Products, projects and prototypes: what implications will the new D&T GCSE have on the design process?

Paul Woodward
27th July 2017 at 17:51

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Products, projects and prototypes: what implications will the new D&T GCSE have on the design process?

"If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design." – Dr Ralf Speth, CEO, Jaguar

A very true statement right there and one I am sure that commercial designers are more than aware of. An important part of the design process, and to ensure the final product has real commercial potential, is the manufacture of prototypes. In my years of teaching, I have often interchanged the words project, product, prototype, task, etc, when referring to what will soon be known as the non-exam assessment (NEA). Sometimes even to avoid repeating the same word in an article or report but, in reality, they are quite different things.

A product is an item that satisfies a market's need or want; often a commercial outcome while a project is an enterprise involving research and design that is carefully planned (thanks, Wikipedia).

As I have discussed in previous blogs, school "projects" often meet the criteria for a commercial project but the outcomes are very rarely a product. What they are most likely to resemble is a one off or a prototype; "the tangible result of a design process which can be tested, evaluated, modified and possibly redesigned before going into commercial production". Simply put, that is all students have ever made and I would even argue that so-called "one offs" or bespoke products are simply a usable prototype that has the potential for large-scale production in the future.

And so, after many years seemingly avoiding accepting this, awarding bodies now refer to the "outcome" of a 35 hour NEA as a prototype (and not before time). But if you haven't had the pleasure (ahem) of working in design or manufacturing just what is the purpose of a prototype and why are they so important to the design process? Allow me to illustrate from bitter experience.

I recently worked for a company where my role was to develop a new range of interiors and furniture from scratch in a relatively short space of time for a wide range of luxury vehicles. My perception was that such an ambitious range of new and untested designs would be prototyped before final production and delivery to the customer. How wrong I was.

On several occasions, I found myself stood inside the "final" product making a list of design and manufacturing issues days and sometimes just hours before a customer was due to collect! The situation was made worse by the owner insisting that these were commercial products not 'prototypes'. The fact that it took a great deal of time and money to eventually get the product right for the customer pretty much won the argument for prototyping and testing before considering commercial manufacture.

In industry, customers are the business and the product you sell them reflects very much your attitude. Ultimately, in a design and manufacturing environment, the product is your business. No matter how cool you think a new design is, if you give your customers untried and untested concepts, you are asking for trouble.

So, there is a practical real world example of the importance of prototyping but what does that mean for the classroom and the NEA for the new D&T GCSE? The first thing is to forget the idea of having to produce a 'finished product' for assessment.

If projects do end up being vanity projects or "one-offs", then it is reasonable to assume that the outcome was intended to be taken home. Once made it's here where the project often ends as it has served its purpose in covering the majority of the folder and providing the owner with a cheap alternative to a trip to Ikea. All too often we see rushed or incomplete evaluations as a result but in the new GCSE, this section carries the same weighting as the research section. I wonder how many students spend the same time on their evaluations as they do the lengthy research sections at the beginning.

If on the other hand, the outcome has been designed with a commercial application in mind, the item that is produced will never be more than a prototype and it's this that might be difficult to adapt to if you have managed a stream of attractive and well finished 'one off' items over the years.

Whichever approach you have taken over the years, the outcome will need to be considered a prototype. In order to vindicate this and show further evidence of iterative design, it may be necessary to allow more time for the testing and evaluation of the prototype in order to suggest possible modifications for a commercial or mass produced version. The best evaluations I have seen are the ones that simply treat the 3D outcome as part of a larger cyclic design process while the worst assume the finished product is final and even get Aunty Joan's seal of approval. Even if your students did take that 'one-off' approach they could always look at how the same product could be made in a small batch. 

If you are a department that prides itself on the craftsmanship and visual quality of the finished article, the new GCSE might be cause to rethink your output. Despite your best intentions the reduced time for the NEA, the need to show iterative design and the focus on a prototype based outcome might well have an impact on the level of detail and quality of finish you can justify putting into something no longer considered a 'finished product'. Either way, it will be very interesting to see what departments produce in 2019.

Paul has taught Design and Technology for 24 years in a range of schools as a subject head and leader of a creative arts faculty. He continues to work as a freelance designer, examiner, moderator and D&T consultant. Having taken a break from teaching to work as a head of design in a manufacturing industry, he will shortly be returning to education to once again lead a creative arts faculty.