We need to remember that design is more than just making things pretty

When writing about, thinking about or teaching design, we need to remember that it’s not just about making things.


Entrepreneur Neeti Kailas has written an interesting piece in the Guardian about the development of the Sohum Innovation Lab, which aims to provide ‘context-specific healthcare for resource-poor settings’, for example dealing with hearing loss among young children in rural India.

In her piece, Kailas also gives a very accurate and timely description of what design should be: ‘For those who think that design means to make things pretty, let me clarify that, first, design should be empathetic to the problems of others. Second, it solves these problems in a creative way so that it drives value for everyone involved.’

This statement is accurate because, as Kailas points out, design should be as much about the process as about the end result – ‘empathetic to the problems of others’.

And it’s timely because it comes in the midst of a debate about how design is being taught and how designers of the future will see their roles.

The new National Curriculum is set to launch next month, bringing with it a new definition of design teaching (which we will be examining over the coming weeks).

In advance of this, Victoria & Albert Museum director Martin Roth has attacked what he sees as a lack of ‘basic skills’ among students adding,  ‘The reason is simple. These subjects are not considered “core” to the national curriculum and so they lack funding and facilities.’

I would go further than Roth, and suggest that even more worrying than a lack of teaching basic skills is a lack of teaching creative thinking.

Design teaching, in my opinion, ought to be focused not so much on doing and making as on problem-solving, questioning, and building confidence.

The RSA Pupil Design Awards, which launched this year and for which I was on the judging panel, is an exemplar of how to do this – giving a framework for pupils to explore and interrogate their own ideas.

When writing about, thinking about or teaching design, it’s worth bearing Kailas’ definition in mind – design is about solving problems, listening to people and creating value – not just about making things pretty.

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