In my book, I mention briefly the history of industrial design which I studied. It had never occurred to me to research the history of design education per se but this is fast becoming my newest obsession. I went up to Leeds last week and at the Henry Moore Institute, at the end of the ground floor exhibition, saw a little display case that contained Victor Pasmore’s ‘A developing process’. It was the exhibition catalogue of an ICA exhibition of his students work from 1953. Next to it was ‘A continuing process’ written in 1955–57 by David Thistlewood who commented on the impact of Pasmore’s work on art and design education.

I then stopped by the British Library to read the two publications and found such gems as:

‘My first duty as a teacher is to relax the student. This is not a state of half-sleep or languid stupor but one of poise and clarity with a conservation of vital energy as in a coiled spring awaiting trigger release’

‘Creating waves of susbstance by insubstantial means’

‘Industrial design no longer needs to aesthetic support of the fine art’

It got me thinking about the state of industrial and interaction design education in 2018, some 40 years after this was published.

  1. Design isn’t about art but it’s still taught that way.

I walked the halls of the New Designers show last month and saw, yet again, hundreds of design students who had produced renders. A render isn’t a product. It’s not a product you can test or learn from, it’s not a product that will ever be possible in the world, it’s nothing. It’s a prettier way of presenting an idea. If there was a ‘prototype’ it wasn’t a prototype, it was a model. It didn’t work, it couldn’t be tried on and it certainly would be made very differently if someone had to make 10 of them.

This is a problem. This obsession with the ‘protoype’ is completely ludicrous. A student will learn an amazing amount from trying to make multiple versions of one product, that’s what all of craftsmanship and industrialisation is about. The consumer product marketplace isn’t interested in a render It’s why Kickstarter don’t allow renders for their campaigns. It’s why online mattress companies are getting physical stores. Ultimately, nobody trusts an entire new product they can’t actually touch. And at New Designers, you can’t touch anything. Because none of it is true, real, or feasible. And we’ve trained design students to work in this way because of CAD.

2. Fucking CAD

The modernist classics we all aspire to buying were all designed without computers and by trying out and making multiple versions of something using different materials and different techniques. The Bauhaus (the inspiration for Pasmore) was focused on introducing students to small batch manufacturing because the craftsmanship of making more than one of something was an important process to relate to and take advantage of. You design differently when you make more than one of something. They even managed to sell some of the student works and manufacture it on campus while in Weimar and Dessau. That aspect of an ‘applied arts’ education has been completely dropped with the advent of computers.

When design education embraced CAD, it started to strip away the technical and materials-based capabilities of students. It moved the student away from a tangible, commercial output and manufacturing process.

The best example of this is automotive design. Generations of young men (mostly) made to believe there’s a market out there for their ridiculous car renders. There isn’t. That’s not how cars are designed. They are engineered by engineers with complex modelling software, pricing restrictions and safety regulations which is why there’s not a ton of actual innovation in the shape of a car.

These days, a fine art student is more likely to know about ceramics, wood and metal than a design student. And the CAD that is learnt isn’t even technical enough to manufacture anything in an industrial context. Recently of course, electronics came into the mix but that’s also to a degree another fallacy in design education. Learn to code and you’ll be a better designer they might say. Learn to solder and you’ll be a better designer. But most designers won’t. They’ll learn to copy and paste from previous examples and they’ll learnt how to plug things into a breadboard. They won’t work with an electronics engineer full time, they won’t understand software design cycles, security concerns, power management issues, connectivity issues. Nothing. Most of these issues are never experienced by design students in any way that would allow them to problem-solve their way through a design. They are kept shielded by those kinds of problems and those problems are ‘too technical’ but that’s what design is these days!

You can’t build what you don’t know and you should build to know.

Sticking to an idea, post-its, a render, makes you at best a meagre marketer and user researcher but not a designer as you don’t fundamentally understand the realities of your craft and its materials. You don’t understand the impact of the product in someone’s life unless you’ve got something there that feels and acts real. You don’t have a product unless you know that more than 2 people want to use it. You don’t know that unless you’ve made 10. And the process of making 10 of something is completely different from making one.

Much of the Bauhaus’s catalogue was produced locally by factories in Dessau and a royalty scheme was set up for students in some of the workshops. Imagine being able to do that now with local manufacturers? They don’t have to be large batches but small bespoke, bijou batches of student work feels incredibly relevant and at the same time completely impossible. Wouldn’t it be fantastic? It hardly happens at all. Even MIT Design who collaborated last year with Puma for the Milan Design Festival made renders and 3D prints.

12 years after I graduated from Ivrea, I can’t see that design education has moved forward at all. There are more one-off prototypes with electronics in them, but there’s still not crowdfunded student work that exists in the real world that I can buy at a student show. I’m still looking at renders, videos, post-its and I’m bored. The work hasn’t been done even if the tools are here, the access is unprecedented and cheap and the talent international and easy to find.

Total Design

The Bauhaus (the inspiration for Pasmore) was focused on connecting processes with small batch manufacturing because the craftsmanship of making more than one of something was an important process to relate to. They even managed to sell some of the student works and manufacture it on campus while in Weimar and Dessau. For whatever reason that aspect of an ‘applied arts’ education has been completely dropped and I really think it’s about time to bring it back. Craftsmanship in industrial design and modern design practices means knowing about software, hardware, materials, bonding techniques, bills of materials, budgets, supply chain, user behaviour, user data, GDPR, marketing. This, all this, should be design education today.

Author of 'Smarter Homes: how technology has changed your home life' (Apress, 2018) Writing a book on corporate innovation culture out in 2020. Designer. UK.