By Simon Ashford
As a design educator in search of my own personal ‘Mr Chips’ moment, I ask, “What can we do better to prepare students for a career in design?” In answer to this, I polled some industry heavy weights at an AGDA function. Expecting they would bemoan the age-old chestnut that design graduates often can’t drive a layout program, thus fuelling my self appointed mission to rectify this.
The answer, however, wasn’t quite what I had expected. Apparently there’s a new chestnut in town; that being many design graduates lack the ability to think creatively. The cause of this was cited as the emergence of Google. Give a design graduate a brief and they will inevitably turn to Google to supply them with a stream of solutions from which to select the most relevant/fashionable and lay claim to this booty as their own invention. Another bugbear is the heavy reliance on design blogs as a cornucopia of ideas and creative solutions. Given that most young designers drink from the same fountain, they inevitably end up with the same predictable solutions.
It is worthy of mention that 6 August 1991 is cited as the birth of the Web. This year being its twentieth year; we are now educating the first generation to not known a time without it.
So how do we inspire creative thought? Surely creativity should be innate? The desire to originate fresh ideas and to be different to your peers would be what leads you towards the doors of a design school?
You’ll have twigged that I’m long enough in the tooth to have studied when computers were still large, beige calculators that filled whole floors of office buildings. I rightly predicted that they would never catch on. I still get a tingle of excitement when I smell fresh cow gum, spray mount and lighter fuel. Surely that is how design studios should smell? However, sometime in the early nineties, I remember seeing an image of a designer sitting bare footed on a decking amongst a tree canopy with their Apple Mac. I ached for the day when we could work anywhere… free from the smell of carcinogenic spray mount.
However… I like Google. I like blogs. They are good things. Libraries are good too but I prefer book shops. Easy access to information can only be a great thing.
In my quest I Googled these questions and found a number of theories. It turns out that these are not new problems. Design students have always been considered unproductive. Long before social networking and Google. As proof of this allow me to remind you of an old joke?
“Why don’t design students look out of the window in the morning?
So that they’ll still have something to do in the afternoon” Vintage comedy.
Google told me that design students are not lazy or stupid; they are afraid… of failure and criticism. We are all the products of an education system that places high regard on measurable intelligence. Science, Maths and English. Subjects where there is simply a right or wrong answer. Or lists of facts committed to memory and then repeated in an exam. Even sporting intelligence can be measured by goals scored or how fast someone has run or swam. Acknowledgement of other forms of intelligence is not given credit. Because it’s hard to define what is an original thought. How do you measure creativity? We don’t yet have a ruler with which to measure design originality.
Our current education system was established during the industrial revolution when educated workers were needed to work in our factories. Before this time your father was a baker, you became a baker. Unless of course you were female – and then you just knitted dresses, cooked and mothered.
Intelligence is much broader than these concepts. James Halliday, the wine critic has a palette that can appreciate tastes way beyond what most of us can begin to perceive. David Beckham can stop a ball dead and bend it around a wall of defenders with exceptional accuracy. Kinetic intelligence.
But we understand a great idea when we see it even if it can’t be measured.
We still use a pass or fail system to measure students’ endeavours. Ironically, we are not permitted to use the word ‘fail’ because it is deemed discouraging. Just like the real world… instead we have ‘competent’ and ‘not yet competent.’ Even though young parlance freely uses the terms FAIL and WIN from computer game vernacular.
We learn through discovery and play. This is at the heart of all creative journeys. Play without fear of failure or critical judgement. So my advice to any young designer is to play fearlessly and tenaciously. Use Google; but ask it great questions. And question the answers you get. Read design blogs. They are food. Understand where the clichés are. Suspend the voice in your head that evaluates your ideas. Allow them to sit on the page and mingle with the other ideas. Move way beyond your first idea.
Network with other designers in a supportive and collaborative environment. They may not spoon feed you fresh ideas but they’ll applaud your courage, hard work and creativity as well as forgive your experiments. Be amongst your people. In order to foster this creative culture, un-friend all the dull people from your social network.
But remember… learn how to drive those layout tools.