What skills do the next generation of designers need? - Naomi's keynote speech for the Design Ventura Conference at London's Design Museum 18/3/13
Open any newspaper these days and there will be yet another story about our education system. Amazingly, after 1000's of years of what we understand as education, since the days of Aristotle and Plato, we in the UK are still tinkering with the curriculum, which can only be a rather dangerous thing.
Recently there has been a lot of debate over the so-called E Bacc, with a focus on what have been described as core academic subjects. To someone of my generation, where we studied core subjects as a matter of course, it’s all a bit baffling. Why would you not want a child to study and become proficient in English, maths, sciences, languages, history, geography etc.
During the debate there was pretty much uproar in the design community about the absence of a design course within the proposed E Bacc. I have to say I did not share this concern, though I was worried about any absence of a study of art.
For me design is a process that draws on many, many subjects – that’s what makes it such a brilliant job. To be really effective as a working designer you need a really good grounding not solely in design but in "feeder" subjects, such as those core subjects I just mentioned.
I have recently designed a range of taps that are informed by the anti-microbial properties of copper and copper alloys - so that's my chemistry O level put to good use.
I have just designed some student accommodation where a study of astronomy influenced the design of a 14th floor common room.
I am currently working on a country house where the study of the history of vernacular architecture and even zoology has been fundamental to the devlopment of the design, where we are planning to incorporate a bat roost into new sections of building.
So to study “design” at school, at a cost to core subjects, carries with it the same risks as a course in “media studies” i.e. intellectual strangulation. Did Martin Scorcese take a course in "media studies"?
I’d also like to add that the opportunity to study subjects such as the sciences, languages, history and geography can be as short-lived as childhood itself and so should be cherished.
Further careers are no longer one-dimensional, especially in design. The portfolio career is common-place, as I know from experience, and can be both exciting and nerve-racking. I design interiors and products, I advise companies who sell products, I write books and journalism, I present TV programmes and films on design plus lots of other stuff. So again, this for me is another reason why young people now more than ever need a thorough education in fundamental subjects so they can fully exploit the vissiccitudes and vagaries of modern working life.
At the same time for young people to study “design” in school is an unmatchable opportunity to see how traditional academic subjects can come alive and be applied to real life, just as in my own projects and frankly any other designer's, and in so doing have a real experience of how the life of work, works.
What is also invaluable in any design education in schools is the opportunity to teach pupils problem-solving – a core life skill. When I first went to design college not only did I appreciate having a whole world of design and art opened up to me but also being trained in the process of design, a process that requires visual literacy, lateral thinking, collaboration, observational skills, invention, an understanding of context and the skill and confidence to persuade others of your ideas – or in simple terms, selling.
Even if children do not go on to be designers I cannot think of a better way of training children in such invaluable life skills and being part of and observing Design Ventura has made this crystal clear.
Further, recent economic disasters have proven that our society and the politicians we have elected and in some notable cases, not elected, have little grasp of only spending what we earn: projects like Design Ventura can teach children financial literacy too, helping them learn the importance of maths, statistics and risk management.
In fact the advertising guru Sir Martin Sorrell recently said “we are all mathematicians now” – advertising now needs creatives who can also respond to the data produced by the world of social media.
Creativity and visual literacy - an understanding of design, art, architecture and ideas - is a life skill that has benefits not only to the individual though but of course to our society at large.
I have written widely on the benign, confidence-boosting effects of living in a home that is redolent of our own creativity, that is tailored to the way we and our household want or need to live. At the same time, when I was making TV shows, someone told me they thought I was over-critical of people’s design choices in their homes. My response was and is that just as the integrity of the family has a fundamental effect on the wellbeing of our society so taking responsibility for our man-made environment begins in the home.
I see the architecture of a building and the design of say a table or a TV being part of the same conversation. The NPPF (the national planning policy framework) is forcing us to think deeply about the way we want to develop our country and yet the response is terrifyingly chaotic in the face of unsustainable population growth.
Perhaps with better design training in schools the next generation will be more fluent in what constitutes good design, from transport infrastructure to rural development and what constitutes genuinely ecologically sustainable design?
I was at EcoBuild recently and was horrified to see nearly 25% of this exhibition full of PV panels, mostly made in China. How can this be sustainable design when the products are made thousands of miles away, in dubious circumstances that result in an astonishingly ugly product?
Surely we can be cleverer than this? Which brings me back to my point about the importance of a broad education that inextricably links design and art with “academic” subjects, a relationship established around 600 years ago during the Renaissance and developed during the Enlightenment, over 200 years ago. If only the designers of those PV panels hadn’t only studied engineering but also art and architecture.
Visiting the exquisite Montacute House in Somerset recently I was reminded that beauty is an essential quality in sustainable design because if something is beautiful it will be cherished and it will last. Houses like Montacute are beautiful though because they are informed by a combination of maths, engineering, art, geology, history, craftsmanship, horticulture and many more – and it is this that is design, where breadth and depth of knowledge results in designers who can create the most valuable and enduring kinds of inventions.