More thoughts on teaching design research.


Mirror design inspired by design research

I proposed a number of questions in last weeks post and, leaving one or two unanswered promised to set the matter straight this week.  My choice of Art Deco as a teaching vehicle for the design skills that I want to give my pupils is based on several ideas, not least the ones that were raised in comments last week, the social, moral and economic events that surround the design of the period.  Design is a social activity and has meaning in relation to the society in which it is carried out, moral dimensions are easy to get at through a discussion of the costs of some of the objects, the materials used and the grinding deprivation of the Great Depression.  There is also a great deal of material available to work with in terms of published information, on line resources, film, literature and even the occasional relative who collects Art Deco.  Add to the mix the tendency for Art Deco to use shapes, forms and lines that are an easy draw on CAD packages in comparison the say Art Nouveau  and you have a winner.

I mentioned reading the object last week and perhaps that needs a little unpacking.  One way in which I get pupils to approach analysis of an object is to visualise it in a television advert.  We start by getting them to agree that they could all recognise certain sub groups in society by glancing at what they wear and the kind of music they listen to.  For me in this part of the world I usually use surfers and skaters.  If you have the inclination you can explore the way in which most of us take in a room at a glance, categorise it and operate in it without really looking very much at what is in the room.  In the same way most of my pupils will concede that they can tell a skater at a  glance.  About now someone will get a little uncomfortable and question this idea as discrimination.  An opening to explore the issues that discrimination used to be seen as a quality, not a weakness, and that as designers we are going to use generalisations about groups of people.  Time to mention the embarrassing, “shrinking and pinking” idea.

Time for the visualisation exercise.  Show an image of an object and ask them to mentally place it in an advert, then to picture the sort of room that it is in, the people who are using the room, what they are wearing, what else might be in the room, their class and their gender.  Often one of my students will suggest that all this is a matter  of opinion, not fact so we discuss this to see if we can arrive at a conclusion.  Given that we are generalising we might be able to describe a design as masculine without attempting to prevent women using it.  Time for a round the class discussion but of course I set thinking time and then systematically take one contribution from each pupil to avoid the usual rapid responders and to make sure that everyone is engaged.  You can use the usual; who, what, where, when, why but another productive one is to ask what the designer was thinking about or trying to do.

If you have done a good job with teaching the visual language of design then you should expect and pursue answers couched in these terms.  The reality is that once children start to use the vocabulary they start to see things in a different way.  Once the start to see like designers then they can start to use what they see to inform and refine their own design practice.  As a follow up it is very productive to pause the design process and get children to swap designs and then practice their new found skills on each others work.  A golden opportunity to explore the differences between childlike response to criticism and mature response.  Often you need little more than to explain the two; pointing out that their natural and immature response will be to defend their design to the hilt but that as designers we have to learn to take criticism, reflect on it and act in response to it.  I love my visualiser for this, something about projecting an image of a students work on the screen where a minute ago a design icon appeared depersonalises the experience.  (An observation from a professional designer and design educator recently reminded me that we don’t do this kind of co design activity enough in schools, as he pointed out as soon as they get to college it will be work on the table for a group crit, better be ready to handle it.)

You will be able to see if this is working for your pupils when you suddenly find yourself confronted by design work where something about the line, the shape, the rhythm stops you in your tracks.  A colleague of mine always assures me that this sort of thing comes from the children, my response is that it was not coming from them until she started working with them.  Another wonderful response I received was a complaint by one of my students. We had been doing some analysis of designs when she assured me that I had ruined television for her.  I protested that I oculd not have possibly done that and she assured me that all she could do during the adverts was spot the designers of the objects.  She was looking pained, I was ecstatic.

All that remains is to insist that when your students are analysing designs for their own projects they apply similar techniques and use the same concepts.  Shared critiques of each others design not only gives the opportunity to practice and develop the skills it also means that you don’t have to be the one doing it all.  Now that has to be a good thing.


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