘church’ (academia). But they are doing this not solely by developing an alternative (a new apprenticeship) but by simultaneously demanding that degrees become apprenticeships, imposing a set of standards on them that weaken any distinction between a degree and a vocational training-based qualification.

The danger is that degrees seeking approval from the trades will no longer offer broad liberal qualifications, and will restrict their numbers closing the study of design to anyone except would-be designers. Apart from the fact this would call in to question their status as degrees, it also flatly contradicts the need identified in the Cox Review for ‘design thinkers’ to populate all aspects and levels of society and industry.

The obvious solution to industry’s ‘need’ for core, basic and entry-level technical skills is for industry to initiate a new form of qualification – which they appear to be doing via the Creative Apprenticeship – and allow degree-level provision to remain independent, looking forwards and educating free-thinking and independent graduates who can transform the industry quickly, rather than entry-level employees who might take 5-10 years to emerge in to management roles.
According to Skillfast-UK “In the UK, approximately 3,000 students graduate from fashion courses each year – yet top designers and clothing brands say they struggle to employ quality staff, because new recruits lack the technical skills and production knowledge to turn their creative ideas into achievable designs”

On the face of it this sounds rather damning. But stop for a moment and think through this logically. 3,000 fashion graduates every year? According to Skillfast, ( “the supply of fashion design graduates outstrips industry demand by about 600%” (which means that there are only around 500 jobs each year, something that sounds unlikely, but let’s take their word for it). That means there are six candidates for every job. And out of those six, some employers are unable to find people with the right skills? How hard are they looking?

This is plainly rubbish, but sadly pointing out the obvious isn’t enough so let me try to explain through logic (if not in fact, as this requires more research) why I’m sure that Skillfast-UK are wrong in their assertions, and their strategy. And as a matter of convenience I’ll also try to show why the whole design industry seems to be getting things wrong when it comes to graduate recruitment.

Pop along to and you’ll see an interview with Linda Florance, head of Skillfast-UK. It contains some revealing information:

My interpretation of it is this: the fashion and textiles industry is in need of bright, talented, ‘young’ people from a range of disciplines. It requires people skilled in marketing, in technology, in chemistry and so on. Some of these people will develop new products and markets, and take British fashion and textiles in to new markets.

Oh and they also need ‘creative’ people to make things that look nice.
In other words, this is an industry that values and craves graduates in all sorts of disciplines, but undervalues fashion and textiles graduates, seeing them in very narrow terms.

Part of this relates to the problem that the design industry in general simply hasn’t grasped yet what the value of a design degree is. Evidence for this can be found on the site, where potential employees are told “you are highly unlikely to walk straight into your dream job therefore show that you are willing to start at the bottom, will listen to others, are not afraid of hard-work and will be dedicated to the job.” This ‘start at the bottom’ attitude is typical of the design industry but what’s most disturbing is that this is the advice given to Masters graduates!

The salary new entrants are tempted by, for this ‘start at the bottom’ opportunity is just £12,000. Compare this with Arcadia, Britain’s biggest fashion retailer where graduates are offered £20,000 and a structured, fast track training scheme leading to a management position within a year. Next, the retail fashion chain, offers pretty much the same along with share options and health insurance. Not bad.
Given a choice between working in fashion as a buyer for £20,000 or being expected to ‘work your way up’ from cutter for £12,000 a year, what do you think a lot of graduates will say? Could this be why “top designers and clothing brands say they struggle to employ quality staff, because new recruits lack the technical skills and production knowledge to turn their creative ideas into achievable designs”. It’s nothing to do with the skills or the quality of the graduate, it’s more to do with the attitude of the employers, still stuck in 19th century ways of doing things and seeing ‘production’ as the least important part of the business and – worse – design graduates as shop floor fodder.
An industry that rapidly promotes graduates is likely to be one that develops quickly and stays ahead of the competion.

