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.

It’s Not About The Technology. It’s How We Use It. Brilliant.

Seeing this video, and then watching it again (and again) made me both very excited, and very anxious, about the future.

We have the technology – it is out there. But, for me as as a designer and teacher this clip highlighted to me the fact that our focus in schools needs to shift with regard to ‘Technology’ (a word that I admit to not liking) and we need to shift significantly.

It’s about educating kids and adults on how to interface with the technology – NOT the technology itself. I see it with my mum. She has the technology at her fingertips (TV remote) but has no clue what button does what to change the parameters for her viewing pleasure even though she thinks the picture is a bit ‘red’ (for example). She has not been taught – it is assumed knowledge by the manufacturers of the TV.

This video is brilliant. It highlights the exciting times that we are moving in but at the same time it highlights the major issues (especially with an ageing population) that many will face by simply being ‘lost’ in a world overtaken by technology and in particular user interfaces.

Kids will cope – they will grow up with it and they soak this stuff up like a sponge. But the others? Mum, dad….? How will they cope?

Many thanks to #pierslinney for sharing this video link on his blog (which is well worth a read by the way…).

My Top Ten Design Fails (Shopping Trolley Muppets and Other Things)


Everyone at some point in their lives have encountered a product, service or ‘thing’ that simply does not work right…or at least not as the user had anticipated (or indeed as the designer had envisaged the user ‘using’ it).

We all have our own dislikes, frustrations or even hatreds for these products, services and ‘things’ that we use in our daily lives that simply don’t do what we want, as we want, when we want. On almost every level, they fail. Abysmally.

So, here is my own top ten of fails, in no particular order of merit or ‘fail’…Please add yours to my blog in the reply section below and let’s see what size of compendium we can build up on this.

For fun 😉

Predictive text. Drives me nuts. Simple words become nightmares. Names become rude slogans and its not until you have sent your message that you realise you have just called your loved one a ‘chilly bunt’ (or something worse….). Anyway, I’m off for a Hermaphrodite. Damn, I meant Heineken….see what I mean?

Q. Do not make predictive text the default setting on your mobile technology. Make it a ‘select’ item that you have to look for in the sub menu. That way you avoid the problem.

‘Rip off’ tops on food products as you find on yoghurts, microwave meals (the cellophane bit…) and so on. Do they ever really work properly? They tear off in ‘strands’ leaving you to dive in with your fingers or use the end of the spoon to ‘flip’ the remaining shreds off, sending dairy product or hot microwaved product onto clothing and walls. Grrrr….

Q. Please can we have a ‘pull off’ lid on food containers that works in one easy to manage ‘pull’? If not. A simple clip/screw on lid will suffice….possibly.

Rubbers/erasers on the ends of pencils. All they do, at best, is smudge your work with an artistic pink goo or, at worst, rip your paper to shreds. Do yourself a favour and invest in a decent pencil and a decent rubber/eraser.

Q. Why indoctrinate young kids with these foul pieces of design at such an early age? Ban them (the pencils with rubbers on that is, not the kids) from primary schools and beyond. Please.

Hotel showers. Yes, you read that correctly. Not so much the actual shower as such but the cubicle surrounding it. Firstly, despite my best efforts in units with curtains water still gets out. Curtains are too short or do not pull around enough (especially on those stupid shower units stuck in a bath).

Secondly, I can never find a decent little shelf at a convenient height to place my shampoo and shower gel. I end up having to try and balance the two items on the actual tap/shower unit ‘thingy’ and invariable one or both of the items fall off, sometimes breaking the lid or splitting the bottle. Genius.

Q. Get someone to DESIGN your showers with the USER in mind? If you are stuck, give me a call.

Supermarket trolleys (and the people that use them). Bear with me on this one…I suppose in a way this is a bit of a left field call BUT some of the absolute morons I have encountered in supermarkets using trolleys is unprecedented.

