A new school of thought

The higher education system is set for change, and design courses could benefit from a fresh approach. Liz Farrelly examines the new initiatives at one successful art school

Term time is approaching again and with New Labour finishing off what the Tories started, ie charging fees for tuition, one question begs an answer. Are design colleges simply in the business of fleecing young gullibles by feeding them out-moded notions or is real change in the air? Judging by the degree shows staged by some colleges which should know better, a serious rethink is definitely in order.

Singling out product design for special attention – only because so many of these courses come in for much muttering from dissatisfied students and disbelieving prospective employers – I spotted a very rare thing at Central St Martins: a degree show that buzzed! It was full of good ideas, which looked – shock horror – as if they would actually work. The show was dynamic and informative, and I enjoyed it! One question though: was that a bar in the corner?

Under the “new boy” course director, Piotr Kozak (pinched from the Domus Academy by “fairly-new-dean-on-the block” Brent Richards), the BA students presented seductive, commercial projects, obviously close to their hearts; from safety-wear for chic scooter boys and girls, to inflatable toys for toddlers (best use for that old gimmick?).

An unashamed sensation seeker, Kozak’s aim of “making a profession out of your life experiences” isn’t as self-indulgent as it might sound. By acknowledging the multifarious realities of contemporary urban life and, therefore, legitimising the personal experiences of a diverse bunch of students, Kozak is legitimising their youthful exuberance, saying, “we know it’s confusing out there – trust your instincts, it’s what makes you unique.”

Experimentation is high on the agenda, but with the help of Richards and other members of staff, Kozak has managed to ground students in the very real world of work, via links with a wide range of sponsors, from Microsoft to Westminster Council. These aren’t simply shadowy figures who dole out the cash. Representatives from sponsor companies work with students over three-week-long live projects – complete with real deadlines and fees – in an effort to share expertise and ideas.

Admittedly, this graduating group has only been exposed to a year of the new regime, but the early results look pretty good, coming as they do from a bunch of young designers who seem to be both commercially aware and compassionate.

It’s impossible to compare BA and MA approaches or results; students from the former are flushed with possibilities, while the latter are more confident in their chosen paths.

John Barrett’s Industrial Design MA students are required to forge links with academic and industrial experts, to test whether their self-motivation, awareness and reliance holds up under scrutiny. These students are grown-ups. They’re treated as such, and consequently, they deliver the goods. Brave stuff for a college to be advocating as, ultimately, it’s not simply a bunch of individuals who are being critted.

So, although the degree shows seem poles apart stylistically, with the MA students almost unanimously presenting via the computer-interface, an underlying message links the two courses.

The message is, here’s a product/ industrial design department eager to face contemporary challenges by engaging with the real world. One way of understanding the changing needs of consumers is for designers to look at themselves as the audience for design, instead of keeping the “market place” at a discreet distance via other people’s research.

In effect, Central St Martins students are providing commercial sponsors with valuable data. After all, the BA students are the “youth market”. The MA course redefines the design process and profession, by presenting their concerns and solutions via focused but creative acts of communication.

Central St Martins is enjoying an increase in the number of course applications, across the board, which may in part be due to Pulp’s Common People accolade. The phenomenon may also have something to do with the excellent quality of its annual showcase.

It is an institution with a great heritage which is actively reviewing its laurels, rather than merely dusting them off year in, year out. The wind of change hasn’t blown up a fuss yet, but it still could. Watch this space for news of the cross-disciplinary Arts and Design course, due to start this month…

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