And industry that hides its graduates away until they emerge after years of working their way up is likely to be one that is overtaken by the competition. And this is exactly what is happening with the design industry, according to their own predictions. But apparently it’s all the fault of universities…

The design industry doesn’t value design graduates. There are glowing exceptions but these do rather prove the rule. It should also be remembered that the big fashion houses we talk about are actually not representative of the industry as a whole which is not the modern, high class vision we tend to see promoted in the media.

Design graduates are seen as entry-level employees because, among other things, a lot of design courses see their role as producing entry-level employees. Too many degree courses turning out graduates who are trained to very narrow ideas of what a design graduate is for.

It could be argued this is not restricted to design, and that the general ‘oversupply’ of graduates is a universal problem wherein “Many graduates are doing fairly menial jobs for which they do not need a degree (or anything like it)” (Fantasy Island p. 78) But a quick overview of destination figures for graduates from UK universities shows that those who study non-design subjects are more likely to enter graduate-level employment than those in design subjects. Even the usual claim that many undertake part-time work while developing their practice appears not to be borne out by longitudinal data and, anyway, surely a graduate could undertake a graduate-level job while doing this instead of working full time behind the counter in a chemist?

Perhaps the answer is that we are either not equipping our graduates with truly graduate-level skills (a skill that can only be exchanged within a closed system is not really a skill at all but an ability) or we are producing graduates who think, rightly or wrongly, that they are only qualified to work as designers, or failing that as shop assistants.
In this sense we need to ask what a design degree is for. What do four years at university offer that couldn’t be gained on the job? On the face of it the only attractions are the social life and the debt.
There must be something more distinctive about a degree.

Charles Handy in The Elephant and the Flea describes how his classics degree landed him a job in an oil company where he quickly became an economist. He realised then that his degree wasn’t so much a license to practice, but a license to learn.

Angela McRobbie in British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry? notes that graduates from London fashion courses who were most successful achieved their success not by using skills learnt in college but by using the cultural and social capital they had developed incidentally. This use of social and cultural capital was also identified as a key factor in the cultural industries by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

Even outside design, the most valuable contribution university makes to a person’s future has long been recognised as the network it gives you – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Of course, with the expansion of higher education and the focus on skills, the one thing that has clearly disappeared from university life is the time to build this important capital investment – another contributor perhaps to the decline in ‘quality’ graduates, perhaps. Too skilled, not enough nous.
But all these ‘incidental’ or even ‘accidental’ benefits aside, why else would someone go to university? I’ll come to that question later because it’s becoming even more urgent.

Skillfast-UK’s cognate sector skills council is Creative and Cultural Skills which covers many of the other design disciplines and the industries that use them. It has been working with The Design Council (too closely, some would suggest) and in 2007 published High-level skills for higher value, a policy document outlining some issues and strategies for developing skills in the design sector.
The document outlines that the design industry needs to develop its base of knowledge (not ‘skills’ – a key differentiator I’ll come to later) in cultural awareness, global awareness and business awareness. These are undeniably important.

But the report cancels this presience out by going on to say that university courses need to focus on technical skills and on business skills such as accounting and business planning. To explain why this is a little odd, imagine if accountancy degrees suddenly had to teach students typography…

Go back to what I said about ‘global awareness’ and ‘business awareness’. This is about understanding how design impacts on different cultures and how it is itself affected. It’s about understanding the effects of globalisation and the threats and opportunities it offers. We could teach that on design degrees – in fact we’d love to. But when it comes to teaching ‘business skills’ we actually focus on showing students how to use Microsoft Excel and how to write a business letter. Or we do to those who bother to turn up because, even though we’re accused of not teaching these things, the sad truth is we do, but students vote with their feet and don’t come. Don’t blame us, blame students!

But is this really what the design industry needs from graduates? People who can create a simple spreadsheet but don’t know why they’d need one? Especially if their job has been taken by someone from abroad who thinks business is a little more complicated in today’s world than just working out how to create a macro?

The design industry does need higher level skills, and degrees are exactly the place to develop them. But where’s the incentive when our graduates are being taken in to such crappy jobs and when we’re brow beaten in to dumbing down our courses into a check list of low level ‘skills’ like pattern cutting in fashion and its equivalent in other disciplines?