We could start with the ‘out of control’ person who fails to control their trolley and allows it to either ‘wander’ into your shiny paintwork as they walk towards the supermarket doors OR they simply leave it unattended as they load their own car so that it slowly runs away into your car in the car park (Thought – brakes on supermarket trolleys like airport ones have?)

Now we are inside. Idiot one has absolutely no idea which way they are going, so you anticipate their move and overtake on the left as they are looking right….but they turn left straight into you pinning your kid who was walking beside your trolley (Thought – install ‘trafficators’ – google it – like you used to get on early Morris minors and Mercedes).

Next you have the family clan who just stop in the middle of a crowded isle to have an argument or discussion about something – blocking the whole damn channel. Follow that up with the business man/woman who parks their trolley in front of the most widely sought out shelf of kids cereals as they cheerily run off to different points of the compass to get their food and drink items….only to return and find you gently moving their trolley so you can get your kids pack of ‘wheatabillycrunchythings’ from the shelf. They then attack you with a frozen fish or similar accusing you of interfering with their trolley (‘no parking trolley here’ signs with trolley wardens handing out penalties and fines if caught?)

Humph. I won’t go on…you get the picture.

Q. In addition to my above suggestions can we please introduce two things:

Firstly, a driving test for supermarket trolley users with ‘L’ plates for first time users, numpties and morons?

Secondly could we introduce an ‘Ikea style’ approach to supermarket shopping where you go round in one direction only. If you miss something there are one or two ‘short cuts’ or you simply just have to go round again. Bit like the M25 for my British friends….

Wheels on moveable BBQ’s. You move the BBQ, they fall off or fail to rotate rendering the BBQ static and making you wish that you had purchased the one without wheels in the first place. WTF (sorry….pet hate of mine. I love BBQ’s).

Q. We can design wheels and axles that live together in harmony on cars, planes, buses, motorcycles’ skateboards….so why can’t we have them on a BBQ please?

Car Dashboard Warning Lights OR Steering Wheels (depending on your viewpoint). You know the little orange light you can’t see as it is hidden behind the left hand spoke of your steering wheel that tells you your engine has just ceased to live anymore…? The reason why you can’t see it is that ‘modern design’ dictates that you can control speed, volume, sat nav, phone, air con and other things from your steering wheel so it is now so bloody fat (and requires a degree to work it) that it hides the important stuff on your dashboard e.g. That little sodding orange light that tells you that your engine has expired (or that you have just run out of go go juice, or that your engine has over heated….take your pick).

Q. Can we please put the important warning lights somewhere where they are more ergonomically accessible by the user? Maybe on the steering wheel…duh?

Hospital Crutches. The ones with the ‘easy to adjust’ ball bearing-on-a-spring mechanism? Easy to adjust? You kidding me? I have never able to get the right height for me or my kids as the adjustment does not offer that ‘half way house’ position that you are looking for. Also, after half an hour of use your hands are blue as all the blood has drained out of them and your palms are red raw. Oh, and what about the rubber bits they put on the bottom? They are lethal if they meet a wet surface. Like outside on a rainy day…or in a cafeteria where the floor has just been washed…or, from personal experience, in an airport toilet area where there is no flaming sign telling you the floor is wet until you find yourself horizontal with your head in a urinal and your crutches now scattered at all points of the compass . You get my drift…no pun intended.

Q. Can we have a comfortable, easy to adjust non-slip crutch design please that does not cause more injury and pain than the original ‘pre crutch’ ailment contributed?

Ceramic/Porcelain mugs when used in a Microwave. Ouch. Does not happen if you pour boiling water in from a kettle BUT if you microwave your drink the mug/cup gets scalding hot and that’s when you end up with ‘Royal Dalton’ branded into the palm of your hand.

Q. Is there not a way of designing a ‘cool handled’ mug for microwave use? When you take it out you can actually hold your drink safely? It would be handy…

Television Remote Controls. Did you know that there can be up to as many as 86 buttons on your average remote control? EIGHTY SIX. If we take away the on/off, volume up/down and programme up/down buttons. That leaves us with 81….okay, so lets take away (for the advance anoraks reading this) the menu button, remote in/AV option, numbers 0-9 and possibly the satellite link key (or what have you). Now we are left with 70 buttons. SEVENTY! What the hell do they all do?

