Can we live without design or technology?

Paul Woodward
12th October 2018 at 09:03

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Can we live without design or technology?

Let me save you reading to the end, the answer is a resounding NO but that’s not the point of this blog. What concerns me is that not everyone seems to feel that way, or at least, they don’t want to admit it. The illustration that accompanies this week’s blog might appear to be a child-like cartoon, but it’s also a stark reminder of what we have come to take for granted. 

We have all played the game of ‘imagine a life without a designed object’ but its impact has gone. Try asking people to imagine a life without air and you are likely to get a similarly apathetic response but we all know how that would end…but as its unlikely to happen during the daily commute, no one really wants to worry about it. Technology and the design necessary to produce it is fast becoming the agriculture of our time; you know you need food and can’t live without it but most of us don’t really care where it comes from or who makes it if it’s there on the shelves and makes it into our fridges and cupboards.

Design is an accepted part of our verbal and aesthetic language. The principles that underpin design, while once known only by those trained in the discipline, are now part of everyday life. Everyone understands designer brands, most will have a concept of interior design and the plethora of shops and stores continue to feed our appetite for designed and ‘designer’ objects to make our life easier or more attractive. Even young people, like the ones we teach, can appreciate the aesthetic details that make one smartphone or laptop more desirable than another.

Technological progress is inevitable. From the day man discovered fire, fashioned a tool or created the wheel he was on an unstoppable path to technological advancement. Like a juggernaut heading to the future, that road will not end as long as man seeks to discover, explore and evolve. Aside from the natural world and the creatures within it there are only two types of ‘thing’ that we interact with; objects and artefacts. Objects like stones and branches are simply natures gifts to us but an artefact is something man made. Take away everything that is an artefact and you have a society thrown, not only in to the dark ages but into a time before man could even fashion that tool from the objects he found

So, will ‘design’ and ‘technology’ go away if we ignore them as it seems our political and educational leaders believe? Well no, it won’t go away but it will move. It will move to the countries that once looked to Britain for inspiration in the world of design and engineering. It will move to countries that support the subject and want to develop the next generation of designers and engineers. It will move to countries who already have the manufacturing capabilities but need the design and engineering skills to match.

Those countries will then start to look increasingly attractive to our graduates, our tradesman and our teachers until they have the education system, the skills and the manufacturing facilities to dominate the rest of the world in terms of creativity and productivity. Perhaps it’s just me, but I am seeing this first hand in the last few years with several friends and colleagues being cherry picked and tempted to leave the UK with the offer of attractive salaries and the freedom to teach the subject the way they want while supported by a wealth of resources and technology.

We are already struggling to recruit teachers into the profession, and Design and Technology is possibly the worst affected subject area. Even those who are clearly capable of doing the job of leading D&T are increasingly moving to industry, self-employment or simply leaving education altogether. It’s not a great situation and doesn’t look like it will be getting any better in the foreseeable future. This, perhaps, is the greatest tragedy; that we sending out a message that reinforces this notion that ‘someone else will provide what we need’.

If the current attitude to Design and Technology by the educational and government leaders in the UK doesn’t change soon, things could become far more serious than they could imagine. If the teachers leave the country, or the profession, we get no students studying which eventually means no designers, no engineers and no one to educate them in the first place. Like fairies and other mythical beasts will the subject one day be spoken of as folklore? I certainly hope not, but simply turning a blind eye to the plight of the D&T education issues in this country and hoping those designer suits, smartphones and fancy cars will just keep appearing is very naïve indeed. Of course, you could always import them from abroad at a hugely inflated cost knowing that they have been designed and manufactured by those who once dreamt of developing their skills and careers in this country.

Paul has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools, as well as working as a musician, artist, designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England