Deadlines and time limits; two very different aspects of the creative process

Paul Woodward
17th August 2018 at 18:11

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Deadlines and time limits; two very different aspects of the creative process

I have been thinking a lot lately about the new GCSE and A-levels in design and technology and one thing in particular is causing me some concern. It’s not the prototype outcomes; that’s what they have always been. It’s not the contextual starting point either; I love the freedom it can offer. It’s not even the iterative design process (already covered in another blog). No, it’s that darn time limit be it merely a recommendation or guideline; it’s still restrictive. It seems to me no more than a system for ensuring parity between centres with limited time and those, such as independent and boarding schools, where there might be more access to the workshop out of scheduled lessons. However, more on time limits in the next blog in this series.

If we look at how industry works there are deadlines; just as there are in schools. The context is set in June and the outcome of the non-exam assessment (NEA) is due some 11 months later. That is just as it is in industry and believe me when I tell you that failing to meet those can result in a lot more than disappointment. Few opportunities for resits or remarks either when your job is on the line.

No, the real difference here is that the NEA has a ‘suggested’ time limit for how long is spent on it and not just one that correlates to the time allocated by the centre. If you were able and astute enough to deliver all the theory and preliminary skills prior to starting the NEA you would have a whole year to explore your creativity but the NEA would rather you didn’t do that.

If this process is meant to better reflect the real work of a designer in industry then why not leave it as a deadline. Students are unlikely to spend all their waking hours on their D&T work and really need to learn the skills of managing their time and juggling projects anyway. What they don’t really need is to have their creativity stifled by a start/stop approach to their design work.

In industry you know what your deadline is and you juggle other projects along the way, if you feel you are ahead of schedule you can turn your attentions to another subject or task but, if you are falling behind schedule, you can choose to work through your lunch break or put a few hours in at the end of the day to catch up. When you are on a creative streak you run with it and when the ideas and momentum run out, you call it a day. This is exactly as it should be in school. Teachers juggle resources, staffing, marking and teaching within a timetable and students are also expected to do the same with all of their subjects.

Now, back to that question of iterative design, we now have greater expectations of producing more than one design which is fantastic as it’s how it works in the real world. Factor in the above-mentioned time constraints however, and these are likely to be quite insubstantial and the result of a process where creative flow is stopped and started like a tap.

Normally, I would just chunter on about how we must work around the limitations as best we can but this is one area where I believe that students should be allowed to go the extra mile if they wish. If they want to take a design to the next level within that 11-month period and really stretch their creative legs, what is to be gained from restricting the time they can spend developing their creative ideas as long as they meet that deadline for handing in their project. Having tried the NEA myself while out of the classroom for a year, I can tell you that it’s going to be very difficult to achieve the highest level in the allocated time of 35-40 hours even if that is only a guideline. After all, many teachers will be using that as a framework for their planning and students only have so much access to the school facilities. Failure to engage students at this level and let them see what they are truly capable of could be detrimental to choosing to study the subject at a higher level. If these time constraints also resulted in a lower result than they could achieve is that really a fair reflection on their ability as a designer?

There are so many skills we need to cover that reflect the work of industry and, in many ways, the new GCSE and the NEA address these admirably, so why take a step backwards with these time limitations? Give students the opportunity to be selective in presenting their best work without restraining their ambition and creativity. Let them also learn the importance of independent working, time management and that most important of abilities; meeting deadlines!


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