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MARK founder John Miller's school project - a wooden bus Mathew Hilton’s papier-mâché head, circa 1970 Jay Osgerby’s wooden coat hook, made in 1986 Simon Pengelly’s cabinet, made aged 14-16 Ceramic room by Ab Rogers, aged 15 Michael Marriott’s desk lamp, made aged 16 Trammel set by Terence Woodgate Linda Morey-Smith’s car design, made aged 16 Ruth Wassermann’s side table, designed in 1996 Table by Tom Lloyd, aged 13 Wooden boat by Oliver Marlow of TILT, aged 13 Car by David Irwin, aged 7 Anna Hart’s coffee table, made in 1993 Box by Gala Wright, circa 1981 Paul Logan’s ceramic dish, made in 1978
05 Jun 2013

John Miller: the importance of making

Words by  Photo by Marek Sikora

Onoffice and John Miller co-curated the Making Designers show at Clerkenwell Design Week, an exhibition that aimed to highlight the importance of design in schools, at a time when it is under threat. Here's Miller's plea for a rethink, together with pictures of our famous exhibitors' school projects.

I realised a few years back that, while design is my profession and passion, my drive to design comes from a desire to make. In fact, I see design as a part of manufacturing more than an art-form: it came about through the Industrial Revolution – the market needed novel products, in greater numbers, and factories needed these products to be well thought-through, economical and suitable to the method of production. As individuals, too, we come to design in our early years through making, whether placing one block on top of another, modelling in clay or playing with Lego. Design comes about when we start to shape these efforts, especially when we do it for a particular purpose – like for a school project.

So a couple of thoughts crossed my mind. Firstly, whether this desire to make things was for other designers, like me, their route into the design profession; and whether they also value using their hands as well as their heads. Secondly, I became intrigued as to what today’s well-known industrial designers might have produced in their school workshops. How did the young Michael Marriott’s first attempt at a dovetail joint work out? Did Matthew Hilton or Linda Morey-Smith have a chance at school to make a wooden box or forge a coat hook – and have these items since been cherished on their parents’ mantelpiece? The answers can be seen here, and were seen in physical form at the Making Designers exhibition during Clerkenwell Design Week.

It was an entertaining exhibition, but it was not just for fun, and it was carefully timed – the place of designing and making as a key element in secondary education is currently under threat. Since the Education Act of 1944, which enshrined universal secondary education, ‘making’ in some shape or form has been on the school curriculum. When the National Curriculum was introduced in 1989, the subject of Design and Technology was introduced as compulsory, right the way through to school leaving age. Uniquely, ‘design’ found itself on the school timetable in two places – Art and Design, as well as Design and Technology (DT). The higher status of DT brought cash and resources pouring into the subject and ensured that all future citizens had a grounding in both designing and making things. The result is that every British-educated person of working age is likely to have experienced some form of practical, handicraft, home economics, or other workshop-based activity. 

DT is still compulsory, but only up to age 14, and in the latest reforms to GCSEs, new benchmarks disincentivise it (before, the key benchmark was 5 GCSEs from A*-C, including English and Maths; now, it’s A*-C in English, Maths, Science, a Language, and History or Geography – no sign of DT, or indeed any arts subject). Forthcoming curriculum changes (currently under review following consultation) are a further threat, with initial drafts showing an emphasis on subjects such as cooking and horticulture rather than CAD/CAM, new technology or even manufacturing.

The opportunity to learn through making was carried into our Bauhaus-informed design schools where workshops were often extensive, even on an industrial scale. The workshop was seen as a place not to go to make a finished piece, but a place to go to find something out. To experiment with the limits of a material or machine: what was possible, what was impossible, and what impossible things could be made possible.

The future of such opportunities for young people now looks to be in doubt. On the one hand, head teachers at academies and free schools have greater freedom to choose what is taught in their schools (such schools now comprise over 50% of state secondaries). On the other hand, these schools’ success will be measured by the ever-narrowing range of metrics detailed above that favour certain subjects over others. So heads who are ambitious for their school’s appearance on the league tables are choosing to put time and resource into the favoured subjects and as I write are laying off DT teachers and closing workshops.

Meanwhile in colleges and universities, heads of design are exhausted from arguing for the importance of the workshop to the whole ethos of the subject. “Surely”, it is often argued, “design is done on a computer. Why can’t a suite of 3D printing machines replace space-hungry workshops?” The answer, according to many of the designers involved in this show, is that this approach trains people to design things that can’t be made. As furniture and product designer Mark Gabbertas put it to me: “The whole world wants to be a designer nowadays but has a limited idea of how to realise their beautifully crafted renderings.”

The ‘straight from my computer to a 3D object’ approach also has the problem of removing most human contact from the design process – the student can design and make a product without input from others. The school and college workshop environment is where we learn how to express what we want to achieve, how to use technical language, even how to get along with technicians – a key skill for all designers.

On a recent visit to a newly formed academy school I saw that although workshops and a hands-on education were both on offer, the only qualifications this led to were vocational (City & Guilds Carpentry and Construction).  There was a clear demarcation in this school that the workshops were there for the training of future builders and craftsmen. Presumably the aspiring artists, engineers, architects and designers were ushered towards the classroom instead.

And this isn’t just about future designers. If we want to nurture young people in all fields who can innovate, collaborate, work in teams and achieve results I can recommend nothing better method than designing and making things in workshops. This is a live debate and I would urge all who value designing and making as key parts of a well-rounded education to make their views known through their MPs, direct to the education secretary Michael Gove, or through professional and trade associations.

Pictured: school projects by all the Making Designers exhibitors: John Miller, Matthew Hilton, Jay Osgerby, Simon Pengelly, Ab Rogers, Michael Marriott, Terence Woodgate, Linda Morey-Smith, Ruth Wassermann, Tom Lloyd, Oliver Marlow of TILT, David Irwin, Anna Hart, Gala Wright, Paul Logan.

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