Great design boosts our economy and democracy – but may not be around for much longer

Policy Connect’s Naomi Turner expands on Victoria & Albert Museum director Martin Roth’s claims that UK design education is failing students.

The John Madekski Garden at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Source: Victoria & Albert Museum

The John Madejski Garden at the Victoria & Albert Museum

It was a pleasure to read Victoria & Albert Museum director Martin Roth’s piece in the Evening Standard Evening Standard this week.

While nodding to the UK’s incredibly creative fashion scene, Roth very eloquently makes the point that such moments do not just happen. Rather, this talent is nurtured through the teaching of skills – drawing, designing and making – that are largely unchanged through time. The brilliant late Alexander McQueen, for example, understood both ‘the energy of the street’ and youth culture, but combined this with a skillset developed when training as tailor on Savile Row. He also spent a significant amount of time in the V&A’s fashion collections, immersing himself in the craft and technology of garment design and materials.

However, Roth continues, through the museum’s work with young designers through various education, outreach and exhibition programmes, it sees far too many students and graduates are without the requisite drawing and making skills, and have only a vague understanding of what has come before.

Roth argues that the reason for this is simple – that education policy does not see art and design as core curriculum subjects and therefore does not allocate these subject areas the funding they deserve.

A significant proportion of my work managing the All Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group is spent with organisations who are gravely concerned about the decline in tactile design skill. While the Design Commission undertook in depth research on this topic in 2012, we still see the same rhetoric repeated within the Department for Education (although, interestingly, not in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who have vocally supported the use of design in science and technology research).

Paradoxically, while ‘making’ is increasingly in vogue, the question of how to communicate its fundamental importance to decision-makers (almost overwhelmingly schooled in traditional academic subjects) remains a tricky one. The near total absence of scientists in the Commons, and the comparatively vocal criticism this receives, should be noted here – few make a similar complaint about the lack of designers and makers.

The task, then, is left to skills-sector bodies. The Crafts Council is compiling its own education manifesto for craft and making, to be launched in Parliament in November. The Design and Technology Association is committed to creating resources to help D&T teachers understand and implement new National Curriculum requirements and has its very own ‘Skills Gap programme’ which provides CPD and teaching materials through teachers working collaboratively with engineering, manufacturing and design businesses. Finally, Creative and Cultural Skills works to persuade government that the catch-all label of ‘creativity’, so highly valued in today’s workplace, is dependent on the basic building blocks of drawing, designing and prototyping.

As a historian of design, the absence of strategic support for design education is also of particular concern. The Government no longer buys wholesale into the notion that industrial design is key to our competitiveness as a nation, despite the enormous potential for well-designed, embedded technologies in our homes and cities to be a massive growth area for the UK. Large-scale outsourcing of production and a huge loss in our manufacturing base has had a knock on effect in how ‘making things’ is perceived by communities  – dirty work, poorly paid, subject to redundancies – when in fact the opposite is true. Our politicians – no longer the industrialists, designers or architects of the Victorian era – increasingly see creativity as a risky business, despite their unwavering support for the ‘high value’ creative industries, such as television (Downton Abbey being the most popular example) and games design (in itself obviously a design discipline).

There are of course organisations that have been active in the promotion of design education: the Sorrell Foundation, for example, is growing its hugely popular Saturday Art and Design Club throughout the UK. This is a reincarnation of the government-sponsored Saturday clubs that were started after World War Two in recognition that the design skillset – an ability to solve problems, design commercially viable products, and deal with the world’s growing complexity – would be key to reviving the UK’s fortunes in the latter half of the 20th century. Likewise, there are a growing number of baby-boomer-era designers angry that those behind them – from ordinary backgrounds, and all over the UK – are now denied the right to a creative education at university without acquiring a crippling amount of debt.

However, as Roth points out in his piece, the education problem is structural, and these precious initiatives are too fragmentary, too small and too urban. Roth also makes the point that design practice strengthens our democratic culture, to which I add that this can be seen in the growing numbers of recent graduates interested in social, sustainable and environmental design. There is an argument that the fledging existence of concerns are a further iteration of an ongoing cycle, the last instance being Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World or Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth catalogue, both of which inspired countless designers and activists in the Western world. However, fundamental shifts in UK education, industrial and skills policy in the last 50 years leads me to suggest that what we are seeing now is quite different.  

Teaching children about design now will help them navigate an increasingly complex world. As well as realising that we are being designed into systems, design centres people as active agents who can equally design ourselves out. As well as recognising good design, we should also pay critical attention to the vast amounts of the bad. Perhaps this next wave of designers – and their wider concerns and goals – are a consequence of the realisation that such education does not come so cheap. 

Naomi Turner is head of the Manufacturing, Design and Innovation Group at Policy Connect.

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