The content of a ‘core curriculum’ is a tricky one. My first job interview was for a job as a layout assistant for a small design firm in Harrogate. I went along with my portfolio containing the sort of thing they did – a series of two-colour leaflets I’d done for my local MP’s constituency office.

The only trouble was, I’d done them using Pagemaker on a Mac Plus. This was 1989 and the technology was still very new. The owner of the business gave me a long lecture about how I’d wasted my time learning how to do it on a computer, and that he needed someone who knew how to use Cow Gum. (For those who don’t know these things, graphic design included the ‘paste up’ process where artwork was cut up into pieces and laid out on paper or board using a type of glue that kept things in place but allowed you to reposition things and peel them off again).
In fact I’d been taught (or rather, as is often the way of things, left to find out) how to use Cow Gum and was not bad at the job. It’s just that I wasn’t overly bothered with it, given as I’d seen ‘the future’ as it were and could think of much easier ways to do the job. But for this guy, there would always be a need for people with traditional skills that would never die out.

I meet people like that all the time but over the years they’ve gone from protesting about the need to learn how to stick things down with glue to learning how to process film, how to program in Lingo, how to use Pagemaker, how to… you get the picture. For every profession there’s someone who thinks the way they do things is the only way, and always will be. Some people are simply sad that traditional crafts will disappear, and I can understand that, and sympathise, but the role of higher education is not really to keep ancient technologies on life support but to advance things. We won’t lose the skills, they’ll be reborn and rediscovered.

Let’s go back to Skillfast-UK and their Westminster protest. This is what they had to say about it: “To make it to the top in this competitive business, you need the skills to turn a great idea into a practical garment that can be produced and sold.”
Let’s rephrase that. To make it to the top in the old days, you had to not only design it but make it too. Maybe that’s not the ideal way of doing things? It’s certainly not the way things are done in the countries that are apparently about to drain the lifeblood out of our fashion industry. Employing someone to design and make clothes makes one wonder if the fashion industry ever heard of Adam Smith and his peculiar obsession with pins.

But let’s get one thing clear. I’m not suggesting that a fashion designer doesn’t need to understand how clothes are made, and I can imagine how a designer who makes the clothes will have a deeper understanding of the process than one who doesn’t. (Although I don’t think it’s a given). But it may help to take a slight diversion in to the world of architecture for a moment.

Some time ago I was discussing this issue with some Masters students, one of whom was a graduate in architecture. “You were taught how walls are constructed, weren’t you?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. “And about load bearing, stresses, and different materials?” “Yes”.
“But you weren’t taught how to lay bricks, were you?” “Of course not”, she replied.

And there’s my point. There’s a difference between an architect – a designer – and a brickie. You don’t go to university for four years (more, in fact, for architecture) to learn to lay bricks, and if the construction industry stopped training brickies and instead waited for them to graduate, there’d be no construction industry. And if it recruited architects and put them to work laying walls, the same thing would happen: bye bye construction industry.
So why does the fashion industry expect its architects to be brickies? It makes no sense.

Maybe though design education does have a lot to feel guilty about. Industry thinks architects should be brickies first, and so do we.
We construct courses based around the idea of an apprenticeship and the linear accumulation of knowledge. There are certain things it’s essential to know before you can move on and learn the next thing. And then when you’ve done if you’re lucky you can go into industry and start at the bottom and work your way up.

That’s how it was for us, and that’s how it will be for you. And then if you ever become a teacher that’s how you’ll do it because that’s the way of things.

Except it isn’t. Or it shouldn’t be.

The design industry is vibrant but it’s under threat. And the reason it’s under threat is not because of a lack of technical skill, it’s because all these wonderful thinkers are recruited in to firms that then put them to work in beginners jobs. They’re lost, and their knowledge is wasted because – well maybe because the old timers who worked their way to the top feel threatened?

