Design under threat?

The uncertain future of design in schools

Last month I visited a sixth form college here in Bristol, to talk about careers in product design. Staggering into the college reception over-loaded with boxes of foam models, bottles and half-built Lego sets, I raised more than a few eyebrows, but I didn’t mind as I was a man on a mission – I wanted to inspire kids to take up careers in product design, something that never happened to me at their age.

Despite forging a successful career as a product designer, I didn’t discover there was such a job until I was in my twenties and already studying a degree in mechanical engineering at Newcastle. One day, post-lecture, my tutor, unwittingly about to change my life, was flipping through my applied maths notebook filled with doodles and sketches, and shrewdly suggested I visit the product design department at the University of Northumbria. I’d never heard of product design before. Once I walked into that studio and saw the models and sketches on the walls, I immediately knew what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. That moment of discovery was of the utmost importance, and by visiting the college that day I hoped to give the same inspiration to someone else.

Last week, a KD colleague showed me an article about the government’s proposed new National Curriculum for Design & Technology. The National Curriculum is getting a revamp which will be put into practice next year, but the draft Design and Technology syllabus, published last month is worrying. I had hoped it would move things forward from the limited exposure I was given at school, but the new proposal is in fact a step backwards. The focus is to be on teaching of everyday practical skills like cooking, home maintenance and horticulture. There is little mention of anything directly relevant to modern design and engineering practice.

The UK right now is a world leader in modern, creative industry. Our expertise in design, engineering, advertising, architecture etc, accounts for a significant proportion of our exports and domestic profit, and we can boast home-grown figureheads such as Ive, Dyson etc. who inspire and set the standard for others to follow. We also produce a significant number of entrepreneurs and start-up businesses. No longer the workshop of the world, we are a nation of innovators whom others strive to match. Many of the world’s best designers are nurtured in this country because our school system in the last few decades has encouraged experimentation and creative thought in children, something which other systems, particularly in Asian countries, do not do so easily. Other countries are catching us fast however, and may well take the lead if we don’t raise our game. I get sent a lot of portfolios from ambitious young Indian graduates for example, and year on year the standard gets better. If we want to stay on top, we need to prepare the next generation for this intense competition, but instead I fear the UK may fall behind.

Underpinning all of our creative industry is the mastery of the process by which new ideas are nurtured and turned into things that enrich or improve lives. This professional skill applies to any form of creative design, engineering and architecture which creates new value and wealth for our economy. What we need is a syllabus that teaches children to channel their creativity, prepares them for the multi-disciplinary nature of modern industry, and inspires them to enter into careers in design and engineering. The proposed syllabus is dangerously ill-informed and appears to have been put together by people woefully out of touch with our industry and labour market. If it goes ahead unchallenged, then long term it could have a disastrous effect on our economy.

Thankfully it’s not too late to turn things around. The design industry has already responded with a well organised campaign demanding change, supported by the likes of Dick Powell, John Mathers and Sir James Dyson. The draft proposal for Design & Technology is open for consultation until April 16th, so there’s still time for professionals such as ourselves to have our say and share our expertise with a government that sorely needs our help.
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Matt Corrall