Archive for the ‘university’ Category

Northumbria University Design School

Friday, October 31st, 2008

I was invited to go down to Newcastle on Wednesday to give a talk at the University of Northumbria’s School of Design, now situated in its rather spiffy new building (the one on the left in the second image below)


Northumbria is Jonathan Ive’s old stomping ground. Like me, he got his first break designing for the toilet industry so it’s almost like we’re twins. Er…

I was given an open brief which is always a bit tricky so I decided to do an amalgam of two talks, my annual “Good Design/Bad Design” lecture (where I challenge conventional wisdom on what ‘good design’ is) and the best bits of the keynote I gave in Texas in June (where I suggested university-based design education should be about making a difference in the world, not just churning out industry fodder).
When I arrived in Newcastle (I hadn’t been there for a while and had forgotten how cold it can be, despite it being a few hundred miles south of where I live now) I was pleasantly surprised to see this sign:


Resisting the urge to add the missing apostrophe and correct the spelling of my name (ahem) I quickly took a photo with my iPhone and emailed it to my boss. I’ve now decided to make similar notices and pin them up around my own uni to make me seem much more popular than I am.

The lecture theatre we were moved to unfortunately was a little lacking heat-wise which (and here’s my excuse) led to me forgetting quite a few of the points I wanted to make, as did the fact that the head of design for Philips was in the room and I had planned on making quite a few criticisms of some of their products, including an electric shaver I was asked to review for! (I must post that this weekend, in fact – suffice to say it doesn’t get very good marks from me, largely because of the excessive packaging and use of proprietary chemicals for cleaning). Needless to say I hastily skipped all the slides relating to that but because I couldn’t quite remember where they were I was keeping half an eye on my presenter display ready to click my remote furiously.
I was told later he’d have loved to have heard my take on things. Oh well.

It was, incidentally, a pleasant surprise to be greeted by a never-before seen sight: students voluntarily sitting on the front row:


Despite the cold (the hats and scarfs above were a necessity) and having to skip through the last bits due to time constraints (top tip: when combining two different talks, both an hour long, you might want to chop half of it out if you still want to stick to 60 minutes) I think it went okay. I’m always a bit nervous about these things – as an outsider I’m able to be a bit more controversial than I could be normally and drop a few metaphorical bombs before leaving them to carry on the discussion, and I had planned a few zingers but was in the end a bit more restrained than usual, even skipping my traditional (half joking) rant about typography. Oh well.

I was also a bit down what with it being my birthday – enough to depress anyone the wrong side of 35.

Excuses, excuses.

I was really pleased to be asked and appreciated the audience’s participation in some of the ‘magic’ tricks (one of which I tried on a colleague in the pub when I got back to Scotland that night and, much to my surprise, it worked). I won’t tell you any more about it – if you want to see it you’ll have to invite me to come and talk 😉

My thanks of course to the students who found their way to the new venue and suffered through the cold (and my talk), to Jamie Steane, Head of Visual Communication and Interactive Media Design, for inviting me, and to Dr Joyce Yee for taking me to lunch and giving me a tour round the new building. Design is clearly a feather in Northumbria’s cap and the university’s investment in the building sends a clear signal about that. One that, I noticed on my way home, lights up for all in Newcastle to see at night:


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…

New design-related schools diploma – competition or support for product design degrees?

Monday, September 1st, 2008

The Guardian reports that:

The government’s qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has accredited five new diplomas that will be taught from September next year.

The diplomas will be in business, administration and finance, environmental and land-based studies, hospitality, and manufacturing and product design.

Whether this diverts potential design students straight in to industry rather than in to colleges or universities remains to be seen. And of course, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing also remains to be seen. But the immediate(ish) implications are clear: in the next few years product design courses will start to see applications from students with diplomas, not A-levels. That needs some preparation.

Art and design degrees ‘need overhaul’, say academics

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

The Guardian reports that:

A group of 50 academics have called for major changes to be made to the teaching of art and design at UK universities after a review concluded it was not fit for purpose.

The Group for Learning in Art and Design (Glad), a forum of academics who discuss learning in the sector, said teaching needed to better prepare students for work in a fast-paced, changing world.