In an age where most countries have an ageing demographic, and many did not ‘grow up’ with this technology, it is painful watching an old age pensioner (my mum for example) trying to turn on the TV let alone choose a channel and then adjust the volume. Why? Too many buttons, too small in size (especially with onset of arthritis) and illegible to someone rapidly losing good sight. Downright confusing.

Q. KISS? Keep It Simple Stupid. Either design a control that does not need all that often underused functionality OR design a skin (patented idea by me now ‘light bulb moment’) that rolls on to your average control (yes, like a condom…) that masks out all the non-required buttons leaving just the basic buttons exposed.

Genius. I’m here all week. I look forward to seeing your thoughts below.

What subjects to include in a modern curriculum?

I recently replied to another blog regarding subject development and inclusion for a possible home schooling curriculum i.e what subjects should be included in the provision?

The blog is an interesting read, focusing on homeschooling, with many good points and comments added to help fuel the debate. Core subject areas such as Science, Maths, History, Geography, English and others were included but others were not. This did raise alarm bells and highlighted some issues close to my heart, notably suggesting a curriculum that seemed to have an absence of any core activity relating to learning another Modern Language or anything to do with Design (and Technology) or manufacture.

Design as an academic (yes, academic…) and creative discipline spread across all areas of manufacture (not simply ‘woodwork’ for less able kids as it is was 25 years ago in the UK) has to be included if you are to nurture and develop youngsters who can deal with a world that is changing quicker than anyone can really understand.

Design education at its core is about problem solving, prototyping, discovering, sketching, innovating, making mistakes, taking risks and communicating on paper, on a computer and/or in a range of materials. Teaching youngsters how to think creatively, divergently and appropriately to help solve a problem is key. Manufacture using smart materials, composites, textiles, metals, woods and so on with a mix of current technologies (3D printing, cnc machining…) and basic hands-on manual skills related manufacture is crucial.

Some of these skills, notably the thinking and problem solving skills, are a pre-requisite if you are to maintain a curriculum that can support wealth creation and provide genuine capability that will serve your future bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians etcetera. Nurturing creativity is a basic subtext of education. Any proposed curriculum must not stifle it.

I also strongly feel that mastering at least one additional modern (and maybe other?) language is vital in todays world. Both my daughters (aged 9 and 17) are almost tri-lingual (English, French, Spanish) and the eldest is looking to start studying Mandarin. I am English, my wife is French – and you can probably argue that we have a slight head start here.

I am still amazed that many kids are still only taught to ‘Google’ in English – throwing in a French or Spanish word/phrase during your search will open up another third of the Internet for you allowing greater breadth and depth to your study, allowing access across different cultures and ideals. If you can really show off then throw Mandarin into the mix – the world is definitely your oyster in a few years time irrespective of academic discipline! Modern Languages are crucial to a youngsters development in this world which is becoming quite a small place to live in.

We are very naive if we think that our kids are not going to grow up and move into professions that will at least require them to communicate via email, talk on the phone or Skype to folk in another country at some point, let alone travel to another country with work (and quite possibly work abroad at some juncture in their careers). In 27 years I have either taught in a school, or worked as a consultant, in England, France, Hong Kong, Australia and Portugal. There will be more places to go as my work, or that of my wife’s, takes me there – of that I am sure. I reiterate; the world is a small place.

Of course there are a myriad of other subjects that need to be looked at, considered and either discarded or new ones thrown in to the mix but at this late hour I think I’ll stop there.

For now 😉


Design Thinking…

Design Thinking in Schools: Anthropology is more important than Technology


I often see an over emphasis on the use of Technology in Design teaching in schools. What should be happening is a greater focus on Anthropology – human kind.