Take a chance: creative risks in design

Paul Woodward
22nd February 2016 at 16:31

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Take a chance: creative risks in design

There has been plenty of discussion regarding the new subject reforms but there is one particular aim in the government’s proposed reform for design and technology that is of particular interest. The aim is that students should be ‘ambitious and open to explore and take design risks in order to stretch the development of design proposals, avoiding clichéd or stereotypical responses’. In other words students should be encouraged to take creative risks in design project work and I welcome that initiative.

The concept of ‘problem solving’ was introduced into technical subjects in the 1970’s as a process led approach to practical work. However, teachers were often very cautious of project work leading to uncertain outcomes so they often systemised the way they approached ‘problems’ that, while seemingly giving the student a degree of freedom, would lead to a conventional outcome that was easier to manage. This apparently arbitrary approach to design would become a tired concept, but sadly one that is still evident in the classroom today. We all know it is safer to set a project where you know students can meet targets for design work and produce a complete project using prescribed tools and materials in the time allowed. This is especially important where you have large mixed ability classes and limited contact time (as well as managing a diminishing budget), but at what point is this more like a production line than a productive and creative environment?

Why do departments limit GCSE controlled assessment tasks to just one or two for all their students, thereby depriving them of the choice to take on a task best suited to their skills or interests? Is this because they don’t feel confident managing a range of possible outcomes or because they are relying on a tried and tested formula that they know can produce ‘safe’ results year after year? Perhaps some teachers don’t have the design skills or experience to see a project through from brief to completion unless they have already practised it beforehand. Could it be that machinery, processes and budgets are easier to manage for a given task in a set of materials or is it that students simply don’t have the design skills to manage their own project work?

In reality it could be any or all of the above, but none of them help to advocate the importance of the subject in developing the next generation of designers and engineers.

On several occasions my students have impressed University interview panels that they defined their own project briefs from personal research rather than being given a list of tasks to choose from. I never gave this real world approach to user centric design a second thought. Maybe it is because I trained as a designer and brought that same mentality into the classroom, but I genuinely enjoy that unknown element of project work in this subject; it’s what keeps it fresh and exciting. Whatever the reason, for those prepared to take more creative risks in the classroom, it is possible to reign in the more ‘adventurous’ projects to ensure they meet the assessment criteria and are completed on time whilst still allowing a great deal of creative freedom. Just be sure that the task undertaken can meet the criteria for assessment in the first place! Like all gambles, the pay off can be worth the risk in terms of results but can have other benefits as well as reducing your storeroom’s collection of bird boxes and coffee tables.

Sadly there are many more obstacles to creative risk tasking in design and technology than cautious teaching. The EBacc has pushed core academic subjects to the fore and left design and technology struggling along with many other subjects for acceptance in the curriculum. If schools and students picked their GCSE subjects in the same way children picked sides for their football teams, the EBacc subjects would be ‘best friends’ guaranteed to be selected, leaving design and technology lined up with the other ‘open group’ subjects hoping to be picked. It would need to be a star player to avoid being left on the bench, and those who can’t ‘score’ will be left on the sideline with only the hope of substitution. Once you make the team why try and pull off impressive shots when you can safely put the ball in the back of the net and win the game? That approach might get the points and win the cup but does it make for an enjoyable experience for player of spectator?

The modern world has been shaped by artists, designers, engineers and scientists who dared to challenge perceptions, escape from vertical logic or stick with their vision no matter how ridiculous it may have seemed at the time. As Epictetus said ‘If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid’. Our students are potential designers of the future and need to be inspired to explore their abilities by taking creative risks in order to produce innovative and entrepreneurial products or concepts. However, when seeking inspiration for our students, who are the creative risk takers in the real world? At one time you could have looked to Apple who once wowed with their creative inventions, but now they tend to tweak a formula that works with annual refreshes of already successful products. Sound familiar?

Design and technology is already on life support in some schools; fragile, weak and fighting for a chance to survive. Without creative life and energy, it will meet its inevitable fate but if the subject is to be a ‘player’, it needs to be fit and ready for the subject reforms. I’m not just talking about training and equipment but that most valuable of assets: the ability to inspire students and provide the necessary support and guidance for them to successfully realise their visions.

If the 21st Century school really has become a production line for examination results then I fear for the future but I remain hopelessly optimistic that the ‘new’ D&T will provide the resuscitation the subject needs. I hope that it will challenge students and allow them to make a genuine choice about the direction their design work will take. In the meantime consider this; do you find that you are discouraging students from taking creative risks? If so, are you playing it ‘safe’ for your own benefit or that of the students? If they are limited in what they can produce, is it down to their own ability or the boundaries that are being imposed on their creativity by the school?


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.