Evolving design teaching in a changing education climate

The journey students take to come to us is changing, and has altered quite considerably since I was in education as a learner, rather than a teacher.

This is both a challenge and great opportunity. It means we have had to adapt our programmes in order to make sure everyone studying with us gets to explore a full breadth of design thinking, making and processing, using a range of materials, to find their own direction.

The days when everyone coming to study art and design would have done an art foundation diploma are long gone. During a foundation, (which is different to the foundation year on offer with some courses at the University) students learn about the different creative opportunities - graphics, illustration, 3D design etc - via a rotational system. Those who still follow this route have therefore already been exposed to choice, and have chosen their higher education discipline with a clearer understanding of the options open to them.

Nowadays, with the changes to higher education funding and the cost to students, many are choosing to come straight to university. Additionally, for various different reasons to do with funding and the fact design is not a STEM subject in schools, there are fewer opportunities for individuals to try different practices and processes within designing, making and creative arts at an earlier stage in their education.

In response to these changes, in order to give students a clearer-focused understanding of their options, we have designed our first term programme to be comparable to a mini foundation in designing and making. It’s all about trying to get everyone on a level playing field, getting students who come to us from all walks of life to a similar level of understanding and confidence as early as possible, to allow their learning to flourish.

The parallel with my own career is that I’m interested in numerous creative activities and have a particular curiosity in finding the area of passion in other people. I have spent time making and selling sculptural work, and I realised that after a time I was churning out work, it became less creative and more financial.

The long and short of it is that I discovered I’m less interested in making money by making objects, and more interested in working to enable others to find their ‘thing’. But I only came to that realisation by trying a range of options and alternatives.

The great thing about our programme is that we let people have a go at many different creative processes. Students try the three different disciplines - Designer Maker, Product Designer and Spatial and Interior Designer, and they have access to all our workshops including wood, metal, ceramics and digital fabrication. It’s not about turning up with a strong idea of what they want to produce, instead it’s about having an awareness that they want to design and make, that they’re passionate about this type of creative activity.

There is definitely a comparison with the celebrities: some of them found a process or material they were really very good at or really enjoyed using, while others were very clear after certain tasks that they never wanted to do it again.

To return to our course - it’s all about choice and investigation into one’s own interests. We pride ourselves on our programme being unusual and unique: when asked, many of our students cite choice and the ability to work in an interdisciplinary way in both a studio and workshop environment as what drew them to the University. They have the choice to investigate across the three disciplines, play with ideas and possible career outcomes, and don’t have to decide which pathway to pursue until the end of their first year.

Although students have that choice in which discipline to choose, we do believe it’s really important all of them understand how materials work, and what the limitations are etc. This can only happen by getting them to explore materials and processes in the workshops. If a student says ‘I want to make this’, we’ll ask ‘so how are you going to make it’, and we expect them to have at least a basic understanding of material and making properties as a strong starting point.

That’s where our fantastic facilities come into their own. Along with our great traditional material and making facilities, managed by skilled technicians, we have a new digital fabrication lab opening for the new academic year. Together this gives us a perfect balance of digital and hands-on making and everything in between, and incidentally that applies to every subject area in the School of Art, Design and Architecture. Whether it’s photography, illustration or anything else, we do analogue to digital.

Mirroring the real world of employment, our School is developing a strong transdisciplinary environment with some areas moving towards working in a much more design agency-type way. For example, if a design student requires great photographs of their work they may collaborate with one of their peers in photography. Many students develop skills and expertise from other programmes.

While our students have all sorts of adventures when they graduate, getting jobs in the design industry, working with the University’s Formation Zone to set up a business, continuing on to postgraduate study, one thing they all do is keep in touch with us. What is great is that when they graduate they become our friends, and every year, when we attend big events like New Designers, one of the best things is catching up with everyone to see how their careers have developed, and plotting ideas on how we might collaborate on a project or two.

“With life being very digitalised now, physically making something is great for mental health and that feeling of achievement whatever the level of craftsmanship.”

Studying 3D Design at the University of Plymouth