Design educators need to educate employers about the true potential a design graduate can bring a firm. We need to stop training employees who then undergo yet another apprenticeship and instead start educating game-changers who’ll transform the industry and take it forwards.
And if we don’t do this because philosophically we know it’s the right thing to do, then we’re going to have to do it because we ourselves are under threat. There are some new boys on the block and they make four year degrees look like a complete waste of time.

There have always been alternatives to degrees. In fact, the design degree is relatively new on the scene. You don’t need a degree to be a designer: I was a successful graphic designer for ten years and my degree is in history.

But over the last few decades the design industry has begun to see degrees as a key entry requirement.

This is changing. The Foundation Degree was launched in the early part of this decade and has replaced the old Higher National Diploma (HND) in England, and is likely to do the same in Scotland. The HND was a good old fashioned vocational qualification (whereas the BA is supposed to be an academic qualification). Its purpose was to train people to work in certain industries. There’d be an academic element but many courses paid little attention to that. After all, why do you need to write an essay if you’re going to be a designer?

The Foundation Degree (FdA) is a slightly different beast. For one thing the academic aspect is more heavily emphasised, on paper at least. It incorporates formal work-based learning, and it is designed to be studied part time by people working in the industry they’re learning about. In that sense, it’s a lot like the old ‘sandwich courses’ people used to do, working three days a week and then going to college to learn the trade for two days a week. Finally, it’s two years instead of three or four for a degree.

Despite a lot of criticism, the FdA has been very successful and there are thousands on offer around England, many of them in creative disciplines.

As an alternative to a degree it scores on several points. Firstly, it’s work-based. Secondly, it’s two years in length. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it offers exactly the same curriculum as a four year degree.

I’ll say that again: there is nothing to distinguish a Foundation Degree from an Honours Degree. But there should be.

A former colleague of mine once described a degree as an HND with a bit more writing, the purpose of the extra year being to get a bit more practice and a bigger portfolio for job interviews. That view is entirely wrong, however it’s not uncommon for people to see the extra year or two spent on a degree as a chance to refine skills rather than extend knowledge and understanding.

It’s the fact that we can’t seem to explain what it is that doing a degree offers over a Foundation Degree that poses the biggest threat to our recruitment – and to the employment of our graduates. Ignoring the cultural and social capital, which most of us do anyway, what does an honours graduate have that an FdA graduate doesn’t, apart from a bigger overdraft?

It’s not just the FdA that poses a threat. In the last few years the ancient concept of the apprenticeship has been reborn (as the ‘modern apprenticeship’) and marketed to kids who don’t want to, or wouldn’t be able to, study at college. An apprentice goes to work with a firm where they are trained, and that training is accredited leading to a qualification.

At the moment there are apprenticeships in areas that overlap with design subjects, including graphics, jewellery and textiles.
But in the creative disciplines the apprenticeship is about to be replaced by: the Creative Apprenticeship.

The Creative Apprenticeship has been developed by industry and is backed by some big names including Aardman Animations and the BBC. Within graphic design and advertising there will be apprenticeships that give young people the opportunity to leave school and start work – paid work – with a leading company, being trained on the job.

While the plain old apprenticeship is perhaps aimed at those who might be perfectly competent, it’s likely the Creative Apprenticeship will attract ‘high flyers’ – exactly the sort of people design courses used to prefer. After all, if you’ve got the choice of going away to university to study design, or going to work in the BBC’s graphics or scenery departments, which would you choose?

The UK Government announced (22 February 2008) there would be 5,000 apprenticeships of this kind available at first – that’s a significant figure when compared with the number of applications to study design at university.

So with FdAs being aimed at vocationally-minded students, Creative Apprenticeships being aimed at vocationally- but not study-minded young people, and modern apprenticeships being aimed at the educationally ‘disaffected’, what does that leave for design degrees?

Well if we do nothing, it leaves us in a mess. But if we do something it leaves us with an opportunity.

