What Are The Skills Required For A Teacher Of Product Design?

Product DesignI have just answered a question on a forum I use whereby a colleague has asked what, exactly, are the skills required for a teacher of Product Design?  As someone who has taught and worked with Schools & a few Universities over 27 years delivering Product Design (and has now moved on into a consultancy capacity) I felt I could offer some thoughts based on reasonable experience.

For me, the key skills (in no particular order) are:

  • The ability to sketch with a pencil/biro on paper for me is the most important. You don’t have to be a ‘brilliant sketcher (some are, some aren’t…) but a picture really does paint a thousand words. Convey your ideas freely and spontaneously in the first instance. You can then sieve through all the ‘reality’ checks regarding manufacture, costs, health and safety etc. as you develop your concepts and ideas.
  • Modelling/prototyping and manufacture is vital.  Forget any CAM at this stage but having basic key making skills across a range of resistant (woods, metals, plastics) and compliant (paper, card, clay) materials is a requirement of the job, not incidental.
  • Don’t have a fear about the latest CAD/CAM software or latest technology. Be aware of it, have a grasp of what it can do for you then look to use part of your team to apply the bits you need. Don’t expect to be a knowledgeable user on everything.  Know what you want and drag the resources (human and other…) towards your goal. You will have skills in one or two areas but invariably as a product designer you will be, re-wording a well-known phrase slightly, ‘Jack of all trades, master of one or two possibly…
  • Take risks. Challenge the status Quo BUT be prepared to support and justify your decisions – back them up with substance.  Always ask ‘Why not?’ rather than simply ‘Why?’
  • Stay on top of communication throughout a project be it Twitter, email or phone calls. Above all else, don’t forget that ‘facemail’ i.e. talking to someone over a beer, coffee etc. is the most important part of a project and establishing a rapport with your pupils/students/clients/customers/colleagues is vital. In today’s society it is being rapidly forgotten but people skills are crucial to success.  Don’t lose them.
  • Don’t be afraid to say to a student/colleague/client simply ‘I don’t know’. On teacher training I have seen so many good practitioners trip and stumble by trying to pretend that they know an answer because they feel that they will lose face. Don’t. Be honest. You will get more respect that way. Admit you are unsure and then say ‘…however, let’s go and see what we can find out about this to try and get an accurate answer…’ Everyone learns then.
  • When using the World Wide Web to research things don’t just search in your own language. Use words from other cultures. I am still amazed when I see youngsters (and adults) gathering research by, for example, just typing in English words. Use French, Spanish (Mandarin or Japanese if you want to show off…). Chair/Chaise/silla, car/voiture/coche and so on. Not everyone writes their websites in English (or French or Spanish…). You open up a whole extra slice of the internet regarding idea generation by doing this.
  • Listen to your students/clients. Show an appreciation for what they are saying to you. Tease out the important bits of information. Never wade in directly and say to someone (especially a youngster) that their idea is stupid, silly or fantasy. You don’t have that right. Guide them, educate them, inspire them but never stamp on their ideas.
  • Above all else, enjoy what you do. As a teacher of design, irrespective of discipline, every day brings a new challenge and that is a wonderful way to work.

SteamPunk Design – What is it exactly?


Firstly I must say that I absolutely love this genre of design. As a way of inspiring and influencing students to think creatively with their design work it is brilliant. They have to:

  • Explore design and product history fully to understand
  • Make creative decisions about the mix of aesthetics and technology
  • Look carefully at the amalgam of materials and manufacturing methods
  • Be aware of the need for combining form and function in their work
  • Provides for some really cool sketch, concept and graphics work

What more do you need?

I first became aware of SteamPunk as a consequence of watching some very entertaining (in my opinion) films – ‘Mad Max’, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentleman‘, ‘The Wild, Wild West‘ and the ‘Fifth Element’ to name a few.

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But what is SteamPunk exactly?

The genre seems to have originated during the 1980s and includes key design elements and influence from the areas of sci-fi, fantasy and history.  My design students have taken a lot of influence from the genre, and have used that influence successfully in their A-Level design work, but trying to hang a summative phrase to sum up the movement is not easy.

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Having trawled ‘t’interweb’ and looked in some books the best single phrase that sums up SteamPunk design for me is this:

‘What the 21st century thinks that the Victorians thought the 21st century would be like’

There is no doubt that the opportunity to design products that embrace this genre facilitates that ‘creative juice’ flow. Kids get it; they run with it and, to a certain extent, are not constrained over and above the historical context.