Students should learn more than the bones of their own subject to reflect ‘the multi-disciplinary nature of the creative industries’, and work with different groups of people during their studies.

Prof Linda Drew, dean of academic development at the University of the Arts London and editor of the study, said: ‘The creative industries have changed dramatically and so must we. Art education is at risk of becoming conservative – it is important that art and design remains at the cutting edge of higher education.’

Teaching staff should also be given extra training to improve the general quality of education, says the report.

The GLAD conference is taking place next week where I’m assuming this report will feature prominently.

This echoes much of what was discussed at New Views 2 in July (see this post, this one and this one).

So we’re all agreed. Let’s get on and do it, shall we?

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.


Sunday, April 13th, 2008

In New Paltz, New York last week I gave a presentation to senior students there on the Master of Design programme at the University of Dundee. One of the core philosophies of the course is its concern with ‘design for a changing world’.

I illustrated this by showing a satellite image of the campus, courtesy of Google Earth, showing the proximity of the University’s life sciences building to my own office in the College of Art and Design.
On the image I placed two labels, one saying ‘Anti-cancer gene discovered here’, the other saying ‘my office’.

The point I was trying to make was that when it comes to the word ‘creative’, surely it’s the people who work on cures for cancer, among other things, who are engaged in true creativity? Designing logos and leaflets doesn’t really compare at all.

It was interesting to note the vigourous nodding of heads at this. I felt like someone explaining this new thing called fire to a group of people bathed in electric light.

At the start of the academic year I asked my new undergrad students to choose a term from a grid I presented on the screen – terms such as ‘ageing’, ‘poverty’, ‘ethics’, and ‘disability’ – and consider how their own disciplines were affected, or could affect, that particular area.
After a few minutes I asked what people had written.

“What do you study?” I asked one.
“Graphic Design”.
“And what did you choose from the grid?”
“So how can graphic design intersect with disability?”
“Well graphic designers can design the signs that go on toilet doors so you know which one is for the disabled”.

Now it’s easy to laugh at that, and to dismiss the student, but remember this is someone starting out and, to be honest, that’s how graphic design represents itself. In the last lecture of the year I ask students to return to that exercise and ask themselves if their ideas have changed – if they have, I’ve done my job properly.

To a lot of people,’creativity’ and ‘creative thinking’ means exactly what that student said: coming up with good-looking ways to communicate a fact. You’re disabled, you want to know which toilet is for you, here you go.

What I think we’re trying to do in Dundee (and I’m speaking entirely for myself here) is to change that idea: creativity and creative thinking are about changing attitudes to disability, not designing ways to describe it; about designing the world in such a way that a disability is simply a physical condition, not a way of life or an obstacle.

Can graphic design do that? That’s an interesting question – one that makes it ripe for that type of study. The Masters programme is more interested in the question-asking than the answering (although if the questions are answered, that’s great of course) and this makes it an exciting course to work on.
Being in Dundee means we’re well-placed to interact and work with other disciplines: medicine, law, economics, education, computing, engineering. And in doing so we’ve in part got rid of the one thing that stops interdisciplinarity happening: disciplines.
So although we occasionally describe a Masters student by the discipline they studied at undergraduate level (graphic designer, textile designer, architect, weaver etc) we don’t ask them to identify a problem and say “How can I, as a graphic designer, tackle this?” We ask them to say “How can we, as designers, help tackle this?”
Because designers shouldn’t be constrained by disciplinary boundaries, they shouldn’t work alone, and they shouldn’t claim to know better than anyone else.

Personally I think it’s a shame this level of thinking has to wait till Masters, but until the creative disciplines start being creative about their own practice, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

When I was a child I used to be taken to Mass and week after week read the words on the order of service. The longest of sections was the Credo (“I believe”). It wasn’t until I was about 13 or so I realised this thing actually consisted of words and sentences, rather than just sounds (Vatican II really not working in my case), and I began to wonder if I actually did believe in these things at all. When I started teaching design I found colleagues telling me how they taught and assessed. Unlike them I’d never gone through ‘art school’ and so my first reaction was to think “why on earth do you do it like that?” They were reciting the credo, enacting the rituals, despite the fact that the world had moved on and it was clear that few of the methods worked anymore (if they ever did).