And this to me is what was so exciting about some of the outcomes of the New Views 2 conference – a large gathering of academics and practitioners in London that really seemed to conclude that something has to change, that degree-level and postgraduate design education has to resist the political push to follow industry, to see its role as training workers and instead do what they do in other disciplines: lead, innovate, transform. The British design industry makes big claims about its contribution to the economy and says this gives it rights to demand things of universities and colleges. But the UK higher education sector takes every £1 of taxpayers’ money and turns it in to £5 – it contributes far more to the economy than design does. If this were a pissing contest then it should be the design industry asking universities how they can help rather than the other way round. But this isn’t a pissing contest. So let’s stop the sort of language that permeates the websites and publications from Skillfast and Creative and Cultural Skills.

An industry that says it is under threat from external competition and poor skills firstly needs to put its own house in order: start paying decent salaries (in fact, just start paying salaries – asking design graduates to work for free is criminal), and start offering decent career paths with proper training. Start recruiting talented graduates into graduate-level roles instead of letting them disappear into entry-level jobs. And start doing what other industries do: treat universities with respect instead of disdain and recognise that what they have to offer is not an endless supply of pattern cutters and Mac monkeys but innovation and understanding. You don’t see the biomedical industries demanding that universities churn out lab technicians; you see them encouraging research into cures for cancer, and lapping up graduates taught within that culture of research-led, not industry-led, teaching.

Imagine for a second what a design industry with that sort of relationship with universities could be like. Then stop imagining and get on with it.

Graphic design is dead. Long live… what?

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

The New Views 2 conference held in London last week produced more light than heat – something far more design conferences would do well to aim for.
All credit to Teal Triggs (LCC), Laurene Vaughan (RMIT) and the organising committee for arranging it around conversations rather than presentations. (Russell Kerr agrees – this was an engaging format)

(picture from cluster 6 via Flickr)

I heard that some of the conversations erred on the argumentative side but, surprisingly, the one I was involved in, looking at the area of graphic design education, was remarkably consensual.

Despite the various focuses of each cluster, the subject of what we teach and why seemed to come up everywhere and when the final presentations were given at the end of the two days it was clear that there was one overwhelming conclusion: graphic design, as we know it, is a dead subject. As we recited at one point in the international language of Monty Python, it has ceased to exist. It has gone to meet its maker.

This does not mean we think graphic design itself is no more, but that as a university subject it makes little point to teach people about something so limited in conception. Almost everybody complained that students arrive with what they think GD is, which means any attempt to broaden their horizons meets with resistance. Meanwhile, as my talking point made clear, too many employers are recruiting our graduates into unpaid (or at best low-paid) jobs at the bottom of the food chain instead of strategic roles.

There are plenty of vocational qualifications out there that produce well-trained graphic designers. When the question was put forward “what is it that a degree, an academic qualification, offers that is different”, nobody had an answer. We could say what we thought it should offer, but were frustrated that we didn’t. There was also a strong rejection of the notion that universities should follow industry; instead we should be mapping out new territory through our research and involving our undergraduates in that so that when they left us they could go in to industry – and not just the design industry – and start making changes.

So differentiation is the key. Degrees shouldn’t be technical qualifications with a bit more writing, and an honours year (or even a Masters year) should not simply be an opportunity to make your portfolio fatter. There has to be a difference.

Having agreed that, the next question was “what do we teach” and there was a struggle to move away from the desire to list core competencies. Instead we tried to imagine what somebody graduating in 2028 would need to be able to do, not just as a designer, but as a person.
We came up with an impressive list which, when I get hold of one of the photos that was taken will post here. What was impressive was not its comprehensiveness but the fact that when we looked at it the word ‘design’ wasn’t there and it very closely matched the description that the UK Quality Assurance Agency already has of what a generic ‘graduate’ should be. As a few of us Brits lamented, if only people running courses would actually read those, things would be miles better.

We had been looking for a paradigm shift and this was it: we currently see design education as teaching people to design. Instead we want to teach people through design.

