The four cornerstones of design & technology part three: Communication

Paul Woodward
5th August 2016 at 15:22

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, The four cornerstones of design & technology part 3: Communication

I realised today that my teaching career is approaching a quarter of a century but that my experience of design and technology stretches back much further. In that time I have studied the creative arts and taught many students in a variety of schools. The subject matter has changed considerably as have the ways of delivering materials and assessing outcomes but I still regularly ask students what they think are the most important aspects of the subject.

Some will say it’s all about making stuff, others like the drawing. Some like the challenge of solving problems while others like the CAD CAM based stuff. There are many elements that, when taught well, appeal to a wide range of students but what exactly are we expecting from them in return for the experience?

Last week I looked at ‘competence’ and before that ‘craft’ as cornerstones of the subject but I believe the most important skill in any design discipline is the ability to communicate.

Problem solving is intrinsic to human life; we do it automatically as we have done for thousands of years. I won’t start quoting Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs but once an individual needs to record an idea or share it with others that becomes an issue of communication. Neanderthal man not only fashioned shelters and tools through necessity, he also learnt to record his adventures and stories through cave paintings as did the Egyptians with their Hieroglyphics. Regardless of how crude or sophisticated the medium, the message is there for others to decipher and the clearer the form of communication the clearer the message. 

Communication is defined as ‘the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.’

As we developed as a species and spread across the globe, languages diversified to the point that there are roughly 6500 spoken languages in the world. Yet, there remains one constant language understood by most; the visual language of drawing signs and diagrams. That is where design & technology excels; not only in providing a means of communicating without the barriers of language, but in allowing one to communicate what is in their head with another human being.

Take CAD as an example. Here is a technology that has many positives. Aside from the usual list (models take up no space, can look photorealistic etc.) CAD is a very effective means of communication. The technology allows for students (and teachers) with limited drawing ability to communicate their ideas effectively. Add to this the ability to ‘talk to’ machinery capable of making the object and you have an extra layer of communication. This CAD model or rendered image can be shared across networks and countries irrespective of language. It is, in its basic form, another language for communicating ideas and concepts. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a pencil and a napkin will transcend all language barriers if you get caught short for the bathroom in Thailand….as long as you can quickly sketch a question mark and a porcelain god.

Barriers aside, I tell students, particularly those who have great ideas but struggle to draw them, that the key is communication and that they should use whatever means necessary to communicate effectively. That is why a design teacher’s arsenal contains pens, pencils and computers but is also likely to include Lego, Meccano, Knex, plasticine, paper, spaghetti, card, blu-tack, marshmallows and much more.   The media is simply the means of communication between two minds.

Communication is not only about finding a suitable method of conveying an idea to another person, it’s also about communication between your head and your hands. I truly believe that one of the greatest challenges for a design and technology teacher is how to provide young learners with the means of communicating what it is in their head, their hearts and their imaginations. Without this skill they are doomed to regurgitate the best ideas of others or be relegated to learning the manual skills necessary to produce identical pieces in preparation for a life on a production line.

Through the course of their design studies we introduce more and more methods of communication to our students in order to provide them with the optimum means of sharing their creative ideas. Without these means the greatest of ideas will remain trapped in a creative mind and one too frustrated to develop them if they cannot be communicated orally or visually.

There is nothing here that design & technology teachers don’t already know but sometimes, in the pursuit of meeting deadlines and targets, I wonder if some truly great ideas are not left languishing in the mind of a student because they were never given the means to fully communicate them. If so, and presuming they are simply not being obstinate or lazy, that would be a terrible waste of talent and potential and something we should all be ashamed of if we were in fact complicit in failing to unlock our student’s creative potential. Whatever the name of the subject or the material focus, while ever we expect creative thought to become anything more than a dream, communication skills will be the key to unlocking student potential and we should use whatever means are available to facilitate that process.



Paul taught Design and Technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty as well as teaching Art, ICT, Photography and Media Studies. He is currently taking a break from education to return to the design industry.

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