Art and design and technology

Paul Woodward
2016-05-20 15:01

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Art and design and technology

Having looked at STEAM in an earlier blog and merely touching upon the subject of art vs. design and technology, I thought it only right to look at these two creative areas of the curriculum that, as the title implies, share a common element: design.

Art and design is an area of the curriculum concerned with self expression. It can be a very liberating experience of self actualisation but equally it can be a vain and selfish pursuit. Within art are several elements that are common to both subjects such as visual communication, the use of digital imagery and manipulation, the production of 3D objects, experimentation with materials etc. However, as art is about exploration and expression it can often lack a clear focus which is design and technology may provide. Having taught both subjects I personally find it much easier to manage goals and deadlines in D&T than art; but that’s just me and I am sure there are teachers who find art more manageable. After all, that is why we have subject specialists.

Design and technology work can also be motivated by greed (make a bunch of stuff to sell at profit) and vanity (I fancy a nice Sheffield Wednesday themed bookshelf for my bedroom) but done well it is often less selfish. Designers should aim to solve problems; either those they have identified themselves or from a given design brief.

So, where do these two subjects cross over? Do artists consider themselves designers, do designers consider themselves artists? Let’s look at a few definitions of art and design sourced from ‘Googlepedia’TM (I’m coining that phrase):

Good art inspires, Good design motivates.

Art is interpreted, Design is understood

I particularly like: Art sends different messages to different viewers but design should send the same message to everyone.

Art asks questions of the viewer, Design answers questions posed by the client or end user.

Art has no set process and exists for its own purpose. Design has a process and exists for the purpose of others.

From such definitions, it would seem that art is more about expressing your ideas or your vision but surely if someone requests or commissions a specific piece of art then that is meeting a need and is therefore design? Even if the end result is the result of a design brief, the artist will still explore their own ideas and contribute their unique style. If that then appeals to an audience they will become engaged and perhaps share your ideas and vision.

Art is not always a commercial venture. I was advised by my tutor at art college that if I wanted to be a painter of sculptor I should expect to get a ‘proper’ job if I wanted to eat regularly.  Design on the other hand is usually a paid process with a certain degree of respect or kudos attached; considered by some to be a cool job. However the grim reality is that design covers everything from being the next Dyson or Jonny Ives to laying out the free ads in Auto Trader.

But getting back to the subject matter, art is increasingly becoming part of ADT faculties along with design, technology and engineering subjects with some even opting to eschew D&T in favour of 3D within the art syllabus. Is this a good thing? I don’t think so as the elements studied are very different. Making a 3D object in art could be a sculpture or installation but is unlikely to cover manufacturing methods, scales of production etc. There may be some crossover of skills but really they are two different and complementary subjects just as writing about history using words is not the same as studying English. However, for a long time we have asked students to choose between the two subjects and this is increasingly becoming a common occurrence in the face of limited option choices, so is there a need to take both subjects in order to begin a creative career?

If we concede that art and technology are unique to each subject we can just look at the design element offered by both subjects. What common ground is covered by either subject and is it addressed in sufficient detail to ensure that, post GCSE, the student could choose either subject at A-level and have the necessary understanding?

Design is a difficult one to define and therefore difficult to cover comprehensively in a traditional art course. Conversely, artistic skills are almost impossible to develop within a 3 or 5 term D&T course. Often the drawing skills you bring to Year 10 will dictate the quality of your drawn work by the end of Year 11; perhaps that explains why CAD such as SketchUp is so popular as a means of communicating ideas.

Before the reforms, Graphic Products could have been seen as a ‘half way house’ between art and D&T but even that subject option will be gone, in nomenclature at least, when the single subject D&T is introduced. Soon art and D&T may be squeezed together like a ‘jellyish’ Venn diagram with the ‘design’ in the middle indiscernible from its representation in each subject.

Ultimately, I am not advocating one subject over the other but I am concerned that bright students that want to achieve academic success at school, and want to follow a creative career, may have to make a choice between studying art and design and design and technology. If that is the case I would hope that eventually each subject would include the necessary design elements for students to progress on to higher level courses without feeling that they had somehow been ‘short changed’. The fact that they have to make that choice at all concerns me, but that is a discussion for another time.


Paul has taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty. He is currently taking a short break from DT to teach photography and media studies.

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