Hello from the other side...

Paul Woodward
19th August 2016 at 15:38

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Hello from the other side...

Hello, how is the summer holiday going? Are you all enjoying the summer weather? Ok, maybe not. I would love to say that I am also enjoying the summer, ahem, sun but sadly most of my day is currently spent in a design studio. That’s right; I have left the teaching profession for a while and returned to industry. It’s long been a goal of mine to do so but given the time I have been in education I thought the ship had sailed on that particular career but lo and behold I was offered a lucrative and exciting opportunity…or so I thought.

More on that later but today’s blog represents an opportunity to look objectively at the teaching of design and technology from the point of view of where we might expect our students to end up; working in industry with design and technology.

When I originally trained as a designer back in 1990 I had that vision of working in a modern air conditioned design studio wearing designer clothes and generally being all ‘designerish’ with all the trappings that go with it. Maybe it was growing up in the 80’s where designers, like stock brokers on Wall Street, appeared to live a lifestyle a million miles away from the industrial working class background I came from. I am not naïve and it wasn’t long before I learnt that design was as far ranging as being the next Jonny Ives to laying out ads in Auto trader. Despite my ambitions to be a designer I drifted into education and remained there for over 20 years. In that time I took on freelance work but that would involve working from home and maximising my free time, much to the chagrin of my wife and family. When you are working like that, you charge by the hour and learn to become very productive in the short space of time you have available. If you were to apply the same work ethic to a 9-5 job you would run the real risk of burning out quickly as well as alienating your colleagues. Nevertheless, whenever I told students about the world of design and industry I secretly had that penthouse design studio in the back of my mind.

My current ‘design’ office couldn’t be further from that vision, instead of sitting at a glass desk overlooking the city (would be difficult in Doncaster) I face a blank magnolia wall with only my colleague across the desk from me spoiling the view and so close I can smell the cheesy Wotsits he is eating. Wall Street this most definitely is not and the large window in the office overlooks the factory floor reminding me of that scene in Willy Wonks where they are searching for a golden ticket.

As for the job, so far it has been several weeks of intensive Solidworks and Alphacam training as I try to not only define my own role as a designer, but quickly replace technical CAD staff who have either left or been sacked! I came armed with tablets, 3D mice, sketchbooks and markers; I even considered taking a drawing board so I could set up my little creative area. None of these have yet been used as the job is so far very perfunctory leaving little or no time for the creative design suggested at the interview.

If I paint a bleak picture I apologise, this is simply one scenario within a vast creative global industry but it does reflect the need for design to perform in a way that enables commerce to continue rather than what might be considered ‘self indulgent creativity’; something I have clearly been guilty of in my teaching career.

The most startling change, aside from the long days and much shorter holidays, is that the process of design happens very, very quickly. This is particularly jarring after being used to managing projects over weeks, terms or even years. There has been much discussion about ‘iterative’ design and I wrote a blog on it where I also looked at the more trial and error (empirical) approach. This role relies very much on intuitive design and leaves little time or opportunity for any sort of experimentation. Modelling materials are pretty much non-existent with the work done on CAD being sent directly to a very expensive and large 5 axis CNC router and that also means anything considered a ‘prototype’ in this job is simply a term for a piece of furniture you ‘got wrong’.

The expectation is that the CAD model is fully defined, constrained and mated as an assembly then nested with the right CNC tools allocated before it heads down to the factory floor and into the hands of the joiners and fitters. Luckily, being new to the role has allowed me the freedom to run a few of the models up and build them myself alongside the bench joiners and, to be honest, these have been the most enjoyable days; like school projects without the students. These days, as I feared, ended abruptly as I found myself running the design work for customer orders of what I have to say are very expensive products. One by one they lined up ready for what was more like ‘production line flat pack furniture’ waited to be fitted in. While the vehicles sat in their respective bays I had to quickly learn to master automation managers in Alphacam while workers waited patiently to machine out my potential mistakes in expensive materials on very expensive CNC machinery. Measuring twice is now a way of life rather than just helpful advice!!

Despite my initial reservations I remain hopeful that the role will become more exciting once the drudge of converting ‘contaminated’ model libraries is completed but for now I have to concede that my return to the design industry is anything but glamorous and only slightly more exciting than a rainy day’s inset on Progress 8.



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.