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The opportunity to explore an eclectic range of traditional materials in their work (copper, brass, steel, wood….but remember NO plastics other than to create models that represent the genre 😉 ) means any manufacturing work that you do supports the theory with regard to design and making, using tools, machines and processes to fabricate their idea. Guys and girls are all motivated (jewellery, transport, fashion, tech products…) can all be tackled.

     Image  Image  steampunk laptop

If you are looking for a starting point to kick off a project then SteamPunk is a massively fun and creative way forward.


No links to key sites on this blog entry – Google is your friend. Go and have a look.

You’ll be inspired.

Tutorial: Sketching the side view of a car using Markers

I have jumped a head a bit here with this marker tutorial (not mine I might add, but one from a very good YouTube channel I subscribe too – iDCreatures). I like this though and I will post the pencil sketching tutorials I use shortly.

Sketching with a pencil on paper is a key design skill. In my teaching I spend considerable time on honing basic sketching skills in both 2D and 3D with my students – starting off as soon as I can with them.

This video shows how you can work quickly with markers and ‘sketch’ just like you would with a pencil.

Having confidence is key…confidence to make mistakes and not worry about them on the paper. I hope you like it.

What, exactly, is Design Education in Schools?


I had a slightly heated, yet amicable, debate recently with a colleague I met at a conference who worked in a careers department within a school. It was over the labelling of my subject discipline (Design & Technology) as ‘soft’.  I argued that my subject has come a long way since it was ‘Craft Design Technology’ (CDT in the UK) and although it retains many of its core values there have been massive developments too over the past 25 years.

Anyway, this view, expressed above, was based on the apparent thoughts held by some of the UK universities in the ‘Russell Group’ (a group of perceived ‘top’ UK universities) that certain subjects at post 16 level of study were not as ‘hard’ as others.  Although my colleague and I parted on good terms (having finished off a bottle of Corbieres on the last evening of the conference if memory serves me correctly) the conversation had left me somewhat perplexed.  The careers colleague I originally had the debate with had suggested that I should write something about it.  So here I am. Bear with me.

Once back at my office, I discovered (sadly) that this opinion was actually upheld by a few Staff Room colleagues, parents and, to my dismay, some pupils.  So, the first thing I did was to arrange a talk with my colleagues (grabbing 15 minutes in a Head of Departments meeting to give a well prepared presentation), preparing flyers to give out to parents and also giving talks to the academic scholars on ‘Design’.  Their perception of the subject ‘pre-talk’ was crass and mind blowing (although not malicious…they had just not been educated about it). At least when they left they were talking about it.


I had returned to the UK to teach having spent a decade in France, most of which was spent teaching at the International School of Toulouse – at the time the first fully lap-topped school in the Northern Hemisphere (back in 1998) where every child from 5 to 18 had a laptop (and all staff too).  Along the way, I had learnt my trade as a Design & Technology teacher via the likes of Taunton School, Whitgift School and Wellington College in the UK.  As an aside my enthusiasm for the subject was kindled in Hong Kong (Island School) where Design and Technology was well established and we did A-Level (it is worth noting that A-Level DT was an A-Level subject in the UK curriculum sometime before A-Level economics ever existed).

I digress. My time abroad in France was wonderful – involved with the design, build and resourcing of a brand new school using a new language, pioneering curriculum with new philosophies and teaching the IB Diploma and IGCSE qualifications with a like-minded group of pioneering teachers (neither of which I had taught before).

With regard to Design education three significant points came out of this experience for me.

Firstly I discovered how important it was to understand how the subject of Design is seen around the globe. With the IB (International Baccalaureate www.ibo.org ) Diploma, Design Technology is classed as a ‘Science’ within what is known as the ‘Group 4 Sciences’. Although this seemingly offers significant academic kudos (after all, in the eyes of many, Sciences are up there with Maths and English) I do not believe this is right.  Design is not a Science anymore than it is ‘Art’. The subject of Design sits quite comfortably in-between the two and should be seen as a subject of application – an application of a range of subject skills from a variety of different disciplines (History, Languages, Art, Maths, Business Studies, Sciences…).


Regarding the A-Level (UK) set-up, ‘Design & Technology’ is an umbrella title that covers a suite of syllabuses that include Product Design, Graphics, Textiles, System & Control, Resistant Materials and others. That too is going through slight change as the ‘Arts’ blend more with ‘Design’

Secondly, the modern Design department is not simply about manufacture – a very stereotypical view that still seems to exist in the minds of many especially within the independent sector of education in the UK. It is as mundane as saying that Geography is only about mountains, English is only about Shakespeare and Biology is only about flowers. Sure, manufacturing is an important component BUT it is simply the significant icing on a very big cake.

