AbraCADabra! Design and technology's disappearing act

Paul Woodward
27th January 2016 at 16:21

We often take design and technology for granted as an everyday aspect of our modern lives but it wasn’t always like that; there was a time when design was a highly skilled and respected profession and when new technology was genuinely awe inspiring. From 1965 to 2003 there was even a BBC TV show dedicated to ‘Tomorrow’s World’

Design is fundamental, but not exclusive, to human life. Not the iterative process we teach in school, but the intuitive ability to solve the problems we are faced with. Along with a self-awareness of mortality, it’s one of the key features that separate us from most animals. It starts raining and a human will grab something to fashion a makeshift umbrella. It’s not a design process: it’s instinctive. Door won’t stay open? Make a wedge. Table wobbling? Pop a beer mat under it. Still wobbling? Instant product development; fold the beer mat as necessary. I have seen someone do this while holding a drink and a conversation without interrupting either: it just came instinctively.

Those are just simple everyday examples but for every expertly designed piece of equipment there are a hundred ‘Heath-Robinson’ creations in existence. When my students exclaim that they have no design ability, I remind them how their ancestors managed to evolve to this modern age with little or no training. Lack of design ability is not the problem; it’s in our DNA, it’s choosing to use it.

Technology, well that’s slightly different, it is something we have discovered, created or developed. Arthur C. Clarke once said ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and perhaps in 1973 this was true when the digital world was still in its infancy. Sadly, over familiarity with silicon based technology has meant that the awe and wonder we once experienced has given way to passive ignorance. As a modern society it’s impossible to avoid contact with some form of designed technology yet we seem content to consume without acknowledging the source. Perhaps developing countries are unique in seeing the wonder of technology; you only have to watch the joyous reaction to seeing an Archimedes Screw delivering life giving water to a sun baked field while the rest of us watch it deliver an energy drink from a neon lit vending machine.

The food industry has worked tirelessly to change our attitudes and as a result more of us know what we are eating and have learned to source ingredients and cook them. With the same approach to technology, we might care more about the process involved and, in turn appreciate the objects we take for granted for the technological marvels they are. Where is Design’s equivalent of Jamie Oliver to raise awareness of technology and champion the importance of nurturing new design talent?

I believe there are two types of people in the world; those who will happily dig into technology to see how it works and those that won’t. While it’s possible to appreciate technology without dissecting it consider those people who build their own computers systems. They appreciate how the choice of components can affect its overall performance and invest in their purchases with more than just money…they are crafting a custom machine and appreciate their technology all the more for doing that. They are the types who will always ‘dig in’.

In a world where design is no longer a new concept and designer is a noun preceding an item with a label attached, the creative skills and effort involved in creating products are often taken for granted. Technology’s final vanishing act was to become so powerful, self-sustaining, discreet and pervasive that it simply fails to exist beyond an almost physiological need for it much like air and water. Like either of those elements you only truly appreciate technology when you are deprived of it.

Just like the ‘wood we cannot see for the trees’, technology’s camouflage works because we choose not to see it. To acknowledge its beating heart in our gadgets would be to accept that it might need your care and attention, and most of us are just not ready for that responsibility.

The magic of technology is still there if we just step back and take the time to appreciate it. As educators we are expected to inspire in the classroom but as technologists we also need to convey that sense of wonder we once experienced when first confronted with technology that appeared to be magic. If thousands of kids grow up believing in magic, and we instil that same sense of ‘wonder’ into just a few of our design and technology lessons, perhaps we can inspire a new generation of designers.

The next time you catch a student picking up the phone they just dropped, offer them a reprieve from confiscation if they can tell you some interesting fact about the technology powering their addictive little devices.  And when the internet goes down at school, ruining your lesson plans for the day, consider how we once managed without it and how much easier and more productive it has made our lives. In doing so we might rediscover the wonder of modern technology and learn to appreciate it while it still works rather than just when it fails!


Paul Woodward has been a teacher of DT for 22 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of Faculty, qualified to MA level and an examiner and moderator of Resistant Materials for the AQA.