There is a place for link-ups between art schools and industry, whichcan be of mutual benefit for students and business, but Sebastian Conran takes issuewith those who treat colleges as little more than a source of cheap design
Product innovation is a serious, risky undertaking and experienced judicious design expertise is required to improve the chances of commercially successful results. I was reminded of this at a recent meeting with the managing director of a UK-based housewares manufacturer. It seems that the company had correctly analysed, advised by its customers, that its product offering was dated and needed redesigning – an important event in the business needing substantial investment to implement surely. So rather than seek out the best and most appropriate British design professionals, it admirably contacted a local design college to help. Subsequently, a design project was set for the second-year students to develop a new product range.
Without going into details, although the students were enthusiastic and full of ideas, a year later nothing commercially viable had come from the project. ‘What’s more, they kept on going on holidays,’ said my source.
However talented, energetic and enthusiastic students are, experience is a vital component of any professional’s expertise and ability in doing the job in hand with reliable, repeatable results. If you needed serious surgery, would your first choice be an enthusiastic, talented student-doctor, or someone else who has 20 years experience? Furthermore, one of the great benefits of college is that it gives students the opportunity to experiment.
This experience prejudiced his attitude to ‘designers’ generally and is probably not unique to those who think colleges are a cheap source of design. And I am constantly amazed at the number of companies – mostly British sadly – that have put serious projects out to inexperienced designers in the hope that their energy and enthusiasm will produce something that will be commercially plausible. Admittedly, it can happen, but is it worth the risk in terms of lost time and sales?
I suppose this is probably better than the almost quasi-homophobic attitude that some British engineering manufacturers exhibited in my early career. It’s really not surprising that the UK doesn’t make much anymore, is it? Sometimes it seems that, since World War I, Britain’s industries have been run by those with more interest in factoring than manufacturing.
Now we are on the edge of an economic abyss without the financial sector to sponsor the nation there is a sudden realisation that something must be done, and technology will be the new saviour. Britain always laments that it seems to be good at inventing stuff, but poor at reaping the rewards of its science. Perhaps a metaphor for this is that offering technology without design thinking is almost akin to serving raw ingredients without cooking to make them palatable. And, of course, the better the chef… In concert with an in-house team of experienced design professionals, an approach of tapping into the enthusiasm of students may provide the sort of inspiration that will unlock an impasse in development perhaps, but as a source of cheap design you get what you pay for. Teaching is something that I have always enjoyed, not only because it gives a sense of putting something back – although I too seemed to learn quite a bit in the process – but also because of the joy and satisfaction of seeing past students such as Shin and Tomoko Azumi, Tom Heatherwick, Michael Marriott and Luke Pearson succeed on the international stage.
Some of the presiding genius of world-leading companies like Apple and Microsoft started business while on campus and London is undoubtedly the hub of the UK’s world leading creative and cultural industries, which contribute $100bn (£68bn) to the nation’s economy. The Royal College of Art and Central St Martins College of Art and Design are among the leading academic institutions that feed these sectors with inspirational graduates. They partner with industry to ensure they remain at the cutting edge of innovation and their alumni are at the forefront of creative industry thinking.
Our leading medical and scientific businesses have much stronger links with research institutions, using facilities and drawing on experience and talent they cannot justify as a permanent resource. Couldn’t similar arrangements be made in sophisticated places of design learning and thinking to harness the emergent science-based technologies, giving them a relevance and appeal to the world’s consumers?
To achieve this, the industries that will benefit from using advanced design thinking to contextualise their technology will need to support these design research resources. Leading design consultancies might also benefit from collaborating with them. This would lead to an economy of scale that would justify otherwise unaffordable equipment and facilities, which students would benefit from too.
This is no time for the Government to be cutting back on design education. Emergent technology is a potential saviour of the economy, but without being harnessed by great design thinking, it will have little chance of having the world-class appeal it needs to attract consumers.
Rather than cuts, serious investment needs be made in postgraduate-level design research to allow us to offer both professional designers and industry businesslike and practical research facilities that are not hampered by academic dogma. And perhaps, in fairness, the responsibility for funding this technology-harnessing design thinking should come from the industry that will benefit, rather than from an already over-stretched education system.
Sebastian Conran is managing director of Studio Conran