So we believe that graduates need to be politically and socially engaged. You’ll never achieve that teaching Photoshop and yet this is what we fool ourselves in to thinking and claiming. Instead we shift approach and teach students about the world in which they are living, using design as the tool to do that and allowing them to demonstrate what they have learned through design. Learning Photoshop then becomes a skill that is picked up to show understanding of the world, not because it is a skill in itself. This moves us away from training designers to educating graduates. They can still design, but what they are designing is a model of the world, a worldview if you like, rather than (god help us) a double page spread and a web site.

There’s no point in teaching people to design web sites, magazine layouts and so on – certainly not at university. Instead there’s an urgent need for graduates who can identify problems and design solutons to them, and these go way beyond the narrow concept of ‘graphic design’ – graphic designers can’t tackle crime, for example unless you think a nice leaflet will do that. But as ‘Design Against Crime’ has shown, designers can. Losing the word ‘graphic’ opens up so many possibilities it’s hard to understand why anyone would resist.

This philosophical difference between a degree and other qualifications is one that I think everybody at the conference with one or two exceptions subscribed to. So the next stage was “how do we do this?”
The conference was attended by over a hundred designers – practitioners and academics – from all over the world. In my group we had representatives from the US, New Zealand, Australia, the UK (including England, Wales and Scotland), Qatar, Turkey and a few others I forget. We also had people who were at the beginning of their careers, students (as delegates and as observers recording the proceedings), those in the middle of their working lives and those approaching or even past retirement. To get so much agreement considering this range of people was amazing but as I pointed out to Teal and others, the danger with conferences like this is that you get comfortable thinking “Wow, I’m not the only one who thinks like this” but then you get back home and find that there, you are. Most people I spoke to knew that even though the conference had a large claim to legitimacy, that it was a gathering of experts and leading thinkers in the discipline, that they would arrive home and be told by colleagues that the future lies in not changing a thing. Yet the clear message coming from every country represented there was: change or die. In the US and Turkey, delegates warned, the rise of private universities offering narrow vocational qualifications is sapping students who simply want to fit in to a junior and well-defined role. This leaves the students who want to think and explore a discipline, but they are simply being given exactly the same courses except over a longer time and for more money. If we don’t offer something different we’ll lost them to other subjects.

(Interestingly, when I said I wondered why we still insist on taking students who study art at school, then braced myself for the reaction, others agreed and two delegates said they’d already stopped looking at portfolios and instead made offers based on school grades. As a result they’d started recruiting students who had studied languages, sciences and more with no fall in standards and often better results. Although it’s something of a stereotype there was agreement that the danger of insisting students took art at school is that we attract people who think that’s all you need to do, or that our subject is easy. What these approaches seemed to do was filter out those who were good at painting and drawing but didn’t read or think or write critically. Design’s future lies in people like this, not people who have nice portfolios demonstrating skills in different mark-making media).

So lonely though it may be at the front of the pack, we need to keep going and for this we need someone to help us keep the pace. And that’s where networking comes in. We were determined for this not to be another conference where we collect business cards and then put them somewhere ‘safe’ on our return. I offered to look in to making a networking bid to the AHRC to get us back together soon, and there was an offer from Qatar to do something similar.

We also talked about an Open Source model, that instead of prescribing a curriculum as industry is attempting to, we agree on an international set of principles with our list as a starting point, and that individual institutions decide how they are going to get there. AS we develop modules or projects we share them with others so they can use them or adapt them and share them back. This could even be done by students who could build their own programme by matching intended outcomes (“understanding of ecological impacts” to give a deliberately broad example) and find a project brief from the library that they adapt to their circumstances. There would even be room for collaboration between students in different countries.

So we’re hoping to set up a web site that will allow the conversation to carry on, and to begin collecting ideas for this library of open source materials.

We all agreed, I think, that this is not the sort of change that should happen slowly – we haven’t got time. To misquote Terry Pratchett, if you drag this sort of change out people resist. If you do it quickly you just move from one state of normal to another. Graphic design hasn’t got 20 years. It has to change now, and degree-level design education needs to define itself so that it offers something to the world beyond simply churning out people who can make a leaflet selling crap nobody wants.