A process of design

Paul Woodward
10th June 2016 at 15:38

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, A process of design

I often wonder what the modern design classroom would look like without computer technology. It is certainly very different from my school days, but that is mostly down to new materials and manufacturing processes…and we never had computers or the internet back then. The subject has quite rightly adapted to the changing technological needs of society and the environment but we should also consider that design as a process is still open to adaptation even though it may seem at times that is hasn’t changed that much at all in the last 30 years.

The new curriculum advocates that schools take an iterative approach to design projects as it is the easiest to manage. This fairly linear process is easier to plan out as each stage can be completed in a given timeframe and there is a natural conclusion at the end, which is important in order to close up the project and have a framework against which to assess the outcomes. However, it is meant to be a cyclic project but, due to the time constraints on the process, what it produced is at best a bespoke item and at worst an incomplete prototype.

Such an iterative design process also suits younger pupils as they learn to follow a predefined and generally accepted design process of research/develop/make/test. In many ways, this is a perfect introduction to design and one that is easy to manage both in terms of time and physical product. However as students reach GCSE level would a more empirical approach to design be more beneficial; where the opportunity for trial and error would see simple products refined in order to succeed in their target market? With the growing increase in 3 year KS4 courses it certainly would be viable but even if this was a more meaningful approach (if more business orientated), such a process would sadly be almost impossible to implement in any meaningful way with the current 45 hour time limit; more so in the new reformed subjects.

Intuitive design comes with experience and is not something a younger student would be confident or experienced enough to undertake but we could take such an approach at Advanced Level. Candidates with a good GCSE in design, normally a prerequisite for advancing on to A Level really shouldn’t have to record every nuance of their early research and design work as they did at GCSE and could focus instead on the finished article, its production and subsequent promotion as a commercially viable product. Their GCSE in the subject would provide evidence of following an iterative design process so should they really have to show a painfully descriptive record of their design process when many may be able to work intuitively after almost 7 years of design education?

Surely Advanced Level students should be judged on the relevance of the project to the need or market requirements, the quality of design and how that is communicated visually. The process could be presented as if to a prospective client and judged on its ability to convey the concept, illustrate the idea and provide a proof of concept in prototype form; the new syllabi I have seen certainly offer some potential for this approach.

If you think about it, just about every ‘finished’ project is followed by a critical evaluation offering improvements which are rarely implemented due to simply running out of time. Therefore these are not finished products but a prototype stage in a larger design process which cannot be fully evaluated, but here again we hit that time limit.

Students currently have neither the time nor the freedom to develop numerous iterations of designs in order to perfect the product ready for the client or market. However, with the decoupling of AS and A2 it would be possible for the first year to do exactly that with the second year being the refinement of the finished, production ready article with more emphasis on the marketing and promotion of the product. I have seen many ideas on ‘Dragons' Den’ that started life as an A Level D&T project; many of which have received investment so it is important that design & technology does not presume a student will gain the skills they need at university as not all will decide to continue to degree level. We need to ensure such forward thinking students are well equipped for life in the design industry as well as higher education by designing products with a focus on the market as well as meeting the A Level criteria but also being given the time to develop those ideas beyond that ‘first prototype’ stage.

One last thing to consider; if GCSE and A Levels were to vary the design processes used depending on age, ability and the product itself, then Higher Education would also need to adapt in order to further develop the skills learnt at school and college. If not, then there is a real possibility of school being the most inspiring and productive stage of a design student’s life. Personally I have no problem with that at all but I somehow don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future.


Paul has taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty. He is currently taking a short break from DT to teach photography and media studies.

His Subject Genius blog is shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.