Designs on a digital future

Paul Woodward
14th March 2016 at 16:12

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Designs on a digital future

It has to be said I am not your ‘typical’ design and technology teacher, or should I say I wasn’t when I entered the profession back in the day when the subject was still heavily based on craftwork. I’m not implying we all wore tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and enjoyed wood turning, but I came from a traditional woodwork/metalwork background before progressing on to design & technology. In fact everything up to the second year of my degree was quite traditional; in that year I was hurriedly introduced to the computer technology department on a tour of the University’s industrial design department. All of my peers looked, scratched their heads and moved on but I stayed in that room for the rest of the day until a kindly lecturer saw the techno lust he saw in my eyes and allowed me to sit down and use something he called CAD. Well it was actually called ESP (External Subroutines Using Picasso), but I recall the word CAD was mentioned.

That was it. I was hooked and spent far more time in that room than I should, to the point where the traditionally minded furniture department decided it was heresy to use CAD to design furniture and threatened to remove me from the course if I didn’t comply and stay out of the (bleep) ICT room. The following year, after two major CAD exhibitions on behalf of the University, I received an award for the work I did bridging the two areas. My determination to stand my ground was vindicated and a love of all things CAD related continues to this very day as well as proving to be a valuable and lucrative skill. The moral of this story being sometimes it is right to challenge expectations especially if you have an eye on the future.

Those who have used computers in design for some time will have grown up with the technology and seen it evolve into what we have today. As the technology has grown, so have the industries that rely on it and consumers show no sign of losing interest in buying the next cool gadget. Along with the growth in consumer technology the range of digital industries has also grown proportionally. When I went to University there was a limited choice of design courses available but today the range is mind boggling and not all are based around products or services you can physically touch.

Bear this in mind. In 1989 the games industry was tiny in comparison to today where it is worth approx 100 billion dollars a year; with digital games alone outselling the music and video industry. Computer technology is integral to our very existence in a modern world and digital media is no longer a hobby for geeks, but a lucrative industry with a bright future. We may have recently introduced computing to the curriculum but learning to program and code is just a small part of the industry and it still needs creative designers in several key areas.

So, where is the course or option to cater for this industry? If design and technology is the ‘best fit’ subject to start such a career does it provide students with the skills to successfully study digital design subjects at a higher level? Should they choose Art, D&T or computing? Perhaps the question should be: why should they need to choose?

I believe it is vital that the next generation of design and technology subjects acknowledge the growth in digital media and that the design and production of digital media can coexist with the existing skills of ‘making’ in construction materials….but please, don’t bring back the term resistant materials.

As someone who has worked for industry producing digital products, I believe it is a strong design background which provided me with the key skills required to work in a digital medium. The technology necessary to realise ideas and projects has been learnt and adapted along the way but a clients requirements, the need to research the market, produce a schedule, provide costings and set deadlines are key skills no matter what design medium you work in. They say that you can use any CAD program once you have learnt the skills; you only need to adapt to the interface and I would have to agree. It’s much the same as driving a different brand of car.  Of greater importance is the ability to communicate ideas and concepts either through sketches, models or technical drawings and it is this which remains a vital part of the designers skill set.  Even with advances in computer technology, the film and game industry still rely heavily on their creative staff to communicate their vision and to realise it through digital media.

I have known several students with ambitions of working in digital/game industries and chose to study design and technology at GCSE and A level. Those same students found computing to be difficult and demanding but didn’t know where else to develop their creative skills in order to impress an interview panel. As a department we were able to adapt the student’s workflow to take advantage of computer technology with plenty of emphasis on communicating ideas, the use of photorealistic CAD etc. but in order to produce an outcome that would satisfy the syllabus, it had to be a 3D constructed object; often a gaming chair or a prototype game controller. Why couldn’t they have produced a short game, computer animation, level design or interactive demo as their outcome? It would have been planned, researched, produced and finally evaluated. CAD would have been used for storyboarding, pre-viz work, character design and environment as well as Photoshop for texturing and image manipulation.  

And before anyone says that’s more to do with computing, I would beg to differ. A subject like media studies covers film and games but doesn’t fully address the design work behind the creation of audio visual material. Does an amalgamation of the two subjects exist somewhere in the crazed mind of a politician? With the choice of creative options diminishing in the current curriculum, is it even feasible to suggest more areas of study within design & technology? I fear not.

Computer Aided Design and engineering, robotics, game design, web design and many more industries are increasingly becoming reliant on digital technologies. Even the traditional book market has accepted the move to eBooks and embraced the additional interactivity they can offer. Personally, I would love to see more creative digital technology courses offered at examination level but I doubt it will happen any time soon given that creative subjects are struggling to survive and that the range of design specialisms is diminishing with D&T already being condensed to a single subject.

However, I remain optimistic that I will see a major shift in attitudes to design teaching in the remainder of my teaching career and if digital technologies and media does eventually becomes an area of study addressed through design and technology, then count me in; leather patches and all.


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.