While at New Paltz I met the inspirational head of the print-making course. He was lamenting the burden of tradition within his own discipline. I asked him if he knew anything of the English Reformation. At the time, crowds of people went through the medieval churches, cathedrals and abbeys ripping out and smashing statues, icons, stained glass and anything that smelt of Popery. It is widely held to be one of the biggest acts of cultural vandalism the world has seen, and something that set it aside from the more general reformation happening on the continent. Yet it also meant that as far as English crafts were concerned, everything had to start again – there were no models to work from, no statues to copy or paintings to emulate.
This, in part (and until European methods of teaching art and craft invaded our shores) explains why English craft, thought and science developed the way they did. Unburdened by tradition, without the constraints of paying deference to all that had come before, the English Reformation, for all its evils (and there were many) paved the way for innovations we take for granted.

(An historian of the period would no doubt go ashen faced at my summation here but, hey, I’m being ‘creative’!)

Design education needs that reformation, a bold sweeping away of tradition. It needs to stop being so disciplined and learn to embrace the mess of fuzzy logic, intuition and sheer creativity that comes from letting go of the past. Whatever was true of design in the 19th and 20th centuries is no longer so true today. We are no longer the ‘creative disciplines’ because we like tradition too much, and see skills as rituals rather than a grammar – like people intoning a Mass without understanding the meaning of the words they’re saying. Or teaching in a certain way without wondering if it does more harm than good.

We can’t wait for a Martin Luther or Henry VIII to turn up and change things. We can do better.
Subject area aside there is one thing that separates the ‘creative disciplines’ from the truly creative disciplines: they eat their own young. By which I mean they identify their best students and they keep them. They continue teaching them, they let them do research, they show them how to teach. And then they let them loose on students and start it all over again.
In design, we identify our best students, spend ages on them so they can win an award or two, help them get jobs at prestigious firms and then either get them in every so often to give guest talks and praise us (after all, we must be good cos look what happened to them) or we wait thirty years until they’re burnt out and then ask them to come and teach when they repeat the rituals they went through (after all, they must be good cos, etc etc).

This myth, that only practitioners can teach, has to be ended.
Our Martin Luther is sitting in our courses right now. And there’s more than one…

New York visit

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

Just a quick update to say I’ll be visiting Pratt in New York City on 7 April and State University of New York at New Paltz on 8 and 9 April, when (among other things) I’m hoping to speak to final year design students about Masters study here at Dundee.

‘Universities should offer more information about courses to Facebook generation’

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Universities should offer more detailed information about courses to the Facebook generation, the shadow universities secretary, David Willetts, said today.
The Guardian’s Higher Education summit heard that students were sharing information about the offers they receive for university courses on social networking sites, forcing universities to rethink the kind of information they give out.

Willetts said students should be able to find out how crowded seminars were likely to be, how much access time they would receive from lecturers and what form this access would take.

‘Universities are going to have to become more proficient at answering these kinds of questions, even if it is something that many are uncomfortable with,’ he said.

Willetts also gave a cautious welcome to a new commercial website designed to plug into social networking sites and disseminate information to 5,500 higher education institutions across the world.

Jancice Kay, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chairwoman of the student experience policy group of the 1994 group of smaller research-led universities, said it was important for universities to become more transparent in response to the increasing use of Facebook sites by students exchanging information about their courses. This was the only way they would be able to maintain control of the information that students received and make sure it was accurate, she said.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of the Universities UK student experience committee, warned that much of the information available to students over the web is misleading and inaccurate.

‘If there are questions to be asked, what better place to ask them than on an open day?’ he said.

Overselling universities

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Richard Florida:

Businesses, governments and economists talk of getting local universities more involved in technology transfer, commercial innovation and start-ups. ‘If only our university could be more like Stanford and MIT,’ they say.

The idea actually sells universities short. It oversells their commercial role and underestimates their other contributions.

Read in full