“I rely on maths every day” – the alternative skills designers couldn’t live without

Last week, Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins urged designers to protest against the decision to axe A-level art history. We ask designers which other non-design subjects have helped them get to where they are today.

Ian Anderson, founder, The Designer’s Republic (photo by Shaun Bloodworth)
Ian Anderson, founder, The Designer’s Republic (photo by Shaun Bloodworth)

There is no question that to reduce the cultural and creative experience for young minds and emerging intellects is a decision as stupid as the people proposing it. An understanding of art is an understanding of our world and the people we share it with.

I didn’t study art or design at university, but a philosophy degree at the University of Sheffield. Clarity of thought is essential when problem solving, asking questions, defining audiences, creating dialogue and creating boxes to think outside.

Philosophy primed me to do this more than scanning any number of design books ever could. It also means I can prove that black is white.


Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative Partner and co-founder, Bow & Arrow
Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative Partner and co-founder, Bow & Arrow

I ended up working in design by accident, having studied english literature at university instead. They are not as far apart as I once thought.

Studying literature taught me the power of analysis, and the fact that an author – or designer – can create meaning through symbolism and the power of allegory to help people think differently. It also prompted an understanding of human behaviour, the power of relationships and interactions and a desire to go beyond the superficial.

Design isn’t just about beauty, but meaning. To be a good author, or designer, you have to go beyond the surface, understanding people’s true motivations, drivers and needs, and be able to create something that wasn’t obvious at first thought.


Sam Bompas, co-founder, Bompas & Parr (photo Charlie Surbey)
Sam Bompas, co-founder, Bompas & Parr (photo Charlie Surbey)

Having never studied a single design-related A-level (biology, geography, maths) or degree (geography), it is pretty clear that other subjects can lend vigour and variety to a designer’s work.

For any design agency strong design principles should be a given. It is the strange and unusual in terms of storytelling, technical innovation and inspiration that sets the work apart.

For our practice, my background in geography has often been a crucial factor in defining the creative for food design projects. These range from cooking with lava at 1350 degrees Celsius, to flooding buildings with cognac-based punch you can boat across.

Now we actively seek to recruit staff with unconventional backgrounds and personal interests to bring vitality to the work.


Sarah Hyndman, founder, Type Tasting
Sarah Hyndman, founder, Type Tasting

I was encouraged to study sciences and mathematics at school as these were considered to be the “serious subjects”. I always got good grades in physics and chemistry, and looking back I realise this is because I was already a fledgling graphic designer.

I was finding successful ways to communicate the information visually in a way which enabled me to understand it. My school books are full of carefully designed diagrams and charts, but they also have doodles and creative ideas spilling out into the margins.

Being curious about and inspired by different genres or disciplines is what underpins my approach today.


Annie Atkins, graphic designer for film
Annie Atkins, graphic designer for film

Maths is the subject I rely on every day. I work for American productions so I’m constantly converting imperial measurements to metric, and trying to calculate areas of sets for carpet and tile patterns.

It’s not my favourite part of the design process, I have to triple check everything before manufacturing just to be totally sure. But it’s essential, and nine tenths of the job really.

Well. That last fraction was probably an exaggeration.


Nadine Chachine, UK type director, Monotype
Nadine Chachine, UK type director, Monotype

I grew up in Lebanon during its civil war, and though our schools maintained top quality education during that period, art education was nowhere to be found. My biggest hurdle during my first years as a designer was that my eyes were simply not trained to recognise beauty, balance, layout and composition, or the power of expressive design.

This kind of training and appreciation for details takes many years in the making, and losing such training from schools in the UK is a grave set back to its ability to train designers that maintain a global leadership position.

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  • Nural Choudhury November 10, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Design as a profession has changed monumentally over the past 20 years and remains tethered to the industrialisation of our craft, the role of a designer has been forced to evolve by a combination of defining moments in our industry. The dot-com bubble, the decline of print and the explosion of social media. Then again with the huge push for online video and the challenge to disguise advertising as native content. What remains true to this day is art/design history is important. Working in VR as I am at the moment, the same rules apply as they did 300 years ago. Linear perspective , Size gradient, Shading and contours, Occlusion , Atmospheric blur, Motion parallax, the list goes on! What I would say is I am now finding business, communication, management and social skills as valuable as kerning, colour theory and historical knowledge. Continued learning is essentially the key and that yearn for self-improvement. The education system can’t tick every box, It’s up to us an an industry/community to contribute too.

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