Designers praise decision to save A-level art history

The A-level subject was set to be scrapped in October, but following a petition which saw more than 8,000 signatures, it will be revived next year – designers share their thoughts on the decision.


Designers have praised the decision to save A-level art history, saying it will help budding creatives learn about cultural context instead of “designing or creating in a bubble”.

Exam board AQA made the decision to axe the A-Level subject in October, due to lack of “sufficient experienced examiners”, according to the BBC. AQA was the last exam board to offer Art History A-level.

Many were outraged by the decision, with more than 8,000 people signing a petition to save the subject in November.

Designers expressed their dismay at the time: Peter Higgins, creative director at Land Design Studio, told Design Week that art history was a “fundamental starting point” for many creatives, while Ian Ritchie, executive creative director at JKR Global said that the cultural context of the subject provided “fresh, innovative and eclectic” thoughts rather than “directionless and repetitive plagiarism”.

Now the decision has been overturned, as exam board Pearson has confirmed that it will develop a new History of Art A-level as of September 2017.

“It stops people designing in a bubble”

In response to saving the subject, Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative partner at Bow & Arrow, says that humanity subjects such as art history allow students to understand wider socio-political and economic contexts around historical movements in art and design, rather than creating things in isolation.

“Understanding what has happened in history to inform decision making and actions in the now is really crucial,” she says. “Looking at the creative processes, pitfalls and motivations of artists who have come before us, then analysing them and seeing how they apply to our practices – it stops people from designing in a bubble. It’s not just about you!”

Words, images and music are “locked together”

Peter Higgins, creative director at Land Design Studio, adds that taking away an academic view of visual art would be taking away one of the three core, creative disciplines from students.

“English Literature, Music and History of Art provide knowledge on the written word, the image and musical scores,” he says. “By axing History of Art, we would have kept the written word and sound, but dropped the image, and devalued it. The three are always locked together, in simple terms. It was frightening that exam boards didn’t value the visual world we inhabit.”

He adds that art history isn’t just valuable for those who go on to study traditional art, but also those in more contemporary, design-related fields. “It’s not just painting, illustration and sculpture,” he says. “It’s also the architectural world, and that means product design too. The creative industries provide so much wealth to London, and to the UK in general. Cutting the subject would’ve been taking way a vital part of the journey to tertiary education.”

“The emphasis on STEM subjects should be challenged”

Damien Smith, creative partner at Iso Design, adds that the subject’s saviour is a reminder to place equal value on science and arts subjects, and see them as linked.

“In the UK, it feels as if we are living in a time of exclusion and social division, a place where minds are closing and barriers are being put up,” he says. “That’s not a good place to be.”

“The study of Art History offers a way of viewing the past, the present and our potential futures through the work of artists, designers or architects – this is critical right now,” he adds. “The emphasis on ‘core’ STEM subjects at A-level should be challenged. While important, they should not be the sole foundation for creative practitioners in this century.”

“This highlights the importance of art and creativity in education”

Sarah Hyndman, founder at Type Tasting, agrees. “I think the near-scrapping of A-Level art history has highlighted the debate about the importance of art and creativity in education, and shown that art history is relevant beyond the artist’s studio,” she says. “Some of the most innovative thinkers, like Elon Musk or John Maeda, are those who naturally work across disciplines.”

She adds that the ability to think across disciplines, between academia and practical skills for example, is an asset when working in team. As part of her role at Type Tasting, she works alongside scientists, chefs, artists, musicians and food historians. “This demonstrates brilliantly how the most exciting ideas are generated when we take inspiration from the past and work across disciplines,” she says.

For more on the value of Art History A-level to designers, read Peter Higgins’ opinion piece here.

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  • Jessica Jenkins December 5, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    Great news. Now for a design history A level.

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