The embodiment of an idea, teaching our young to think creatively (not divergently necessarily) and enabling them to convey their ideas on paper with a pencil in sketched and noted form are absolute pre-requisites if we are to help nurture a better future – a future that embraces change, explores new ideas but also retains basic heritage and all that is good in the design of products that improve the lives of people on this planet.


A quick sketch has no linguistic boundaries; it can convey a physical attribute, an aesthetic detail, a human resource structure or an instant solution to a problem (a map to direct someone using arrows for example). The pencil sketch is the single most important skill any student can have BUT it is not the only one. Students in Design have to write essays (yes, my careers colleague seemed oblivious to this…how else do you convey your thoughts and construct your arguments on design history, the use of smart materials, the values of sustainability etcetera in product design to the world…), sit lengthy exams, produce extensive portfolios, present to clients and peers, engineer function and aesthetics into their ideas (including ergonomics, sustainability etc.), use ICT including CAD and CAM (Computer aided design and manufacture) and video, evaluate and test their ideas, write conclusions, market and cost their proposals. The course of study is significant in terms of breadth and depth.

Thirdly, I have always struggled to understand why ‘Technology’ has been bolted onto the creative and academic subject of ‘Design’. It really grates with me and is one of the reasons, I believe, why the subject of Design has been misunderstood in recent years. Certainly, in the IB the subject is called ‘Design Technology’ (no ‘and’) whilst ‘Technology’ seems to be associated only with computers…whilst at A-level it is called ‘Design AND Technology’.   Go figure…no wonder there is confusion out there!

To me, all subjects in the modern curriculum use Technology (and we are not simply talking about computers or ‘ICT’ here – that is a gripe for another time) – Geography (Data loggers), Maths (Graphic calculators), Languages (podcasting), Theatre (Video) and so on…so, I reiterate, why add the word ‘Technology’ only to ‘Design’?

For those who feel that I am missing the point, and that I am not considering ‘Technology’ as an academic area of study then you just have to look at other subject content to see that technology is studied elsewhere within the modern curriculum. Physics (Mechanisms, electricity, motion, energy…) and Maths (Mechanisms, loci, energy…) are just two such examples. But we don’t call them ‘Physics and Technology’ or ‘Maths and Technology’ (although I happen to think that Science and Technology would be a far better suite of subjects in the same way that the common denominator between ‘Art and Design’ and ‘Design and Technology’ happens to be ‘Design’) so why, again, do we tag the creative and academic subject of ‘Design’ with the word ‘Technology’?

To add even more confusion into the mix the way that ‘Design’ as a discrete subject discipline is perceived around the globe only serves to add to the conundrum. In the United States there is ‘Workshop’ or ‘shop’ for manual skills (woodwork, car maintenance etc.), which is divorced from any real academic pursuit, through to ‘Technology’ in France, which from my experience tends to exist of a pillar drill on the end of a Physics bench or some electronics and soldering work.  Design history? Sketching? Forget it.

ImageOnly time will tell how the curriculum providers take this forward. There was some rebellion recently when in the UK the government tried to make some truly vacuous and infantile changes to the core ‘Design and Technology’ curriculum. Thankfully, common sensed prevailed and we, the professionals, were listened too and many problems were averted.

The ‘new curriculum orders’ for the UK are certainly a far better proposition but:

  1. Are they any better than what was already in place?
  2. Would a global approach at finding some common denominators across curriculums to help define what  ‘Design’ is help the situation?

That is a blog entry for another time.

Where Good Ideas Come From

“We love to believe in that eureka moment, where a good idea suddenly comes out of nowhere to the lone genius.

In reality, ideas are born in very different situations. In “Where Good Ideas Come From”, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation to discover certain surprising patterns that explain the birth of good ideas, and what we can do to improve the creativity of our environment”.

The importance of Sketching – a lost skill in schools?

There has been a lot of emphasis placed upon the use of CAD within schools.  (Computer Aided Design).  Given the way that we have embraced technology in our lives it is only right that we should embrace its use. But it often comes at a cost in creative school curriculums.

I feel that we have embraced CAD at the expense of teaching youngsters the vitally important skill of sketching.

It is important to understand that the modern Design (and Technology) department is not simply about manufacture. Sure, it is an important component BUT it is simply the much-needed icing on a very big cake.

The embodiment of an idea, teaching our young to think creatively (not divergently necessarily) and enabling them to convey their ideas on paper with a pencil in sketched and noted form are absolute pre-requisites if we are to help nurture a better future.

A quick sketch has no linguistic or cultural boundaries; it can convey a physical attribute, an aesthetic detail, a human resource structure, and so on. 

The pencil sketch is, without doubt, the single most important design skill any student can have if we are to nurture creativity in our schools.