Companies’ Proper Gander into Design Education

by Alex Cameron

A proposal to revise the Design and Technology (D&T) GCSE curriculum, directed by the education publisher Pearson and supported by the Royal Society of Arts, Design Council, Google and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has also found many champions among design academics and practitioners.

The new proposal is based on research carried out by Pearson that found that there was widespread support for a revised curriculum among secondary school teachers, art and design educators and designers in the profession. Pearson’s report also highlighted cuts in design education and the governments emphasis on STEM (Science Technology English and Math) rather than STEAM (which would include the “Arts”).

That D&T has been underfunded in secondary education along with dwindling numbers of pupils choosing the subject is hardly contentious and deserves attention. That said, why it should then follow that this new proposed curriculum should move, “… away from the creation of consumer products and towards sustainable design” is quite a different matter.

The Design & Technology Association (DATA) has responded to the Pearson initiative noting that while they “hold a strong belief that the future direction of the subject should not be dictated by any party with a strong commercial interest,” at the same time they applaud the content of the proposals, “focus on key global issues, including sustainability and the move to a circular economy.”

DATA has also conducted extensive research on the teaching of D&T, publishing “Reimagining D&T,” which like the Pearson study was based on the Education Policy Institute’s “A Spotlight on Design and Technology Study in England.” All give a bleak picture of the decline in numbers of students taking a GCSE in D&T alongside the declining numbers of teachers. As the latter study concludes, “without specific and targeted policies, the decline in students qualified in Design and Technology subjects is unlikely to reverse in the near future.” Grim reading indeed.

Of course, we can’t separate this type of intervention in education without a reckoning with the wider political discourse. On both sides of the Atlantic, governments – indeed the political class in general – has long been pursuing a ‘post-industrial’ green/environmental political agenda. But so too has art and design schools, design institutions and academia now embedding sustainability as a core and unquestionable teaching doctrine. This stands in stark contrast to the education of a designer for the best part of 100 years.

Solid Ground
The education of a graphic designer has numerous, and interdependent component parts: formal education through art schools; “how to…” publications written by practising designers and academics; and the practice of the craft itself including mentorship. As an industry – as opposed to a profession – graphic design, through these routes was always very good at giving the student of design a solid grounding and understanding of the craft of design.

The education of the graphic designer was primarily rooted in practice and further consolidated through a teaching approach that gave priority to the tools of the designer (typography, colour, image etc) alongside a strong sense of art and design history, the role and function of the designer that introduced students to competing ideas on the subject (designer as mediator / designer as author) and the role and function of design in society. Designers left art school with a keen sense of their place and their potential in the commercial and cultural production process. So much so that they were equipped to enliven interest, inspire the public and make the world a better place by communicating and finessing the message/product in such a way as to make it make sense to them and inspire a connection.

For those who did not go through the art school route, the “how to…” publications became their formal education. Practitioners who wrote what became seminal, best practice ‘how to’ books for designers, remain relevant and urgent because they were based on design principles and foundational values – ideas that were essential to the practice of design. They were considered, intelligent and well researched deep-dives into, typography, photography, design tools (metal to digital typesetting), composition, colour theory, the grid, the poster and more besides that spanned generations, movements and styles for over a century.

But even a cursory review of design publications that dominate design discourse today pay little attention to the craft and practice of design in favour of extolling the virtues of a new design outlook that is progressive, ethical, inclusive and sustainable – adjectives that mask a deceit, that is wholly destructive to the industry they lead.

The Design Council’s recent virtue-signalling provides a good illustration of the capture of craftsmanship by the fad for sustainable goals. The five big ideas resulting from the Design Council’s sustainability audit in advance of the rebrand are: use fewer and smaller pictures, minimise the number of colours used, provide options for single colour printing, limit the number of fonts used and use patterned backgrounds rather than solid colour blocks. [5] It would be laughable were it not for the perniciousness of the message.

Ideological approach
Sustainability, despite claims to the contrary, is not a design principle. It is an ideological construction and is an external imposition that is the very antithesis of a design principle. If this were not bad enough (and it is) the audience for design – the public – are entirely absent from the equation. The public are dismissed as morally and ethically ill-equipped to respond to well-designed objects and so the design elite is setting itself up as the ethical guardian of what is good for us.

Elite designers’, educators, government quangos and design institutions are not only sucking the joy out of life, and designs contribution to it, they are embarking on a mission to reconstruct and upend the relationship between design and the public through the re-education of designers as social and moral engineers.

Those designers that support the codifying of sustainability as a design principle are wrong-headed and plain design illiterate. While the craft of design will be taught, it will be in the service of ideologues and not the client or the public. It wilfully misrepresents what a design principle is – essential to the practice and understanding of design – in order to propagate and enforce an elitist dogma on design practice. Craft has been demoted. Instead, the role of design has become propaganda and the public, empty vessels. This proposal for D&T GCSE is yet more indoctrination of secondary school kids with an interest in design.

This intrusion into the educational development of children is politically motivated, rather than being motivated from a design education perspective. The trashing of the very foundation of the hitherto role and function of design in society unconstrained by politics or ideology. Whether done unwittingly or not is beside the point, the result is the same, the castration of the independent designer.

Student designers will be given no choice but to adopt this ideology as their institutions codify it in the curriculum and professional practice. We are already well down the road to designers being compelled to act sustainably, and demonstrably, or face censure and barred from practice. [6]

This most recent move is an attempt to turn-out young people who will be primed and schooled in the primacy of the ideology of sustainability. It is not just design that will suffer, we all will.


Alex Cameron is a design and cultural critic based in Madrid. Visit his blog here.




Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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